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Lay of the Brand Podcast

2024 B2B AI Survey Report: How to Reach AI Buyers Now
Lay of the Brand Episode 30 2024 AI Survey Report

A just-released Merritt Group report shows that over 90% of professionals surveyed say their organizations will use AI more frequently this year than last year. But AI providers need to learn what their target audiences really think about AI, both good and bad, who’s making the buying decisions, and the best ways to reach them. 

Our study actually revealed that IT departments hold a lot of influence — close to 70% of respondents identified IT as the primary decision maker and purchaser of AI tools, compared to only 24.5% of individual lines of business.

— Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group

For this report, Merritt Group commissioned market research firm We are Talker to survey 200 professionals from multiple industries. To share the results and how they can help AI providers reach their audiences, we’re joined by Merritt Group partner, Shahed Ahmed, and Kelly Finneran, director of Merritt Group’s Connectivity and AI practice groups.  

Download the full MG Labs report here. And check out the MG blog for more AI insights, tips, and recommendations.

About our guests: Shahed Ahmed is Executive Vice President and Senior Partner at Merritt Group. He has a special interest in all things AI, and leads MG Labs, which tests AI tools for marketing and PR under real-world conditions to help clients understand how to get the greatest value from them. Kelly Finneran is a Merritt Group Director supporting the Connectivity and Artificial Intelligence groups. Her knowledge of emerging and evolving technologies helps B2B tech companies reach and build meaningful relationships with their audiences.

Episode transcript (edited for clarity):

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Welcome to Lay of the Brand, where we talk with the experts on tech marketing, creative, and PR to learn what’s new, what’s working, and what’s next. I’m Peter Jacobs with Merritt Group. 

Generative AI is, well, everywhere. In fact, a just-released Merritt Group report shows that over 90% of professionals surveyed say their organizations will use AI more frequently this year than last year. That’s good news for companies that deliver AI-based products and services. But to break through in an increasingly crowded market, AI providers need to learn what their target audiences really think about AI, both good and bad, plus who’s making the buying decisions, and the best ways to reach them.

For this report, Merritt Group commissioned market research firm, We Are Talker, to survey 200 professionals from multiple industries. To share the results and how they can help AI providers reach their audiences, we’re joined by Merritt Group partner, Shahed Ahmed, and Kelly Finneran, Director of Merritt Group’s Connectivity and AI practice groups. Welcome both of you to Lay of the Brand.

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Thanks for having us, Peter.

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Shahed, before we get to the results, what did you see in the market that said there’s a need for this research?

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: I was actually at my parent’s place a week ago and sitting and talking to my dad. He’s 74 years old and retired for a few years, so he only paid attention to the things that he wants to pay attention to and the things that he really gets passionate about. He spent the majority of that visit and the next visit, and I’m sure future ones, talking about generative AI. We talked about all the things everyone else talks about, like AI safety and instead of innovation, the need for lots and lots of energy, and so on.

My dad and I aren’t alone, to your point, of course. Generally, there’s this widespread curiosity and concern about AI. So, we can see this survey and at the time, there weren’t many surveys out in the market, and a few of them are starting to come out, to collect and share real-world insights for ourselves and our clients to better understand how AI products and services are being researched, bought and used. With the launch of the survey, we hope to kind of add to the compendium of growing data on buyers and buyer behavior for leadership teams and marketing leadership at these AI vendors.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: So let’s talk a little more about the value that you wanted this study to provide. What should people be able to do with this information?

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: We wanted to challenge the myths and provide a comprehensive guide to understanding AI adoption, buying insights, use cases, and the overall impact of AI. This report provides a lot of valuable, data-driven insights for anyone looking to invest in or implement generative AI.

Our primary goal was to show some trends around adoption. So, understanding how businesses are adopting AI and what motivates their decision making. And then buying insights — deciphering who the key decision makers are and how they approach purchasing AI tools. And use cases and impact, identifying where generative AI is providing the most value and the hurdles that businesses maybe face during implementation. 

Ultimately, we hope this data will bring buyers and sellers of AI closer together to align their strategic goals and unlock tangible value together.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Well let’s get right into it and talk about AI adoption. Kelly, what is the report telling us about what enterprises are thinking when it comes to using AI?

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: The common thread throughout the research study is that AI is here to stay. And with that, the perception among IT professionals is that AI is no longer viewed as a novelty or bad, but a fundamental tool that will be used to help with workforce productivity across industries for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the study shows to your point, Peter earlier that 90% of respondents have either made a recommendation or had decision-makers within their organization recommend that AI tools are integrated within many different workflows. We found this point about senior leaders embracing AI particularly interesting because it shows that they’re seeing the value that AI tools bring to an organization in a variety of different ways, from general workforce productivity as Shahed had mentioned, to brainstorming and ideation, to research, to ultimately things like project management.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Are they using AI operationally as well? 

