Direct vs. Distributors: Clash of the Compensation Models

First published August 24, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The world of marketing is heading for a head-on collision, thanks to consumers who seem to think they have the right to inform themselves prior to purchasing. The problem? We marketers trying to jam a semi-trailer full of legacy channel baggage into the sleek new  two-door direct-marketing roadster we’re taking for a spin.  Simple physics dictate that something has to give. My money’s on that bloated distribution chain.

Here’s how this particular pain was recently expressed to me: “We’re double paying for our leads. We get them through pay-per-click, they come to our site, go through the quote engine and get a price, then they go to one of our dealers and buy there. We have to turn around and pay the dealer a commission again, on top of what we already paid to get the lead in the first place. We have to figure out how to stop people from doing that!”

I get the frustration. I truly do. But in this case, it’s just a byproduct of transitioning to a more efficient marketplace. There are also vestiges of hard-to-change buying behaviors. When you have one leg in the old world of marketing and one in the new, and the two are diverging rapidly, groin injuries are not a surprising outcome.

The problem here is that traditional distribution networks were created to get around the problem of geography. For many reasons, you had to be in the same market as your prospects to sell to them. Buyers simply didn’t have the resources available to adequately research future purchases, so they used relationships with distributors as proxy. They relied on the opinion of a person they knew, knowing that if that person steered them wrong, they knew where he/she lived. This risk mitigation mechanism became more effective the more you did business with a particular distributor, so distributors expanded their scope of service, becoming one-stop shops for multiple products or services. The religion of the relationship ruled the market.

But the advent of digital information is in the process of changing this system. Now we can research purchases — and we do. Information is slowly replacing relationships. While we still rely heavily on the opinions of people we know, including distributors (this emerged as the single most influential factor in B2B purchasing in our BuyerSphere research), online research is not far behind, and it’s gaining ground quickly. Humans being humans, we don’t switch en masse from one behavior to the other. We transition over time —  typically, a lot of time — as in several years or even decades.

This, then, is the marketplace that the modern marketer is trying to straddle. In many marketplaces, particularly B2B, we’re seeing a decoupling of product research from the actual purchase. Buyers are quickly learning that distributors have very limited information on the average product they carry, so they’re turning directly to the manufacturer. But when it comes time to purchase, transactions often go through traditional channels. Hence the double paying for each lead the aforementioned marketer was complaining about.  You pay once to gain entry into the prospect’s consideration set while he’s researching, and you pay again to actually win the business.

This double paying isn’t some behavior that can be corrected in buyers. It’s the price we marketers are paying for our efforts to transform the marketplace. In the meantime, as we build new information networks, we have to hold on to our traditional distribution networks. In the long run, it will be a good thing for marketers, as the problem of geography is slowly being eliminated. But it will never be gone, as long as consumers’ trust in information provided by marketers is less than total. If there is a lack of trust, we will still rely on proximate relationships as a mitigating factor. The higher the degree of risk in a purchase, the more we will turn to those relationships.

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