Beyond the Hype: Demystifying AI and Machine Learning in B2B Tech Marketing and how we as marketers can use it to develop our brand in new sectors.

David Turner

This week, we’re joined by David Turner, Chief Marketing Officer at IRIS Software Group, who has over 30 years of managerial marketing experience and has recently been voted as one of the top 100 global B2B CMOS.

Victoria: Welcome to this week’s boss to boss interview. In our interviews we feature remarkable people doing imaginative things in often unimaginative markets, usually in the world of B2B. This week, we’re joined by David Turner, Chief Marketing Officer at IRIS Software Group, who has over 30 years of managerial marketing experience and has recently been voted as one of the top 100 global B2B CMOS. David, thank you so much for joining me today.

Victoria: You mentioned a few months ago on LinkedIn that one of the biggest challenges faced by accountancy firms at the moment is technology disruption. I think it’s fair to say that technology disruption is affecting all aspects of professional services and B2B tech firms in 2023 with one of the biggest trends in B2B marketing this year being MarTech. How can B2B technology firms stay ahead of the curve in terms of MarTech innovation and technological disruptions and what strategies can be implemented to foster a culture of continuous learning and adaptation within the marketing department?

David: Yeah, interesting. So I think first of all, maybe MarTec has been, if not the biggest trend, and it’s had a massive impact on B2B marketing, and marketing in general. So, you know, it’s nothing new. But I think like everywhere the face of disruption, the face of change is accelerating. I think it’s a positive thing that has given us massive opportunities. And I know we’re going to go on and talk about AI. I think even the basics around marketing technology – MarTech – has been impacting us for years, and accelerating. I think, first of all, what I would say is that it’s easy to get excited by all the glitz and glamour and the cool and exciting things that are out there. But we need to focus on the basics. When I came into the current role, I’ve often found the basic foundation assistance is not what it could be. You know, often there’s multiple systems, for a company like IRIS, we acquire a lot of companies. We literally have one of every CRM and one of every kind of multi-automation platform in the business. But you know, even before I came, they were trying to focus it down onto one core platform. And that’s absolutely the right strategy. So before you start getting excited by the glamorous side of new and innovative tools, make sure you’ve got a foundation to build on, a marketing automation system, CRM database, a web content management system. Make sure you’re standardising those, and ideally, that they’re all integrated. However, it’s not an insignificant kind of challenge. So, you shouldn’t overlook that. 

But I think when you’ve got that in place, then it’s not just about technology, when you’ve then got that right, process flows on top of that. You’ve got clear guidelines for your marketing teams in place, then you’ve got the foundation to build on. And all of that that I just talked about, is really unsexy. It’s really boring, especially with marketers who want to get in there and be creative and exciting, they get distracted by the latest shiny gadget and the shiny tools. If they haven’t got those basics, then they’ll have problems. They’ll struggle to run a campaign, capture the leads, capture the right data, flow that through into their automation system, into their CRM and then on to the sales team, or take the customer on the right journey. Then all the creative stuff you do on top of that is wasted and all the exciting tools, the new technology can be wasted as well. 

Once you’ve got the foundations, you can go out and start looking at what new capabilities are on the market. And I think when you’re looking at new technology, then the challenge is to not get distracted by all the shiny stuff. So for example, at IRIS, we have a challenge that we serve three very different markets. We sell to accountants, we sell to people who run schools, and we sell to HR and payroll professionals. And so we have this real challenge at a very basic level, people come to our website, they see accountancy firms as a teacher, that turns them off. Or, they see something about payroll, but they’re actually interested in education. And so how do we present information the right way? So that was our problem that we set out to solve, I’d been trying to think about how to solve that. And we tried all sorts of things, clever stuff in layout and presenting data and whatever. But obviously, what would be brilliant is if we knew who they were, we could present them with the right data. So, if you’re looking at web personalization tools, for example, which actually are able to identify that they’re coming from an educational establishment, or they’re coming from an accountancy firm, it’s very clever. And that means we can just give them a website and it looks as if it’s all there for education. So that technology now is getting really advanced and is able to do some great stuff, but it’s solving a very genuine problem that we have and have had faced for many years. So I think, lesson number two is to be really clear about what the problems we’re trying to solve are, rather than getting carried away with the exciting capabilities that we don’t really need.

Victoria: That’s a really good example of using this advancement in MarTech in your favour, rather than – as you said – getting carried away with every new system that’s coming out each month. And half of the stuff you don’t even need, you’re just getting carried away with what it can do and the capabilities of it, whereas you’re actually sort of taking a step back and identifying the problem and thinking “what can we use to solve this” as opposed to just taking 20 steps forward and using things and spending money on things that you really don’t need.

Victoria: That leads me on to my next question. Arguably one of the biggest topics up for discussion at the moment is the development of AI and machine learning, with one of the biggest concerns of a lot of individuals being job security due to the rise of AI. What impact do you foresee on the traditional roles and responsibilities within the marketing team due to the utilisation of AI in a B2B tech world?