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s definitely a key area where they’re ultimately using that, trying to eliminate or automate certain tasks that might be a bit more cumbersome, and being able to focus their efforts on things that can’t necessarily be automated, like strategic development and execution.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: And this has changed over the last year? With the introduction and the acceptance of tools like ChatGPT, I imagine it has.

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Exactly. The data shows that there’s ultimately been a significant uptick in year-over-year use of AI tools within the workplace. It was interesting to see how this slightly changed based on geographic location. And what I mean by that is respondents within the southeast region of the United States were nearly unanimous in their belief that their organization would increase its use of AI tools year over year.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: So it sounds like there’s a lot of confidence about using AI for fundamental business processes. You’d think there’d be some fear or trepidation about that, but it seems like everybody’s feeling very good about it.

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Exactly. In short, yes. And going back to my earlier point about the ROI that AI can bring to an organization: nearly three in four respondents said that their AI investments delivered greater value to their business. And for those that didn’t see the returns when using AI tools, the main setbacks that they shared included unmet expectations, issues related to poor data quality, as well as costs and resources that were ultimately needed for the integration.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Shahed, generative AI has of course gained tremendous traction over the past year, as Kelly has been telling us. How do companies plan to use AI going forward?

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: As Kelly just touched on, there are a few core areas that companies are looking at in terms of using generative AI. The first is data analysis and reporting. 41% say they rely on AI to handle and interpret large datasets, which is obviously a major area of how AI is currently being used. 

Beyond that, 34% use it for enhancing knowledge and uncovering new insights, research and discovery. 23% say they leverage AI to stimulate creativity and innovation, so they’re brainstorming and ideating using generative AI. And as Kelly mentioned, in the survey we found that 30% utilize AI to streamline workflow and increase productivity for management and project management.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: That’s an interesting assortment of use cases because it’s all over the board. You’ve got everything from helping to brainstorm to actually streamlining processes. With all this information. Was there anything surprising about the results?

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: Yeah, there were several surprising insights that emerged from the research. Particularly regarding the purchasing landscape and the perceived challenges around that. So, contrary to a lot of general expectations that individual lines of business are the primary decision makers when it comes to AI adoption. Our study actually revealed that IT departments hold a lot of influence. 

A significant 68.5%, so close to 70% of respondents identified IT as the primary decision maker and purchaser of AI tools, compared to only 24.5% of individual lines of business. This finding obviously challenges conventional perceptions and highlights a potential white space for vendors to reposition their messaging.

The other thing that we found is that buying cycles for AI tools is relatively protracted, with 43% of respondents reporting a typical duration of one to two years. This lengthy timeline underscores how meticulous organizations are when evaluating AI investments as a strategic priority, balancing immediate needs with concern throughout performance and security and privacy.

And the last thing we found is despite widespread excitement, not all AI investments are delivered as expected. About 28% of respondents have faced unique challenges using and adopting AI. Some of these are unmet expectations and poor data quality. This gap highlights the need for vendors to provide better education about the value of AI tools and align them with real, tangible goals.

As the excitement around AI continues, there’s a growing focus on responsible implementation transparency, and upscaling the workforce. These are all opportunities for vendors to address some of these challenges.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: I can imagine that once people start using them, they will find new uses for them. Now, we’ve seen that with other technologies. To your earlier point, Shahed, about the unmet expectations, well, it’s technology, so not every technology works out for the things that you expected it to. And it is incumbent on the vendors to actually try and set expectations more realistically, isn’t it?

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: It is, and actually one other thing to add there too, Peter, is it’s incumbent on the vendors to use these tools themselves within their organization, and with their partners and other parts of their ecosystem, not just selling it to their customers so that they are vetting the capabilities, the use cases, the challenges, the unmet opportunities themselves within their organization, in addition to being able to sell it externally for their customers.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Well a lot of that, of course, is educating the marketplace appropriately. You’ve got to find the right people to talk to, put together a message that actually makes sense to them and gets them to say “Hey, that may fit my need. I need to talk to you more about it.” But you have to know where they are as well. So, how are AI buyers and decision makers educating themselves on this technology?

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: The survey found that AI buying decision makers are turning to a lot of different channels to learn about AI. So, webinars and videos lead the way at 51% as the most popular sources of information, but other sources of information are not that far behind. 49% of respondents rely on vendor websites for in-depth product knowledge. 48% seek insights from direct networking, thought leadership, events, and conferences. 45% use social media platforms like LinkedIn for expert opinion and industry news. Another 45% said that they find value in targeted vendor communications and marketing materials. 42% said they trust recommendations from colleagues and industry peers.

