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The B2B buyer's journey - what we've learned, and what we're missing

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 23, 2017
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.

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