The B2B buyer’s journey – what we’ve learned, and what we’re missing


New ideas have advanced the conversation about the B2B buyer and the so-called buyer’s journey, but something’s still missing.

After my last published foray on informed buyers, I’ve been duking it out with the problematic concept of the so-called “buyer’s journey.” Yeah, it’s one of the cheesier phrases you can conjure.

We’ve come a long way on the B2B buyer’s journey from pushing a rudimentary view of:
awareness -> consideration -> decision.

Despite these advances, we’re still falling short. There’s a big missing piece. Before I get to that, let’s look at the progress.

On B2B buyers – how we’ve advanced our thinking

1. Engagement matters to B2B buyers. Though you’ll still see folks like Hubspot (PDF link) and Pardot talking in shorthand about awareness -> consideration -> decision, when you dig deeper, they are all talking about “buyer engagement.” (For some variety, check 14 Visualizations Mapping The B2B Buyer Journey). I’ve heard Forrester talking about “awareness, engagement, purchase.”

I’ve heard Gartner question old models in favor of a customer-focused view: “explore, evaluate, engage, experience.” One Forrester slide lays out “ask, engage, discover, explore, buy, use.”

Our prior models were too simplistic and invasive. When we attempted to generate content around those old models, it came off as tone deaf and impersonal. When you consider the Forrester model from ask -> use – that’s a lot better.

The word “funnel,” as in “sales funnel,” has been blacklisted, perhaps because it comes off as arrogant and controlling. It fails to acknowledge today’s informed buyer is usually in control. We have to be careful about “engagement,” though – it sounds lovely but isn’t easy to nail down. Buyers do want to interact with us in new ways – but on their own terms. Yes – sometimes we can force the issue. But we better be personal and relevant when we do.

2. These are not distinct phases – and buyers don’t always pass through them sequentially. Wouldn’t it be tidy if buyers neatly progressed from one phase to the next? Well, that not how it works. Buyers may be going through multiple phases simultaneously. Gartner’s Hank Barnes has been out in front on this. In a 2016 Gartner webinar on buyers, he said:

The traditional model is we build awareness, and then, we drive interest, and then that creates desire, and finally, that leads to action. That’s been the traditional model of marketing and sales approaches in technology for a long, long time.

That’s really not what’s going on on the buyer’s side – and it’s particularly not what’s going on given how the availability of information via the web and social networks has changed. What we see is a buying process that’s much more fluid, and there’s a lot of complexity…

We don’t compartmentalize. While I’m exploring, I’m also evaluating. In many cases in technology, earlier in the buying process, I may be engaging with providers to learn about new ways to do things. We see these as streams that ebb and flow throughout the buying process.

New information and market conditions can reset this cycle; buyers may be in different stages on different products. It easier to accommodate this on the content/search side, where we can make sure that the right content is always searchable and ready – no matter where the buyer’s head is at. But this fluidity can throw marketing campaigns, targeted emails, and sales calls into a useless tizzy.

  • You might send an email that is completely off where the buyer’s head is now at.
  • You might score your chances of closing a deal at 90 percent this quarter, but you don’t know about a market shift, a pending acquisition, or even a random trade show conversation that changes the buyer’s agenda.

3. Assuming that buyers only want to hear from salespeople during one window is a mistake. SiriusDecisions contends that the stat we’ve all heard – “67 percent of the buyer’s journey is now done digitally” – leads to a misconception on the role of sales and sales content. While their research confirms that online searches are executives’ first course of action, SiriusDecisions questions the conclusion that sales shouldn’t get involved until we’re halfway through the buying cycle. They challenge marketers to work with sales differently:

It is true that the standard is now higher for sales to add value to the conversation, because so much information can be found online. Marketers, your mission is to help sellers get engaged early with customers and prospects by supporting them with enablement in the form of messages, content and other tools.

This ties with the previous point on the blurring phases. You never know when a prospect will want to engage – at that point, an informed salesperson or useful video/demo/test drive should be ready. A personalized outreach at the right time could pay off. However, there is a danger here: the vendor might assume that all of their content should be sales-enablement type stuff, about the product or brand. That’s not the case (more on this shortly).

4. Subscription software means the deal is never done. Trust must be continually re-earned. Subscription software has rendered go-live a formality and put the spotlight on post-sales retention. We’re starting to see more content maps based on models like Tony Zambito‘s, who put this out in 2010:


From 14 Visualizations Mapping The B2B Buyer Journey

It’s easy to see how this necessitates a different mindset for marketing and sales – and the content required to support these phases.

So what’s missing?

These models are missing two vital points.

