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

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 30, 2017
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.

Last 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.

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