Impressions. Opens. Clicks. Visits. Conversions.
These digital engagement metrics have been the lifeblood of B2B marketing attribution for a generation now. (Literally—the oldest Gen Z-ers were born around the same time as Google.)
But as major platforms and devices phase out third-party data dependencies, and consumer privacy takes the front seat, almost everything we know about cookies, pixels, campaign tracking, and attribution modeling is no longer relevant. Twilio predicts a cookieless world is coming in 2023.
Despite the challenges posed by this sea of change, there are big opportunities in store. A shift away from tracking and attribution could mean a shift towards ways to effectively reach and drive demand from a company’s total addressable market. Like: zero-party data, strategic narrative building, storytelling, and using the power of dark social. That’s an overall win in our book.
What’s Changed—And Why It’s Empowering
When cookies entered the digital marketing landscape in the late 1990s, it was all so promising. Just a few lines of code made it possible for marketers to track user behaviors across browsers, devices, email campaigns, and social media platforms.
The hypothetical result was better targeting and more relevant messaging, and over the last few decades, most B2B marketers developed an insatiable appetite for cookies: As of 2022, 81% of companies rely on third-party cookie data.
But what many B2B marketers may not realize is that the system has been broken for years. In fact, the promise of cookies was only realized for a brief window of time, when everyone surfed the web on desktop computers—and before privacy advocates and tech giants introduced policies or features to protect data and proprietary information.
Multiple devices and apps with walled gardens quickly led to an incredibly complicated cookie syncing process that, according to our internal sources, results in up to 80% data loss. Here are just a few ways cookies have gone stale.
In the mid-2010s, email providers like Gmail changed practices to improve product performance, such as the way they cached images. These updates impacted how open rate data was measured, and spurred plenty of 2014 explainer articles on how marketers should respond.
Shortly after, marketers could no longer see opens from Gmail apps, likely due to the move to store proprietary data within a walled garden. While the consequences of these changes were small at first, as Gmail’s market share grew from an estimated 6% to 25% between 2014 and 2018, so did the overall impact on email marketing attribution.
Similarly, Apple gradually implemented new email privacy settings for users over several years. Just this past Data Privacy Day, Apple announced new efforts to educate users on how to personally protect their data, starting with mail privacy protection.
According to Litmus, these two email providers now own 90% of the market share—and as of July 2022, over 50% of email opens have been impacted by their combined efforts to increase mail privacy.
Regulations and Privacy Policies
Since 2019, third-party cookies have become distasteful to data privacy advocates. Because of their ability to track user behaviors, and many companies’ shady practices regarding consent and sharing of user data, cookies have been targeted by privacy laws like the European GDPR and the CCPA.
These regulations require practices including gaining consent before using cookies and being more transparent with how data is collected, stored, and shared. Furthermore, just like cookie alerts on websites, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency framework is now required, giving users more say in whether they want their personal data tracked.
Tech giants like Apple and Google have introduced their own privacy-friendly policies and practices, giving browsers the final say in the future of third-party cookies. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, mind you, but to convince government bodies that additional legislation isn’t needed—they can self-regulate. (Nothing to see here, Congress. Go ahead and move along.)
- Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) setting in its Safari browser automatically stops marketers from tracking user data across the web via cookies.
- Firefox’s Total Cookie Protection offers similar blocking capabilities and, as of 2022, is the default setting for all users worldwide.
- Google’s Chrome, the leading web browser, has infamously delayed its own purging of third-party cookies multiple times—it’s now planned for the end of 2024.
Here’s How to Shift from Tracking to Talking
All this means that relying on third-party data and hyper-focusing on granular user data isn’t the best use of marketing resources. B2B marketing attribution tracking has never been a perfect science. Rand Fishkin once called it a “boondoggle”—and it’s only going to get harder.
But again, we believe this is a long overdue change. Here’s how to rethink the company’s B2B marketing strategy in this new light.
1. Go Straight to the Source
For valuable insights about a target audience, it’s better to speak with and hear from them directly. Now termed zero-party data, this is the information an audience willingly shares directly with the company.
