How to Use B2B Marketing Automation to Personalize the Customer Experience

b2b marketing automation

“Deliver the right message to the right customer at the right time.”

If you’ve been hanging around marketing – particularly B2B marketing – for any length of time, you’ve probably heard one version or another of that statement.

We are so close to achieving it. Through a blend of marketing automation, personalization, and enhanced customer experience, it is increasingly possible to nail that goal. Which means you could also enjoy the improved marketing KPIs and the actual business growth that go along with it.

Let’s be clear: Personalization works. It works for customers and for marketers, for Sales and for customer support, for customer success – and even for your CFO.

According to McKinsey, “Personalization can reduce acquisition costs by as much as 50 percent, lift revenues by 5 to 15 percent, and increase the efficiency of marketing spend by 10 to 30 percent.”

The trouble is, delivering the right message to the right customer at the right time doesn’t just happen off the cuff. To pull it off, you need a complex blend of strategy, marketing technology, skilled personnel, a clean database, and a library of content assets.

But, it can definitely be done. Many B2B companies are already doing it. Not all companies – and maybe not even most – but here and there, the right message is being delivered to the right customer at just the right time.

Ding… it just happened again.

How can you get your marketing to this level? The first step is a true understanding of how closely tied these three tactics (marketing automation, personalization, and delivering a great customer experience) are.

The three amigos: marketing automation, personalization, and customer experience

Here’s the first place our three friends show up together: Marketers say the most effective tactics for optimizing B2B marketing automation programs are “customer experience mapping” and “personalized/dynamic content”.

They mention personalization again as a way to improve customer experience: “making our experience as personalized and relevant as possible.”

Customers would agree. A study of thousands of US consumers showed strong tendencies for them to be satisfied or unsatisfied with companies based on how well those companies personalize their marketing:

B2B buyers in particular expect their vendors to personalize. In fact, nearly three out of four (72 percent) of business buyers say “I expect vendors to personalize engagement to my needs.”

OK, so I think we’ve established that these three tactics – marketing automation, customer experience, and personalization – all seem to feed off of and support each other.

And it makes sense: To deliver a better customer experience, we usually want to personalize our marketing messages somehow. To do that effectively, it requires at least some marketing automation, because sending out all those personalized messages would be impossible if we had to do it manually.

The 6 Elements of Personalized B2B Marketing Automation

It’s nice when that many goals and tactics dovetail so neatly. But again… getting it all done is another matter. You’re going to need some very specific things to pull this off:

  1. People: At least a personalization team lead, or preferably a core group of skilled, influential team members who can take responsibility for implementing marketing automation and personalization across departments. You’ll also need robust C-Suite support.
  2. A clear idea of your customer journey and its key touch points.
  3. A strategy to use as a blueprint for how to make this whole B2B marketing automation machine hum.
  4. A clean, accessible, flexible database.
  5. An updated library of creative that can be personalized.
  6. A B2B marketing automation platform that can track, manage, deliver and report on all those messages.

Miss any one of those pieces and your beautiful machine won’t work.

Also note that some of these things can’t be developed separately or in the wrong order. You need to know the customer journey touch points before you can fix the database. You need a team in place to define the strategy.

Speaking of which… the first thing you’re going to need is people. So let’s start with that.

Get your team together

Personalization is too complex an undertaking to just have everyone on your team say “it’s good thing, let’s try to do it” and hope for the best.

You need a champion – and probably more than one. At a minimum, you need a champion in the C-Suite. Implementing personalization into a B2B marketing automation system is going to require coordination across several departments, plus a fair amount of time, money, and resources.

Odds are, in addition to executive backing, you’ll also need people “in the trenches” to do the day-to-day tasks and execute the personalization strategy.

Have a clear idea of the B2B customer journey

The first thing your personalization team should do is to figure out the customer journey.

This is essential for a comprehensive personalization plan, but it has other benefits, too. The most successful B2B marketers map the customer journey.

Just understand that the customer journey will be different for different types of customers. This is one of the best ways to define personas (based on how their customer journeys differ), and it’s one of the best ways to plan out your content creation.

There are many ways to visualize the customer journey of course. But also understand that they are all generalizations. Even the same type of customer may move through your content and your offerings in a different way. They may not behave as neatly as your model would like.

This could be an argument for investing in a machine learning or AI application to handle the “fuzzy logic” of customer journeys. Or it could just mean to make your system flexible enough to handle variations between customer journeys.

Have a defined strategy

Having the right B2B marketing automation strategy is one of the biggest barriers to setting up a marketing automation system.

But without it, you’re far more likely to fail. And even worse, you’ll have done a truckload of work for naught.

Creating a strategy to implement all this should start with the customer journey. Once you have that, define a few of the most critical touch points. Say, 6-10 events where it would really make a difference to revenue if you could step in and send that person a timely, targeted message.

It’s often easiest and most effective to personalize simple, high-impact events first. This means you’ll be tackling fairly easy tasks first, like a warm-up.

But it also means you should have a couple of nice wins early on. This gives you proof of the value of your work, which will be critical when you step into the C-Suite and they ask how this big personalization project is going.

Research also shows that simple implementations deliver the highest ROI (if you include time and effort as part of that ROI):

One caveat: Please have someone from Sales in the room when you pick these key touch points. Sales, after all, is in a sense a “customer” of your B2B marketing automation system, almost as much as your customers are. Your work serves them.

You may also want someone from customer support and customer success in the room, too. They can help make sure you don’t get so totally focused on new customers that you forget about supporting and retaining existing customers.

