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Sometimes the information we need to make the best decisions is hidden in plain sight. But without the ability to first gather that information, and then to decipher it, it's useless to us.

That was true during World War II, when the top-secret German information that the Allied Forces needed to prevent imminent attacks was being transmitted across the airwaves. With teams of people intercepting those messages and tipsters providing additional signals, Allied forces had no shortage of valuable data at their fingertips.

The problem was that Germany had encrypted its signals with a seemingly unbreakable code, dubbed Enigma, making it unintelligible and unusable to anyone who didn't have the key to decode it.

So, even though the Allies were able to amass mountains of signals and information, they didn't know what all that data meant.

Code breakers worked day and night to understand the information they were gathering, but human power just couldn't cut it. It wasn't until the British codebreaking team at Bletchley Park created Colossus—the world's first electronic computer—that the messages were finally decoded and the meaning of all that gathered intelligence became clear. Allied forces could finally act on the invaluable information in front of them.

Missed Intent Data Signals in B2B

I see something similar happening in business (though with much smaller stakes, obviously): The information we need to succeed is often right in front of us, but we marketers either fall short in amassing data or, if we do collect it, we struggle to extract meaningful insights that can be made actionable.

For B2B marketers, the signals we're looking for are buyers' behaviors that signify intent to buy. Those signals happen all the time—when people search the Web, engage with us or our competitors, download content, attend webinars... the list goes on.

Seeing those signals and understanding their meaning is essential to engaging with the right customers, at the right time, in the right way.

But just as the Bletchley Park codebreakers found, amassing a signal and decoding it is not always as simple as it seems.

In the first part of this two-part article series, we explore what those signals are, how they're gathered, and which ones are worth paying attention to. In Part 2, we'll delve into all the ways those signals can be put to use to transform B2B marketing and selling.

The signals we talk about in a B2B environment are called intent data, and they come in three forms: first-, second-, and third-party. Each is important, and in each category some signals are more relevant than others.

What is first-party intent data?

Any data collected from activity on a property or asset you own is called first-party intent data. When a potential customer clicks a link on your site or opens an email you sent, those are first-party intent signals. This type of intent is sometimes thought of as engagement, since people are engaging with your brand and your content.

Of course, some of those signals are more meaningful than others. For instance, a visitor who downloads a bunch of whitepapers may just be researching for a blog post. And someone who repeatedly visits your pricing page could just be a competitor gathering competitive intel.

So it's important to have first-party intent data at your fingertips, including from visitors who don't raise their hands by filling out a form or signing up for your communications.

The best intent data providers can shine a light on anonymous activity on your website—and cut through the noise to reveal usable insights.

What is second-party intent data?

Second-party intent data is a less-talked-about source of intelligence, but it's still important. These insights come from sites you don't own, but their content and conversations are about your company.

Think of review sites, such as TrustRadius, Capterra, and G2. Knowing that someone is researching your company, your category, or even your competitors can be an interesting signal. It may or may not indicate intent to buy, but it's a piece of data that can add to your overall understanding of a potential customer's buying journey.

It's smart to source and use this type of intent data.

What is third-party intent data?

Third-party intent data encompasses the research being done elsewhere on the Web—not on your site and not on a review site. It includes specific keyword and topic research that you know to be significant signals from the prospects most likely to purchase your product.

Third-party intent data is important at all stages of the customer journey. But it's particularly important early on because it points you toward potential customers who may not have even visited your website yet. That's the stage when they're educating themselves on the problem they have and the solutions that exist—and that's when you want them to start thinking about your brand.

Without third-party intent data, there's no way to know that activity is even happening, which means you're missing out on an entire universe of unknown buyers. But, although third-party intent data can uncover very important information, separating the wheat from the chaff is more difficult than for first- or second-party intent data.

The best third-party intent data providers, however, will weed out the irrelevant information and focus on signals that are proven to indicate an intent to buy.

Where Is B2B's Colossus?

With first-, second-, and third-party data, we have the information we need to better understand our customers (present and future). But we need to be able to decode all those billions of pieces of data and turn it into intelligence we can use. In other words, we need our own version of Colossus.

In Part 2 of this series, we'll talk about the technology that can turn intent signals into meaningful intelligence—and real-life actions that can transform the way B2B companies market, sell, and grow revenue.

This article series is written by Latané Conant, CMO of 6sense, a leading AI-powered account engagement platform.

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Intent Data's Signals: Cracking the Code, Part 1

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The 6sense Account Engagement Platform helps B2B organizations achieve predictable revenue growth by putting the power of AI, big data, and machine learning behind every member of the revenue team. 6sense uncovers anonymous buying behavior, prioritizes accounts for sales and marketing, and enables them to engage resistant buying teams with personalized, multi-channel, multi-touch campaigns. 6sense helps revenue teams know everything they need to know about their buyers so they can easily do anything needed to generate more opportunities, increase deal size, get into opportunities sooner, and compete and win more often. Visit 6sense.com for more information.