A. Buyers aren’t always buying, but they are always learning. Today’s informed buyers get better at their jobs by building “trust networks” of experts inside and outside of their company. Yes, you could attempt to classify this learning as the “awareness” phase, but I don’t think it fits. Buyers are learning throughout these cycles, continuously making contact with peers and influencers, and consuming their content. This has two implications:

  • When buyers are ready to press ahead, they’ll turn to those they trust first, perhaps before they search/research on their own. Assuming “they’ll find us when they Google ___” is not enough. If you’re not part of their network, they might exclude you from their short list. Or they may ask an advisor to short list for them. That advisor may not know you, trust you, or have experience working with you. They might ask for input on a LinkedIn group your team is not a part of, or that your company has been kicked out of for excessive link blasting.
  • That means you need to become proficient in a different kind of content, which I wrote about in Why the informed buyer is ruining the content party. Warning: this type of content is tougher to produce. It requires empowering your employee experts to share content, ensuring they have time to do so, and helping them evolve into so-called “thought leaders” who can communicate without pushing brands and products.

B. We shouldn’t only be targeting buyers. We should be building audiences that lead to opt-in communities. Some of those audience members will never fit into any kind of “buyers journey”, no matter how fancy it is – but that audience still matters. In Content strategy is “stuck in average”, I talked to Robert Rose of the Content Marketing Institute about why building an audience of subscribers is so powerful.

But: you’re not going to create that audience with branded content alone. Rose cites examples where brand is background and customer needs are foreground, e.g. Johnson & Johnson’s, with 4.5 million subscribers.

For another take on why audiences matter, see Barb Mosher Zinck’s Focus your content marketing, but don’t have tunnel vision, which warns about over-focusing on the purchase journey.

When you build an opt-in community, you’re ratcheting up the value exchange on both sides, with your community willingly sharing valuable data in exchange for what they receive. Some folks in that community will never buy from you. That doesn’t mean they don’t have influence. They could be subject matter experts, called upon by buyers to evaluate technical claims. Or they could be influencers of one stripe or another (see: Why enterprise buyers trust influencers – new research).

My take

These last two points pose a formidable challenge to the “buyers journey” methodology. However, I don’t believe that the buyer’s journey as a concept needs to be thrown out. There is value in mapping content to the sales cycle. When prospects want to sample your Kool Aid, you should have plenty of info and a responsive style. Your prospects will judge you by their interactions with Sales and Marketing. Vendor trust gets tested by its weakest link – or most unpleasant point of contact.

In addition to the buyer’s journey, we should be thinking in terms of “buyer’s community” or “buyer’s network.”

  • How do we reach buyers in their networks? (It won’t be only on our web site, that’s for certain)
  • How do we credibly become part of those networks, where we are judged by our ideas and expertise, not our branded solutions?
  • How do we create content that’s relevant to these networks, given that BS detectors are on high alert and branded content is often unwelcome?
  • How do we figure out the attribution issues that allow us to track that engagement, and help marketing/sales to determine the right ways to reach out to influencers – while avoiding the wrong ones?

End of week, I’ll share my back and forth with Hank Barnes on these concepts. Let’s hear your thoughts.

Updated, 07/24/2017, trimmed intro and took out a few minor points.

Follow up piece posted – more commentary and reader comments in Why does the informed buyer ignore marketers?  Chime in.

Image credit - Buyer's journey graphic credited above.

    Comments are closed.

    1. says:

      Great piece, Jon.

      This is a complicated topic, because buying (and selling) is complicated. Two things to add to this discussion.

      1. Many sellers forget is that buyers (really buying teams) are seldom on a single journey. They are considering multiple projects concurrently (including looking at that deal they just signed wondering if they are going to get value from it). Considering our sales cycles, and their journeys in a vacuum, is another recipe for problems.

      2. Buying teams struggle to buy (they aren’t always sure how to navigate their own decision-making processes (both formal and informal), but they aren’t stupid. They’ve bought technology before. They’e likely been burned before. The belief that details can be hidden or saved for latter that I still see many provider take (consciously or subconsciously–just look at their content) is wrong. I think the biggest wish of buying teams would be for providers to “give it to them straight” about what needs to happen to be successful. It’s not a mystery and it may take effort and their may be surprises. But just lay out the path and see if more of your prospects follow.

    2. Jon Reed says:

      Hank thanks – glad to have the dialogue on this as it’s sharpened my thinking – as you say, a lot to wrap your head around here.

      Thanks for that first point on juggling multiple projects. I tried to hit that but it’s a point that should have come out stronger.

      As for this: ” The belief that details can be hidden or saved for latter that I still see many provider take (consciously or subconsciously–just look at their content) is wrong. I think the biggest wish of buying teams would be for providers to “give it to them straight” about what needs to happen to be successful.”

      Definitely – I believe you and have talked about this before but few things are more helpful to buyers than a vendor saying what scenarios are NOT a fit. I’m not sure why there is so much hesitation to do this. Well, I have some ideas but it’s a backfire to obscure what you’re really good at by trying to by all things to all prospect.s It’s amazing how many times I see vendors keeping certain material private that would be ideal to share in public, not just for search but to build transparency, answer questions, and build trust.

      I’m looking forward to sharing more of what you and I have discussed on these issues – and what needs to change – later this week.

      – Jon

    3. says:

      Jon – I agree completely with your point that we should not only target buyers in the Buyer Journey. Great insight, and one that deserves another separate post sometime in the future.

