Why enterprise buyers trust influencers – new research

SUMMARY:

Hank Barnes of Gartner is conducting in-depth research on the enterprise buyer. Some of his findings, including the role of influencers in the buying process, are eye opening.

broken-trustGartner’s Hank Barnes and I share an interest in how the enterprise buying process is changing. At the  heart of that change is what I call the “informed buyer”. Enterprise buyers have an unprecedented access to information across the buying process. But how does that impact purchasing decisions? And how does online search turn into trusted relationships?

I recently had the chance to talk to Barnes about his latest research on the informed buyer. Some of what he’s learned confirmed my views, but some of his data was genuinely surprising. In particular, the elevated role of influencers during the buying process was a topic we dug into.

Within Gartner, Barnes is part of a small tech go-to-market team, which provides go-to-market insights to technology providers. His two main areas of research focus are service provide differentiation, and customer buying patterns.

Enterprise buyer research – buyers are wading through information deluge

Barnes is now compiling the results of a survey with 700 enterprise buyers, and those findings were the primary focus on our talk (Barnes has also shared some recent data in his blog post, The Trust Cycle – Are you Developing or Eroding Trust?

For the 700 buyer survey, Barnes’ team gathered data from buyers across geographies, including U.S., most of EMEA, and Brazil, India, and China. Their questions to respondents covered four main themes:

  • During the buying process, what types of activities and information do you use, independent of the firm you are evaluating?
  • What type of content do you use from the provider itself?
  • What type of marketing activities get your attention?
  • What are you expecting from sales interactions?

Based on recently completed enterprise purchases, these buyers reported that they only spent 32 percent of their buying time actually interacting with providers or their partners (or reviewing provider information). As Barnes put it; “the remaining 68 percent of the buying process has nothing to do with them.”

So, what are those buyers doing during that 68 percent of the time? Barnes broke it out: 18% is internal company evaluations, 9% is social networking with peers, 12% is other interaction with peers, 13% is interactions with third parties, and 15% is reviewing independent information.

Barnes was struck by the importance of interactions driving these numbers. Bottom line: buyers are spending a huge amount of time making sense of vendor solutions, without the direct involvement of the vendor:

What’s really interesting about that is if you treat social networking as interacting versus just reviewing, 68% of their time is spent on interaction, and not just reviewing information. So they have access to all this stuff from vendors, but making sense of it, interpreting it, understanding that they have the right stuff is where they’re really struggling. That’s where interactions become really critical.

Deeper dive: why influencers score high with the informed buyer

That insight led Barnes deeper into the buying process itself. Barnes’ team defines the buying process in three distinct stages: exploration, evaluation, and engagement, defined as follows:

Exploration – do I want to make a change?
Evaluation – what approach am I going to make to this change?
Engagement – can I work with this specific vendor?

The role of influencers jumped out as a key factor in all three phases, but particularly early and late. Across the buying process, the top three factors were:

  • Information and research gathering – from trusted “independent” sites
  • Recommendations from analysts and influencers
  • Recommendations from professional associations and communities

The lowest three factors influencing the buying process were:

  • General purpose information search
  • Searching for information on the provider’s web site
  • Marketing content from the provider

It’s no surprise that buyers place a lower value on information provided by the vendor itself versus a trusted information source. But the emphasis on independent sites over Google search surprised me. Barnes elaborated:

Buyers want to do their own information search in trusted independent sites. We didn’t give them any specific web site names, but it was clearly differentiated from just going to Google and other search engines. Buyers find less value in general-purpose information search because they are overwhelmed with information, and have no idea what’s right. So they’re coming to Gartner.com. They’re going to Diginomica. They’re going to sites that they trust. That’s where they like to start.

Barnes broke out the numbers further to show the nuances for each stage:

Exploration phase
self-driven information search on trusted sites – over 50 percent
recommendations from analysts and influencers – 44 percent
recommendations from professional associations – 44 percent

Evaluation phase
self-driven information search on trusted sites – 46 percent
recommendations from analysts and influencers – 48 percent
recommendations from professional associations  – 45 percent

Engagement phase
self-driven information search on trusted sites – 46 percent
recommendations from analysts and influencers – 49 percent
recommendations from professional associations – 39 percent

Given that “influencers” are a moving target, I asked Barnes to define them. His team breaks them down by industry. As expected, today’s influencers come in many stripes:

We actually do influencer maps and cover the types of influencers that we see within industries. We think influencers come from industry associations; they come from the research community. It could be regulatory bodies, certainly social, conferences, consultants and advisors… Then there’s technology groups and the government and publications. So the influencer map is pretty broad.

Individual buyers perceive influencers differently, but key factors for influence include:  the respect the influencer has in the customer community, the brand respect of the firm the influencer is associated with, and the specific expertise of that influencer (e.g. you may be an expert in ERP evaluation, but not cloud virtualization, etc).

One factor that stands out to Barnes? The perceived “independence” of that influencer. If influencers have shown they are truly independent in their views, that evokes a higher level of trust than the feedback of partners, employees, or even peers. Barnes also notes that the platform/reach of the influencer is a factor.

Final thoughts

I could squander another blog post (or two) defining what independence means. But it’s clear that if influencers combine expertise with a respected independent voice, they factor heavily in the “trust meter” of the informed buyer.

It should be of no surprise to enterprise providers that their own content scores lower in terms of buying considerations. However, I would caution against viewing such content as irrelevant. It has its place in the sales cycle. But it doesn’t take the place of being perceived as a relevant company by trusted media sources. The fact that social scores low as a source of buying influence should be no surprise by now – even if many providers are doubling down on social as I type.

Another big influence on the buying process? Direct interaction with the vendor’s own sales team. Barnes hit on that in a recent post, and it underscores how much selling is changing, with an emphasis on advisory versus “always be closing.”

Perhaps this data is not terribly surprising, but for most service providers, the implications are significant. I don’t know too many marketing teams that know how to proceed with the informed buyer, who has a BS detector par excellence.

How to take this data forward isn’t simple or easy. It means moving out of the comfort zones of Powerpoint decks, into the uncertain waters of aspiring to thought leadership and transparent dialogue with industry experts. I’ve already noted some big mistakes to avoid for influencer programs to avoid.

Barnes had more info to chew on, but I think that’s plenty to ponder for now.

Image credit: Broken trust © Brian Jackson – Fotolia.com

Disclosure: diginomica has no financial ties to Gartner. I found Barnes’ views and research interesting and reached out to him for this feature.

Update: minor tweaks of a few sentences for clarity, 6/21/2015.

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    1. says:

      This is great research! I work for a company called IT Central Station, which is a platform for influencers and professionals to post and read reviews of B2B enterprise tech solutions to make more informed decisions. With vendor content one of the lowest three influencing factors for the buying process as you say here, our site works as a source of trustworthy information on these products–we have a triple verification process including LinkedIn that promotes transparency, and we ensure that all reviews are real and trustworthy. The research in your article reinforces how important recommendations are in each part of the buying process, and I found it really interesting to read.