B2B marketers will benefit from using search and social media to shorten the sales cycle
Paul Gillin, author of The New Influencers and a leading authority on B2B marketing, just published a draft of the first chapter of his upcoming book, Social Marketing to the Business Customer on his blog. He had me on the second page when he spelled out what I've always seen as the differences between B2B and B2C sales--but have never been able to articulate as clearly. The points Paul makes --about buyers' focus on value, group decision-making, and sales cycle length especially resonate with me as someone who focuses on marketing IT products and professional services to corporations.
B2B transactions are "bet the company" decisions
As I was reading, however, it occurred to me that the characteristics that both Paul and I ascribe to B2B businesses may be a function of scale and complexity, rather than just the target audience. After all, most consumer acquisitions are not "bet the company decisions". Notable exceptions include real estate, new jobs, mates, and the most major of surgeries. In each of these situations, individuals' buying behavior is more like that of businesses than consumers.
Nevertheless, I still think the points that Paul outlines are what distinguishes most B2B from most B2C transactions. Even those B2B purchases that are not "bet the company" decisions, occur in the spotlight, are ones for which the buyer is held accountable by others, and are therefore "bet the job" decisions.
Long sales cycles are expensive
Of the points Paul mentioned, my own focus as a B2B marketing consultant has always been on shortening the sales cycle. As he notes, B2B sales cycles stretch out because success depends on addressing the needs of multiple people at multiples stages of the buying process, each of which have different priorities.
Long sales cycles are expensive. Ironically, any time that salespeople spend on prospecting for new business, building relationships, pointing out the benefits of the company's wares, or ensuring that each stakeholder gets satisfactory answers to the questions she or he has is relatively unproductive. The company only makes money when its salespeople are closing deals or negotiating their terms. Any time spent on the activities leading up to a sale has a huge opportunity cost, because that's time that the salesperson isn't closing other deals.
Advance preparation is the secret to accelerating the sale
Advance preparation is the secret to shortening the sales cycle. Salespeople tend to only have messages for a few of the audiences that they need to reach. Because they are under pressure to close the transaction, salespeople don't have the time it takes to research and prepare the nuanced responses that others who influence the buying decision often require. Consequently, their communications are not as powerful as they could be--and the sales cycle stretches out as prospects continue to shop.
This is where B2B marketers, and B2B marketing consultants like me, make their greatest contribution. Our job is to anticipate who will be involved in the buying process, what they'll need at each stage, and how they prefer that the company meet these needs--with the goal of developing targeted communications and tools well before Sales needs them.
B2B marketers are at a disadvantage
Unfortunately, we can't take advantage of many of the tools that B2C marketers have at their disposal. They get reams of data gathered through surveys and via scanners at the point-of purchase. They also have many media in which they can cost-effectively place highly-targeted ads.
Our audiences are smaller and buy less frequently. They are also less homogenous both due to the greater complexity of the B2B buying decision--and because our total available markets aren't generally large enough to divide into sizable segments.
It's, therefore, hard for us to get relevant survey data. For one, it's hard to capture the nuances of complex buying decisions in a survey that's limited to forced choice answers. For another, there aren't enough of us, targeting any given market segment, to justify third-party investments in any but the most general survey data.
Historically, our best alternative, for getting at the heart of the buying process, has been to gather information from decision makers through one-to-one interviews, or in small groups. Doing so requires special skills to avoid predetermining the answers by the way we pose our questions. Moreover, because the available data collection methods were expensive, we could only speak with relatively small samples of the population.
From a communications perspective, we've never had a cost-effective media. As Paul notes, our goal is to reach multiple audiences that buy relatively infrequently--and whose needs vary depending on where they are in the buying process. If we purchase spots in broadcast media, we're paying to reach too many people we don't care about. On the other hand, direct marketing, which allows for more targeted messaging is also expensive--since we still don't know which prospects will be receptive to our messages at any point in time.
Search and social media promise to be a tremendous boon
Search and social media have the potential to make us both more efficient and more cost-effective. They promise to improve both the quality and quantity of the information we can obtain.
By searching on germane keywords, we can find out what prospects have to say, unaided, on relevant topics. This information will add value, since discussants are likely speaking about what matters to them-- rather than just responding to questions about the dimensions that we think to ask about. Search and social media also provide access to the crowd, decreasing our reliance on the insights of a few available individuals.
The news is even better from a communications perspective. Organic search and pay per click dramatically reduce our costs. One is free and the other only requires us to pay for audiences that are likely receptive to our messages. We also can reach members of our target audience through social media via the online peer groups in which they participate or the lists members make of their peers using tools such as Listorious.
The availability of better tools is a double-edged sword
The good news is that search and social media have made getting the right message to the right person at the right time easier and less expensive than ever--and should enable us to significantly shrink the sales cycle. The bad news is that customers will be less forgiving of companies whose marketing messages still do not anticipate and address their needs.
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