Does intent mean anything?
What do intentions sum up to be?
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Editors not: In Pakistan & generally Islam we have this concept of ‘Niyaat’ which loosely translates into intent. It’s used in varying ways & contexts. Once when I was fasting during Ramzan I eat a few bites of food without realizing I was fasting. I dont remember who (probably my mom) said something to the effect of ‘its ok, if you niyaat was clean (meaning you didn’t actually concisously mean to eat during fasting) it does not count.
Todays essay reminded me of that. Intent is something we throw around in societal, business, legal & multiple contexts. Did you ‘intend’ to do that or was that an accident? Really what is intent & can it be even captured. Is it a split second decision we make consciously to ‘do’ something or is it more pre-programmed sub-conscious things that we don’t actively think about?
In the B2B context - does viewing a G2 page count as intent? Or for that matter how do we even ‘know’ when there’s intent to buy new software? its the promised magic moment - prospect ‘intends’ to buy a software & vendors can capitalize on it. But does it actually work as promised?
Our intent with this essay is to provide context on intent data. If you want to dig in deeper I
had a great chat with Tukan (founder @LeadSift) right after their acquisition by IDG about intent & selling LeadSift & what’s next.
"I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. I just don't know which half." - Joseph Wannamaker
The SaaS B2B marketing playbooks have evolved much more than most marketers feel comfortable with over the last couple of years. At first, it seemed that focusing on outbound playbooks with aggressive campaigns was key. After that, we noticed a massive adoption of inbound tactics that marketers considered were key to increase revenue. And, eventually, in a WWW crowded by me-too content, it seems it is slowly heading back to the outbound spectrum.
In this complicated marketing/sales world intent data has become a controversial topic that seems to be crucial for some organizations, and not so useful for others. Some claim it is key to increase their conversion rates, while others do not really see what the big deal is and why it contributes to the potential closing of new clients.
Of course, we lean more towards the latter. But before we discuss why, let us start at the beginning. What does intent even mean?
The first three definitions we find are the following if we look at the Cambridge dictionary.
Giving all your attention to something.
The fact that you want and plan to do something.
Something that you intend or intended to do
All in all, we can tell that the meaning of intent is closer to the second and third definitions in this context (B2B Saas). So it is clearly something that you probably thought about doing, but not something you will necessarily do.
If we dig a little deeper, we even come across the "intention economy" concept. A concept developed by Doc Searls in which he claims the following:
"The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don't need advertising to make them."
It makes sense. Even if you are not familiar with Searls work, you probably came across Seth Godin's Permission Marketing or some other concept that repositions the users/buyers at the center. We have user-centered design, buyer personas, journeys, JTBD, and all sorts of methodologies that focus on the understanding that leveraging users' problems and providing solutions makes more sense than pushing sales tactics to people who are not interested.
But even if we understand all of that and go back to thinking about intent, more specifically intent data (first, second and third-party data), there is an evident gap between what intent data claims it is and what intent actually does.
Now, if we look at what intent data means online, we find a myriad of martech companies that claim with their information, you will be able to capture more consumers into buying your product. The promise of having a way to truly understand the digital footprint of potential buyers and knowing when to reach out, just when they need your solution. Quite a statement, particularly considering that "intent," which is much closer to "intention" (something that you intend or intended to do), has little if no connection whatsoever with the actual effectiveness of any Go-to-Market strategy.
Googling intent data again, but this time we adding quotation marks, we come across an informative piece that states that:
"Intelligent marketers are grappling with the issues of intent, context, content, conversation and closure. Let's stop stereotyping the customer, let's look beyond the typical segmentation techniques. The fact of the matter is that there is no one data set that can ideally describe who we are and what we want. It will always be multi-layered. Going forward, to get to the real intent and hence address a genuine need for customers, marketers will have to marry first party (transaction data), second party (partner data) and third-party data."
Finally, we arrive at something much more analytical, and that makes more sense to even begin to understand what intent data is and how it works (without the fluff).
As Sangani argues, the truth is that there is no data set that can 100% describe who we are and what we want. But, of course, no intent platform or data intelligence platform will advertise that. In fact, they may promote the opposite. We will not name any names, but really, a value proposition that claims purchase behavior is predictable with thousands of data points might at best be a tiny bit better than random.
Even the more sober intent data brands out there claim that with third-party intent data, you will be able to increase your sales simply because you understand the context around the accounts you are targeting.
