The Big Shift: How the Economy, AI, and Privacy are Changing Everything We Know About Marketing

Marketing leaders are facing an unprecedented time with unprecedented demands: we sat down with marketing leaders who bring decades of experience and a refreshingly long lens to the current moment.
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Marketing leaders are facing an unprecedented time with unprecedented demands: Wring every drop of value from generative AI. Navigate ever-changing email privacy regulations. Deal with the loss of third-party cookies. And reassure your CEO and board that your tech stack and team deserve to ride out this wave of economic uncertainty. 

So during this season of massive change, we sat down with marketing leaders who bring decades of experience and a refreshingly long lens to the current moment, including: 

  • Wendy White, CMO at health and wellness SaaS platform Daxko, 30+ years in enterprise B2B marketing
  • Clark Newby, strategic marketing advisor, 30+ years in B2B SaaS marketing
  • Angelique Schena, Director of Marketing at Sentinel Group, 12+ years in financial services marketing
  • Jeff Day, SVP of Marketing right here at Act-On, 15+ years in SaaS marketing

We asked our experts to share their top priorities, challenges, and predictions about what’s happening right now in marketing. While these leaders come from different industries, company sizes, and backgrounds, a few common themes emerged. 

So let’s dive in — here’s what’s top-of-mind for these marketing leaders, along with some sage advice for their peers.

Marketing — in this economy?

The current economic headwinds are the undeniable undercurrent driving marketing leaders’ decision-making in 2024. Organizations of all shapes and sizes are slashing headcounts and freezing budgets. This is primarily due to big-picture economic factors like inflation and high interest rates, which make borrowing and securing capital difficult. 

For marketers across virtually all industries, but especially those working in SaaS, this cut-mode mentality has led to fewer in-market buyers. 

Much of the technology sector experienced a relative boom in the first few years of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the sudden shift to remote work drove increased investment in tech, but that time is over. “2023 was a massive wake-up call for everybody,” says Wendy. “If you work at any kind of PE or VC-backed firm, or a public firm, everybody’s feeling the same thing: boards are suddenly caring a lot more about efficiency metrics, revenue per employee, and spend metrics.”

As organizations tighten budgets and headcount, marketers tend to experience those downstream impacts as longer sales cycles and lower conversion rates. 

Traditionally, sales reps can assign a higher percentage to the likelihood of a deal closing as they confirm the prospect has the budget, identify decision-makers, and move further along the buying journey. But in today’s buying market, those structures are being pressure-tested.

“I’m seeing deals fall out all the way at the bottom of the funnel — well after you think you have a confirmed commitment,” says Clark. ”Champions are still getting laid off. Budgets are continuously re-evaluated. A deal isn’t done until it’s done, and nailing down an accurate sales forecast is tougher than ever.”
-Clark Newby
Strategic marketing advisor and Principal JCN Advisory

Clark describes prospects’ mindset as “‘FOFU mode’ — fear of ‘effing’ up.”  Even if they see the value and know how they can use your product, they’re postponing making a decision due to this overriding economic uncertainty.

Sadly, macroeconomics are beyond our control. But when your prospects are moving more slowly throughout their buying journey, our marketing leaders advise their peers to prioritize full-funnel engagement. 

“We care a lot about the quality and close rate of our different channels,” says Wendy. “We’re constantly looking at performance all the way through the funnel, not just what gets us volume at the front end.”

Clark believes that since prospects’ interest in purchasing is highly skewed by macroeconomics, the traditional marketing model of engaging buyers based on their level of interest — as determined by behaviors like clicks, downloads, and webinar attendance — needs to shift. 

“When customer intent is tamped down overall, and is not as reliable in general, you need to think more broadly about what your funnel looks like end to end, where you think you are, and how you’re engaging with future prospects across your channels,” says Clark. “Your instruments may not properly pick up your prospects when they’re out of market. And by the time they’re in-market, your chance to communicate with them is largely over.” 

Attribution in the age of privacy

The digital marketing community has been obsessing over increasing privacy regulations and the deprecation of third-party cookies — and our experts are no exception. But generally, they’re focused more on the silver linings of these changes than the end-of-the-world warnings. 

