In B2B marketing, nothing stands still. Tactics and technologies appear, evolve and die on a regular basis. Every ‘new’ approach is hyped as the only way to market. Established approaches are declared dead (before being repackaged and resurrected the next month).
But for all the hype and bluster, some things are changing for real.
B2B buyers are more in control of the sale than ever. They are able to be more independent in how they make decisions. And today, they can typically do a large proportion of their research before ever speaking to a salesperson.
And then came Covid.
In the wider world, the pandemic has had a magnifying effect on changes that were already in play. Increased digitisation. More widespread remote working. Even greater use of e-commerce.
But how has it affected the way B2B buyers make purchases?
And how are B2B marketers responding?
Are they capitalising on the opportunity or leaving money on the table?
To find out, we commissioned a research study asking decision-makers in companies of over 250 employees about their approach to purchasing B2B products and services.
We then asked senior in-house B2B marketers in 250+ employee businesses a parallel set of questions to discover how well they are meeting customer expectations.
The results show an acceleration in buyers self-serving information. They paint a picture of higher customer expectations when they do finally speak to sales. And they demonstrate where marketers are struggling to keep pace with a rapidly changing environment.
Importantly, these are changes that, far from being a temporary response to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, are set to become the default for how we do business today and in the months and years to come.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a world that’s shifted to hybrid and remote working, B2B sales are now taking longer than ever. Over half of our respondents (52%) agreed – with 18% saying it was now taking a lot longer to make a purchase.
Part of this is the result of finding consensus between multiple stakeholders with differing agendas (likely magnified by the challenge of getting people together when many are working remotely). Some 56% of respondents told us that it is now more difficult to gain agreement across multiple decision-makers.
But that’s not the whole picture. The majority (55%) of buyers are also considering more vendors for each purchase. This will inevitably add more time to the process as suppliers and products are assessed.
Interestingly, this was magnified even further when seen from a marketing perspective. Some 78% of B2B marketers in our research say it’s now more difficult to get agreement on sales. Over half (56%) say it’s now a lot more difficult.
Why the difference?
Well, if you’re not one of the two or three leading brands that will always make the shortlist, you’re likely to find yourself jumping through more hoops to get into the consideration set. And you may also be kept in the running longer as a bargaining chip while buyers try to push down the cost of purchase. More work. More time. Lower chances of success.
How will you know? Check your historical closed:won reports – if they’re heading south, you’ve got an issue.
Some two-thirds (66%) of buyers are now self-serving more information before contacting vendors. Again, B2B marketers are seeing this to an even greater degree with almost three-quarters (74%) seeing customers taking more control of the process. In fact, over half (53%) of buyers would prefer to buy without any interaction with sales at all.
Importantly, when they do speak to sales, 63% of buyers want a greater level of insight and advice.
The days of the cookie-cutter playbook and generic PowerPoint look increasingly numbered. B2B customers want to see value not just in the products and services they buy, but also in the interactions they have with potential vendors.
This means brands need to excel in making it easy for buyers at every stage of the sale to get what they need (both for themselves and to help convince other stakeholders).
They need to offer multiple content paths to enable customers to succeed whether they are at the very initial needs-search stage or comparing vendors for a final shortlist.
It also means ensuring salespeople get the content they require to add real value when they do interact. This is a requirement that’s been well researched (see The Challenger Sale). The most effective salespeople are those that can teach their customers something valuable about how to better run their businesses or better compete in the market.
But is all of this just a brief post-Covid interlude before a return to business as usual?
In a word, no.
Over half (52%) of business buyers say they will never go back to the old way of buying (and 63% of B2B marketers agree). To put it simply, if you are waiting for things to go back to normal, that ship has likely sailed.
So what matters most to buyers when making a B2B purchase decision in a post-Covid world? Is there some killer combination that will unlock purse strings and accelerate the sale?
We’ve got bad news.
Our research shows there is no single standout factor. Today’s buyers want it all:
In most markets, there are very few truly bad options when it comes to choosing products and services. Market economics have largely killed off poor-performing vendors.
In this environment, the winners will be those that can display an edge in multiple areas – and who don’t have an Achilles heel in any single one.
These will be the companies that get known as the ones to watch. They will ascend to leading brand status. As a result, they’ll be the ones that easily spring to mind when a B2B buyer thinks about the category or a challenge related to it.
The good news is that marketers on the whole agree.
Over two-thirds of B2B marketers believe customers will value their brand’s broader purpose and mission as a top buying consideration.
But just a quarter of buyers agree.
There has been a lot made of communicating a wider purpose for today’s brands. For many marketers, it’s seen as a way to give the brand greater depth and differentiate it in markets where products and services are viewed as broadly the same.
For gurus, it sells books and gets speaking gigs.
The problem is, on the whole, B2B customers don’t appear to care.
With this level of agreement on what matters, we could reasonably expect B2B marketers to be well prepared to give buyers the kind of resources they need to get their elusive colleagues on board with making a purchase.
