The Information Challenge Facing B2B Leaders [Gartner Research]

“The companies that best provide customers the information they most urgently seek, specifically through the channels they most clearly prefer, are in a far better position to drive commercial success in today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape”.

For many, the approach described here by Brent Adamson, distinguished vice president at Gartner, is a hymn sheet from which we’re already singing. B2B organisations adopting ‘inbound’ marketing strategies, first coined by HubSpot’s co-founder Brian Halligan in 2005, will immediately recognise the value to be gained by creating informative content and distributing it intelligently over the right platforms to the prospects it will most benefit.

But the new Gartner research into B2B digital buying behaviour that Brent cites will open the eyes of seasoned HubSpot advocates and inbound initiates alike. Take its findings into the ‘dramatically small window of direct interaction’ between digital B2B buyers and salespeople: 

“In a pre-pandemic survey of 750 B2B customer stakeholders involved in complex ‘solutions’ purchase, customers reported spending only 17% of their total buying time interacting directly with supplier sales teams. As small as it is, that 17% of purchase activity allocated to supplier interaction represents all suppliers, not each supplier.” Brent Adamson, ‘Traditional B2B Sales and Marketing Are Becoming Obsolete’, Harvard Business Review

The focus of Brent’s article is the impact this shift could have on the future organisational structures of B2B businesses, but the points he drives and the statistics he cites also make for a compelling study into how to attract, engage, and convert digital B2B customers today. 

In this read, I’ll run through my favourites and what they can teach us about building a more profitable B2B inbound machine that actually gives modern buyers what they’re looking for.

Learn more about the inbound methodology and how your organisation can adopt it to generate leads that close and drive business growth.

“Today’s B2B buyers rely heavily on digital information to progress across the buying journey.”

We’ve written about the buyer’s journey before. In case you’re not familiar with this terminology, the buyer’s journey is the process a buyer goes through from the first moment they recognise that they have a problem to the moment they decide to make a purchase. It’s made up of three stages — awareness, consideration, and decision — with inbound practitioners championing the creation of content to help the buyer move along the journey.

Gartner’s research lends new weight to this approach in 2022, particularly for B2B organisations tasked with generating new leads and closing more business online.

“In a survey of over 1,000 B2B buyers engaged in a complex purchase, respondents reported using digital channels — particularly the supplier’s own website — with nearly equal frequency as the supplier’s sales reps to gather the information necessary to complete a range of buying ‘jobs’.” Brent Adamson, ‘Traditional B2B Sales and Marketing Are Becoming Obsolete’, Harvard Business Review

Brent’s analysis of this data highlights the importance of content creation — at every stage of the buyer’s journey — in order for sales leaders to “regain customer access”, as he puts it. To put it another way, by developing a content strategy that leads the prospect along each stage of the buyer’s journey, organisations can ensure that they’re still expressing the information traditionally communicated by a sales representative at the ‘selling’ stage — Problem Identification, Solution Exploration, Requirements Building, and Supplier Selection.

Many B2B buyers use podcasts to educate themselves. Read all about B2B podcast marketing in this article.

To create an effective content strategy that provides your prospects and customers with the information they’re seeking:

  1. Define buyer personas to understand the needs and wants of your target buyers at the different stages of the buyer’s journey.
  2. Conduct an internal workshop to ensure everyone across the marketing team has a clear understanding of what the buyer’s journey looks like for your prospects. (You can read about how we conduct buyer persona workshops with our clients here.)
  3. Document these findings in a messaging framework or similar communications guide, keeping them front of mind and easily accessible across the business.
  4. Create a content calendar to organise your content strategy, with a specific column detailing which stage of the buyer’s journey each piece is targeting.

Related read: Marketing: the Middle Child in Your Digital Transformation  Strategy

If you’re reading those ’buying jobs’ (Problem Identification, Solution Exploration, Supplier Selection etc.) and thinking that they sound very much like the awareness, consideration and decision steps described by HubSpot, you’re not mistaken, further reinforcing the idea we explored back in 2017 that modern buyers are taking on more of the buying process themselves (and the control that comes with it). Which leads us onto…

“Many B2B buyers of complex solutions express a strong preference for a purchase experience free of sales rep interactions.”

The point here isn’t just that a digital content strategy presents an opportunity for organisations to equip online buyers with the information they’re looking for, but that they’re delivering that information in a way that prospects want to receive it — in this case, a ‘zero-touch’ approach delivered across social channels and web platforms.