      1. Jon Reed says:

        Thanks Tad – I will definitely address that topic again as it’s essential. There are a few diginomica pieces that get into that in different ways, all three of which I’ve linked to in the article:

        Barb Mosher Zinck basically focused on it last week in: Focus your content marketing, but don’t have tunnel vision.

        I hit on it as a core theme in: Robert Rose to Hippo Connect attendees: content strategy is “stuck in average”.

        And it also fits directly into: Why enterprise buyers trust influencers – new research.

        I’ll hit on it again in my end of week post.

        I”m sure I’ll address it again in the future – if there is a particular angle you want to see feel free to let me know.

        – Jon

    4. says:

      So what’s missing?

      Certainly not the jargon! The Buyers Journey sounds much more enchanting than the Buyer’s Decision-Making process. Which is the missing link that Hank (as usual gets right) in his comment “buying teams struggle to buy”. Unfortunately, the “journey” and all of the subsequent discussions are about placing products/solutions and ignore the decision-making issues that are the real challenge that buyers have to overcome.

      Buying is a change management problem NOT a solution choice problem. The problem has never been your solution – your products and services are great. The problem is in the Buying Decision-Making process: we overlook buyer readiness and helping buyers address the unknowable change issues (independent of need, and based on status quo, people, rules and procedures, culture, history, etc.) so they can get their ducks lined up to buy anything.

      This is the real Buyer’s Journey – the path from the problem recognition, to organizing the buying decision team, to the research and trials and workarounds to fix the problem with known resources, to the change management issues, to the point of defining the type of solution that will resolve the problem with least disruption.

      My Take

      Thinking that a prospective buyer ‘needs’ your content, or will be convinced or influenced to take action before they’re ready, is delusional thinking and needlessly restricts your audience.

      1. Jon Reed says:

        You’ve done a great job of filling in points I didn’t get to. Love this line:

        “Buying is a change management problem NOT a solution choice problem.”

        Keep in mind this piece makes the point you shouldn’t even restrict your approach to buyers and you shouldn’t really think of your “buyers” as buyers but as humans solving problems and learning as they go. Whether or not they are trying to make a decision at that time. In the expertise your company focuses on, there are communities to serve. Buyers are not the only ones in those communities. I’m talking about expanding the audience, not restricting it.

        But yeah, I could give a heck about the terminology. If you want to call it the Buyer’s Decision Making Process that’s fine by me.

        It is very powerful, however, to become an expert that buyers trust. I’ve seen that in action many times. That’s the main thing I am getting at in my articles is how that is accomplished – being relevant and sharing a passion for solving enterprise problems. But that’s not the only angle that’s needed on such a topic, so thanks for giving your well thought view.

        – Jon

    5. Jon Reed says:

      Hey folks – just want to add this exchange I had with Hank Barnes on “inner circles” that he added to my hits and misses on Google’s Diversity Problem. I think it is also relevant here:

      August 9, 2017, Hank Barnes says:

      “On a different tact, and connecting some dots to some other discussions. As we think about diversity, how does that play with the idea of circles of advisors. If we talk the diversity talk, do we walk the diversity walk by conscientiously expanding our inner circle to include more diverse opinions.It’s a small idea, but it might have a big impact on truly embracing the power of viewpoints formed from different frames of reference.

      Probably a discussion for another day.”

      Jon Reed says:

      “A discussion worth having 🙂 Agreed – the risk in an “inner circle” is you create your own echo chamber or human filter bubble or monoculture. I think it takes a willingess to throw yourself into new and uncomfortable situations and make diverse connections across fields and disciplines and geographies. But that’s the short version and I won’t pretend to have all the answers to that one.”

      Also note: more feedback and thinking on this piece can be found in the follow up, now posted: Why does the informed buyer ignore marketers?

    6. I am getting hooked on the way in which this dialogue is teasing out the emotional aspects of the B2B buying process by placing focus on the typically dysfunctional approach that characterizes most enterprise software/services purchases. If this was not so, then why is it that most companies report they frequently miss taking advantage of all the features available in the shiny new thing that was sold to them based on expected results without addressing the change management issues which abound in any organization.
      As a former product marketing contributor in a large IT vendor, I was told by management several times to “edit” descriptions in collateral or sales enablement material that appeared to limit the applicability of our solution. It’s a sliding slope towards pure hyperbole, if not misrepresentation. Amazingly enough, these lies of omission don’t do the vendor any good in the long run although they are perpetuated through status quo thinking. Creating sales materials with descriptions of scenarios that were of questionable fit with our product/service was considered tantamount to sabotaging our sales force in the field when it could have created exactly the kind of learning process that would have made for honest and long-lasting engagement.

      1. Jon Reed says:

        Good comment Grant which brings out issues on both the customer and vendor side. You may want to check my profile for a recent piece on change management that could be up your alley.

        As for this: “When it could have created exactly the kind of learning process that would have made for honest and long-lasting engagement.”

        yes! I see some signs that sales is changing but not nearly the extent to which I’d like….the long game is the right game and that’s where retention/community/ecosystem converge in a good situation for all. But alas chasing quarterly numbers still brings out a very different mentality. I don’t have an easy solution for it but I do want to expose the conversation at least. Thx.

        – Jon