The Changing B2B Buyer’s Journey
Apr 25, 2016
The buyer’s journey, often called a funnel, is a powerful construct to help you understand the stages of buying customers in your industry go through. But rigidly applying content—meaning the details of information within each article, video, infographic, experience, etc. that you put out into the world—to specific stages within buyer’s journey will only lead to a disjointed, ineffective customer experience.
As a marketer, if you understand those two points, then you can use a Buyer’s Journey to your advantage, rather than having it hold you back.
But…why is the buyer’s journey just about understanding state of mind, and not necessarily as something to define the details within the content you create? Because the buyer’s journey has fundamentally changed over the last decade – and it’s changing still at an exponential rate.
At the highest level, the changes have lead to a non-linear, omni-directional journey. It’s a journey in which any and all channels can be the starting point or the final conversion point. It’s a situation in which each piece of content – from what you might consider a lightweight “awareness” piece to a highly in-depth “conversion” piece – could be the first encounter with your brand. So being too highly specific on “which type of content goes on which channel” based on the buyer’s journey research could mean you miss more opportunities than you gain.
To better examine some specific changes and what it means for your marketing, let’s look specifically at technology buyers. I’ll be using the Buyersphere Report along with a few other research docs as points of evidence.
Here are four aspects of change:
Exponential Expansion of Channels.
It wasn’t that long ago that there were essentially four one-directional channels of communication – TV, print, outdoor and digital ads – plus the bi-directional (meaning audiences could both receive and send messages) “word-of-mouth” channel. Now, though, there are an unquantifiable number of bi-directional channels of communication – the usual suspects of Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and forums, (and so on); and the one-directional channels are rarely experienced in a vacuum (e.g. people browsing on an iPad while watching TV).
That proliferation of channels has three effects on the buyer’s journey:
- Your audience has choices – meaning you have to figure out which channels you will focus on. Focusing on all of them isn’t feasible.
- Different channels have different conventions that might not align with your brand conventions, or be the “right place” to receive the information about your products that you’d like to send.
- The channel of greatest favor with your audience now might be irrelevant to them tomorrow.
This is the “sources used in the technology buying process” chart from the 2014 Buyersphere Report:
And here’s the same chart for 2015:
There’s some obvious bulls and bears in this list. Search (up 11%), supplier websites and advice from colleagues and experts all went up in use. Email…didn’t. (And if we break out the way-back time machine, we’d see “direct mail” was on this list in 2012, and it’s gone completely now.)
“Actively searched social media” remained relatively unchanged. But, I think it’s important to point out a potential flaw in the information here.
Because buyers have to start somewhere, putting social into this mix is misleading. Same for search, actually. Social channels, more often than not, are the vehicles rather than the cargo. They are a portal through which websites, experts and communities are found, and not necessarily the final point of “information used.” (More on this in the section about millennials, below.)
But the biggest point is this: If the sources of information are changing, so are the details of the buyer’s journey. And you should re-examine the channels your specific audience is using most regularly, and make sure all manner of content for all stages can be found there.
New Rules (And Results) of Search.
Think With Google found that 71% of B2B purchasers started their research with a generic search query, so you can be fairly certain buyers are searching for solutions to problems and independent expert advice, not your company, brand or specific product.
Perhaps more interesting is the amount of search being done.
“On average, B2B researchers do 12 searches prior to engaging on a specific brand’s site.” So, buyers are willing to experiment with search terms quite a bit to ensure they’re getting a realistic view of potential solutions.
To me, this is a much better version of the “60% of the way down the funnel before contacting sales” thinking. It lets us know that creating quality content for all stages of the journey, and getting that content out to many different indexed channels, is the most powerful aspect of modern marketing.
Millennials Becoming B2B Buyers.
Now check out this additional chart from the Buyersphere Report, breaking out use of social media in the buying process by age:
I think this points to a “research trough” in the Buyersphere study. There’s still enough “older” buyers in the mix to mask the use of social media. But, as B2B marketers, you can be certain the use of social media as a “first source” for research will grow as the tech buying audience gets younger.
So, if you’re not investing in building content (and your promotional channels of content) in social media, you may not be feeling the effects now…but you soon will.
Changing Shape of Influencers.
The Buyersphere Report always puts some analysis around how content from influencers, well, influences buyers. But in 2015, they went farther – looking into some of the differences between professionals in the industry, amateurs and third-party analyst organizations.
In the chart below, you can see the amount of use versus the perceived influence of influencer-based content:
But there’s some additional information available to paint a more precise picture around those results.
When you segment by size of the organization of the buyer, large organizations were far more comfortable with “amateur” reviews than smaller organizations. And while buyers under the age of 40 identified interview with company experts (first-party influencers) most powerful, those over 40 were still much more influenced by technical specs.
One other interesting point in regard to influencers and channels was that LinkedIn and Google+ were the most popular social media channels for tech business buyers.
Now, frankly, Google+ was a surprise to me. But if you think of specific communities in Google+ which are very similar in style to groups on LinkedIn, it starts to make more sense. These are communities where both expert and amateur influencers in specific subject matters can congregate and learn. So it makes sense that social media savvy buyers would find those communities useful as well.
The take away: As these communities are built on conversation rather than canned content, you should be preparing your internal experts and marketing team to be able to craft “response” content on the fly. So as you monitor the questions and interests of potential buyers in these channels, you can spin up relevant content quickly.
In general, the buyer’s journey will continue to be a great tool.
But with the changing shape of marketing, due to the proliferation of channels and content, you should be using them as a tool to understand your audience’s mindset rather than to be highly prescriptive of content details for each channel based on buyer’s stage.
Specifically for technology marketers, I hope the expanded view of trends around influencer marketing, millennials entering the “buyer” phase of their professional lives, expanding channel options and the growing reliance on search (yes, still) will allow you to think differently about the content you make and how you distribute it.
What have you been learning with your own adventures in Buyer’s Journeys? I’d love to hear your thoughts: @johnvlane
Watching TV as a kid, I used to run to the bathroom during the shows so I could make it back for the commercials. Those days launched me down a path that included layout and writing for the college paper; communications strategy for political campaigns; marketing strategy and graphic design for Gensler (a global design and architecture firm); and the implementation of new programming, animation and design techniques for Centerline. Today I specialize in content marketing strategy and building digital deliverables to execute those strategies. But it’s about more than just creating killer digital content. At Centerline, we help clients succeed in the digital marketplace using a three-pronged approach: strategic (message creation, brand strategy), tactical (design, development), and analytical (measurement and adaptation). This experience-tested approach allows me to build campaigns that are both well-designed and effective for clients like IBM, GE and National Instruments.