Zero-party data can be collected in several ways, including:
- Lead forms
- Subscriber confirmation emails
- Onboarding flows
- Preference centers
- Customer surveys
- Sales and customer service conversations
For example, ask a few questions about a new customer’s role and challenges during their onboarding process. Then, use that info to tailor follow-up emails and content to address their needs—and, eventually, upsell and cross-sell.
Or, when a new subscriber joins an email list, simply follow up with questions asking what they’re interested (and not interested) in learning about.
A B2B marketer’s ability to segment and target customers (not lists) is a marketing jackpot.
Compare that to the old model of third-party data: guesswork and assumptions about who prospects are and what they care about based on how they interacted with someone else’s content on someone else’s platform.
Give me zero-party data every time.
2. Build Trust by Creating a Strategic Narrative
An overreliance on attribution can lead to an over-indexing on conversions. Conversions are great, but pursuing them at all costs has, in some ways, papered over what should be a must-have in marketing: building audience trust.
Especially in longer sales cycles with fewer, more valuable leads, companies have to establish a strong level of credibility with a prospect before starting a sales pitch. Otherwise, it’s like proposing marriage on a first date.
So, instead, take a step back and create a strategic narrative — an engaging story that describes a company’s purpose and its DNA. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, ‘Airbnb says its focus is on brand marketing instead of search is working’.
When prospects know what the company stands for and its purpose, they’ll be more likely to buy, on their own terms. Because, authenticity drives (website traffic and) conversions—not behavior tracking.
3. Tell Compelling Stories
Good stories capture attention. The reader can’t help but to put themselves in the character’s shoes. And keep turning the page to see what happens next.
In our new era of B2B marketing, storytelling skills are a must. Marketers may not be able to measure every open, view, or engagement across all the platforms where a target audience comes across the company’s content. And we may lose the ability to retarget them across other websites, bringing a company back to the top of their mind.
But, compelling stories keep audiences engaged and coming back for more. Humanize messaging and create the emotional connections that are key to successful B2B marketing.
Here are a few ways to channel an inner Pixar screenwriter and tell better stories:
- Feature real humans—like employees or customers—in captivating beer-budget videos.
- Monitor customer forums and communities to hear real-life examples and challenges prospects are facing. Talk about them in blog articles or social posts, and mirror their language to bring more life to the company’s content.
- Consider how influencer marketing could fit into your B2B marketing strategy—they’re often experienced storytellers with a fresh perspective on customers’ needs.
With compelling storytelling in place, the company’s marketing messages should become more humanized and consistent—and, ideally, centered around shared values, customer challenges, and how the company helps solve them.
4. Lean Into the Power of Dark Social
When a company defines success by conversion metrics, B2B marketers tend to put less effort into behaviors that can’t be seen, heard or measured. This means many marketers have been missing out on what’s happening on dark social: the referrals, discussions, and sharing happening on platforms like Slack, private communities, social DMs, in-person events, messaging apps, and gasp, in-person!
We can’t measure what happens on dark social. But we can pay attention to it, and work to impact these valuable sources (albeit indirectly):
- Ask new customers how they found out about the company with a simple attribution survey. (Another way zero-party data comes into play!)
- Give employees time to build relationships on social media and in customer communities. (They can be a B2B marketer’s eyes and ears in places corporate accounts just wouldn’t be welcome.)
- Set up a referral program to incentivize happy customers to spread the word.
- Get to know all the places customers spend time talking about their problems and researching their solutions.
Finally, pay attention to what is measured: branded search, direct traffic, new customers, and revenue growth. You may not be able to attribute them directly to any one marketing channel, but if those graphs are trending up, you know you’re doing something right.
Drawing the Line
B2B marketers can’t control how people interact with content—or fully track their behavior across devices and company channels. But we can control messaging and storytelling.
When you focus your marketing strategy on understanding customers’ problems and how the company’s product solves them, craft a narrative, and tell consistent stories in compelling ways, you will see success in your B2B marketing.
This shift from attribution-focused to customer-obsessed marketing strategies takes time, but it’s incredibly liberating to get out of the weeds and start driving demand. Start with a playbook »