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Is the Competitive Advantage from Intent Data Waning?

Oct 06, 2020 | Author Ed Marsh

Tl;dr - It's been said that marketers can ruin any good thing. Might they do that with intent data? Will the value and impact decrease as more companies start to use purchase intent data?

What Could Go Wrong With Intent Data?

It's a powerful tool. But there are three risks to irresponsible use that could detract from widespread success, just as the use of buyer intent data is becoming more widespread.

  • Prospects deliberately attenuate the signals to avoid harassment
  • Competitive edge evaporates as multiple competitors work the same data
  • Users wallow in the trough of disillusionment

Let's look at each.

Like the Form Fill Folly

Heisenberg warned that the simple act of observing a phenomenon inevitably changed the phenomenon being observed. We've seen a version of that often in marketing. Buyers don't like their behaviors being observed, or at least not "weaponized."

Remember when forms used to work really well to convert website visitors to "leads"?

They worked until people became cynical and stopped consistently filling them out. The cynicism understandably developed as the flash-to-bang time from form fill to sales harassment decreased, and the tempo and urgency of the harassment increased.

Today, you know that when you fill out a form, you're putting a target on your back.

Sometimes that's worth it - depending on the exchange of value. Often it's not.

It's likely that as more people become aware of how intent data works, and begin to connect the dots on their online activity and the marketing for which they're targeted, that they will take steps to move even more stealthily online. Don't underestimate the potential for this happening. Just as we all recoil at the clumsy retargeting ads for something that we've considered buying, as more companies leverage intent data more people will become aware of the correlation between their activity and the marketing.

That will likely play out in various ways.

First-party data will likely diminish as more people reject cookies, use incognito browsers, and use VPNs.

Second-party data providers (publishers) will probably develop a tiered system to monetize their content. Users will have a choice to pay for access (and perhaps only have their actions shared in meta data) or access for free knowing that the details of their actions will be monetized in lead sales. 

Third-party data will change in various ways. There's already the range of concerns regarding bidstream data (generally incorporated into offerings from DemandBase, 6Sense, ZoomInfo, and Aberdeen) as captured in industry commentary and the recent suit filed by Bombora against ZoomInfo. Publishing coop models will face a challenge as publishers struggle to monetize their traffic. Recent significant layoffs at various high profile online content sites demonstrate the business model challenges they face. They'll increasingly have to put content behind paywalls (reducing traffic and signal volume/breadth) and/or charge for the stream of the anonymous account level consumption data.

The point is that some of the changes will be effected by users, in response to aggressive use of data - and some will be structural changes in the data business.

Is There Value if Everyone Does It?

Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded. Yogi Berra

For many early adopters, purchase intent data has helped them to understand which accounts (and in some cases contacts) are actively "in the market." Focusing marketing and sales efforts on that 3% of potential buyers makes marketing more economical and outbound sales more efficient.

But what happens when every competitor is working with the same data? 

Is there any competitive edge at that point?

It's certainly diminished. However, it's likely still significant. Here are three reasons why intent data will still give companies an edge.

  1. Some marketing and sales teams are strong....and some suck. After all, when every company in an industry went to trade shows they all had the exact same opportunity. Some capitalized on it. Many didn't. I recently watched an intern destroy an otherwise well designed intent data initiative. With little guidance, no marketing or sales perspective, and little understanding of sales tech and martech, the intern single handedly pursued their convenience and in the process denied sales critical insights, obviating the value of the data.
  2. Even if every company used some version of intent data, they wouldn't be working from the same data. Companies may not pick the same six opaque topics as their competitors. Others may not understand their ICP well enough to harvest the important data. They may concentrate at the wrong stage in the buying journey. And bidstream, publishing coop, 2nd party and other types of data yield different results. Not to mention the difference between account level and contact level™ intent data.
  3. Most companies really don't care about what's important to prospects and buyers. Sure, I know they loudly proclaim their buyer focus. But their pitter patter contradicts their chitter chatter. And while many companies see buyer intent data as a list of "leads" to follow up on, others understand it's a set of insights which will imbue their marketing and sales activities with nuance. 

In fact, companies that use the right data, in the right way, may even further differentiate themselves as many of their competitors consign themselves to "me too" status as they simply harass prospects with same sounding messages.

"It Didn't Work For Us"

gartner hype cycle and purchase intent data

Intent data isn't a silver bullet.

Of course that doesn't stop many data companies from marketing and selling it as one, or many prospects from buying it based on secretly harbored hopes that it is.

Gartner's well known "Hype Cycle" (image Wikipedia Commons) provides a framework for understanding where we are - my best guess is somewhere between peak and trough.

There are still many companies subscribing to intent data and handing a list to BDRs expecting miraculous results. That often disappoints, and therefore many companies are sharing stories of frustration and disillusionment.

Yet companies understand there's something powerful about intent data, and many start to experiment with adjusted expectations. They realize that the ability to integrate multiple data sets (1st party anonymous, 1st party known, 2nd party and 3rd party data), enrich it, activate it at scale and orchestrate journeys is critical. And difficult to master quickly.

Pushing those dots together is what's starting to differentiate some data providers. 6Sense, for instance, is achieving consistent growth not as a data provider, but as an ABM platform that incorporates data.

As more companies reflexively embrace intent data there are sure to be more instances of disillusionment. And then many of them will gradually climb the slope of enlightenment - bringing perspective and lessons learned to fruitful applications of buyer intent data.

"It's Complicated"

So while the short answer is that diminished impact of widespread intent data will likely be reflected in some simple use cases of data, it's unlikely (even if the technology were to remain static - which it isn't) that the value will be severely reduced for companies that take a more cerebral approach.

After all, widespread digital marketing hasn't led to parity in market performance. Similarly, all the other components - great product, service, experience, sales, etc. - all matter too.

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