Beware of Black Boxes. Look for Actionable Outputs.

Steve Niemiec
Steve Niemiec

Chief Revenue Officer

Science fiction is one of my guilty pleasures (after golf that is). And with young kids, though I don’t have as much time to read for pleasure as I’d like, I do like to take in a good sci fi movie when they come around. Curiously, I even find a lot of thought starters in them and even parallels that are directly useful in my work. So, if you’re also a fan of Dune, you’ll probably know what I mean when I say that black boxes tend to make me very nervous. When I’m brought a solution by my teams or colleagues, I really like to try to understand the ins and outs before getting on board with any newly proposed tool purchase.

MarTech black boxes are a little like that show “Storage Wars” without the fun

OK, so maybe not as intense as the Dune example, but there’s certainly an element of ‘Storage Wars” to any solution purchase where you can’t see what the inputs are or you can’t understand exactly how the outputs were arrived at. In “Storage Wars” the premise of the show is that people leave all kinds of things in storage containers. In any given abandoned one, there could be a real chance for real value. Or it could just be a random output of basically worthless junk. The fun of the show is in the stories behind the owners of the stuff, and in the guessing about what might be in there that’s worth something. It’s good clean fun (sometimes a little moldy actually) with little real downside other than minor financial disappointment. Sure, there are people on the show whose thrift shop businesses depend on what they find, but they rarely put too much skin into the game. In my business, every major tech purchase costs a lot more. And though each probably comes with some potential benefits, there’s also a lot of risk, so I make sure my teams do their homework, understand the claims, investigate the logic, and check the Ts and Cs very carefully. Bottom line is we’ve learned the hard way to leave very few stones unturned. Here’s an area we’ve learned to look into:

It’s patented so it must do something important, right?

Patent laws were created to allow inventors to make a fair return on their investments in innovation. For a lot of good reasons, they soon became a kind of badge of ingenuity, a signal to the world that you were smart and full of really good ideas (after all, the patent office had certified your invention as ‘unique’ – or maybe you just got there first). But of course, like much legislation, over time, people have put patent laws to use for other, less laudatory purposes. While patents can signal innovation, they can also easily stifle it by keeping others out of a space. And while they protect returns on an original investment, they’re commonly used to keep prices unnaturally high across a whole category. Somewhere in the middle are patents that aren’t evil, but they’re not especially useful either (that’s why the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a Stupid Patent of the Month page on its site). Despite these negatives, to many people, having a patent in place still projects an aura of quality and value.

Naturally, having a patent as part of their messaging and positioning is a concept that marketers like to get behind. In fact, it’s an approach that, beginning in about the 19th century, led to the explosion in over-the-counter ‘health’ products known as “patent medicine”, or by their more vernacular nickname: snake oil. That’s what Theranos was basically about, and no industry category seems to be immune to this game. That’s why when my team is evaluating a solution that’s touting its patents, we’ve learned to look them up to see what we think. More often than not, we realize there are plenty of ways to accomplish the goal we seek. There’s nothing magical to the ideas covered by the patent. In some cases, we learn that what sounds like something special is simply a marketing gimmick.

Understanding patents/understanding processes

A quick lookup of patents has been of value to our clients as well as they’ve sought to better understand the different types of solutions available to support their GTMs. For example, it’s been helpful in clarifying how providers are going about establishing which accounts seem to be showing interest in their solutions. They now realize how hard it is to be sure of which accounts are visiting your website, how much guessing is still involved. They understand that there are more effective ways of understanding the accounts that matter by starting with a clear understanding what research targeted people are actually doing. That’s when they light goes on about how powerful our Inbound Converter approach really is.

Here’s another example of how confusing this stuff can be: Suppose you’re told that a black box method can tell your sales teams where, physically, a buying behavior signal is coming from. If it’s correct, and you’re dealing with a small office site where there aren’t too many people on the list, you might consider calling into relevant cold contacts at that site. But to us, that’s more of a corner case. In our business, enterprise tech, site location is occasionally somewhat useful when we know what key business processes happens at the site (like it’s a logistics center and we’re looking for supply chain buyers) and who is using the location as their office address (like supply chain professionals). But too often, geographic signals tell us only that somewhere within a large office complex, there’s an anonymous person who may be doing relevant buying research (or maybe it’s not that person at all or maybe it’s a false positive signal from a misunderstood keyword string). Without additional information, we can’t determine how indicative the signals are of an active buyer’s journey. We don’t know if they’re coming from the right kind of people (personas), the right group of people (related functions and responsibilities), and so on. We have nothing of value to give to Sales.

Furthermore, as we’ve all learned via the recent pandemic, geography matters less and less these days, whether we’re talking about the location of people or, with the cloud, the location of their tech. Companies hire all over the place now and functional groups often work completely virtually. So, actual location of IP signals is not something we value especially highly in our business model.  More importantly than ever, it’s people that buy, not accounts and not office locations.

To act effectively, you need the active people

That’s why our person-centric opt-in intent data approach is so effective. It’s how we know exactly what research a given person is doing regardless of where they’re physically located. We give you a coherent understanding of the buying team. From there, multi-threading the people together based on the research they’re doing, their roles and functions, and more, is relatively straightforward. If their stated office locations seem related, all the better, we have that too via their registration, and we keep it clean with regular checks on the backend. Via our method, we can show you the members of a buying team starting to come together whether they’re co-located, spread out across multiple locations, or entirely virtual. Again, it’s our entire publishing model that enables all this, something there’s no need to patent because it’s already super hard to copy. The fact is, it’s a truly gargantuan set of content creation and distribution processes that have largely been in the public domain for more than five centuries. So your company (or any other) is free to do exactly what we do. In fact, we strongly recommend that you do. And, with our custom content services, we’ll even help you be a better publisher on your own! To me, our approach is essentially like turning the black box completely inside out. We don’t claim any special magic, but the outcomes our clients get are truly magical.

ABM, actionable purchase intent, b2b purchase intent data, demand generation, sales activation

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