What do we mean by context? Is it that the company received funding? Is it that they are hiring a new DemandGen specialist? Is it a comment on a Slack channel or Quora? Technically, it is. And sure, understanding more about the company and the accounts you are targeting can increase your chances of closing. However, even if you know what is going on around your ICPs the truth is that it still remains a game of probability. You still have to guess the right moment to contact them, the right pitch, and the right offer. It is not random because you have more information to leverage, but then again, in any well executed marketing / sales strategy this is just a basic component to drive demand.
We are not saying it does not work. In a way, it does help and contribute to your marketing/sales efforts. In fact, it has worked for many marketers, and brilliant people are working to make this as accurate as possible. But, the fact remains that even if you have all the intent data (which is usually thought of as third-party intent data), the most exact source of information to capture intent is your first-party data.
And sure, we have all heard the story in which Target figured out a teen pregnancy before the father of said teenager found out. Yes, Amazon recommendations are helpful sometimes, just like Spotify suggestions actually turn out to be good. But, that does not mean that all retargeting ads are perfect for you, nor do they pop up at the right moment when you actually have an intention to buy. In fact, one of the companies with the most information about media consumption habits, Netflix, has publicly recognized that even with an insurmountable amount of data, gut decisions still rule in the era of Big Data.
So how do we even begin to think about intent data?
Intent data is often perceived as a third-party solution that allows you to access company-based information. With this information, you will have more clarity on who you should target in your marketing efforts and when.
In other words, it is third-party intent data that provides behavioral signals for your revenue teams to act upon and improve their close rates..
But, as we have experienced intent data in our journey as marketers, we think that before uncovering what it means, we need to understand what it does.
These are some of the hidden truths of intent third-party platforms.
Platforms that work in intent data provide approximate information given that the tracking is done at a company-based level. In other words, it is not possible to know 100% if the person who makes the ultimate decision to buy your product was the one that accessed the site, article, podcast, or whatever resource it has been tagged as an intent signal.
Even if the right person was precisely the one who had the intended behavior you are looking for, it might also be the case that they have no idea who you are or what your product does. Imagine that someone from X company wants to hire a RevOps agency. They might go online, read a couple of articles, even listen to some podcasts or participate in Slack channels to learn more about the subject. Yet, they may be utterly oblivious to 42 Agency, what we do, and why we could help. It does not matter if we sell precisely what they need; the fact remains that they are still pretty cold in the leads spectrum, and even with all the signals available, they still have to figure out why 42 Agency is the right partner for them.
Inbound leads are those who took the time to slowly understand and learn more about your brand and your category, meaning they may be a warm lead. Outbound leads can be cold leads that just fit into a demographic and digital level with the kind of ICP your company is looking for. But, intent leads are neither warm nor cold; they are just an estimated guess based on available digital footprints that may or may not allow you to improve your sales processes. Intent leads are, at best, slightly warmer than cold leads.
We are not satanizing intent data; in fact, it has worked quite well for some colleagues. But, just for a better understanding, we think it is fair to understand their limitations.
Now that we got some of that context, let's talk a bit more about first-party data.
First-party intent data
First-party data is the information your website visitors share with you and allow you to track. Just the fact that these individuals have directly interacted with your brand should be a sign that it is a piece of precious information to be used wisely.
Please remember that this is information that is a fact, not an approximate, not a statistical model, an actual action you can track and hopefully capitalize.
And, also keep in mind that just because someone gave you their email does not mean they are a warm lead.
So can you use first-party data to capture intent information and improve your overall marketing strategy?
Use 1st party data to reposition gated content as intent capturing: One of the main problems about MQLs for many marketers is that they are not convinced of the importance of MQLs acquired through gated content.But isn't that what marketing is about? And isn't this whole debate just completely irrelevant? In the end what matters is capturing intent. And, if 1st party data allows you to do that with higher accuracy, why not do it?
We like to think of gated high-quality content as a sign of intent, then the whole MQL value shifts. MQLs are not just people who need to go through a funnel to convert, but they can also be individuals and organizations with demonstrated direct intent signals you can, later on, pass to your sales teams. For example, if John downloaded an ebook from your site in exchange for his email, it does not mean he is ready to buy. But, his organization, perhaps even John himself, has demonstrated a clear interest in your brand and what you are doing (aka - first-party intent). Iterating on this process, providing more quality content to capture more information and influence several decision-makers in the organization seems to be overlooked. But it is a gold mine waiting to be mined.
