Buying behavior has changed over the last decade. The free availability of rich information / content distributed by the Internet, the ability to connect easily to peers online and the emergence of platforms for crowdsourcing product evaluations all contribute to this change. If buying changes then by necessity marketing and sales behaviors must also change and react to remain effective. Most people have a reasonably good understanding of these changes from a business to consumer (B2C) perspective, but do the same changes apply to business to business (B2B) as well? The simple answer to that question is yes, whether it’s individuals buying personal “stuff” or businesses buying business “stuff”, the process is still people centric and the behaviors are relatively similar.
This whole subject is something I’ve talked about here before, both from the marketing buyer journey (or model as I prefer to call it) and from sales behaviors that need to change to be effective in this new, connected and information rich selling environment. That’s not what I want to focus on in this post. If you saw my announcement last week, my new company / role is more focused on making the process of buying work better, so that’s the tack I’ll take with this post. The focus will be on business software, but I suppose that what I discuss would also apply to many other B2B categories.
In B2B buying there’s a basic process flow that occurs naturally, although it is not linear, even though what I will show you appears that way. Think of them more in phases that are reasonably fluid, and within which the buyer moves untethered as they progress at their own pace toward a decision. The underlying requirement details can and most likely will vary by company as well, since everything from internal governance policies to governmental regulations can impact the process. The phases though are generally similar and could be called:
- Awareness – company becomes aware of a business issue (or issues) that is causing some disruption or inefficiency in the business.
- Discovery – company works through the business issues and determines that the solution needs to include some new (or replacement) software that have a specific set of requirements. The solution might also include process and people changes and those would be documented as well.
- Research – requirements are used to guide a process of determining the best potential solution(s). The source of the guidance used to establish the best fit solution can vary quite a bit by company and individual but the key is that the information used is sourced from some trusted source(s).
- Decision – using collected information / inputs to arrive at a purchase decision. This can be a structured formal process or something less than that, based on the specific company requirements.
For this post, let’s zero in on the research phase since that’s the part that I’ll be working with quite a bit in my new role. First remember that none of these phases are discrete, but bleed over into each other. Research actually happens during all phases but the bulk does happen once a problem is identified and a set of requirements laid out. There are lots of information sources but only some subset are influential with any one specific set of buyers. It might look something like this:
To move into the area of influence an information source must pass the “trust” test with the buyer. How a source becomes “trusted” is very individual, each information source passing through a personal trust “filter” based on conscious or subconscious criteria established from both experience and company policy and culture. Trust, particularly online, is fragile and information sources can easily move out of the area of influence if they violate some personal or company standard. I should also point out that by discussing this topic it creates a bit of an artificial structure around it, but in practice buyers tend to select trusted information sources in a much more organic and subtle way. In other words, most of us don’t sit down with a list of information sources and cull the list into trusted and untrustworthy sources, but instead cull by seeking out, giving weight to and preferring some information sources over others.
Sources of relevant information are varied and can change based on the phase of the process, the individuals involved and the specific context of the business issues. Relevancy and context are very important criteria and have a direct impact on the way information is received and its relative value to the phase of the process. The research phase is defined by the effort to educate all stakeholders on the potential solutions to the business issue. In the past the vendor sales person or maybe the vendor website was a top source of this education material and thus was in the “control” of the software vendor. This has changed though, as people have both gotten used to the availability of a wide variety of data sources and have become more skeptical of information that is sourced directly from the vendor. In fact many surveys that I’ve done in the past have shown that the vendor website is at most one of many data sources and that vendor sales representatives are often not engaged by the buyer until late in the process, maybe even after the research is completed. This obviously minimizes the ability of the vendor to influence the decision process.
Information sources generally fall into these categories:
- Traditional media
- Online media
- Search engines
- Experts (analysts, consultants, etc.)
- Peer networks
- Vendor provided resources (this would include websites, sales personnel, sponsored content, email, etc.)
You’ll notice that I didn’t list content separately. I suppose I could divide the list into sponsored content and independent content as well, but it’s easier to look at it as listed above, more from the function that creates the content instead of the content itself. Search engines are an interesting function, since they don’t create content directly but instead are an on ramp to the content. They can provide context and relevancy as well. When included on surveys search engines routinely show up as the most trusted information source, which is perhaps interesting since most are ad supported and don’t directly provide information / content at all. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer study shows search engines as 5% higher than the next highest category, traditional media.
