B2B customers and their buying habits have changed enormously in just about the last ten years … or have they? The B2B content marketing landscape has changed substantially, and business customers are spouting the need for change and innovation. But are they demonstrating actions that show readiness for change? Critical to your success as a B2B content marketer is your ability to review how businesses are now making their purchase decisions, what they are talking about versus what they are actually doing in purchase decisions, and whether they are allowing themselves to be influenced by the right content at the right time in the decision-making processes.
B2B Content Marketing requires content-marketers to align with the reality of buyers’ behaviors and buyer journeys, and not just get carried away by what they say they would like to be doing when buying. Given the state of the B2B customer behavior, you may have to encourage and empower the customer to embrace change and innovation, but stop just short of pushing them to act on the new ideas they say they want to pursue. B2B customers are in transition, and like everything else in B2B, transition in action is always slower than any talk of transition would allow you to believe.
#1: Pressure from content-marketers applied too early in B2B customer buying journeys can backfire spectacularly. Be empowering, but not pushy!
Content-marketers are forever having to second-guess themselves on when is the right time to start “working on a potential customer”. They may like to apply a little more focus than just wait for customer-readiness with a laid back wait-and-watch attitude.
A lot of content-marketers dealing B2B clients may ask themselves: “Do we have to wait till the customer is ready to float an RFP, or do we get the customer earlier so we are able to shape the conditions of RFP – to give us a good chance of being the vendor of preference?” Another typical question from content-marketers is: “When is a prospect hot enough to be treated as ready to be transitioned from “marketing-ready” to “sales-ready”?
Qualifying B2B sales opportunities is tough, as most customers seem to prefer doing their own research online for almost 90% of their buying journeys. Their progress is opaque to content-marketers for a large part of their buying journeys.
As opposed to this lack of transparency in buying journeys, research has found that itchy content-marketers may either qualify or disqualify opportunities too early. They may not realize that some prospects are not yet formal enough to be called potential customers. Forrester found, for example, that a lot of content-marketers are applying the wrong pressure at the wrong time, making a genuinely worthwhile prospect balk or run.
The solution? Content-marketers need to be extremely patient in B2B marketing. They need to encourage, and proactively empower, target customers with good decision-support content. They also need to engage early – but they have to stay clear of any need to “influence” the prospect’s agenda before the emergence of a formally-defined purchase project. They have to focus on building relationships, but not pressure for purchases or projects too early. If you are a content marketer, either wait till you’re approached … or at least wait till you hear that a competitor is approached!
#2: B2B customers are still heavily biased in favor of the status quo, even if they state noble intentions to be innovative! Don’t expect them to “walk the talk” yet!
Being conservative when it comes to purchase decisions is one of the “evergreen hallmarks” of B2B buying behavior. In recent times, though, many organizations strongly espouse ideas like “innovation” and “being ahead of the curve”. There is usually a lot of top-down pressure from CEOs in organizations, asking their subordinates to embrace innovation and seek new ideas, new vendors and new solutions.
But when this filters down to the Purchase Manager levels, content-marketers can never be sure that “the money is where the mouth is”. Purchase Managers are still unsure if their bosses are really going to say “okay” to anything that remotely strays from the status quo.
Change in business is usually perceived to be risky – so unless your content is able to give the customer an urgent and compelling reason to act (like agitational or provocative content can perhaps), they will usually prefer to “talk of being engaged with change”, but at key decision-times, they will retire the comfort of the current practices. It’s no wonder that so many apparently innovative and refreshing marketing opportunities seem to either dangle without closure for months on end, or else lose steam – because no one was ready to “own the idea, take it to the bosses, and do something about it”.
So what does a content marketer do in such cases where new thinking is still tied to old action habits? If you want to persuade your customer of the need for change, you need to help them see that the status quo is a huge ROI-stealer. You need to make the customer facing you see that the decision to “go slow” may impact the company’s competitive-edge and his bosses have to know that. You have to be able highlight the threats, risks and consequences of the current path of inaction, and show the customer how in gradual steps his organization can begin to “walk the talk”. Nine times out of ten, going slowly towards change in small steps takes the riskiness out taking a decision – or of actioning a decision.
#3: Along with the safety of the status quo, the B2B customer’s revulsion against making losses acts as a counterpoint, that content-marketers can take advantage of!
Research has also shown that B2B decision-makers are risk-averse, while also being loss-averse. This gives room for positive intervention of content-marketers. When risk is seen as a potential loss, is when change is most resisted. On the other hand, if risk was seen as a way to gamble upon turning potential losses into profits, the fear of risk will slowly dissipate. That’s why all your content needs to sound positive on the “risk elements” in your offer to B2B customers. All risks have to be presented as opportunities for reducing losses and converting them into gains.
