The balance of power has shifted subtly over the last few years in the B2B market. From a situation where sellers were once pretty much in control of the buyer’s journey through a limited number of channels, we have seen the rise of the self-directed, sophisticated B2B buyer who has a plethora of available channels, and who wants to be able to plot a path to purchase of his or her own choosing. For B2B marketers, understanding omnichannel and customer experience as never before, and the fact that there are more touchpoints and more complexity—then adapting to this new form of customer journey is critical to their success.
More Choice, Less Control
What better way to gain some perspective on the current situation than looking back a few years? This is exactly what the team at ITSMA did as a part of their research report: How B2B Buyers Consume Information Survey: Moving Towards an Omnichannel Experience. The 2015 research questioned more than 400 business and IT executives from companies that regularly purchase technology or consulting solutions for individual contracts over half a million U.S. dollars. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed represent organizations with an annual turnover in excess of $1 billion, and more than three-quarters reported they were at the VP level or above.
When asked to rank the first three sources of information they sought out at the start of their buying process, the differences between the most recent study and that of ten years ago was striking.
- In 2005 there were only 8 channels listed (including “other” which garnered a paltry one percent), with web search coming well down the list. The top three sources were all about speaking with analysts, solution providers, and peers.
- Fast forward to 2015, to find thirteen categories, all of which gained at least a 9 percent rating. While the opinions of experts again featured strongly, this time websites, professional online communities, digital influencers, and social media all had a significant role to play.
The conclusion drawn in the study is one that we talk about with our customers all the time—there are no clear preferences amongst buyers. They all have different preferences in the way they want to consume information, and they have plenty of choices in expressing those preferences. As marketers, our job is to understand and respect these differing preferences and channels, and to create unique and compelling customer experiences accordingly.
Buyers Still Want to Talk to Real People
The first reaction to a need for an omnichannel strategy may be to think digital and jump into technology solutions alone. According to the ITSMA research that’s a short-sighted approach, as the majority of buyers (in this case those seeking high value solutions) still value contact with real people. When survey participants were asked to list their top sources for trustworthiness, personal contact came way ahead of digital solutions.
- Providers’ SMEs (38 percent), industry analysts (30 percent), industry peers (28 percent), and management consultants (26 percent) came out top before any digital solutions were listed.
- By contrast provider websites (25 percent), digital influencers (20 percent), and professional online communities (18 percent) were less trusted sources, with social media trailing well behind at just 11 percent.
I hear you thinking, “But much of that personal contact will be made through digital channels.” Well, you’re right. Sort of. But the study suggests that online and offline activity is almost evenly split. Even amongst the most social B2B buyers, print publications, in person meetings, offline events, and phone calls are favored almost as much as internet and digital social solutions. This holds true with all research I’ve seen specific to lead gen: Any medium that allows you direct connection with another human, whether in person at a meeting or an event, or on the phone, generally delivers better results.
Delivering Seamless Solutions is Key
Despite all of the new technologies with their bells and whistles, the challenge for B2B marketers is that they can’t rely on tech solutions alone. Their buyers expect to be able to deal with providers both online and offline and they expect the two to be seamlessly interconnected.
- Seventy-eight percent of respondents said that they expect solution providers to “speak with one consistent voice.” That means both online and offline.
- Also interesting is that three-quarters expect everyone they deal with at a provider to know what has already happened, both online and offline, during previous interactions. This means that if you’re not using a CRM that connects all these dots, you’d best start.
Understanding Different Paths to Purchase for Different Solutions
It’s also important to take into consideration that depending on the solution sought, customers rely on different resources and take different paths to purchase. The research study asked participants which sources of information they turned to most often when they began their search for a solution, and the responses had some notable differences across three categories of purchase.
Mature Solutions. For the more mature and traditional end of the market, choices were broadly in line with the overall results. SMEs, industry analysts, and management consultants came out on top as the most utilized resources, with digital and social having less impact.
Transformational. For the more transformational industry, the influence of the SME was not so significant. Management consultants and peers rated more strongly as top resources than with mature solutions, while vendor websites and web search options were used more often.
Bleeding Edge. At the cutting edge of innovation, professional online communities, digital influencers, and social networks received strong support, which totally makes sense. It’s not unusual for innovative early adopters to be having conversations in forums, on social networks, and in online communities, exploring new ideas and potential solutions well before they make their way onto a corporate website and/or are served up in SERPs. Local and national trade associations scored strongly in this category when compared to others.
Understanding the Customer Journey
This study really just confirms what we already know about the new breed of B2B buyer. They expect to be able to interact with sellers across all (read “omni”) channels, both online and offline, and they expect information to be seamlessly interwoven and transitions from one channel to the next quick and effortless.
The key to meeting that challenge for marketers and solution providers is to understand their customer journey. That means having a deep understanding of the industry sector they are operating in, knowing what influences potential buyers, and what criteria are most important to them in selecting solution providers. Only then can the right balance be found and a truly effective omnichannel strategy implemented.
The ITSMA study is a premium download, but if you would like to find out more about the results you can find a link to a free abbreviated summary at How B2B Buyers Consume Information Survey: Moving Towards an Omnichannel Experience.
What has your experience been of the changing landscape of B2B marketing? Have you seen a move towards an omnichannel strategy to meet the demands of the B2B buyer?
Other Resources on this Topic:
- How to Create More Meaningful Connections in a Remote World - March 16, 2021
- Building a High Performing Engineering Team: What’s the Secret Sauce - February 1, 2021
- MarTech Role Finally Recognized as a Real Job - April 2, 2019