Wendy and her team at Daxko had to navigate a complex landscape with multiple brands and email domains, but ultimately felt prepared when stricter email sender requirements at Google and Yahoo took effect in February. And these days, Wendy tracks their sender score and domain health score as routine metrics— which wasn’t a habit a year ago. “It’s just incremental awareness of making sure that the plumbing is working the way it should, so that your campaigns can be successful. Protecting your email domain health is super critical.”

Following best practices are the key to navigating these changes successfully, according to Jeff. “We don’t spam. We take pains to make sure our database is clean. If people opt out, we respect that. These new requirements have been a non-issue for us and for most of our Act-On customers as well. There’s a lot of people out there selling doom and gloom, but if you follow good practices, this isn’t an issue.”

In addition to dialing in on email deliverability best practices — like implementing authentication standards, optimizing for mobile, and promptly complying with unsubscribe requests — marketing leaders need to pay close attention to the reliability of common email metrics. Thanks to the proliferation of security-enhancing bots, which organizations use to open emails and check links for security purposes, our leaders report seeing artificially inflated open and click rates. 

“Historically, Sentinel has put a lot of weight on our behavior scores to define an MQL and how we hand off leads to our sales development reps,” says Angelique. “But within the last few years, we’ve had more questions around that activity — like email crawlers who are opening and clicking every element of an email, and then the next thing you know, that person is an MQL. But when you dive into their activity, they’re really not.”

Both Jeff and Angelique are responding by shifting focus to downstream activities, like click outcomes and engagement rates on those pages — which happen to be far more informative about buyer intent. 

“We’ve seen over the last couple of years that click rates and open rates have gone through the roof,” says Jeff. “Sometimes we get 90%+ open rates, which we know isn’t right. It’s pushed us to look at higher quality measures than these early indicator metrics. Marketers love their data, but we need to recognize what’s a real sign of actual interest and engagement.”

At Sentinel, Angelique and her team are using this shift as an opportunity to re-evaluate the weight of certain behaviors and put more stock in meaningful, hard-to-fake activities like webinar attendance.

This evolution reflects a deeper change in how Angelique evaluates her own success as a marketing leader. “For a long time, my personal goal was to generate a certain number of net-new MQLs. And I’m succeeding — but honestly, how many of these are converting? When we go deeper and really identify the ways that people are making their buying decisions — instead of only looking at email — you see things in a different way.”

For Clark, this kind of shift in perspective is welcome — and overdue. “It’s kind of ridiculous that we’re still doing everything the same way 15 years later. These changes are nudging us into a more effective, genuine, interactive, value-driven relationship with our prospects.”

AI needs to drive efficiency, not headlines

According to a study from PwC, 81% of CMOs say they expect to use GenAI to support new business models in their function in the next 12-18 months. Our marketing leaders are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of AI being adopted across the organization. 

Jeff notes that while deep and meaningful adoption of AI tools are lagging behind the hype cycle, there’s untapped value available to leaders who can leverage them properly. “One of the trends we’ll see going through 2024 is that marketing teams are going to figure out how to make more use of AI, and get comfortable with it.”

Wendy agrees with Jeff’s prediction, and believes CMOs will be under increasing pressure to use AI in order to drive efficiency — in other words, to accomplish our aforementioned goal of doing more with less. 

“I remember the year when ‘the cloud’ became the theme for the boards,” says Wendy. “This year’s theme for the boards is going to be AI and efficiency. They’re going to want to know, ‘Why aren’t you using AI to go faster or better? How are you driving high performance and high ROI work out of marketing?’ It’s just going to happen. If you’re not ready as a CMO, you’d better get ready.”

For example, Daxko uses AI tools to summarize release notes from integrated products or partners, share them in Slack, and notify relevant team members when there’s been an update. Previously, that was a manual task — but now, AI has taken it off somebody’s plate. And while the marketing team uses genAI tools to support content creation, they’re taking a lean approach with free or low-cost tools. “We’re doing some interesting work around using a plethora of tools versus a big heavy investment,” says Wendy. “You don’t need to buy an expensive tool in order to drive value.”

While our team here at Act-On uses generative AI tools to supplement research and ideation, Jeff has also found tremendous value by using AI in our own marketing analytics

“Implementing AI into our analytics, including natural language processing, has changed everything for me as a VP,” says Jeff. “Now I can just ask questions like, ‘Show me the email performance for this campaign’. It’s super easy for me to go in, tweak the analysis, and gather insights — that I’d otherwise have to be spelunking around in our various software packages.”