So, what we found is, as I’ve said previously, buyers are hungry for information about AI. They’re consuming it wherever they can find it. These findings highlight the significant opportunity for vendors, to engage buyers through omnichannel content strategies. There is an emerging narrative around the need for credible, unbiased information due to the prevalence of all of this marketing hype and all the noise that’s out there.

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: Decision makers are increasingly wary of inflated claims and they’re prioritizing sources that offer practical guidance grounded in real-world applications. So that’s where vendors need to focus: authenticity, transparency, real use cases, real examples, eating their own dog food, as I said earlier, and then communicating omnichannel so they can reach their customers across multiple different channels and content strategies.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Kelly based on what you’ve learned from all this, what do AI providers need to be thinking about to grow market awareness and build relationships with these buyers and decision makers?

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: It’s a great question. So, I think, the main point is knowing their audience. So, as Shahed had talked about, we learned that the IT department tends to be the main purchaser of AI tools within a company and the majority of companies have a typical buying cycle of one to two years. So, I think those are kind of the two fundamental areas that we want to make sure that AI companies are able to have that insight so they’re able to get their brand awareness established and kind of within that timeframe that they can generate leads, but then also nurture, convert those leads into sales eventually.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: So knowing all this, what should AI providers be doing right now to connect with potential buyers in a way that makes sense to the market?

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: What buyers are looking for, and what AI providers and vendors need to be talking to buyers about is real-world case studies and examples showing the tangible impact of AI on your buyer’s businesses. Buyers want to know how to use these tools and tutorials, educational resources are important to clarify potential use cases and demonstrate practical applications.

Vendors should also look at comparisons, side by side comparisons to help buyers make informed purchasing decisions. So while the top of the funnel and thought leadership is obviously important, and having your brand out there and all this noise out in the world about AI is important, it’s also very very important for the mid-funnel to bring this to life for the buyer, so the vendors should focus on how their tools are valuable, how buyers can use it, exactly for what use cases, and what impact and ROI do they expect from it, and how does it all fit within all the various AI tools that are out there?

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: I think it also underscores the need for more education within the market and how they can educate through more unique ways, like case study creation.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Expand on that a little bit more, Kelly, because that’s a real practical, down-to-earth takeaway. AI providers are trying to figure out how to communicate with the market in a way that shows they get what real people in real organizations are dealing with.

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Prefacing this with the fact that, you know, I think even translating this both from a marketing and PR perspective, with news being one of the very common ways that IT decision makers and buyers are using that resource to ultimately educate themselves. So often, reporters want that case study to validate whatever technology they might be writing about.

And in a lot of ways, what that means is talking about what the challenges that a customer might have been faced with and how they ultimately use that technology to overcome that hurdle or roadblock that they were experiencing. Or if they had a goal and it’s maybe something that was more used from a proactive standpoint, ways that they were able to succeed. 

But ultimately, being able to tell that success story is going to provide that validation to a lot of other prospective customers that either may be a bit more reluctant to jump on the AI bandwagon or are really interested in, and to Shahed’s point, being able to have that side-by-side comparison. Being able to have you know, a tangible example, especially that might be more industry-specific, can provide a bit more context. So, the more specificity to that story, the better.

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: You’ve got all this noise and hype in the world around artificial intelligence and how do you break through that? As a late-stage startup or as maybe a public company that’s not Microsoft, Google, or Amazon, how do you break through it?

From my perspective, there are two main ways to do it. The first is to scream louder than everybody else. That’s hard to do. It takes a lot of resources and effort, and something that is so unique that people will stand up and take notice. We do help our clients sometimes come up with those unique points of view that people stand up and take notice.

The other way to do it is to get targeted. To talk to your customer that needs your solution, and not necessarily worry about the customer that ultimately is gonna buy somebody else’s solution anyway. So, finding that customer, engaging that customer in a deep conversation, like I said earlier, giving them all the resources they need to build out your niche audience and then grow from there. Both of those approaches are valid and we’ve used both of them for our clients. Depending on what the client’s goals and strategies are, those are the approaches to take.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: When it comes to a technology like AI that’s being hyped as if it can do anything and all you have to do is ask it a question and off it goes and all your problems are solved, you’ve got to make it practical for people and you can do that by trying to make it more person-to-person to solve their problem.

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: Yes, 100%. We have so many solutions out there. It’s hard to figure out what solution is right for your particular problem. That’s a huge role that vendors can play to help customers figure out “What does this solution do?” “Is this the right one for my problem?” And then have a conversation about how to use it, and implement it and get ROI and value out of it.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: I know from my own experience, I’ve tested a number of the content tools to see what they are able to do well, and it’s coming for everybody. At some point, AI is just going to be so fully integrated in every tool that you use that you may not even know there’s AI there and that makes it a little bit more complicated to understand how to market it, but it also provides an opportunity to expand on that comfort level and that familiarity.

