Invested millions in your martech stack? Here’s why your B2B performance still sucks

Does the answer to improving B2B marketing success tie back to a problem discovered during World War II? Perhaps. Carbon Design founder Scott Gillum explains.

The B-17 plane was quick and inexpensive to build, with a goal of “blackening the sky” over Europe. The problem with that strategy was because they were designed to be so quickly built that they ended up being easily shot down. In fact, soon after entering the war, the B-17 was getting shot out of the sky faster than they could be built.

Recognizing that something had to be done to keep them in the air, the decision was made to assemble a group of engineers to study the returning planes and assess where to add armor.

The team was about to submit their findings when Abraham Wald, a lead engineer on the project, pointed out that they were thinking about the problem the wrong way. Instead of putting armor on areas that were damaged by bullets, they should be thinking about adding armor to the areas where there were no bullet holes, because those areas were most vulnerable.

This phenomenon, known as ‘survivorship bias,’ can be seen all over B2B marketing. Survival bias is a type of selection bias. It’s a logic error that occurs when focusing on things that survive rather than looking at things that didn’t. By selectively leaving data out of the analysis it can cause one to make the wrong conclusion, like putting armor on the bullet holes of returning planes.

In B2B marketing, there are signs of this bias in almost everything we do. We try to scale and ‘optimize’ a 3% response rate or 10% open rate, focusing on the ‘returning planes’ and missing the opportunity to assess, and understand, how to improve on the 90%+ of our effort that didn’t return a result.

This myopic view on scaling the ‘3%’ drives us to an endless cycle of investing in new technologies, providing a momentary boost in performance that quickly dissipates. This layering of more tools on the ‘stack’ has now put us at the top of the yield curve. Essentially, marketing tools are now being shot out of the sky faster than they can be built.

Scale has become the enemy of the good. Remember this for 2022. Volume will not necessarily get you to your goals. For example, according to Hubspot’s 2021 Industry Survey (over 100K companies), email performance dropped by 30% from the previous year, which was historically low. So what did companies do? They sent even more emails, increasing by over 120%. (I believe that is commonly referred to as the definition of insanity.)

For years, I searched for an answer for why marketing performance continued to be poor, despite advancement in new technologies. Stumbling upon survival and selection bias helped to explain some things, but at the core it’s a motivational issue. Confusing activity for performance is convenient. Searching for, assessing and acquiring new tools offers hope and can feel like you’re making progress.

It’s time to stop looking externally for a solution and turn our efforts internally. The answer to improving performance lies in the insight from the missing data.

Winning the war on poor performance will require a commitment to thinking differently, like Wald. Not everyone will be willing, or able, to make this journey, but as another WWII hero, Winston Churchill, once said: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Onward soldier!

Scott Gillum is founder of the B2B consultancy Carbon Design.

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