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The Evolution of the B2B Buyer’s Journey: A Marketer’s Reality

Part One: The 1980s and 1990s

When I started my Marketing career back in the mid 1980s at a huge defence-cut stricken manufacturing company, although the classic Ansoff’s, 7 Ps of Marketing, Porter’s Five Forces, Product Life Cycles, SWOTs, TOWs and so on applied back then, in the very general sense, the Marketing department’s day-to-day tasks consisted mainly of creating glossy brochures, organising ridiculously expensive exhibitions, throwing mind-blowing corporate hospitality dinners, advertising in journals and magazines and sending customers fancy Christmas Cards.

We waited eagerly for that one lucrative telephone enquiry and celebrated that special visitor to the exhibition stand. The details would be passed immediately to Sales, who would do their magic and take it from there (hopefully to the PO stage). Once a customer (apart from the odd invitation to a flashy corporate dinner or a game of golf) they were pretty much on their own.

To understand the actual need of the customer was completely alien to us. We articulated our wares in accordance with the USPs that suited our perspective of the world and its needs. Our clever software engineers dictated what we developed and it appeared that what the customers actually needed was secondary. We would face that problem when we came to it.

Then we discovered databases which was a revelation and revolution in itself. However, with this came the painstaking task of gleaning all of the contacts from the Sales Executives so we could try to understand decision making units to target with relevant information. It was like pulling teeth. They were very precious with their ‘lists’ which they saw as theirs and their bread and butter.  How dare we share this information?

Historically, B2B transactions have encompassed a complex sales process that involved multiple influencers and decision-makers. This often circuitous journey included research, evaluation and stakeholder engagement, then going back to conduct more research, more evaluation and stakeholder engagement before making any final decisions. At this time, Marketing were predominantly involved in the very early research stages.

By the time the prospect made contact with us with a vague requirement, they were probably around 20% along their Buyer’s Journey. It was then over to Sales to do the rest of the hard work while we carried on designing our brochures and arranging our fancy exhibitions.

Part 2: The Year 2000

Fast forward to the year 2000. By then I was working for a B2B integration solutions and professional services organisation. Still lots of exhibitions, advertising in trade magazines, relentless mailshots and telephone calls, buying lists and hitting them hard with expensive brochures and invitations to e-Commerce, Internet World and e-Business exhibitions and Masterclasses.

Nothing had really changed in terms of the buying cycle. Marketing would do the work to identify potential prospects (based around very approximate segmentation, targeting and positioning methods) and let them know what it was we offered through traditional methods. As soon as we captured a prospect, it was passed to the sales team for nurturing and closing. By the time the prospect had come to us, they were probably around 30% along their Buyer’s Journey and it was over to Sales to do the rest of the work.

Marketing hadn’t really moved beyond the very early research stages of the customer’s Buyer’s Journey.

By then, however, databases had become mainstream (even though we didn’t do as much with them as we could have) and we could also send emails! We also had a website and Knowledge Bases were starting to emerge. Blog sites and social platforms were cropping up. Established in 2002, LinkedIn didn’t become profitable until 2006 and by 2007 it had reached 10 million users globally. Today it has 830 million members.

October 23, 2000, will be a date forever remembered by internet marketers around the globe, as this was the birth of the first ever self-serve online advertising platform – Google Adwords.

Welcome to the age of digital marketing and the beginning of the paradigm shift.

Part 3: 2010

By the turn of this new decade I was working for DSCallards, analytics and data transformation experts. As SAP partners specialising in Business Intelligence, Reporting and Software Development Solutions at that time, I was in a good place to embrace the new techniques and school of marketing thought.

The Internet had a profound effect on Marketing. In January 1996, Bill Gates wrote an essay titled ‘Content is King’, which was published on the Microsoft website. He said, “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the internet, just as it was in broadcasting.” Bill Gates was correct in his predictions.

