First published October 5, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
The business-to-business marketplace is infinitely more complex, and therefore, more challenging, than most of the business-to-consumer verticals. This reality extends into search marketing as well. Take the fact that B2B usually means complex sales (especially when it involves search as a potential lead generation channel) and then layer on the realities that for sales that are driven by organizations rather than individuals, one sale can involve multiple roles, including stakeholders with different needs–and most B2B sales can take months, or even years. It can be a daunting task, which is why there are not many search marketing providers that have hung their shingles in the B2B marketplace.
We’ve learned firsthand some of the realities of marketing in the B2B arena through research and working with clients. In the interest of making the path a little less bloody, I’ll share the Top 10 things we’ve learned. This week, I’ll focus on the top five hints:
1. Know who’s the buyer and who’s the influencer. The biggest challenge with B2B transactions is that you’re not talking to one buyer. Research (Matbuy, 1981) has shown that there are as many as six different roles–including the user, initiator, influencer, gatekeeper, decider and buyer–in most B2B purchase decisions. To make matters worse, these roles may not be filled by a single person, but a group of individuals, or, heaven forbid, a committee (tangential comment: how do you calculate the average IQ of a committee? Take the lowest IQ in the group and divide it by the number of people in the committee!) To complicate matters, each committee member has different levels of influence, takes part at different times, and has different perspectives and needs.
Usually, the buyer and decider are pretty far removed in the organization from the user, and the larger the organization, the bigger the gap. That means that the people making contact with the vendor have at least 3 degrees of separation (user:initiator:influencer:gatekeeper:decider) from the person who will actually be using the product or service. In search, it becomes vital to know who the person is who will be using the search engine.
2. Realize what the intent of the researcher is. In our original study into the use of search in B2B buying decisions, we found that those most apt to use a search engine are the influencers, followed by the initiator, the user and then the decider. An actual buyer is very unlikely to turn to a search engine. Search is most often used to research the purchase alternatives, set the criteria and possibly dig up facts on potential vendors. The sweet spot is the person who’s assigned the task of researching and short-listing the potential alternatives. Remember, they’re going to be looking for column A, B and C vendors to give the selection committee the alternatives they need to match their buying process. This means that even if there is a pre-existing vendor relationship, this diligent individual will be using a search engine to dig up “column fodder,” another name for those other candidates that can be used to grind the preferred vendor (the column fodder tag is courtesy Michael Bosworth, Solution Selling). More about how to combat this next week.
The important point here is to realize the intent of the person most likely to be using a search engine. It’s not to make vendor contact. Remember, the actual decision of which vendor the organization will be going with will rest with someone else. It’s the influencer’s job to gather the data, compile it and pass it on. That’s their intent, and it’s the path you have to provide them when they land on your site.
3. Understand complex buying cycles and the possible touch points with search. Complex buying cycles that are common in B2B means there’s a lot of back and forth between a prospect and a vendor, with multiple touch points as the cycle progresses. That has a host of implications for the vendor, but there are some that are specific to search. We already talked about the likelihood of the influencer/designated researcher turning to a search engine. But there are other touch points where search could be used.
At the user level, when awareness of the need first dawns, there might be use of a search engine to see if a solution exists. If this is the case, the terminology might be significantly different than the common industry terms (more about this next week). Another place search might be used is at the decision level, where the decider is double checking on details on a particular criteria–i.e. terms of service agreements, other clients, payment terms, etc. These searchers will be very specific and navigational in nature.
4. Be prepared to build relationships with search leads. In the case of a complex B2B sale, a lead generated through a search referral is just the beginning. The ideal scenario is to qualify the lead as quickly as possible and transition it seamlessly into a rich relationship development pipeline. Depending on the nature of the sale, it might be appropriate to get it in the hands of a customer representative for follow-up, or you might want to continue to build the lead through less resource-intensive means (i.e. targeted e-mail follow-ups and communication), and nurture it before the initial point of contact. Whatever your follow-up process, make sure it matches the needs and goals of individual prospects.
5. Don’t ask for too much too soon. One of the biggest mistakes made by marketers is to push for too much information too soon. Remember the nature of those that will be coming to your site to research. They’re browsing online because they’re not ready to initiate contact with a vendor. In many cases, they haven’t even assembled their short list, so they are still several steps away from wanting to talk to a sales rep, even if they were the right person (which they usually aren’t).
Don’t force them to pick up the phone to learn more about your solution, and don’t force them to fill out a 25-field form. Give them the path of least resistance to accomplish their objective, which is to gather information to help them qualify their buying decision in a clear and easily transferable format. As tempting as it is to capture the lead and turn your sales people loose, in most cases if you jump too soon you’ll be spinning your wheels with the wrong contact and possibly scaring them off.
Coming next week, rules 6 through 10:
6. Understand the complexity of the keyword universe;
7. Know the roles of general and vertical search portals;
8. Realize that education is a necessary evil;
9. Be prepared to lose control; and
10. Understand the buying process of your prospect, but don’t surrender to it.