Given the many possible applications of AI for the marketing org, Wendy is contemplating creating an AI Ops role to help organizational leaders figure out when and how to leverage AI tools, and stay on top of the quickly changing landscape. 

“It’s very hard for teams who are running the day-to-day work to step back and re-engineer a process,” she says. “Either they’re ingrained in what they’re doing, or it’s threatening to their jobs. So you need people who are taking a step back and looking at, ‘How could we do this process better with AI?’.” 
-Wendy White
CMO at Daxko

Customer retention takes center stage

Customer retention often plays second fiddle to acquisition. But given the likelihood of fewer in-market leads and longer sales cycles, our leaders say customer retention has never been more important. And marketers are stepping up to the plate —  marketing is now involved in the ownership of CX at ~84% of organizations.

“In terms of business planning and corporate strategy, retention continues to be extremely important,” says Clark, describing how venture capital and private equity groups are paying more attention to retention metrics. “Instead of focusing solely on annual recurring revenue (ARR), they’re looking at net revenue retention (NRR).”

At Sentinel, Angelique’s team has been actively restructured to increase their role in retention. Instead of reporting up through the sales org, the marketing team now directly reports to the CEO. “We still work very closely with sales,” Angelique says, “but this will help ensure we’re supporting our existing client base from a marketing standpoint the same way that we supported sales and getting new business. We want to make sure that our clients have a consistent experience across the board.” 

Jeff describes how our team at Act-On focuses on retention by making sure our customers are getting the most value out of our product. “When we deliver on that, we’re confident that we will retain those customers.”

“I think the big picture thing is to make sure you aren’t on that cut list,” says Clark. “Make sure you’re delivering value to your customers — and they know it. You need to understand what’s going with them now, where they’re headed, and be a great partner for them.” 

Next-level personalization

Creating positive experiences to add value and retain customers goes hand-in-hand with personalization. And our marketing leaders agree that scaling audience segmentation and delivering tailored messaging is essential to achieving their goals. 

“The biggest challenge across the years has been, ‘How do you rise above the noise?” says Jeff. “There is so much noise across so many systems — LinkedIn messages, email, ads, calls from BDRs. Lots of smart marketers and motivated companies are creating a lot of noise. Personalizing messages to title-level or industry will help make sure you’re engaging your target audience with messages that resonate.”

As Angelique and her team ramp up their involvement with client experience, they’re looking to more advanced personalization techniques as a way to improve their educational content. Often, they lean on internal roles in finance and HR to help develop real-time insights into what their buyer personas care most about at the current moment. 

“We use dynamic content to speak to different industries and job titles within our emails,” says Angelique. “Everyone wants to feel special, and that means going beyond referencing a first name or company name.” 
-Angelique Schena
Direcotr of Marketing at Sentinel Group

At Daxko, Wendy’s team is using AI to scale up their personalization efforts to the role or persona level. For example, they can feed a customer notification email through ChatGPT, prompt it to personalize the content for multiple personas, and ask it to segment a list of customers. “That’s a simple personalization that we probably wouldn’t have spent time on before, but we can do much faster now.”

As the possibilities of AI-powered personalization increase, Jeff advises marketing leaders to start planning their strategy now — including how to gather and share critical data. “What data are you going to need to accurately drive AI to understand your customer and the business context? If you’re not collecting that information, AI can’t do its job.” 

Be ready for what’s ahead

Clark has a final piece of advice for marketers navigating all of these challenges and opportunities: be ready when the market shifts.

“None of these challenges really change that much until the economic crystal ball clears up,” says Clark. “When’s the Fed going to move, or not? Will interest rates continue to fall? That’s what changes access to debt for growth companies and changes the signals that multinational companies read to crank things up. Those factors are what add up to an increased investment. And you can’t do much about that — so what you have to be is ready. Sniff out the opportunities and be ready when the tide turns.”

If your current approach to personalization, retention, or leveraging AI leaves you feeling unprepared, there’s still time to make fundamental — yet economical — changes to your tech stack. Learn more in our guide to switching your marketing automation provider

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