David: I think it will have an impact on all of our roles. I don’t think that necessarily means it will replace them. I think there are always two ways of looking at Tech. We see this when we’re selling tech to our customers, are you selling tech so that they can fire people and replace them with automated systems? Or are you empowering them to do better? The same goes internally as well. And I guess it might be that you could reduce some jobs, saving some money there as well. I think one of the one areas potentially that is clearly very hot at the moment, and has potential to have an impact is around generative AI. Every month, we’ve been looking at AI, thinking how can we use that to help us create content? So, I don’t see it as a way of reducing the number of heads because, I think we’re already as lean as we could be. What I do see is the ability to actually meet some of the demand that we’re really struggling to meet. I can see both our writers but also some of our other marketers who are not specialist writers, being able to use generative AI as a way of filling the paper, so you’re not starting with a blank sheet. Or, thinking “okay, I want to write a blog post on x”, let’s put that into chatGPT, which will then give you an outline of say, 500 words to start with or it might give you the bullet points to focus on.

Then, we still need somebody to apply a bit of common sense, to check it against what we know internally and add creativity. And also to be honest, you need to give a bit of that kind of magic sauce, the IRIS spin on it. We need readers to tune in and think “Well, this is actually IRIS, and IRIS has this sort of angle on it”. But what it allows us to do is to think about that, and not necessarily think about, “how do I start filling the blank sheet of paper”, and instead to accelerate getting to a good piece of content, and therefore I think it can increase the volume of content we put out. And that’s brilliant, because we need more volume. We’ve got blogs, podcasts and things that we’re going to put onto our content. And so we’ve got whole areas of content marketing, with really unique and interesting content. And I think we can help it accelerate by using generative AI. I think that will have an impact on the way that writers and marketers think about content and work definitely.

I think another area it could impact is around gathering and analysing data. And that’s always been, to be honest, a massive overhead for most marketers. They always struggle with getting enough data and to format it and get in the right time, in the right locations, and all of that. And we can use AI to do that, to analyse it. And analysing data is also something that often marketers try to work on, AI will help them do that quicker. That will hopefully help them to find trends and find information from data that they would not have got otherwise. So that’s really exciting.

Will that mean you don’t need as many marketing analysts? Maybe, but to be honest, we don’t have enough marketing analysts anyway, a lot of teams do struggle to get those sort of skills in. In terms of writing content, a lot of marketers struggle with the investment in time and effort to produce personalised content. Because as soon as you start splitting your audience down into subgroups, every time you do another group, that’s another series of 6 to 10 messages that you’ve got to create. And so suddenly, that multiplies massively. And typically what happens is you end up not really personalising stuff, because it’s just too much to maintain. So I can see AI could be fantastic in this area. You could split your accounts in the database into maybe six different groups, and give them six different messages. And keep directing really personalised messages and narrowing down on to smaller, smaller groups. We know that the more personalised the message, the more powerful and effective it is.

So I think that’s definitely an area that AI could help us, in ABM Account Based Marketing. Without AI, you typically end up only focusing on the largest opportunities from a small enough group that you can focus on. But if you use AI for your ABM strategy, you can do it at a much larger scale. So overall, it could lead to fewer jobs. But certainly most marketing teams are massively understaffed anyway, you know, I think it’s gonna be more about just giving them the capacity to achieve more.

Victoria: Yes, just helping out the people that are currently in those roles. It’s definitely been one of the hottest topics I think in every industry in the last six months or so, the introduction of ChatGPT just took the whole world by storm. I think everyone’s main concern is obviously their jobs, but when you start looking into it – as you’ve obviously done – and looking at the different ways that it can help and it’s definitely more of a help than it is a hindrance and hopefully for the future it will remain that way. Obviously as marketers we have to accept that AI and machine learning is here to stay, at least for now. In a previous episode, we discussed with another guest how we can use AI to augment human creativity. In your opinion, what are the key factors that contribute to successful implementation and adoption of AI and machine learning technologies in B2B tech firms and what are some common pitfalls to avoid?

David: At IRIS, we actually have an internal “AI boffin”. He’s been working around the sales process and looking at how we can use AI to analyse things like, what are the successes? What are the behaviours of successful sales? And using AI to map out the things that you need to do, then we use that to feed back into the sales process to actually improve the sales process. But I think in terms of the key factors to being successful, I think it’s about understanding what we can and can’t do. And also, start off with, what are your challenges? What are your problems? What do you want to solve? Again, don’t get carried away with shiny, exciting things, but think about what those problems are, whether it’s creating luxury campaigns and keeping them up to date, being able to personalise to the level you’d like to, these have always been huge challenges for marketers. So that’s an obvious problem we could start with, you need to be really clear about what you’re trying to address. And then again, set some expectations, what’s the measure of success? What’s the value you’re hoping you can deliver? Understand what it is you need to be successful and what you need the AI to do. And then, use some expertise, because you need to bring in someone who really understands this stuff, whether it’s an external expert or internal. Which is a little bit difficult at the moment as this is all new. And so you’ve got to be really careful that your self proclaimed experts are bringing in really. It’s also important to remember that AI may not be the solution to all your problems.