Yet here, we see gaps emerging in the self-service experience…
A quarter (25%) of buyers want to be able to get all the information they need online before contacting a salesperson. Yet this is offered by just 9% of marketers.
Some 28% of buyers want to be able to view testimonials, case studies and reviews from named businesses. Again, only 9% of B2B marketers offer this on their sites.
And we see 27% of buyers wanting to be able to access references from existing users that they can contact directly. Just 5% of marketers offer this.
But hold up, 42% of B2B marketers do offer pre-recorded demos. Shame that under a quarter (23%) of buyers want these.
And 40% of marketers ensure customers get easy access to the sales team. Of course, as we’ve seen, just a fifth (21%) of customers see value in this.
Looking across comments that regularly appear on social media, you’ll often see complaints about how difficult it is to access pricing information on many vendors’ sites. So we asked whether this was a deal-breaker.
Surprisingly, just 18% of buyers put this in their top three key factors for making the purchase decision faster and easier.
Seen as a whole, these gaps mean that B2B marketers could be squandering valuable opportunities to make the research-to-purchase journey as painless and friction-free as possible. Because where buyers encounter friction, their first instinct is not to struggle through, it’s to go elsewhere.
In the world of B2B marketing, ‘content’ has long been recognised as a powerful weapon for growing a brand, generating demand and converting leads. It’s also a somewhat fluffy, overused term.
So, what kinds of content do buyers want to see most? And do marketers agree?
Again, there is no standout magic bullet. Buyers find a wide range of content types useful.
The top three, in order, are web articles, research reports and webinars. But these were only marginally ahead of all the other usual suspects of ebooks, videos, infographics and events (live and virtual).
This means that any approach to B2B content strategy needs to offer a broad range of options – both in terms of the core information provided and the formats it’s delivered in.
There were a couple of interesting discrepancies however…
While over a fifth (21%) of marketers have seen the value of ‘writing the book’ on their particular area, just 11% of buyers find traditionally published guides and thought leadership valuable.
And, in what might be a blow to the various analysts and their eye-wateringly expensive ROI and TCO reports, just 9% of buyers see value in this kind of content.
Considering both of these are time-consuming, expensive options, marketers could divert budget elsewhere and see no drop in performance.
Finally, a long-standing use for B2B content is to accumulate contact information. This is either given to sales or used to place a ‘lead’ into a longer-term nurture programme (along with the obligatory MQL score). This has become even more important as marketers are pressured to focus on shorter-term lead generation over longer-term demand generation and brand building.
In reality, getting this data often means gating content behind a form. In fact, in our research, we see around a quarter of marketers gating every type of content we listed.
But what do buyers do as a result?
Well, 30% will give their details if the content is valuable enough (so, good news there).
However, 23% will try to find the content elsewhere and only offer up their information if they can’t find it (or something just as good).
And just under half (47%) will either never give their details or will give false information. Ouch.
Today, B2B marketers should think long and hard about whether the value of this contact information is worth the significant drop in performance that comes with gaining it. You may get the data you want, but you may lose some goodwill as a result.
You may also mistake someone for being closer to buying than they actually are (risking delivering poor-quality ‘leads’ to sales and souring your relationship with them).
Ultimately, it’s a judgement call. However, we’d argue it is better for more people to see more of your content than lose valuable reach through gating.
While the future is always uncertain, the direction of travel is clear. In purchasing complex products and services, today’s B2B customers are taking the initiative in how they research, interact with and ultimately buy from vendors.
They want to be able to self-serve all the information they need to make the purchase process as pain-free and low-risk as possible. And when they do engage with sales, they want an experience that adds value to how they think about the challenges they face.
So how should today’s B2B marketers ensure they are best placed to give customers what they need and remove friction from long sales cycles?
The changes uncovered in this research are best seen as long-term trends that have been accelerated by the Covid pandemic. More than a short-term shock to the system, they represent an enduring shift in how B2B customers research products, engage with vendors and ultimately choose who to buy from.
To thrive, today’s B2B marketers need to adapt and evolve their approaches, ensuring they are meeting buyers on their terms. Those that succeed will be those that are seen as the brands who are closest to customers, able to walk a mile in their shoes. And this will pay dividends in faster sales, higher conversations and greater retention.
This research was conducted on behalf of Considered Content by Censuswide in December 2021 and January 2022.
The buyer survey covered 150 B2B buyers from medium and large businesses in multiple sectors (89 work for companies with 250-999 employees, 61 work for companies with 1,000+ employees). Respondents are all involved in making company purchase decisions about software, equipment, services and suppliers.
The survey of marketers covered 150 in-house B2B marketers working for medium and large businesses (78 work for companies with 250-999 employees, 72 work for companies with 1,000+ employees). Respondents are director-level or senior marketing managers only.
Jason Ball is the founder and managing director at Considered. With a multi-decade career in B2B marketing, he’s worked with world-leading brands such as Adobe, Google, EY and Cisco together with niche specialists in technology, manufacturing and professional services.