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Are B2B Marketers Bad at Data?

Posted December 29, 2023
Graphic with dark background and Doug Bell's headshot introducing podcast episode "Are B2B Marketers bad at numbers?"

Doug Bell, Fractional CMO at Chief Outsiders, joins our host, Camela Thompson, Go-To-Market Thought Leader and B2B Insights Expert in another episode of the Revenue Marketing Report. Camela and Doug have a friendly running debate: Are B2B marketers bad at data? Spoiler: They usually disagree but always have a thoughtful dialog. Tune in for more.

This topic is going to be our feistiest and it is – Are B2B marketers bad at numbers? What are your thoughts?

“No, they are not. One, we are constantly under pressure to use data in deciding what is next. Show me a marketer who isn’t in front of a spreadsheet at least once a day, and I will be shocked. Two, we have got to create and manage budgets all the time. Three, we are constantly asked to provide ROI in what we are doing. We live in data. So I would argue that we are not bad at numbers. Rather, we are really bad at communicating the results of what we are doing. We also tend to hide the ball too often, but we aren’t bad at numbers.

“The main issue is understanding what it is that people actually want behind all those asks because people ask for things and what they want is completely different. Sometimes, people ask for things that are impossible to get. For instance, for that last email, you sent, how many dollars did we get out on the other side?  Well, that is one of 242 interactions that I can track and I don’t know. We are always looking at data, but we aren’t always presenting the data the business cares the most about. Sometimes, it’s a function of there not being a gold standard and it not being taught consistently to rising leaders.

“I think the other part of that is marketing data is extremely hard and not as transactional as an opportunity. It is a matter of the clarity and efficacy of your data and that is the core challenge for marketers. I feel like ninety-something percent of marketers are sitting on the wrong datasets or cannot associate the data. Therefore, for the lucky 5% to 10% that can, they’re outpacing the market. I am going to quote a statistic. If you haven’t looked at Bains and Co’s data, they do a good job of sorting things out and cutting through the noise. They recently conducted a study that revealed organizations that master data for go-to-market performance purposes are four times more likely to achieve their profitability and growth goals. So what percentage of the market is outperforming their public or private counterparts? Who is outperforming four times? What percentage of the market is that? That is 5% of the market and 95% of the market doesn’t have the data they need. Therefore, if you ask me if marketers are bad at numbers, I’m going to say no, they have the wrong data in front of them.

“I would also argue that they are also not great at prioritizing investing and getting the right numbers. A  big reason for that is the pressure marketers are under, the budget cuts we face, and the pressure we are under to produce pipeline over anything else. The irony of that is since we aren’t investing in that infrastructure, we cannot prove that we are producing a pipeline. It is a snake eating its own tail. I’ve been lucky enough to operate from a perspective of data privilege. I have gravitated toward organizations that value accurate data and believe in using data to drive performance. Yet even in those environments,  we’ve struggled sometimes to decide what is the right data to look at. Still, we’re operating from a place of data privilege.

“The vast majority of marketers have the worst data,  but they are still under the same amount of pressure as those of us that have the data are under and they’re at such a disadvantage. It’s really frustrating to watch that happen over and over again.  I think we’re probably one or two Sigma where we are about one or two standard deviations above the average organization’s data capability, meaning our data and the ability to say that it is pulled together appropriately into something we can look at and pull apart is really in the upper echelons and we still struggle. Marketers aren’t bad at numbers. I feel that marketers don’t have the data they need and there’s a privilege of having data that can have an impact on this argument. Just on the attribution front, the average company could barely do first touch.

Is the Creative vs. Analytical Divide in Marketing a Myth?

“There are a few stigmas and behaviors that aren’t helping marketers overcome the challenges that they are up against. Sometimes, creative types from our generation, were told that we aren’t good at numbers as a result since if you’re creative, you’re not analytical. I think that things like reading charts, that is pattern matching, something we do from a really young age. It is how we recognize our parents. It’s how we figure out what brands we like and how we recognize them. I don’t think that the notion of being one or the other is true, but some of us have that in our heads and need to challenge it.

“We’re now discussing the range of skills and whether or not those skillsets are inherently skewed toward one direction or another based on our profession. It is valid to state that many marketers are really good with concept and creativity. However, here’s some truth for you and it took me 20+ years to realize that no matter how abstract or obtuse I am, I can only look at data. People that I have dealt with can still operate in the conceptual. They could still operate in that creative place. It’s just a matter of training ourselves to do that. Let me give you a few examples.

“When we are sitting down, we do this all the time, you say ‘I need to hit a quarterly pipeline number, how am I going to do it? What do you invariably start with?’. You start with the wrong thing. You start with prior performance data from prior quarters. You go to the analytics piece, and guess where the problem is. It isn’t in the analytical data. It isn’t in your past performance. What you’ve got is a concept problem. When you start with data, people who have battered data numbers are probably your best-performing marketers in terms of understanding what’s going to come next. We go to them and say, I don’t want you to tell me about any of the numbers. Tell me what I should do next to hit my pipeline numbers. Invariably, what they’re trying to do is operate in that concept zone. That is where ideas happen and then you could sort of back in. That is one example I would give you that I see happening all the time with marketers who are supposed to be bad at numbers. These are the folks that usually are the best at concept ideas like what should we do next.

“So there is a range of skills out there and it is unfair to say that marketers in general are bad with numbers just because they have a broader range when it comes to concept vs. analytical. And what differentiates an excellent leader from someone who isn’t is they’re self-aware and recognize if they are uncomfortable with numbers, they can offset that with somebody who has got that skill. Therefore, maybe it is less about whether we are bad at it than whether we can recognize that right now we are up against some pretty steep challenges and need to invest in the facets. We need to get better at it.

“Here’s my knucklehead moment of the year. I am going to point to this idea of attribution as being as simple as someone checking off how did you hear about us on a lead generation form. We are entering an era where we have this profound amount of data with AI helping us understand it. It is as asinine as using a landing page designed to say how did you hear about us? For me, it’s the knucklehead moan of 2023. I’m glad that this is now behind us since it was propagated at the same time that AI large language models and large datasets are coming together to make this idea absurd. So if you tell me that marketers are bad at numbers and I agree  with you, it is because that advice was followed by some marketer.”

For more content on B2B marketing trends, listen to the full Revenue Marketing Report episode at the top of the article or anywhere you podcast.

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