“In a survey of nearly 1,000 B2B buyers, 43% of surveyed respondents agreed that they would prefer a rep-free buying experience. When cut by generation, 29% of Baby Boomers preferred to buy solutions without rep involvement, while remarkably over half of Millennials, 54%, expressed the same sentiment.” Brent Adamson, ‘Traditional B2B Sales and Marketing Are Becoming Obsolete’, Harvard Business Review 

For Brent, this is a clear indicator that buyers have traditionally sought out salespeople “not for the sake of the conversation itself, but as a practical means to acquire the information necessary” to make the right purchase. Given a choice, the growing percentage of millennial buyers in particular would prefer to acquire that information independently, for themselves.

While we’re not suggesting you radically revise your organisational structure just yet, a key takeaway that organisations can implement now is to develop marketing strategies that consider buyer preferences. A content plan created with Sales can help to spin your organisation's flywheel by giving your salespeople more opportunities — through content — to help the buyer buy, while the buyer gets the information they would traditionally receive from conversations with salespeople in a format through which they prefer to receive it.

To support Sales directly through the provision of content that actively supports their roles and responsibilities: 

  1. Loop your sales leaders into the content strategy phase to align Sales and Marketing.
  2. Create content that addresses the questions Sales is always asked by prospects.
  3. Check in with Sales each month to update them on what content has been created, discover how useful it’s been, and chase the deal status of marketing-generated leads.
  4. Work with Sales to create impactful decision-level content — those articles and case studies that showcase the benefits of your products or services and how they help.

Related read: The Importance of Brand Awareness in 2022 and Why So Many  Companies Are Suddenly Prioritising It

“Current B2B buying experiences are nowhere near robust, nuanced, or advanced enough to support customers preferring to buy completely on their own.”

Brent suggests that over the next five to 10 years, more organisations will begin to radically rethink their organisational structures from the ground up. We’re not there yet, but that doesn’t mean businesses must settle for inefficient sales and marketing processes studded with friction, delivering poor experiences to the buyers navigating them. Quite the opposite:

“Simply put, suppliers aren’t selling the way many customers prefer buying. And that ‘preference gap’ leaves suppliers increasingly exposed to the risk of a competitor or disruptor finding a way to bridge that gap in new and creative ways.” Brent Adamson, ‘Traditional B2B Sales and Marketing Are Becoming Obsolete’, Harvard Business Review

As functions, Sales and Marketing are still deeply embedded in the traditional organisational structures followed by the majority of businesses around the world, but forward-thinking organisations (if not quite disruptors) can still find ways to optimise their operations to improve the efficiency of the process and, crucially, deliver a better buyer experience, one more in line with the buyer preferences explored throughout this article.

To bring your sales process — and the buying experience you deliver — closer in line with your buyers’ expectations:

  1. Review your sales management platform. (Got Sales Hub? This will be a breeze.) How efficiently does it operate? How busy is the pipeline? What kinds of deals are most likely to close? Where do deals drop off?
  2. Speak with your prospects and customers. New prospects will be able to tell you about their current experiences purchasing from you. Existing customers will also provide insights into what they found positive and negative when buying.
  3. Adapt your customer-facing operations to reflect your new insights. It might be the case that Marketing and Sales could both be improved operationally to streamline the buyer’s journey and better align your operations with your buyers’ preferences.

Solving the B2B information challenge

In his analysis of Gartner’s latest data, Brent is careful to avoid sensationalism. The “death of Sales” is not nigh and he only cautions that B2B sales and marketing as we know them are “becoming obsolete”. Few business leaders will argue the truth that “many complex solutions require a certain level of collaborative customization necessitating human interaction, effectively rendering sales reps ‘essential workers’ in B2B buying.” The same can be said of the growing importance of B2B customer service strategies that deliver for the customer. 

For me, what was so fascinating about the data isn’t how it might potentially shape organisational structures in the decade to come but what it means now for businesses around the world now, and the leaders at their helms; those individuals who wake up every morning and wonder how to do business better, how to grow revenue faster, how to rise to the top in an ever more competitive and challenging digital landscape. The answer?

Your buyers are telling you, and their voices are there to hear in Gartner’s survey responses. “Helping today’s B2B buyers buy isn’t a sales challenge, nearly so much as an information challenge (or, alternatively, an information opportunity)”, Brent writes. 

Where are your buyers looking for answers? What steps could you take across your operations to provide that information? How could you adapt your operations to improve the buyer experience, so that it’s your website, blog, or Contact Us page they turn to for help?

Read next:

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