Jewel Marketing
Taiwan Content Marketing

Demand-Gen Is A Problem Child, But It's Ours

By Jason Patterson

Founder of Jewel Content Marketing Agency
B2B marketing is replete with problematic terms that could mean anything, like brand marketing and growth marketing. But demand generation (demand-gen) is the biggest problem child of them all. Not because it can mean anything, but because it does mean anything.

Even Marketing Concepts Have Origin Stories These Days

I remember B2B demand generation being a hot topic about 10 years ago, and it was pitched as a way to create future customers by planting a seed of desire in a prospect's mind mind so that in a year or few years that desire could be harvested as a purchase.

It was a pure and beautiful B2B marketing notion. Growing addressable markets like they were cornfields. Such things were easy to believe back then, when LinkedIn influencers and organic social seemed like the future, and we all thought we were going to become media companies. But that version of demand-gen proved too naive for this world, and it faceplanted with a resounding thud on a shifting digital landscape that favored advertising over nurturing.

But demand-gen refused to exit the marketing scene. It was bloodied and bruised but not defeated. People still cared for it and they nursed it back to health. But those people had agendas (everyone does), so demand-gen became a child of a million mothers and fathers. And like all children, it's been showing a different face to each of its parents.

Don't believe me? Check out these demand-gen definition examples:

"Demand generation is a marketing strategy that includes any activity that drives awareness and interest in your product or service." --

"Demand gen is focused on increasing your brand awareness while lead gen aims at converting brand-aware prospects into customers." --

"Demand generation encompasses all activities that help attract, engage, & convert likely customers." --

What can we learn by "taking the average" of these quoted definitions? Nothing. Such huge variance is useless. If you ask the Internet what demand-gen strategy is, it'll give you nearly every possible answer. But the good news is that there seems to be two dominant camps, at least in terms of who's making noise on B2B channels like LinkedIn.

Camp #1: "We Love TOFU"

This camp believes demand-gen tactics are everything lead-gen isn't. In other words, the top stages (TOFU) of the content marketing funnel (i.e., awareness and consideration) are demand-gen, with lead-gen under them. And as a corollary, lead-gen is often considered ineffective when prospects haven't been sufficiently buttered up first (i.e., they're not demanding your product yet).

Camp #2: "We Love Pie"

This camp views demand-gen strategies as grow-the-pie efforts where you try to increase the value and/or the volume of your total addressable market through TOFU content, creating demand where there was none before through various methods (discussed more here). And as a corollary, some TOFU content is demand-gen, and some TOFU content is not.

Both Demand-Gen Camps Are Right

The TOFU camp is right to worry about lead-gen techniques, which are utilized too readily and too rapidly in many instances, but not all TOFU content is demand-gen. It can be for certain brands, namely brands that are first to a market with something (making this an easy trap to fall into when you work in tech), but not all brands.

The pie camp is right about demand-gen's definition. Demand-gen is a grow-the-pie tactic, and if it wasn't it would have no reason to exist (because it would just be marketing). They're also right in that it's some (but not all) TOFU and not lead-gen, because demand-gen tactics work either by planting a seed to harvest later (i.e., the first definition I told you earlier), or by reaching out to someone who doesn't previously know you. In other words, you don't harvest at the same time you plant the seed, and you don't ask for a phone number during the first handshake.

But Demand-Gen Marketing Has Some Fine Print

However, the pie camp's definition of demand-gen has a big issue, because I can't read minds and neither can you. The term "demand-gen" implies the reader either has no demand or less demand before reading your content, and that they'll have demand or more demand after reading. But how can I know that?

Even if you run a demand-gen campaign with a link and it gets clicked, or if relevant search traffic goes up promptly after you run a piece of demand-gen content, that doesn't really prove demand has been generated. It only proves that somebody read the content, but maybe the demand was already there.

And if a reader finishes a piece of content and then vanishes from my sight, I don't know what I've accomplished. Maybe I failed. Or maybe the reader simply told their supervisor about what a wonderful thing I'm selling, and the supervisor took it from there.

Granted, in a case like this, I can infer a causal relationship, but not in any way that would stand up in court. And what's more, assuming someone does read a piece of demand-gen content, and that person eventually contacts you, leading your brand to becoming one of the final three vendors, that still doesn't necessarily mean that demand-gen piece created demand for your product. Because maybe you made the list just because they needed a third vendor and it happened to be you.

Other marketing terms, like awareness and consideration, don't have these problems. Just because someone reads a piece of awareness content doesn't mean they weren't previously aware of the problem. They might be reading it because they're hoping the content offers some new insights or perspective. And if someone reads an awareness or consideration piece from top to bottom, as a marketer, I can reasonably assume that the job is done, that awareness or consideration have been created, even if it ultimately doesn't lead anywhere.

Awareness is awareness, regardless of what the reader does later. It's an inherent property of the content. And it's the same with consideration. But demand-gen isn't like that. Demand-gen implies a certain mental state has been created in the reader after reading the content, and we certainly can't determine that. Not now and perhaps not ever.

Can This Problem Child Be Saved?

Yes, because the work that demand-gen's many custodians do is worth doing, and because I believe we must learn to take more marketing on faith. Marketing is not an exact science. Demand-gen is full of assumptions, but so is marketing. Demand-gen can't be directly observed, just like a brand's value can't be directly observed. Both still matter.

And focusing only on what is observable can lead to errant conclusions. For instance, the single mobile ad that a prospect clicks does not reveal the cumulative effects of the 17 previous TV, billboard and digital ads they saw before finally clicking on that eighteenth mobile ad. So we must be willing to look beyond what our eyes see.

But being a good parent is hard, and so we must be more rigorous in our thinking about demand-gen. We must give it tough love. We must not let it simply tell us what we want to hear. We must insist on clarity when dealing with it, or when someone else deals with it. And we must be willing to engage other marketers in a vigorous yet civilized fashion when there are differences in viewpoints so that we can clarify misunderstandings and find common ground. Only then can demand-gen grow up to be the well-adjusted pillar of the marketing community it should be.

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