Shedding Some Light on B2B Purchasing

First published May 17, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week, we released our latest B-to-B research study based on a survey of almost 1,100 respondents. Today, I wanted to share a few high-level findings with you.

The Mirrored Worlds of Online and Offline

One of the challenges in B-to-B marketing is that you’re not marketing to just one person; you’re marketing to an organization. So you’re marketing to different people within that organization at different times. This adds a significant amount of complexity to business-to-business marketing. We wanted to capture this aspect of the B-to-B buying process, so we grouped respondents into four different categories of buyers: user buyers, technical buyers, coach buyers and economic buyers, the one who actually sign the check.

Another thing we wanted to look at was the impact of both online and off-line influencers in the purchase decision. How important was visiting a Web site, compared to seeing a vendor at a trade show or an ad in a trade publication?

In the study, one thing became clear. Online influences have gained a tremendous amount of ground over traditional influences. In fact, they’ve even caught up with the traditional off-line winner, word-of-mouth. The vendor’s own Web site was listed as the most important influence, together with word-of-mouth from a colleague or peer. Close behind were search engines, distributor Web sites and word-of-mouth from a friend.

When B-to-B buyers enter the purchase cycle, online activity is a natural result of off-line brand awareness. As the buyer becomes aware of a potential product or solution, the first reaction is to turn online to find out more about it. Across all phases of the buying cycle, including awareness, research, negotiation and purchase, over 85% of respondents said they will go online to help them make the right purchasing decision. This online activity was highest during the awareness and research phase, with a full 92% of respondents indicating that they would turn to online resources then. The percentage was lowest during negotiation, but even so, two out of every three respondents indicated that they would go online during this phase.

The Search Intersection

Also, the vast majority of purchasers start their online journey at the search engine. Although this varies by phase of the buying process, over all phases one in two users turn to a search engine first to help them find the online resources they’re looking for. This is highest during the beginning of the purchase process, in the awareness and research phases. At the awareness phase, 65% of respondents indicated the first place they would go would be a search engine.

There’s also a distinct evolution in the use of search engines as buyers move through the purchase process. Near the beginning, the first places they turn are the major portals, and the overwhelming favorite is Google, the first choice of 77% of the respondents. By the way, in a simulated search we incorporated into the survey, 74.2% of the clicks happened on organic listings. This matches up quite well with the organic/sponsored breakdown we’ve seen in other studies.

But as buyers begin moving through the phases, the role of the vertical B-to-B search engine (such as Business.com or Knowledgestorm) becomes more important. Buyers use these engines to build their consideration set and dig deep for the information about the product or solution alternatives they’re considering. While only 7.3% of respondents indicated they would turn first to the B-to-B vertical engine in the awareness phase, 22.1% indicated this would be their first choice during the negotiation stage.

K.I.S.S. Works for B-to-B, Too

The biggest influence for the B-to-B buyer? The vendor’s own Web site. But when it comes to accessing information on that site, simpler is definitely better. Buyers said they were looking for clear, extensive product information provided in an easily transferable, text-based format. The No. 1 priority was clear pricing information. This was followed closely by extensive product information, comparisons with competitors and downloadable papers and product sheets. The least important factors to the buyer were things like podcasts, webinars and online chat functions. B-to-B buyers are very task-oriented; they want to get in, find the information they’re looking for and get out. They have little patience for linear multimedia presentations that force them to gather information on the vendor’s timeline, not their own.

B-to-B purchases are often complex, long-cycle affairs that generate a tremendous amount of online activity. The wonderful thing for the marketer is that much of that activity funnels through a search engine at some point. This gives the marketer that understands this process a tremendous advantage, because it’s easier to determine the most traveled intersections online. But that understanding is the key. I hope research like this adds to our rather limited body of data on B-to-B purchases.

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