Make it matter

Editor's note: Yash Gad is the founder and chief data scientist of Ringer Sciences. He can be reached at Sally Slater is head of innovation for the Bliss Group. She can be reached at

Marketers can agree on a simple truism: To reach your target audience and motivate them to action, you need to understand what makes them tick.

Yet for B2B marketers, that is easier said than done. Today, most organizations get intelligence on B2B buyers in one of two ways: 1) traditional market research in the form of surveys, focus groups or one-on-one interviews; and/or 2) first-party website data.

Traditional market research is a valuable input into marketing strategy but it can be time-consuming, expensive and, ultimately, only representative of a single moment in time. If the business environment changes, the data becomes obsolete.

First-party website data also provides a wealth of insight but with limitations. Tools like Google Analytics can provide insight into overall user behavior but unless a website visitor is already a known user, you can’t easily distinguish between traffic from qualified buyers and irrelevant activity. 

And what about the online behavior of buyers outside your website? Your site is just one touchpoint of many in the B2B buying journey and is seldom the first stop. Until recently, B2B audience behavior outside the four walls of the company website has been a black box.

Lessons from consumer intelligence

In most aspects of marketing, B2C companies are ahead of their B2B counterparts. The capability to leverage audience data is no exception. Consumer intelligence is now a foundational component of the B2C marketing playbook. Thanks to forerunners like Netflix and Amazon, consumers now expect businesses to deliver a seamless, hyper-personalized customer experience. Meeting that expectation requires a 360-degree view of the customer and behavioral insights that anticipate what consumers will want and need next. 

The MarTech boom of the last few years has yielded a plethora of services and software to analyze consumer behavior. Social media analytics has been a particular boon for marketers because of the ease of access to broad audience insights, low cost to collect data and (on aggregate) data points that can mimic some of the rich insights on pain points, language and media consumption habits that come from focus groups and interviews. When B2C marketers combine social listening insights with first-party website data, they get a holistic picture of their customer base that enables them to reach target audiences with the right message on the right channel at the right time.

B2B audiences are different

Every B2B buyer is also a consumer and as the B2B buying journey moves to digital channels, buyers increasingly expect the level of convenience and personalization they experience with B2C companies. However, while consumer intelligence may shed some light on B2B audiences’ interests and consumption habits outside of work, that doesn’t necessarily translate to how they make purchasing decisions for their business. A B2B buyer likely doesn’t need to consult anyone before purchasing a personal laptop (with the possible exception of their significant other) but the vast majority of business purchases are decision by committee: For larger deal sizes, as many as 11 individuals may need to weigh in, according to Gartner research. And while the decision to buy a relatively more expensive discretionary item like a laptop may take a few weeks of research, the B2B sales cycle trends much longer.

B2B-specific audience intelligence aims to understand buyers’ business needs, who influences their business decisions and where they go for information when researching business issues and solutions. However, traditional research approaches can fall short for three key reasons:

Volume: There are typically far fewer B2B stakeholders that matter and many of them are difficult or prohibitively expensive to reach in interviews and focus groups.

Channel: While there are some exceptions, most senior decision-makers are not active enough on channels like Twitter – the go-to platform for consumer social listening – to warrant large analytics projects. Those that do more than “lurk” on Twitter or channels like Facebook or Instagram seldom discuss professional or business pain points.

Scale: Many B2B buyers use LinkedIn in that capacity but mining insights at scale has historically not been feasible. LinkedIn is one of only a few social media platforms not to offer API access to retrieve or analyze posts in aggregate.

How then are B2B businesses to get access to the continuous stream of audience intelligence they need to target their buyers with precision? We believe applying B2C analytics approaches to LinkedIn can help us crack the code. While there are other platforms dedicated to business conversations like Glassdoor, Fishbowl and Indeed, post anonymity limits our ability to validate audience identity and relevance. LinkedIn is the holy grail: insights can be paired with detailed information users provide in their profiles about their job titles and where they work.

Because users readily share this firmographic information, we can home in on stakeholders from a particular sector or set of job titles to gauge what’s top of mind, what content they are most likely to engage with and, ultimately, the signals of intent that may indicate they may be interested in a particular good or service. Critical to this analysis is looking not only at target buyers’ post activity but also at their post engagement activity. Our research shows that what business executives comment on and “like” foreshadows what they’ll be talking about next.

Gold and silver chess pieces.

Putting theory into practice

Let’s imagine we need audience intelligence to inform the marketing strategy of a hypothetical management consulting firm with a health care industry vertical. Our hypothetical company, HealthCo, wants to reallocate its marketing budget toward tactics that are most likely to generate business ROI.