Experts as a broad category have remained consistently important to the software selection process. It’s not surprising since overall business software can be complex and supplied by a very broad set of vendors with differing functionality, business models, costs/pricing models, support and even financial stability. Experts, particularly in the large businesses segment, are an important resource in many of the software categories. Analysts, both independents and those affiliated with analysts firms, and consultants also ranging from independent and small firms to large global system integrators’ provide guidance to many companies and help in several phases of the software selection process. They gain trust and become influencers based on individual and firm brand, specific buyer experience and buyer need. They are also prolific generators of content that can be, if relevant, timely, contextual and available, very useful in the education process.
Peer networks are a newer type of influencer resource and are gaining popularity. These fall into several types ranging from public social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook; to community based peer review platform sites like my current employer, G2 Crowd (and in fairness several others that vary somewhat in approach but include TrustRadius, Software Advice, GetApp and Capterra). The value of public social networks is fairly obvious, facilitating the ability to connect and ask questions of peers from a trusted network of contacts has a lot of value. This isn’t new of course, you could certainly do the same with offline colleagues. The difference though, is the scale and breadth of experience of a network that is built without geographic boundaries. The larger and stronger your personal network, the more likely you are too find experienced advice from people that are much more similar to your specific situation and business context.
The idea of a community based platform that connects buyers to experienced users also isn’t exactly a new concept. What is fairly new though, is moving this concept out of the consumer space and into the business setting. The basic premise, that crowdsourcing experience and leveraging it to help people make better, more informed decisions, is well established and accepted. It is really a logical extension of the consumer approach into another area where connecting people provides benefits to all involved. All of these sites take a slightly different approach, but since I’m most familiar with G2 Crowd I’ll talk from that perspective and also try to generalize the most important concepts. Functionally the process is very simple, the community platform establishes a orderly way for collecting and presenting reviews and other information on business software that is categorized and organized in ways to make it easy for other people that are interested in the software and/or the business problems the software can help resolve to find. The site can also provide additional information about software vendors, either developed independently or provided in some monitored way by the vendor themselves. The basic requirements to make the community useful and viable are:
- An online platform that supports the community by collecting and designating information in an orderly fashion.
- Some structured method to get new and refreshed reviews in an ongoing basis. The information must stay reasonably current to keep it’s value high and relevant.
- A method for software end users with direct experience in a specific type of and brand of software to provide unbiased reviews of that software in a structured fashion that includes some form of rating system. From a trust perspective there is an important supporting step though, the reviewer and review have to go through some vetting process to reduce the risk of bias in either the positive or negative direction. In other words the platform provider must answer the questions of, is the reviewer a legitimate employee (or former employee) of the company they are claiming to represent, did they actually use the software in question (or at least could have used it), and are they in some way likely to be influenced by the vendor (employee, spouse or partner of an employee, etc.)? This is not an easy process but since a lot of this information is generally available on public social networks for most business people, still possible. This is a key part of the process and the way to differentiate the level of trust of the review site.
- An underlying structure to the software products, software vendors and other supporting research that makes the information consumable and easy to find.
- A focus on providing a positive user experience both from the reviewer perspective and from the consumer of the information.
- Additional value add resources to help the software buyer find and evaluate software. These tools could range from automated advisors and access to people to assist in the process, blogs and other relevant content, or even approved partners to assist the buyer in the process. The value can extend back into vendor provided resources as well, with access to demos, videos and other vendor provided rich content, free trials or easy ways to purchase the software / connect with the vendor.
The resources are still evolving of course, but the basics to make the provider a part of the influence ecosystem are understood. These criteria are a simple way for the buyer to evaluate the relevance of the community to its process as well. The value of this type of information, a view into the actual use of the software in an environment and to solve problems that are similar to the buyer’s, is unique and is becoming an important part of the overall resource set that buyers can access to make better, more informed decisions.
I’ve rambled enough on this post, but look for more on influence and the software buying process in the near future.