How can B2B marketers harness artificial intelligence?
With Salesforce Einstein and IBM Watson combining forces earlier this year, getting some clarity about the benefits of artificial intelligence has become a 2017 priority for most B2B marketers. With this in mind, we talk to Corinne Sklar, CMO for Bluewolf, an IBM Company about the practical ways B2B marketers can start thinking about using AI.
When Forrester research proclaimed that brands using artificial intelligence would “steal $1.2 trillion per annum from their less informed peers by 2020”, many business leaders were whipped into a frenzy.
“We need to jump on the AI bandwagon, ASAP,” they responded. Invariably before querying how they might actually go about doing that.
For the majority, the potential value of artificial intelligence to their business isn’t in dispute; it’s in what capacity that’s harder to define.
The media projection of AI as armies of robots invasively marching into towns and systematically stealing everyone’s jobs doesn’t help; especially for those working in B2B marketing, to whom having a group of anthropomorphic androids taking over the long-term nurturing of customer relationships in order to save a few quid on labour costs is far from top of the priority list.
To quote Terry Pratchett – “real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time”. The roots of this quote may seem on the surface to be derogatory, but at its core is the understanding that AI can’t simply be plugged in to replace common tasks.
“We prefer to call it augmented intelligence,” says Corinne Sklar, chief marketing officer for Bluewolf, an IBM Company that is currently helping an array of businesses through the process of maximising the combined forces of IBM Watson and Salesforce Einstein.
“People think of AI as dystopian and can be adverse to it because of the semantics. But the reality is there are a lot of companies, especially in B2B, who are actually well-positioned to make use of AI in terms of augmentation. They actually have a good amount of data to leverage and can begin their journey now; they often just need to understand where the benefits lie.”
So where can B2B marketers start? Sklar highlights four core areas of focus.
As noted in our ongoing content series, despite being devised by ITSMA in 2003, account-based marketing’s (ABM) rise to prominence has been relatively circumspect until recent years. Artificial intelligence, Sklar states, can be a major catalyst in making ABM practices more attainable for a wider audience.
“Marketers are looking to provide leads to and drive engagement of existing pipeline and new leads that are going to convert. With AI’s predictive tools driving that there’s a lot more intelligence. What is triggering a score? What is telling your field reps there’s a major shift happening for a specific customer or new regulation that’s about to impact them and that they need to be reached out to with a specific piece of content?
“Industry trends, unstructured data, providing insight to sales people where they don’t have to go fishing – this is where marketers are able to support alignment between their team and sales, and create more effective ABM. The introduction of artificial intelligence increases our ability to provide qualified opportunities and engagement straight to our salespeople.”
There are a lot of companies, especially in B2B, who are actually well-positioned to make use of AI in terms of augmentation.
According to 2015 research from Biznology, today’s sales process takes 22% longer than 5 years ago. AI’s role is not just drawing out more data about prospects to aid this increasingly complex process, but to make sense of the data too.
“Take Watson as an example,” Sklar adds. “When someone engages with an email, unsubscribe or makes a purchase, Watson can pull unstructured data outside of the CRM, such as sentiment data from social media, and put it into any predictive scoring mechanism you have, helping better determine what is driving engagement and anticipate the needs of customers.
“It can also help create relevancy in your marketing communications. For instance, weather can be a major trigger point in both B2B and B2C. We know from crunching weather data through our AI platform (IBM purchased the Weather Company in 2016) that people are statistically more likely to go on a test drive when the weather’s bad. Equally, if you’re a field marketer or sales rep, we know efficiency for visiting customers drops significantly when it rains.
“Having an AI engine crunch this sort of information and, say, trigger personalised emails to prospects based on the statistical likelihood of an event occurring gives your marketing a huge edge.”
Research from Gallup states that 71% of B2B customers are ready to take their business elsewhere, while “70% of global B2B customers are either indifferent toward their suppliers or actively disengaged with them".
There is a major retention epidemic unfolding in B2B markets, being driven by the increasing ease at which brands are able to switch provision for all manner of services that were previously more complex. B2B marketers are having to switch their focus, as a result. AI’s involvement could be crucial.
“Retention carries as much weight with marketers now as acquisition. For marketers, it’s all about insight, first and foremost, but in turn, it’s also about creating easier, less complex experiences for customers.”
Sklar points to Salesforce’s Predictive Journey capability, which taps into Einstein’s AI to serve marketers a dashboard summary of behavioural sequences that are most likely to lead to a successful outcome through the course of a customer’s journey with a brand.
And other areas of benefit include intelligent pricing - where AI can help recommend salespeople with optimal pricing actions based on behavioural data – and cross-selling conversions, which can help retention strategies by combining customer data, behaviour and intent to suggest most effective offers to customers.
“Retention often boils down to how you continue to demonstrate value to your existing customers and how you help them make decisions about upselling and product enhancements. Any insight AI can offer in this area to augment that process is likely to be advantageous.”
It’s all about insight, first and foremost, but in turn, it’s also about creating easier, less complex experiences for customers
The final area of benefit AI offers is in relation to the method by which B2B marketers are actually able to mine for information within their company.
“So the one big thing that we're seeing in B2B is around knowledge-based chatbots,” explains Sklar.
“Ask any marketer, ask any sales rep, and they’ll say that the information they have on a customer is one thing, but having access to it and getting answers based on that information is a different matter.
“This where we're seeing chatbots and conversational apps really being leveraged – for instance, in Salesforce’s Community Cloud, or even in Service Cloud, tying in IBM Watson for some rep to type in and say, "Hey, what's the new tax code for this year, in this industry?" or, "Where do I find someone who is a profile of X?" And again, this is leveraging CRM data, and unstructured data. And so these knowledge-based chatbots are not just being used by consumers, but by sales and marketing people, to get access to information so they can better serve their sales partners or their customers.”
And it’s not just insight about customers that artificial intelligence can aid.
“It really opens up fast drivers of efficiency,” adds Sklar. “You’re improving the speed to information on the customer side for marketers, but in a similar vein, we’re seeing an increasing number of B2B businesses use this type of chatbot for their own HR onboarding process. So, making the introduction of new team members easier by applying chatbots into their intranet systems to help get new sales and marketing employees up to speed.
"The knowledge aspect, predictive updates – if you look at some of the toolkits becoming available on Einstein, they’re looking at removing administration. Using data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to make recommendations around pipeline updates or based on key activities.”
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Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.