New research shows that potential business-to-business (B2B) consumers are increasingly utilizing digital channels to create opinions about their major purchases. The digital evolution is dramatically changing the B2B industry and transforming business practices, giving rise to a new challenge for B2B marketers to be present and active in various digital tools and channels at all times with quality content that will educate business buyers and help guide them with their critical and commercial decisions.
In 2011 and 2012, tech giant Google and CEB’s Marketing Leadership Council polled 1,500 business leaders that have been recently involved in key purchases for 22 top B2B firms. The results of the Google B2B research survey suggest there is a new paradigm in B2B (business-to-business) marketing that has taken hold.
Let us begin with some role-play. Imagine yourself as the purchaser of information technology services for a medium-sized firm. One day, the top gun of the company, the chief executive officer (also known as the boss of your boss), approaches you, dissatisfied. He says he has gotten tired of his computer lagging or freezing every time, but the sales personnel have been lamenting for quite some time now about issues concerning live demonstrations. He wants his computer fixed, but there is a condition: the overall information technology budget for the entire year can only go by as much as 10 percent; nothing more, nothing less.
So what should you do? You know there are a lot of information technology vendors out there, not to mention gazillion of available specifications. The first thing you would do is figure out first what the boss or your company actually needs. If you are like many business buyers, you go and surf the Internet to research. You begin with some top corporate information technology suppliers, groups whose names you have probably heard before or read somewhere in the news. For more additional leads, you also begin to check with some of the respected and authoritative voices in the corporate information technology world: bloggers, tech writers, information technology industry journals, and experts you have listened to in seminars or conferences. You might also go and visit an Internet discussion forum or Facebook community groups on information technology services where you have gotten some valuable information and discussions from previously. You now end up with four or five vendors that can help you with your needs, invite them to do presentations, and go for the lowest bid. Mission complete! Now, you have solved your company’s problem and the chief executive officer loves you.
Makes perfect sense, right?
However, if you are into B2B marketing, this scenario should give you something to pause about: All your activities happened even without the input of one single sales person.
Why? Let us begin by providing some numbers on our story. The example is not quite far-fetched. In fact, the Google-Marketing Leadership Council survey showed that business buyers like you generally do not directly get in touch with suppliers until about 57 percent of the buying process is complete or about two-thirds of the overall purchasing process. Forming educated opinions, understanding technical details, listing requirements lists, and selecting choices from a list are happening, with minimal influence from you.
It was not like this before. That business consumers can now engage in self-directed learning is happening thanks to the Internet, which has democratized access to information; that consumers are now learning about and buying solutions and products themselves is an indication of higher budget process in an economy that has been stagnating.
So, what is wrong with waiting for consumers to come and approach us? Well, because by the time that consumers do, they already have hardened information, demands, and expectations about the things they want out of a company or supplier; thus, your job is now merely reduced to taking their order and filling it for the cheapest price possible. Consumers are learning on their own, so there is no additional room to teach them that what they learned themselves is wrong.
It is the job of B2B marketing to influence the sale that occurs usually on the web before sales contract, but three issues—incomplete digital integration, a poorly-optimized channel mix, and ineffective content—are keeping them from growing mindshare and making the most of what they are already getting.
Most leaders in the B2B marketing industry still regard the digital media as an unwanted appendage on the usual and traditional marketing campaign cycle, which roughly goes like this: Create a new service or product, design a marketing campaign touting its benefits or features, look for a place to stick digital channels within that marketing campaign architecture, implement, measure, repeat.
Take a second look at the story we started with, and it becomes clearer why this traditional marketing approach would not work. Customer learning is occurring all the time, and news flash: it does not coincide with your company’s marketing campaign calendar.
Marketing companies have mostly been established from the ground up to support as well as optimize campaigns, and not maintain the continuous media presence the digital channel requires. In order to survive and be more successful, marketing management should adjust. If the consumer is always learning, marketing leaders should then always be teaching.
Actually, it is not even enough for marketing gurus to teach; they have to teach very well. However, here lies the dirty little secret of many content marketing campaigns: they do not teach either. It is not surprising why. Content creation has been growing organically, and in fact has spread across various product and service lines. Yet, they all lack a cohesive and consistent message.
This leads us to the number one problem with B2B digital approaches at present: They often rely on content that is not generally useful at all for B2B customers who are in the midst of their learning experiences. Most content out there in digital campaigns are often low value; they may be interesting or attract a lot of Facebook likes or Twitter engagement, but they do not translate to helping B2B buyers make critical, commercial decisions.
It is thus a structural problem. B2B marketing’s content creation approach is not designed or established to send out consistent and focused messages.
When do consumers prefer whitepapers, and when do they prefer watching YouTube videos instead? Matching customer need with the right digital channel is certainly among the top challenges in digital marketing, and for B2B marketers, doing it right needs data on how consumers use different channels to be—to a certain degree—all in one place and comparable.
Marketing groups are decidedly not established for those things. Generally, they have responded to digital media with a fragmented way, where a team does whitepaper creation for a certain product or service line, while another team produces webinars for another service or product, while a third marketing team produces and owns YouTube videos for the entire company, and so on. Getting not only a sense but also understanding of channel effectiveness are tough in such an environment, and the consequences of integrating all consumer data various teams should be looking into are usually negated by the expense and time required to do the integration right.
How do you address this conundrum? Rather than spending your money and time to perform dubious models that claim specific leads to various pieces of content, B2B marketers should focus on two main things: simpler and more actionable marketing models and analytics talent.
If you can get digital media integrated with your broader marketing mix, get the message about your product or service right, and select the right format for those marketing messages, your business will be well on its way to surviving in the digital media landscape.
We hope this article on the Google B2B research report and findings helps you understand how digital evolution has transformed the B2B industry. Feel free to share your opinion on the article with us.
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