The important words to make sure you use in your content are: “There is no reward without risk.” It also helps to try and see what your B2B customer sees as the riskiest part of change to a new vendor and a new solution? Is it the vendor being untested that’s a risk? Is it the solution the vendor is proposing that feels like a risk? Is the price of the product the risk? Or is the lack of a long-enough trial period the risk? If you were able to guess at all possible elements of change that may feel risky to customers, and create pre-emptive content that makes these expressed or latent risks sound like opportunities for big success on the topline or bottomline, you can definitely help customers see change as something to implement, pronto.
#4: Don’t assume that the only internal selling a B2B customer needs to do is to his immediate senior. Arm him with content to sell internally to cross-functional teams!
As a content marketer, when you look the customer’s buying journey, you may find that the content you create is largely meant to satisfy the questions of the customer facing you … or at best his boss. But any purchase in a business usually has to answer the questions of cross-functional internal teams.
If, for example, you are selling a consulting service which may impact many aspects of the company, then many different Departmental Heads – Commercial, Finance, Marketing, Sales, HR – may be involved. Their needs for justificatory content may be from many different angles.
When creating your content, be sure to see how many different stakeholders may need to be convinced, and what their possible angles of concern may be. Address all of these as different pieces of content, so that the different stakeholders can be fed content that is customized to their specific queries.
#5: Be aware that if the customer facing you is the CEO of the buying company, he still needs to sell your offer internally to others. He is the boss, but he needs those others behind him!
Some content-marketers believe that if they have got the ear of the buying company’s CEO, life is easy thereafter. Most small to medium businesses run almost by the diktat of the men at the top. If they say a purchase is to be made, it will be made. Or so we think!
Increasingly, though, this is not the behaviour most content-marketers encounter in reality. Especially when CEOs have to make decisions on some purchase of high price or long-term value, they do tend to try and get the buy-ins of their immediate next managers. After all, they need to carry them along in the business … and they all have to be on the same page, don’t they, to see good ROI from the purchase?
In addition, many CEOs also co-opt specialist external consultants to advice them, or to discuss issues and evaluations of vendors offers, to get a better feel of market prices, long-term value, recoverability of investment, and impact of the investment within their companies. So to think life is made after you get your content before a “final decision-maker CEO”, whose word will be law, is a bit of a misleading complacency.
#6: Remember that B2B buyer journeys cannot be shortened simply by making your content satisfying. B2B buyers like longer buying journeys because it makes them feel like they’ve worked harder!
Contrary to popular belief, that B2B buyers act without emotional stakes, their emotions are different and often well-hidden during buying projects. Emotions enter the picture as anxiety that any big-ticket purchases they make for their companies should not put their reputations, livelihoods, hopes and dreams on the line.
Content-marketers may have heard of the statistic that B2B buyers spend up to 90% of the decision journey educating themselves. Experts say they use this educational content to delay the moment when they need to reach out to a sales rep. This is not because they don’t like talking to salespeople, but because of two reasons.
One, they want to exercise independent judgment without betraying underlying emotions. They like to perform initial privately satisfactory evaluations that they are not staking anything personally in their judgments. The last thing they want is to be easily led to do something that may disturb their equations within their companies.
Two, extending the length of evaluation time on a B2B purchase also makes them feel like they are working a lot harder on the understanding of the vendor and the products. The more content from you they consume, they see themselves as being “thorough” and “leaving no stone unturned”.
The implications of many business purchases do take longer to understand fully, so the content-marketer does need to be sensitive to the customer need for decision-gestation. Be sure to keep in touch though, giving them a variety of content to make them feel their evaluation phase, without your personal physical intervention, has been well spent.If you are content marketer with a B2B customer, it’s very critical never to be perceived by customer as the hustling type. Give the customers enough content and time to ponder and meander over decisions. They are doing far more than just evaluating you and your content. They need the space and time to evaluate the impact of their decisions, and see how it will make them perceive themselves, and be perceived by their companies.
#7: Beware of making an assumption that being factual and to-the-point, will be more appreciated in B2B content. These buyers like long thought-leadership content, even if all those whitepapers are not read!
A study in which LinkedIn was involved reveals the role that “thought-leadership content” plays in the B2B decision-making process. More than a third of decision-makers said they engaged with such content every week; 52% said they used thought-leadership content to evaluate an seller organisation, 41% said they had included a company on an RFP on the strength of such thought-leadership content, and 48% said thought-leadership has led them to place repeat orders with a supplier, despite other good competitors entering the fray. In fact, more than a third said they’d removed a vendor from consideration because of poor quality thought-leadership content.
Buyers apparently stated that they liked dealing with subject matter experts whose content showed that they empathized and understood the myriad issues they face. Almost two-thirds (63%) of decision-makers defined “thought-leadership content” as depth-content which related directly to a topic or purchase project they were working on.
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