Why does the informed buyer ignore marketers? – A new dialogue

SUMMARY:

My last piece on informed buyers ruffled a feather or two. Still, B2B buyers need more than over-branded and tone deaf content. Here’s a fresh response and dialogue.

exec-with-bullhornLast week, I boiled down two years of slides (fun!) on the informed buyer. I looked at what we’ve learned about the B2B buyer’s journey – and what we’re still missing.

Some choked on the “buyer’s journey” phrase for being too jingoistic and naive – no objections here.

The short version of my argument was:

  1. We’ve learned a ton about B2B buyers, We’ve advanced beyond the simplistic models of awareness -> consideration -> decision.
  2. We’re still falling short. Our content is failing the informed buyer’s relevance test. Our so-called “personalized” marketing is tone deaf to the buyer’s problem-du-jour.

Those building “buyer’s journey” models are falling short in two ways:

  • Buyers aren’t always buying, but they are always learning. Today’s informed buyers get better at their jobs by building networks of experts inside and outside company walls. Earn buyer relevance, or risk being excluded from future purchases/renewals. This doesn’t fit into a phase like awareness – it’s continuous.
  • We shouldn’t only be targeting buyers. We should be building audiences that become opt-in communities. Some will never fit into a so-called “buyers journey” – but that audience still matters.

These realizations require different, non-branded content – the kind companies struggle to create.

Gartner’s Hank Barnes – “your social network may not be of much help”

I’ve been debating with smart marketers and analysts. In chats and emails with Gartner’s Hank Barnes, who enjoys pushing the research edge on these issues (and blogging about it), I asked him why the current models are falling short – and if he agrees with my assessment.

We both see buyers building networks of peers and influencers to help make sense of the vendor hype barrage. Barnes warns – and I agree – that social networks as a whole don’t deliver what buyers need:

Your social network may not be of much help.  There is simply too much noise in the social networks that we develop.   I mean, let’s be honest, I’ve never met – or really interacted in any way with many, maybe even most – of my connections on Linked In, other than accepting their request.   I do that to discover new things and make sharing my stuff easier.

Barnes talks of an inner circle:

What you do need is an “inner circle” network – a subset of go-to people you trust and value. A key competency is developing this network in a way that gives you enough different viewpoints that it helps you avoid missteps, and helps you accelerate a good decision. You need a network for that, because it goes beyond looking at what one influencer is telling you.

Diversity of views matters:

I mean, even Gartner and diginomica are not always right in every situation.   Instead, we should think about how to build this inner circle network to help us accelerate smart decisions. And, if I’m a seller, I need to try to learn that inner circle and make sure I’m connected across it – as long as, and this is assumed, I can add value.

I bolded that last phrase, because that’s the crux. And it’s not a safe assumption. There’s no magic to entering these networks: you do it by sharing expert info and helping people. A vendor employee can earn their way in, just like anyone else – if they can avoid brand blabber.

Insights are getting lost in a “volume of crap”

Barnes thinks we’re getting sidetracked:

I think we’ve lost sight in the volume of crap on how to get the real insights from our networks… I think the network concept works, but the quest for growth and volume numbers has diminished the value. It’s the inner circle that really matters – and we all need one (or several). My inner circle may be different for music versus technology versus business (and everywhere in between). There will be lots of overlap, but they won’t be the same.

Networks require a constant value exchange, or they will falter:

Everyone is talking about platforms these days- and we think they are important too at Gartner. Your inner circle network needs to be like a platform. There has to be value moving in both directions.  If you are not in anyone’s circle, and just try to suck knowledge out of others, the circle will die.  You have to share for them as well. Platform economics only work if value moves in multiple directions.

What about my contention that even an expanded, “SaaS for life” buyer’s cycle falls short? Barnes says Gartner is rethinking that also:

At Gartner, we’ve been discussing more of a customer life cycle story. Even when I’m not in a buying cycle, for example after I’ve bought, I’m still in the mode of exploring, evaluating and engaging. If I’m not getting all the value I want, then I’m starting to evaluate other options. Should I be doing something different? I might explore other approaches.

