How B2B Search Marketing Differs from B2C

First published June 24, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

As I write this, I’m at the B2B Search Strategy Summit in San Francisco. Mary O’Brien, the summit organizer, told me that many potential attendees — and yes, even some panelists — questioned where B2B search marketing was really all that different from B2C. Shouldn’t the same basic practices apply?

I answer that question the same way I answer all questions about marketing: Let’s look at it through the eyes of the buyer. And when we do that, we find some significant differences as we step from the consumer side to the business side.

It’s All About Risk

When we make decisions in any part of our lives, we have a “brake” and a “gas pedal” that governs the decision-making process. Call it risk and reward, prevention and promotion, loss and gain. Whatever you call it, in most decisions, there are opposing forces, and the ultimate decision depends on the balance between the two. If reward overcomes risk, we buy. If risk rules, we don’t.

On the consumer side of our lives, there’s often a strong emotional investment in the reward part of the equation. For example, I really want a new road bike. I can’t rationalize the purchase, seeing as I have a perfectly good used road bike, but that doesn’t quell the pangs of jealousy I feel when I see someone wheeling down the road on a new Cervelo or Trek Madone. Someday, I know, reward (the joy of saying “look, me too!”) will overcome the risk (parting with a significant chunk of cash) for me.

But think about most B2B purchases. If we’re looking at buying a new rack of servers, or supply chain management software, where’s the fun in that? The only real emotion at play here is the risk of screwing up and being fired. Emotions in B2B purchases are heavily biased towards risk mitigation. And that directly impacts your search strategy. Messaging has to minimize risk in the eyes of the buyer, rather than try to build on the emotional reward side of things. I can’t say the same would be true if you were bidding on terms like “convertible roadster,” “touring motorcycle” or even “iPad.”

It’s Their Job

The second difference is directly related to the first. B2B purchases are part of someone’s job. They’re not doing it because they simply love buying enterprise software or industrial supplies. No one makes a hobby out of buying O-rings or heavy-duty water pumps.

How does this affect a search strategy? It heightens the need for efficient retrieval of information. While a consumer looking at a sports car or booking a cruise might want to get “immersed” in an “experience,” typical B2B purchasing agents want to get in and out, allowing them to put one more check mark beside their ever-growing to-do list. They will not be in a forgiving mood if you send them down dead ends or tie them up in confusing navigation. This is all about making their job easier. And that becomes crucial when you think about landing page strategies and the path that leads from them.

Next week, I’ll cover the other two ways that B2B differs from B2C: the fact that often buyers are in unfamiliar territory, and that B2B purchases are typically group decisions.

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