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Well, I think also trying to, and I know that this phrase is commonly used but, sort of changing the narrative on the way that AI can serve as a tool as opposed to it taking over the work world as we know it. And I think that’s kind of the approach that I think a lot of companies sort of have an obligation to position their message in a lot of ways. Being able to explain how the AI tool can be a resource to us and not necessarily the other way around.

And I think the more that message is conveyed on a broader scale, especially by not just maybe one individual company, but many, it can ultimately help provide more buy-in amongst customers, and I think that would be the concern or fear that people have of using these tools and what the potential impact is of them, being able to use it for things to help them as opposed to potentially putting their jobs at risk.

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: We are very much in the start of this  hype cycle. And it’s obviously kind of a steep slope up right now, in terms of the hype. At some point, the customers and the buyers are going to start looking for real-world use cases. They’re going to be putting their investments into AI and they’re going to want real ROI.

So for companies to start building that narrative, AI vendors, building those narratives today, so they can be there when the customers are in that stage of their journey where they’re asking for more of a return on their investment. It’s important to think about that lifecycle for when you’re thinking about marketing the story that you want to tell.

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Going back to our conversation earlier about how AI usage is tracking in an upward direction, it’ll be important for marketers and PR professionals to start establishing that top of funnel awareness within their target market and reach these buyers where they are on a regular basis.

Our research shows that AI buyers are also spending anywhere between one to four hours of their workweek researching, reading, and experimenting with new AI work-related tools. So to put that into perspective, that means that they’re spending up to  10% of their work week trying to identify what are the best tools to integrate within their organization.

And as companies develop an integrated communication strategy to ultimately help drive awareness of and help differentiate themselves, they need to start thinking about ways to convey their message in a clear way, but also to Shahed’s point again, educate the public about AI and dispel some of those common misconceptions that we talked about earlier. And that’s where ultimately Merritt Group can come into the picture and serve as that partner to those companies. 

So, the growing demand for AI resulted in Merritt Group’s decision to ultimately launch an AI practice group this year. And we have a dedicated team that marries its expertise in marketing and public relations, which of course are our bread and butter, as well as AI and specific industry verticals to ultimately support B2B tech companies that specialize in this emerging technology.

And we’ve been working with AI providers for years, including Microsoft and RapidAI, and we’re excited to expand our work with other AI companies to make those impactful changes to the corporate world.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: The reality is it’s just not easy to do all this, to get the message developed, to come up with a campaign strategy and actually then go execute it in a way that resonates with the market. There’s a lot of time and planning. It’s a lot of work.

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Exactly. And I think especially for a lot of startups, you know, it’s a lean and mean team. So being able to take that omnichannel approach that we were talking about can sometimes be a challenge because it’s hard to do all of those things when maybe it’s one to two-person team that’s working in-house.

So, having an agency partner can provide that additional support, as well as strategic thought in terms of what are some of the overall business goals that you’ve had, and developing a cohesive communications plan and strategy that we can ultimately execute. So the company is successful in providing greater brand awareness and reaching any of those unique goals that they might have

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Shahed, from your perspective, it’s not just the vendors that need to understand the ins and outs and the value of AI tools and services, correct?

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: Yeah, we’ve always been big believers in agency partners need to be well versed in their clients markets, their buyers. have a good understanding of the client’s products and services that allows them to serve as an extension of their team.

So in this particular case, we’ve launched a solution called MG Labs, which we’re using to test AI tools and technologies that are out there in the market to understand their capabilities, what’s possible and what’s not possible to be able to communicate and tell those stories that our client need us to tell the market.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Well, there’s so much information in this report that obviously there hasn’t been time to cover all of it. All that detail is going to be invaluable to anyone trying to reach the marketplace with an AI based solution. So one last question: How can listeners get a copy of the report?

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: They’ll be able to download it on the Merritt Group website. We have a dedicated AI page which we’ll include in the show notes. They’ll be able to read through all of the results that we’ve walked through today.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: I’ve been talking with Shahed Ahmed and Kelly Finneran of Merritt Group. Thank you both so much for being here.

Kelly Finneran, Merritt Group: Thank you so much, Peter.

Shahed Ahmed, Merritt Group: Thank you, Peter. 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: And thank you for joining us. Lay of the Brand is brought to you by Merritt Group, an integrated strategic communications firm that blends the best of PR, marketing and creative to help our clients tell their stories and build business. 

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dotcomm site bug gold award
bulldog pr awards
27-th annual