Reach audiences – not just buyers

Barnes and I didn’t get into the second point about reaching audiences in this exchange, but we bit off a crucial chunk of that in Why enterprise buyers trust influencers – new research. Barnes’ data underscores why influencers matter to buyers. He explains that it’s not just content – but interactions  – that matter most. Our networks are there to help us make sense of what we’re consuming.

Targeting audiences and not just buyers is the focus of my chat with Content Marketing Institutes’ Robert Rose (why content marketing is stuck in average). Rose makes his case for building audiences of subscribers – with content that resonates to their needs, not branding priorities.

Our own Barb Mosher Zinck addressed this in Focus your content marketing, but don’t have tunnel vision: Zinck advises keeping the content focus on buyers. But even there, expanding the editorial pays off:

[Buyers] do more than look for products to purchase. In fact, they spend a lot of time looking at other content related to their job – content that helps them do their job better.

So why not broaden your content development to topics that your personas are interested in and don’t map directly to your product? For example, you sell a web content management solution. Instead of only writing content related to implementing a better CMS or using a CMS, why not create content that provides guidance or practices to improve your web experience or write better web content?

Zinck’s advice is middle ground for those companies not willing to become full-fledged publishers, but who want to avoid content tunnel vision:

Another important thing to understand is that influencers and advocates for your brand don’t have to come from customers only. If you are developing a well-rounded set of content that your target personas use, it keeps you top of mind when they talk to colleagues at their company and other companies, even other industries. These non-customers will recommend your content and drive traffic to your website and social channels, and you never know who will convert from those efforts.

My take

Yes, Diginomica has a dog in this fight – we work with vendors to reach buyers and their networks with content, hopefully without falling into over-branded oblivion. No, we’re not the only ones out there proving this model. I love how The New Stack does this, to cite an enterprise example from the techier side.

Perhaps all brands don’t need to be become publishers (though I think most do). All brands need to train/unleash their employee experts to become influencers.

My last post stirred up useful comments. Barnes responded:

1. Many sellers forget that buyers (really buying teams) are seldom on a single journey.

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’ve likely been burned before. The belief that details can be hidden or saved for later that I still see many provider take (consciously or subconsciously–just look at their content) is wrong. (note: see Barnes’ full comment here).

Gordon Hogg of INSIGHThought left a strong comment, including his distaste for the “Buyer’s Journey” jargon I used in the post. He flips it around:

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. (full comment here)

I see Hogg’s comment as another opportunity to solve problems with content and interactions. Hard work, yes, but thinking in terms of networks and communities, and earning relevance within those, is the way forward. Maybe helping people doesn’t sound very sexy. Maybe you can’t build a slide show or elaborate model around it, I don’t know.

Oh, and by the way, I’m not excluding attribution and analytics and all the fetishized tools. They can – and should – be fused to the right purpose.  Fused to the wrong purpose, they only measure indifference.

Image credit - Announce © Stillkost - Fotolia.com.

    Comments are closed.

    1. I love this conversation! Most B2B marketers are kidding themselves if they believe they are creating a buyer’s journey for their prospects. It’s way too chaotic, it’s way too individual, and it’s virtually impossible to collect the data you need to understand which content is *actually* the most relevant at which stages of the buying process. We’re still measuring email clicks (skewed by bots) and form fills (terrible user experience), and trying to read the tea leaves to figure out who might actually be “sales ready”. As a content marketer, I have been known to comb through the contact records associated with recently closed-won accounts in Salesforce to see which content they downloaded before becoming a customer. Super manual and so not scalable. I’d use that information and my brain to try to map out a better, more relevant path through content for prospects. Basically, I would guess. What I was really trying to figure out was this: what information (not necessarily individual content pieces) did people need to consume in order to become educated enough to confidently manage the change required to buy and use our software? And how do we know when they’ve actually consumed “enough” of that information in order to be qualified “enough” to buy what we’re selling? (Full disclosure: That’s why I joined my current company, because we’re working on solving this very problem.)