You will also need to decide whether you are going to create rules for when to send a personalized message, or if you want to tie those messages to triggered events. If you’re really sophisticated, you may elect to have an AI or machine learning application decide when to send a message, and which message to send to whom.

A rule-based segment might be, say, when a prospect achieves a certain lead score. A trigger would be when they download a whitepaper, or after they’ve made contact with customer support.

There’s nothing to prevent you from having rule-based messages or trigger-based messages. You might even want a blend of the two.

Whichever technique(s) you use, start with a few high-priority messages. They will most likely be simple, triggered messages. They may not be fancy, but get them done and build from there.

While you define this part of your strategy, also pick about another dozen possible touch points/personalized message opportunities (again, with input from Sales, Customer Service, and Customer Success). It may be too much to implement them now, but at least define them in your strategy. That way, when you are ready to implement them, you’ll have laid the groundwork for them.

Get Your Data Ducks in a Row

If you want to personalize the customer experience, your data must be clean, organized, and ready to be dispatched in all the places you need it.

You can’t skip this step. If the customer isn’t getting the right personalized message, it’s not actually personalized.

Far too many marketers say their data is not up to this task. In fact, “data quality” is the number one barrier to implementing true one-to-one personalization:

Of course, having clean data can be quite the challenge. “Improving database quality” has was named the second most critical challenge to implementing marketing automation:

And data quality also comes up as the #1 obstacle to personalization.

(Note the second obstacle in the graph above – “understanding buyer behavior in context”? That’s why we need to understand the customer journey and its key touch points.)

Like it or not, marketers are in the data business. So it’s essential to have:

  • Current data
  • Data that comes into your database clean (otherwise, you’ll be endlessly cleaning up your database from these polluted input streams)
  • Data that is properly formatted
  • Data that has documentation for how it is to be used, who is responsible for it, where it comes from, how it gets formatted or reformatted, and when it gets updated and more.
  • The right data. Data bloat is a real problem. Big data might have sounded sexy a few years ago, but when some marketers are reporting that they aren’t even using 5% of the data they have, that’s a problem. Streamlined databases are easier to manage, use and update. They also cost less money.

Craft the right marketing messages

You have your personalization team, your customer touch points, your data to personalize those touch points, and … now you need the messages.

This is all the creative – all the clever email copy, landing pages, research reports, whitepapers, calculators, webinars, puppet shows (just kidding) and every other content asset your prospects and customers will interact with.

Needless to say, you will need a sophisticated “content library”, aka a content database, to manage all this, make it easy to find, and easy to know when the different pieces need to be updated.

If you’ve been doing content marketing for even a year, you may have a formidable amount of content to work with. And if you’re like many marketers, you’ll have content you’ve never even published.

To get this all organized and ready to play its part in your magnificent marketing automation machine, you will need to do a content audit.

Doing a content audit can save a massive chunk of your budget, as you will probably find you have quite a lot of content that if you just updated and reformatted it, you’ll need to create less new content than you thought you had to.

In other words, it’ll save you money. A lot of money. And because you now have that lovely customer journey map, complete with key touch points, you can create content for each of those touch points and each of your buyer personas, which will also make your content creation efforts vastly more disciplined and effective.

Just don’t get too caught up in text-based content, or in just one channel to deliver that content through.

Part of delivering “the right message to the right customer” also includes sending that message through the right channel.

To help you decide which channels to focus on, here are the channels B2B buyers tend to prefer most:

And these are the tactics marketers say are most and least effective for personalization:

Get your marketing automation system tuned up

Now you need a method of delivery for all those awesome, personalized, perfectly-timed messages.

Voilà: marketing automation to the rescue. You need this to manage all the customer data, to coordinate the messages and their timing, and to report on all the results so you know where you are.

You need a marketing automation platform. And a really good one.

To work well, your marketing automation system also needs to be integrated into your other systems. Integrations can be tricky, and so expect a fair amount of back and forth to get this right.

Just do be sure you do get it right. Top-performing companies are nearly three times as likely to say “we have a highly integrated, cloud-based technology stack” than their less successful peers.

If you look at the chart below, you’ll also see that top-performing companies are about half as likely to say they have a fragmented approach as less successful firms.


Final Thoughts

So, that’s how all six elements of a personalized B2B marketing automation system work together.

To recap, they are:

  1. Having someone in charge of personalization efforts (preferably both a C-Suite advocate and a working team).
  2. A clear idea of the customer journey, including the key touch points for that journey.
  3. A strategy to use as a blueprint to coordinate all the elements.
  4. A clean, accessible, flexible database.
  5. An updated library of creative that can be personalized.
  6. A B2B marketing automation platform that can track, manage and deliver all those messages.

If this all seems like a lot of work, well… it is. Marketers usually report that it takes about three to six months to implement a marketing automation system.

Most of you may already have a marketing automation system that has just outgrown itself. For you, the process is basically the same, but you’ll also have to review which parts of your marketing automation are working, and which aren’t.

All this work and complexity is why the vendors of AI and machine learning tools keep saying we don’t need to worry about machines taking over our jobs. There is more than enough work to do. If we can outsource some of the more repetitive work to computers, we’ll get to do more of the fun stuff, like create some amazing B2B creative.

Despite how daunting it can be, many marketers find the prospect of all this personalization pretty exciting. In fact, according to one major recent survey “delivering personalized experiences in real time” is “the most exciting prospect in three years’ time”.

Are you looking forward to it?




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Rebecca Johnston-Gilbert' — Rebecca Johnston-Gilbert, Marketing, Postman

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