Marketing changed practically overnight and the term “Content is King” has been thrown around by SEO’ers since the Bill Gates essay landed on our screens 25 years ago. The term (much more a mantra now) has encouraged marketers all over the globe to prioritise content and class it as the forefront of any successful digital strategy.

As Bill Gates had predicted, information had become power but it took a while for the general world of marketing to catch on. Still caught up in the traditional methods to attract and keep customers, it took the more sophisticated marketer to go against the grain and switch from the way it was to the way it had become. I was old-school but thankfully being partnered with SAP and working with a team of software specialists and technology evangelists, I started to embrace the world of content.

Put simply, content marketing is the creation of content with the intention of distributing it to engage with a highly targeted audience, thus attracting potential new business. Content doesn’t just cover blogs as many may think, it is so much more with huge potential to help businesses maximise on their current digital strategies.

One of the most important benefits of content is that we can create content with different purposes – based on the Buyer’s Journey stages. Each stage of the Buyer’s Journey highlights different intent, and therefore requires different content pieces. By using content marketing in a digital strategy we can nurture prospecting leads through the sales funnel, to help increase conversion and maintain retention.

The Buyer’s Journey was becoming remodelled.

Part 4: 2020

Then came Covid.

Although some B2B journeys remain complex, the process is changing, thanks in part to the massive shifts we’ve seen in the 2020 and 2021 marketplace. Face-to-face meetings and in-person events came to a halt, so these avenues for helping the decision-making process were closed. In the chaotic time that has emerged over the past two years, many of us — including buyers — find ourselves with less time than ever before. This means the historically laborious B2B purchase journey has been streamlined.

It remains true that buyers still must go through basic steps in the purchase journey — identifying the business need, researching solutions, evaluating options and then, ultimately, making a decision. The difference today is that buyers are doing more research online and on their own than before, and this research cycle appears to be getting shorter and more efficient.

In the past, sellers could likely pinpoint a clear handover between marketing and sales. Just as in the 1980s when we celebrated that lucrative prospect walking onto the exhibition stand or that telephone call as the result of a painstaking mail-shot campaign. This transition has become blurred today as more buyers are reliant on self-serve, online research.

This often results in pressure being placed on a company’s online presence to do the heavy lifting for both the marketing and sales teams. Sales need in-depth information about a prospect in order to communicate the fit — and benefits — of a product with a buyer’s specific needs. This has to be done quickly and clearly so that a buyer can move from decision to onboarding and implementation.

We live in an age of empowered consumers and their Buyer’s Journey starts online rather than in a showroom or at an exhibition. They seek the informed opinions of others online who have gone before them. Savvy consumers are sceptical of spin of marketing messages and sales people. They look to their network, in the physical world and online to gather opinion and wisdom before engaging with the seller. This applies to both B2C and B2B.

Part 5: 2022

Over two decades after Bill Gates coined the term, content is thriving and is now more important than ever.

SAP advocated in a recent Marketing webinar, that self-education dominates through all phases of the Buyer’s Journey and that the sales funnel is now a totally different shape. Renewals have now become a lifeblood and the joint upsell piece is critical to drive increased perpetual revenue. Relationship and trust is now fundamental as is the provision of valuable information at all times, 24 x 7, in the correct tone of voice. If a message is too ‘salesy’ it is discounted immediately. We have been told that those who choose not to implement these strategies will not survive.

To conclude, customer-centric digital marketing strategies are now essential and it is estimated that up to 90% of the B2B Buyer’s Journey has been completed by the time they are passed to Sales to close. Today we have to maintain customer centricity. Over the years Marketing has become an increasing component. Before 2000 it was arguably tactical at best but it has become so much more than that. Brand loyalty is very fragile and to survive, Marketing must cleverly leverage its digital channels with authentic and tailored content to stay ahead of the game and to ultimately remain in business.

Posted by Adriane Gillies-Read, Marketing Manager, 21st June 2022

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