    2. Jon Reed says:

      Cassandra thanks for the comment and cool you are determined at your new company to take a bite out of this problem – or more 🙂

      This was a good one: “Basically, I would guess. What I was really trying to figure out was this: what information (not necessarily individual content pieces) did people need to consume in order to become educated enough to confidently manage the change required to buy and use our software?”

      I like how that is framed – it includes the possibility of product questions but the main focus is on the problem at hand. From there, I do think it’s possible to map some of this – and the type of content needed – and find some tools that help. Barb has written about some of those issues for diginomica and I’m sure we’ll revisit.

      – Jon

    3. First, this isn’t always true: “Buying is a change management problem NOT a solution choice problem” It’s not me who says it but the reality I saw while doing ERP selection. There are several reasons for that like the cost of change management, the fact that companies have no clue where to start, etc.

      Second, the answer to the question: “why not create content that provides guidance or practices to improve your web experience or write better web content?” is: everybody does it but vendors usually provide very basic information which is meant to get people to their website and convert them, not to help them.

      And finally, most vendors share whatever content they create in a manner that’s not engaging at all. It’s broadcasting. They don’t try to start conversations with people, which is why marketing lost its credibility in my opinion.

      What can be done then? Create content that shows you understand people’s pain points and demonstrates what you do in an engaging way. Don’t write about ERP 101 or about how great your products are. If you sell ERP, visit a few customers and write about the problems they have on the shop floor or in the warehouse. Analyst reports and stats are nice but people do not always relate with them because they’re too generic – they show what the average does, or the top performers. Most companies are neither.

      Then share the content by engaging with those who may need it. LinkedIn communities are full of comments from sales people who only say “take a look at my software” but they don’t say why.

      I have more to say but I think I’ll stop now 🙂 Next time we meet we should find a few hours to talk about this. Or we can write something about this together, if you’re interested.

      Gabriel

    4. Jon Reed says:

      Gabriel – you said:

      “Create content that shows you understand people’s pain points and demonstrates what you do in an engaging way”

      Yeah, that’s really one of the key points here so I’m glad you stated it clearly. I’ve been covering the content AND interaction part quite explicitly in both these pieces.

      The other things you disagreed with in the post aren’t things I wrote but quotes from other experts, so I’m not going to get into a blow-by-blow on that. I would simply say that we need different voices in this.

      Pretty much everything else you’ve said is similar to how I see it, so I agree across the board. The only thing I might take issue with is you’ve laid it out as if you’ve figured it all out in a few paragraphs. It’s a lot harder than that, which is why I’ve been having this dialogue and taking into account other views, not just my own method which I’ve laid out as well.

      – Jon

    5. says:

      Great discussion and a fun an interesting conversation. This is not easy, that’s for sure. The area that I am definitely looking at how to explore in the future is developing more understanding (and validating it) of the idea of trust networks and “inner circles.” If we can both identify trust networks and contribute to them and then guide customers toward these networks, we might go a long way toward making buying easier, particularly from the dimension of building confidence and consensus that the challenges and choices are well understood (versus wondering if “we might be missing something”).

      I do try to oversimplify things (because simple models have their own complexity due to context) by focusing on helping buyers answer 3 questions: Should we change (aka do something different)? How should we change? Who should we work with to execute that change? And those questions get revisited constantly throughout the customer life cycle.

      This discussion is as much about helping the enterprise buyer increase success rates–both for buying efforts and projects–as it is about helping the vendor community sell and market more effectively.

      1. Jon Reed says:

        Hank thanks for the spirited dialogue on this. I realize I don’t have all the answers here but with any luck we can at least bust through stale ideas. As for this:

        “The area that I am definitely looking at how to explore in the future is developing more understanding (and validating it) of the idea of trust networks and “inner circles.”