I think the other thing that’s definitely unique is data. I think you’ve got to be able to identify the data you’re going to be feeding into the AI, make sure it’s validated, make sure it’s up to date. You know, chatGPT, the free version at least, only runs up until 2021, or something. The danger is you’ve got to be aware of what the limitations are you’re working with. So therefore don’t ask him to talk about the most important things that have happened in the last six months, if the data only runs up to halfway through 2021. You need to be really aware of the data being fed into it.

Before I was at IRIS, actually, I was at an AI firm, we were using AI to do things like cash collections. It was absolutely all about the data. They had a huge amount of data gathered over 20 years, which they were able to feed into AI, which meant they had the most powerful AI solution for cash collection, and the most data that anyone had in the world. There was then a lot of new systems that were just starting out, the data they had was only four or six months old and therefore you’re comparing a toddler to a teenager. So it really brings home that data is actually the fuel for AI.

Victoria: I think AI is one of these things that almost needs a ‘proceed with caution’ label on it. Everyone hears the news stories, thinks it’s amazing and dives in headfirst without thinking about all the things that you’ve just mentioned. And I think that’s probably why, whilst a lot of people’s initial thoughts are “I’m going to lose my job because this machine can now do it for me”, it doesn’t quite reflect the fact that while a machine can do it, it still needs observation and it still needs people sort of questioning some of the things. And like you said, the data is not going to be up to date right up to the last second, at least not at the moment. So I agree, it’s definitely here to stay for now and I don’t see too many people having lost their jobs as a result, at the moment.

Victoria: In the years that you’ve been with IRIS you’ve played an integral role in the branding of key sectors such as education. You mentioned on LinkedIn that before joining IRIS, they didn’t really have a brand name in the education sector. Fast forward two years and the firm has won the ‘Education Company of the Year’ at the global awards. It’s quite a feat to be able to build a brand in that sector and to be winning awards and accolades after just a couple of years, it’s safe to say your approach to branding and rebranding is hugely successful. What advice would you give to marketers in B2B tech firms that want to build their brand in an entirely new market?

David: Yeah, that was very exciting. Before I joined, IRIS didn’t have a name in the education sector, what was known were some of the brands we bought. So things like parentmail, which is a parent engagement solution, and lots of parents know very well. And there were other brands too. And so we were better known by the brands we bought than the overall brand. So we set out to create this overarching brand, and I’ve done a lot of branding exercises in the past. I think the basics are pretty basic, which is if you’re entering a new sector or a new market, it’s about understanding the customer needs and the drivers. What drives their buying decision. What are the dynamics in the market? What are the challenges that those customers face? And understanding the position of the competitors, understanding that competitive landscape so that you really understand that sector and then of course, you’ve got the opportunity to build your brand and your position in that market.

Then, you can get some very clear messages that hopefully address those problems, those needs that customers are expressing and maybe not being met by competitors. That’s a really fundamental, textbook kind of exercise that you need to do.

So you know, what was IRIS’s brand story in the education market? We are all about helping drive and support individual people in terms of their achievement, supporting diversity, supporting people in achieving and being the best that they can, whatever they are, whether they’re in business, whether it’s education, whether in any role of life. And so in the education market, we are all about ensuring that we maximise the opportunities to people. And therefore all of our solutions are about helping them through that. So in creating a single, overarching education solution, we’ve been able to put on top of that, a management information system that actually takes all of the data gathered, and then can be used to maximise pupil outcomes. So to focus on why certain groups of people are struggling and identify as problems, helps teachers to identify strategies to address them. So we created that kind of brand story, that’s the reason we’re doing what we’re doing, that explains why we bought this technology and integrated it and the power of the data that delivers, and therefore that gives a reason for why IRIS, and then, you got your brand story. And that’s much more powerful than just saying, “buy IRIS because we’re in the education market”.

So, being really clear about that purpose, that story, and the solutions to the problems that you solve is absolutely critical. And then, in doing that, you’re delivering success stories, talking about how people have achieved things, contrasting what you’re doing to your competition, and in subtle ways, that make it very clear why you’re different from them. Another thing, it’s important is about creating community. In the accountancy market, we’ve created accountants, clubs, where we’re trying to create communities. So we have a community of users who know us and trust us, and in education we’re trying to have a similar thing, we’re bringing together school administrators and the people responsible for running schools, giving them a creative community around how they can use data better and how they can ensure better outcomes for people using technology. And so that community aspect is really important in marketing to a new sector that you’re building in, and that’s a really strong way of not just raising your brand awareness but really is embedding yourself in the sector.

Victoria: Yes, there’s certainly been a shift since the pandemic to a focus of brand purpose and brand story. And I think it’s something that’s really helping marketers at the moment. It’s clearly successful, this emphasis on brand story / brand purpose and it’s nice to see the B2B industry also going that way, as it’s something that previously would be focused solely in a B2C world. Like you said, it’s that idea of creating that community and sense of humanity to these previously very professional and traditional industries.

Victoria: Amazing. David, thank you so much for your time and expertise. I think it’s been really insightful to get your opinions on AI and automation in the B2B marketing world. I hope all the readers have found it as interesting as I have.

David: Excellent, thank you. I really enjoyed it.