Successful B2B marketing is all about reaching the right audience at the right time. That’s why it’s so critical to understand exactly who your target audience is and what their needs and expectations are at any given point.
B2B marketing spend is regularly wasted on activities that don’t manage to influence decision-making. Research from management consultants McKinsey identifies that companies that try an approach based on a close understanding of the customer decision journey can significantly boost sales and customer retention.
Mapping the decision journey
To construct a map of your customers’ decision journey, you need input from a variety of sources. If you only have a small number of customers, and therefore a fairly small number of decision-makers in your customer base, then it makes sense to engage with them directly to understand their decision making.
However if like many B2B companies you have many hundreds or thousands of customers then a more quantitative approach using market research techniques such as surveys may be in order.
You’ll also need input from other stakeholders such as your logistics providers and other internal teams such as sales and operations. From all these sources you’ll be able to construct an understanding of the factors that influence purchase decision making. For international brands, it’s important to map the decision journey for each market separately as cultural differences can have a huge impact on B2B buyer behaviour.
Don’t rely on demographics
Typically, B2B sales strategies are based on bland demographic data such as the age, gender, professional role and responsibilities of your decision maker. What this data fails to explain is how they make their buying decision or what they decide to buy anything at all rather than avoid making a purchase. What prompts the decision – or lack of one?
Demographic data also fails to identify what barriers to purchase exist, and what outcome your customer base expects from making a purchase from you. How will they define success? You also need to understand their evaluation process and which of their stakeholders have most input at which point in the decision-making process.
The difference between having customer data to hand and really understanding the decision-making journey lies in getting close to those who buy and don’t buy from your organisation. To map out the customer decision journey, you need to start talking to your target customer base and asking these questions:
What’s their priority initiative?
What was the situation or pain point that triggered action and made them search for a product or service like yours? Why buy anything at all, and why now?
What barriers do they perceive?
What are their specific concerns about buying from your business in particular, or from making a purchase at all?
What are their success factors?
What specific improvements do your audience expect to see as a result of buying from you? What language are they using to describe these changes?
What is their decision journey?
How do they gather information to make their decision? Which criteria do they use to evaluate potential suppliers, and which stakeholders are involved at what stage of the process?
Answers to the above questions should help you understand what information a potential buyer requires to support their decision making at each stage in the process, and which key messages will persuade them to buy.
It’s important to be able to communicate with them in the same language that they use in order to evaluate their success factors, so that your messaging is aligned to their values. It’s also important to answer their concerns and address key barriers to purchase in a positive way.
Understanding the customer decision journey is the foundation to providing them with the tools they need to complete it in your favour. Your organisation will gain a critical advantage over competitors if you can align your messaging with buyer values and communicate in a way that truly resonates with them and allows you to stand out amongst your competitors.
Segmenting your audience
To gain a more accurate picture of your audience’s buying process, it may be necessary to segment based on their organisation type. Smaller buyers may have very different decision journeys to larger organisations.
In larger organisations the key decision makers may be in a procurement or finance role, whilst smaller operators may have an owner-manager or someone from a technical background making the evaluation. These different stakeholders will have their own unique criteria for decision making, so it’s worth segmenting the different types of organisation to really communicate with each of them effectively.
When a large materials supplier undertook this process of segmenting its audience, it split its private and public sector customers into separate segments in order to understand their unique decision journeys. Through speaking to their public sector audience about the decision process, the company identified a whole new set of stakeholders that they hadn’t previously been aware of. Local distributors were having considerable influence into the decision process, something that hadn’t previously been factored into the sales messaging.
The company was also able to identify that their marketing spend on trade fairs was not likely to be as persuasive as previously thought, and the budget was re-allocated to on-site distributor demos. These demos proved to be far more influential on key decision makers than the trade shows, and sales increased accordingly. The same company segmented out private sector audiences to identify their unique decision journey and made similar changes to the way it approached them.
Whilst communicating with your external customer base is essential to mapping the decision process, it’s also vital that communication happens within your organisation and especially between the sales and marketing departments. There needs to be a clear flow of information between these teams and a common focus so that customer insights are shared and acted upon.
One organisation that mapped their customers’ decision journey found that marketing emails were more effective when followed up with a sales call. Better co-ordination of activities between marketing and sales improved the effectiveness of communications.
It’s also valuable to improve co-ordination with other teams within the organisation, such as the technical department. An organisation that asked its customers about their decision process identified that its most valuable customers wanted speedy, simple ordering.
By working with their tech team, they were able to create a one-click ordering process for fast ordering and rapid fulfilment. Existing customers were sent reminders just before their most recent stock order was expected to reach expiry, so they could easily re-order.
By co-ordinating with the technical team the company was able to pre-empt customer needs and prevent them being lured away by competitors, even ones offering lower prices as these customers tended to value ease of ordering above other factors. Understanding what your customers value and how they make decisions is the key to persuading them to make decisions in your favour.
Don’t underestimate the impact of language and culture
Language and culture are significant variables in marketing and ones that are impossible to ignore when developing buyer personas. Brands that sell internationally will require resources to be invested in understanding buyer behaviour in each of their markets and how this impacts on decision making.
From the importance of Guanxi in China to the formal business cultures of mainland Europe and the Middle East, subtle differences in values, attitudes and codes of conduct – if not addressed – can make or break your international B2B campaign. The opportunity cost of not developing multi-cultural personas can result in huge losses for organisations through communication misinterpretation and customer alienation.