Use it to reposition MQLs as sales leads to intent leads: Hear us out. A common issue for most organizations orchestrating the marketing-sales operations is the amount of "bad quality leads" that sales teams reach out to. It is common to hear complaints about MQLs who just aren't ready to buy. But, instead of treating these MQLs as warm leads, think of them as an additional intent data point, sometimes even an intent lead, that connects with a much bigger universe of intent. For example, if you happen to know that Mary checked out your site and joined your webinar, perhaps the next natural step is not to call her and try to close. Instead, focus on understanding who she is in her organization.
Use it to do reverse IP lookup and know who is actually checking out your site. This is another significant action you can take to build a universe of intent around first-party data. If you happen to know the exact IP address, you can figure out who the person on the other end is and why they would be interested in your product. The more information you have, the better chances you have of understanding their problem and how to actually reach out so that your product tackles a specific pain point. Even use the LinkedIn pixel that tells you more information about her to build an intent data set that provides business intelligence for your sales teams.
Third-party intent data
To understand third-party intent data, we must understand third-party cookies first.
Third-party cookies are text files with small pieces of data that are essentially used by ad networks to understand your behavior and track you. So, for example, how does Google know it should show me an ad for a couch I was browsing for on Wayfair? Simple. Google shows me the ad because Wayfair has Google ad cookies (3rd party cookies that have followed me from other sites and aren't created by Wayfair). Those cookies that track me around are third-party cookies.
Now there's third-party intent. Third-party intent is when Bombora or an intent vendor reaches out to marketers and says, "Hey, this company called 42 Agency might be interested in buying a CRM because they're reading up on CRMs on some sites and forums, etc."
Although it is not 100% clear what or how intent platforms do their work (it is their know-how, of course, it is not publicly available), the important thing is that we can sell that info to help marketers win accounts.
We think intent platforms probably do some IP / cookie lookup to identify companies that match your sales strategy (they discover that this IP / browser reading these articles on "CRM" belong to x company/person).
They probably know I am reading about CRMs because they have third-party cookies on publisher/industry sites - i.e., trade publications. Or, they have a data co-op they own or partner with many websites to share data.
Now, suppose I am a CRM marketer, and I know that someone from 42 Agency is actively looking to buy a CRM. As a company that sells CRM, I can "activate" that data by using it in ads, finding the decision-maker that will ultimately purchase the CRM, or doing some geo-fenced ads or billboards (or whatever you think will help you win that account).
So, to summarize, third-party intent platforms use third-party cookies to create behavioral databases that help marketers "activate" intent. And, if you activate that data correctly, your closing rates can improve just because you have more context and information on the potential buyer.
Now that we explored how that actually works, here are a couple of ways in which you can activate third-party intent data in your marketing strategies.
Create outbound campaigns using the data: Third-party intent data allows you to quickly pitch individuals with behavioral patterns of interest in your product. However, to do this correctly, try to find a prominent motif to act upon. Not doing so might backfire. Have you seen those ads you do not care about at all? Well, try not to be that marketer with your product.
Another critical aspect of running a good outbound campaign is identifying the person within the account who potentially calls the shots and can purchase the product. That does not mean you cannot build momentum around the entire account. You probably should (decision-makers are influenced by their teams). It is recommended to go a step further and translate broad intent information to laser-focused tactics and communications.
Create custom audiences: The data you obtain from intent providers will allow you to create custom audiences to advertise your product. We recommend you try to build them up in a way that demonstrates an actual effort to understand their needs. It is impossible to know what a specific person likes through third-party intent data (because, you know, privacy). Still, it is possible to write a copy that speaks to psychometric traits for a particular vertical.
Although there is no single way to create custom audiences, it is generally best to experiment with multiple audiences and messages. In the end, third-party intent data is a probability game where you use a database from a third party that you cannot accurately understand. Quick iterations to take advantage of third-party data might help you learn more about your audience and what actually works for them.
Intent data works for some, but it is also overrated. Understanding your potential customers' data points in an organized and thoughtful manner allows you to build account lists that are more effective than others. That much is true. But, it does not mean that you have more certainty just because you have more information.
Marketing is all about probability, iteration, experiments, and consistency. Even with all the information in the world, you will not have certainty.
Attribution is not 100% measurable, not even in the hyperconnected reality we live in today.
And, just remember that third-party intent will never equate to all of the robust information you can acquire by simply digging a little deeper into first-party info.
Intent data is an intention, not an action. And marketing is about people doing things, not meaning to do things.