Leveraging the Executive Signals Platform, our proprietary B2B audience intelligence database, we looked at C-suite executives at health care organizations with annual revenues ranging from $34 million to $292 billion. Here’s what we uncovered – and practical examples of how we could translate the findings into actionable marketing takeaways.

Key insight #1: Appetite for M&A-related content drops dramatically.

Engagement on M&A-related topics saw a massive swing over the course of 2022 across all health care C-suite executives but especially among CEOs. Between the first half and last half of 2022, CEO engagement on posts related to M&A declined by 90% – an early indicator of the record drop in M&A activity in the second half of 2022.

The tone and narrative of M&A-related content also shifted. In early 2022, health care executives’ top-engaged content touted how new acquisitions would improve patient solutions or enable clinical advancements in enthusiastic detail. By and large, the focus was on M&A as a catalyst of health care innovation. Posts celebrated the collaboration between the parent company and the newly acquired entity.

By contrast, top-engaged M&A-related posts in the latter half of the year were written in a dry, matter-of-fact reporting style, often stemming from corporate accounts. Posts generally failed to display the same sense of partnership in messaging. Instead, posts focused on how the acquisition would support and strengthen the internal initiatives of the acquiring company.

The marketing takeaways – for HealthCo or any company in the M&A business:

  • When prioritizing spending, HealthCo should consider reallocating some dollars away from its M&A consulting services to higher-demand areas.
  • If M&A remains a business priority, content should shift to focus on deal strategies that enhance existing internal capabilities vs. greenfield opportunities.
  • Messaging should emphasize operational efficiencies and time-to-value.

Key insight #2: Different roles have different interests.

Though health care CFOs engaged with fewer posts relative to their C-suite peers, they demonstrated the most interest in supply chain-related content, where we saw average engagement increase by 3% between the first and second half of the year. Top shared links by CFOs around supply chain content centered around speaker events on navigating supply chain disruption and supplier relationship development.

On the other hand, chief people officers (CPOs) demonstrated far more interest in sustainability and ESG, where we saw an 11% increase in post engagement. Top shared links among CPOs focused on business strategies to implement climate change and sustainability initiatives in practice. 

Meanwhile, health care CEOs expressed the most interest in content related to leadership, representing 30% of all engagements but decreasing by 43% between 2022 H1 and H2.

The marketing takeaways:

  • Messages should be tailored to each buying committee member based on their title, as interests vary.
  • HealthCo should consider developing specific lead-nurture campaigns for each title: a supply chain-focused content stream for CFOs; a sustainability-focused content stream for CPOs; and a leadership and workplace-focused content stream for CEOs.
  • When speaking to the CPO, messaging should focus on practical measures for integrating ESG practices.
  • If HealthCo is already running a supply chain-focused advertising campaign, it may want to narrow its targeting to focus on finance executives for a higher click-through rate.
  • Attending or sponsoring supply chain conferences may be an effective strategy to build relationships with the CFO audience. Notably, two supply chain speaking events referenced included Highmark Health 2022 Diverse Supplier Forum and SuperReturn 2022.

Key insight #3: Personal stories resonate.

For health care chief human resource officers (CHROs), top engaging content centered around inspiring messages focused on leadership skills. Top posts included sentimental messages, encouraging leaders to embrace their shortcomings and defy the norm that leaders must be fearless to grow in their careers and lead others successfully.

For CEOs, content on personal experiences such as career path challenges and success stories received high levels of engagement. For example, SCAN Group and Health Plan CEO Sachin H. Jain shared a highly personal post on embracing his Indian identity in a professional setting. The post received 3,072 engagements across all LinkedIn members and eight from other health care CEOs.

The marketing takeaways:

  • Content targeting CHROs should feature strong storytelling and tug on the heartstrings.
  • Consider creating a leadership Q&A series to garner interest and engagement from CEOs.
  • Content targeting CEOs may resonate better with real-life anecdotes and quotes from their CEO peers.

While HealthCo is imaginary, the audience we examined and the insights we extracted are very real. With the right audience dataset and analytics techniques, any B2B organization can tap into insights that improve buyer interactions and increase engagement. 

Paint a better portrait

B2B marketing may trail behind B2C but it always follows the same trajectory. In the next three years, we expect access to always-on B2B audience insights to become mainstream, an essential supplement to annual surveys with more limited shelf lives. The integration of publicly available third-party data with first-party data will paint a better portrait of B2B buyers at the individual level and in aggregate. Better data and insights will fuel a fundamental shift in marketing strategy. We imagine a world where the traditional annual marketing plan is dead, supplanted by more agile planning methods that account for frequent demand and behavioral shifts. We’ll see widescale adoption of account-based marketing and vague buyer personas replaced by stakeholder profiles backed by hard data.

The end result? Precision targeting, optimized digital interactions and marketing dollars that go further.