There was always something predictable, rational and comfortable about B2B marketing. Well, forget all of it (or at least some of it) because how buying decisions are now made is radically different from way back in 2019, says Firewood’s Susanna Lee. Today it’s about focusing on the customer, where they are and how they think – no matter how badly you want to go the familiar route of spotlighting your product.
Over the past 18 months, the B2B selling landscape has, like everything else, been turned on its ear. B2B sellers have rushed to create ways of engaging with customers online – many of them stop-gap or, at the very least, evolving measures – to make the best of a tough situation. But the reality is that B2B e-commerce is not only here to stay, it’s just getting started. Gartner predicts that a growing preference for seller-free experiences among B2B buyers could mean that 80% of sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels by 2025.
In line with the massive movement of B2B buying online, there’s been much ink spilled about today’s B2B buyers expecting the same intuitive and compelling online customer experience they’ve come to know as consumers. And that’s very true, with one significant difference: B2B buyers must be able to collect proof points to substantiate and defend their decisions. This means that as marketers we need to build incredible, engaging and connected digital experiences that drive business value.
If your B2B marketing efforts are not producing optimal results, it’s likely that your path to purchase is leading potential customers down the path you want them to follow, not the path they want and need to follow to make decisions. Things are changing rapidly – and will continue to accelerate moving forward – so whether or not your marketing has hit speed bumps, now is a good time to take a step back and refocus on crafting a compelling customer-centric journey. Here’s how.
Adopt a business-to-human approach, for real
We’re all very familiar with the trend of B2B buying groups. Pre-pandemic, Gartner found that typical buying groups for a complex solution consisted of six to 10 decision-makers or influencers. Well, not surprisingly that number has grown. And as Forrester reported following its SiriusDecisions Summit last year, “[buyers] want more control and self-service, they want to be treated as equal partners, and they expect experiences that are increasingly open, connected, intuitive and immediate.”
To create a living, breathing customer-centric journey to purchase, you must adopt an empathic approach by thoroughly understanding and catering to the humans navigating the path to discovery and purchase of your product.
Who’s your audience? Buying groups are a mix of experience and seniority levels playing their part in the purchase decision. Your job is to identify as many as you can.
Where do they live online? Recent research from McKinsey found that B2B buyers prefer digital self-service or remote human interactions to other methods of connecting – and that preference continues to grow. You need to figure out where your buyers are trolling for information.
What are their challenges and needs? You must speak to each decision-maker in the way they’re most comfortable with and let them know you understand their struggles by delivering what they need.
What are their cultural motivations? A long-standing and well-respected study, done in partnership with Google and Motista, found that 90% of B2B purchasing decisions are made subconsciously, based on emotion rather than logic. Are your buyers digital natives? Are they interested in where your brand stands on social issues?
What is their path and timeline? What are the key decisions, motivations and obstacles that mark their journey from discovery to loyalty? What are the key marketing moments? What content is needed at each stage?
Craft a customer-centric (not product-centric) journey
Once you’ve teased out each buyer persona, their path to discovery and purchase and their needs along the way, it’s time to focus on creating a unified campaign that will connect with them emotionally. Begin by mapping out a customer journey that is engaging and resourceful, integrating the needs of all relevant decision-makers and influencers to move all stakeholders down the path to purchase.
Whether you’re modifying an existing customer journey or creating one from scratch, here are questions to ask yourself:
Are you meeting your buyers where they live online, both personally and professionally? Brainstorm on innovative ways to engage them on the platforms and apps they use most. Microsoft ran a very successful campaign for its Microsoft 365 product for small businesses by enlisting influencers living in the same channels that small business owners frequent to share their success stories and product tips.
Are you prioritizing their desire for self-service? Present multiple ways for buyers to get the answers they need in a self-selected and immediate way, 24/7. Take a page out of Uber’s playbook by curating your website to serve as a resource hub tailored for different audiences.
Are you making it easy for them to move forward? Anticipate the next question and next step in the buying process – and make getting there intuitive and easy. Instead of a ‘contact sales’ form on your website, you might consider providing an online appointment scheduling option.
Are you truly thinking outside the B2B box? Content is important, but it’s only one component of successful engagement. You need to be able to attract buyers’ attention – and if you can entertain or create delightful experiences, even better. Tossing aside the myth that selling an industrial printer hinges on physical, in-person demos, HP’s Possibility City offers a fully immersive visual platform that allows buyers to ‘look under the hood’ across a hyper-personalized journey. A virtual assistant provides any information they need.
Are you building an emotional connection that persists across all touchpoints? Feature real humans in your content and develop differentiated messaging that imparts emotion and incorporates what your brand stands for. Harley-Davidson covered the bases with this documentary-style film, part of an integrated campaign that promoted H-D’s foray into a new category dominated by well-established brands.
Meeting buyers where they live online and delivering relevant human experiences demonstrates that you’ve done your homework, you respect the job they have to do, and are catering to what you know they need to make confident decisions. And that goes a long way in building trust. A living, breathing customer-centric journey will help you not only deliver the best possible marketing ROI, but also establish and maintain long-lasting relationships with your customers.
Susanna Lee is B2B practice lead at S4’s Firewood.