David Line | August 18th, 2023

It’s been a few COVID-blighted years since I attended the B2B Marketing Leaders’ Forum in Singapore, so it was delightful to be back this week – especially given the calibre of attendees and speakers. While the event covered a multitude of issues, one gleaming thread ran through every session (as it probably has through most professional conferences this year): the impact of AI.

Actually, there was another less glittering thread, too: insecurity. Marketers (or, if you must, “marketeers”) are under pressure: having to do more with lower budgets and frozen or reduced headcounts, and in an environment where return on investment is under closer scrutiny than ever. It doesn’t help that some CMOs apparently still need to justify their function’s existence to myopic leaders from other fields, some of whom, one speaker said, refer to it as the “colouring-in department”.

But herein lies an opportunity. As numerous speakers at the event recounted, the rise of AI is an excellent chance for marketing leaders to rationalise their operations, deliver measurably impressive results, and educate the rest of the C-suite on its potential. Just as long as they don’t get it to write their content, too. Let me explain…

Know thy audience better

One insight from the forum was the need for B2B marketers to be much more attuned to customer experience, which requires understanding their audiences in much greater detail. This is second-nature to many B2C campaigns but is often woefully underdeveloped in the B2B context.

Indeed, as B2B agency Merkle noted, their research showed 86% of marketers thought they had a good understanding of their audiences, but only 34% of customers agreed.

That’s a big gap, and one AI can help fill, in at least two ways. One is by crunching the huge amounts of “intent data” that marketing tech collects in exhaustive detail, to help refine the ideal customer profile and identify those ready to make a purchasing decision. A better grasp on this would help ensure marketing spend is focused on accounts with the highest chance of conversion.

This was the gist of a dynamic presentation by 6Sense Chief Market Officer Latané Conant, who pointed out the immense value to the sales team of better insights into the “Dark Funnel” – the majority of B2B buyers who won’t show up in old-school lead-gen efforts.

The second is by helping personalise and automate outreach to prospects at different stages along the purchasing journey. Ariff Kamal, Global Head of SEO at Standard Chartered, noted that marketers spend too much time on the early stages, churning out new marketing-qualified leads, and not enough on understanding the profiles already in customer databases. So twinning AI with customer relationship management tools to personalise and automate contact with high-value prospects at the right time, in the right way, is among the most effective current deployments of the technology.

Content creation: not yet?

As event attendees heard, there are numerous other AI use cases that can deliver impressive results for marketers. Naturally, my ears perked up whenever the discussion turned to content creation. Will AI replace humans in this creative enterprise? Are the hours I spend taking notes and crafting (I hope) pithy turns of phrase wasted?

As one speaker commented, “GenAI means everyone’s a marketer. Everyone can write a press release.”

“GenAI means everyone’s a marketer. Everyone can write a press release.”

- B2B Marketing Leader, APAC

That is true. When it comes to summarising major reports, producing quotidian copy or crafting news releases, marketing teams would be well advised to investigate the labour-saving services of ChatGPT, Bard or other large language models (LLMs).

But it’s fair to say that B2B marketing needs more than just copy – and there’s a big difference between that and thoughtful (or thought-leading) content. I’m a biased source, I admit, but the consensus among marketers was that AI wasn’t ready for primetime when it comes to B2B content production.

There are some practical reasons for this, as outlined at the forum by Eric Greene, an AI architect with many years’ experience advising companies on the deployment of AI systems. Some relate to privacy, especially if customer data is shared across borders or with third parties. He noted other legal risks: it’s not yet clear, for example, whether the sources that LLMs are trained on (and hence the output they produce) is safe from copyright challenges.

Then there is the issue of “hallucinations”: AIs getting things wrong or simply making them up, a danger to which LLM output is prone given it’s not yet indexed to factual or real events. The risk of reputational damage from this is too great, so in sensitive fields – whether content creation or customer interactions, as with chatbots – it’s advisable to start small and contained.

Trust, authenticity and originality

This relates to perhaps the most important reason why AI can’t yet produce decent content for B2B marketers: the whole enterprise is based on trust and authenticity. Trust is hard to earn and can be damaged quick. And there is little more inauthentic (at least, at current levels of LLM complexity) than AI-generated content.

I’d go further, at the risk of sounding tautologous: AI-written copy is artificial in the same way that artificial flowers are. Superficially attractive, but unsubtle, plasticky and carrying none of the revivifying scent of genuine creativity. You might not be able to spot it a mile off, but it doesn’t take much inspection to confirm it’s a fraud.

Moreover, as the volume of AI-driven content rises, more effort will need to be made to be authentic. Search engines will be getting much more scrupulous and discriminatory in weeding the genuine wheat from the AI-generated chaff, according to SC’s Ariff Kamal. They will be looking for content that is informed by experience, authority, expertise and trustworthiness – all the qualities that make good B2B marketing content. Unless your content has these, it will sink without trace.

Augment, not replace

For now, then, AI has the power to augment rather than replace whole functions, Greene noted in his keynote address. Use cases will keep proliferating, and many will make marketers’ jobs easier – both by improving efficiencies and allowing them to demonstrate more easily the impact of their work on the top line.

Empowered by such tools, marketers (and content creators) have no need to feel insecure - in fact they should be able to do their jobs with even greater confidence.

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