Over the last few months, there have been a lot of articles written and keynotes delivered about the enormous impact that artificial intelligence will have on B2B marketing, particularly in the realm of account-based marketing.
In case you’re just coming out of a long coma, ABM has taken the B2B marketing world by storm over the last couple of years. It has put a renewed focus on coordination between sales and marketing departments to improve insight into and drive growth in targeted new and existing accounts, usually very large ones.
It relies heavily on identifying the key people within the company who will have a voice in a purchasing decision and delivering relevant — often personalized — content to help them make a choice.
More recently, a few companies that sell ABM platforms have integrated AI into their products, and they’re making bold claims about AI being the future of ABM. There is certainly room for technology to help marketers be more efficient, but a lot of what marketing and sales do can’t be replaced by a machine.
And that’s what AI implies: the replacement of a person by a machine.
I’m no Luddite sticking my head in the sand and refusing to accept the future. I love technology and all things shiny, but these claims seem to be overly enthusiastic to me.
There’s no doubt that AI is going to have a huge impact on everything we do, from how we drive, to how things are made and even how we manage our health. And of course, it will play a significant role in B2B marketing, but first let’s get our terminology right.
We are actually talking about machine learning. It may sound less sexy, but it is more accurate. Loosely defined, machine learning is the application of AI, which gives machines the ability to learn for themselves from data.
While I'm on the subject of misconceptions, I would like to share a lesson I received from a big data expert at Microsoft: If you're asking questions of big data, you're missing the point and probably just using a lot of data.
Big data is for spotting trends and insights you do not even know to look for. That’s much more exciting than just crunching numbers to confirm what you already know.
Let’s face it, there is nothing new about ABM. It's been around for ages. Taking the C-suite to an event and setting up an event in a company’s reception are both ABM tactics.
What has changed is the digital piece, which allows precise targeting of accounts with custom content. That helps support sales and align marketing with sales. Ultimately, ABM requires those two functions to work together, and both are dependent on people for success.
Maybe that's why I don’t agree about AI being the future of ABM. I think ABM is about supporting sales in the pursuit of revenue in strategic accounts. I don’t think it's about generating leads from a list of accounts, which some are now calling “ABM lite.”
Machine learning could really make a difference here. If we combine machine learning and big marketing data, we will gain insights into behavioral relationships that we never knew existed.
Machine learning is about making machines more intelligent. It’s a subtle but significant difference. Rather than replacing humans with technology, we need to combine the two to make each stronger. Ten or 20 years of business experience cannot simply be replaced no matter how sophisticated the computer.
For as much attention as account-based marketing has received over the last year or so, there is still a lot of confusion about what it means and how it works. Much of that is due to the fact that people think about ABM as a technology.
Sure, technology is part of it, and that will most certainly include machine learning, but ABM is a method more than a technology. ABM requires a human touch just as any effective sales strategy does.
I often wonder what happened when the telephone was introduced to the sales process — Did everyone stare at it in wonder and say, “Behold, the future of sales?” It was a massive change and incredible technology that had applications for salespeople of the day, but it didn’t replace the human touch or judgment.
Technology can help marketing and sales teams scale personalization, but it inherently cannot be personal. It can see patterns, predict behavior and automate processes. What technology cannot do is replace a real person’s judgment, experience or ability to recognize and respond to emotion.
For sales teams to be effective, it requires knowledge of how the target customer’s business and industry work, as well as the uniquely human ability to read the room.
Whether it’s big data, AI, machine learning, ABM or the latest industry technology craze that you're adopting (in hopes that it will deliver on all the big promises to drive your business skyward), take a moment to ensure the unique abilities humans bring to the party are part of your approach.
I am a firm believer that we are not embarking on a technology takeover, rather a union between people and technology that will take us places we have yet to imagine.