        Yes, I think that would be a rewarding area of research and validation. Much of my theories on this come from interviewing buyers and getting an informal feel. The one thing I am convinced of is that buyers are definitely more informed than they once were, and that they are always learning and gut checking info with those they trust/respect.

        I like the concept of making a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s content or community chats or whatever, and earning credibility from that – especially because I was never very good at the golf course/schmoozing approach to sales 🙂

        – Jon

    6. says:

      Jon, I like the way you approach and consider multiple perspectives on a complex issue like this. It takes a very open and unbiased mind. It’s hard to do. You and Hank are very good at this!

      I think the informed buyer ignores marketers simply because they’re not “ready to buy” or rather “not ready to be influenced” by your content capabilities, features, benefits and value propositions because they don’t know how to bring in an external solution (yet). They’ve got to understand where they’re at and how they got there first, in order to get buy-in from all of the people, relationships, job outcomes, rules and policies, initiatives, partnerships and departments that will be affected by an external solution.

      Make no mistake, they know they have a problem that’s why they’ve built, funded, staffed and maintain workarounds to “manage” the problem. The external solution will impact all of this (the status quo) and they’re not sure how deep and embedded the status quo even is in their own company and it’s likely been there for years with lots of historical precedence and political supporters. So even though you may have exactly the right solution, if buyers can’t make sense of their own situation your content won’t matter. If you ever wonder where your prospect goes after initially reaching out or why new requirements keep popping up, you can bet this is where it’s coming from.

      And it only gets worse! Once they determine the extent of the problem and admit there’s something missing, everyone gets to weigh-in on the fix and the #1 recommendation WILL ALWAYS BE to use their own internal resources or vendors and suppliers they’ve used in the past. Only when the decision team (now composed of everyone that has a say in the workarounds) recognizes that they can’t fix the problem with anything familiar will they consider bringing in an external solution. And then the focus will be on a solution that will cause the least disruption to the stability of the company’s internal processes.

      This is the “Buyers Journey” and it’s all about decision-making and managing internal change and has nothing to do with solution choice. Only now can the decision team determine the criteria that needs to be in the solution and be influenced by the typical marketing content and sales rep pitch, presentation or script. This is the last mile of the purchase decision and reflects just how out of touch marketing content, messaging and positioning and current sales training/involvement is with the buyer’s decision making process. We’re fixated on the “Solution Journey” not the “Buyers Journey”.

      I understand this is not how sales and marketing are supposed to think or act but I can tell you that the best sales people that I’ve come across actively manage and work the buyers decision making right from that initial contact or 1st call response on a marketing lead and they’re firmly influencing buyer opinions and selection criteria and in most cases, they’re part of the buyers decision team.

      It doesn’t matter what your product is or how you sell and market it, if the buyer doesn’t know how to align all of the pieces of their internal systems so everyone will be happy to change, they will do nothing. It’s not just a decision about the problem your product solves, it’s about understanding and managing the entire internal environment that contains and maintains the problem.

      1. Jon Reed says:

        Gordon, excellent comment, overseas on meetings but I’ll respond in more detail soon. I’d be interesting in collaborating with you on a future piece in this series.

        p.s. now adding a bit more. I think your comment is coherent and speaks for itself. You’ve spoken well to the internal dynamics and you are right, that is a big part of it. That added something useful for readers so thanks.

        As for this: “I think the informed buyer ignores marketers simply because they’re not “ready to buy” or rather “not ready to be influenced” by your content capabilities, features, benefits and value propositions because they don’t know how to bring in an external solution (yet).”

        That is part of it, yes. But the other part is, as I’ve said, is buyers are not always buying but they are always learning. And when they are in learning mode they are looking – usually- for a very different kind of content – and discussion – than most marketers are capable of having.

        That’s a key part of what I’m writing about here, along with the concept of “networked learning” which definitely applies to many buyers I speak with.

        – Jon

    7. 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.”