The buyer journey begins earlier and earlier. Even before a buyer knows they will be a “buyer” they are researching a need via Google, reading what their peers are struggling with, and forming ideas for how to overcome problems or accelerate their business.
We talk in terms of demand generation and lead generation in B2B marketing. Sales is a whole other matter. But the split between sales and marketing and the entire concept of “demand generation” leave out a big piece of what customers need: business problem solving. Here’s an example. I am researching employee collaboration. I have a problem I am trying to solve. If I can increase the ability of different team members to collaborate productively and virtually (and, did I mention fast?), I believe I can deliver our clients greater value while at the same time increase employee retention. I cannot know whether I am moving towards some new solution like Jive or advanced use of some platforms we already own.
The journey starts online via Google and social media as I search for all of the related keyword combinations I can think of while at the same time pinging my network on LinkedIn. Interestingly, I choose not to tweet out my need as I am not ready to talk to salespeople and am certain such a broadcast would be like throwing meat in a cage.
There are three things B2B marketers can do to meet me on my journey as early in the cycle as possible. Each can help establish a relationship that can convert someday.
Create relevant content to solve business problems
No big mystery that B2B business and tech leaders do what we all do when we have questions. They use search. We have become adept at finding our own answers and ultimately this leads to a much more informed customer base. Not only that but business leaders wrestling with the overall health of their business are online as much as the tech leaders charged with implementing systems to meet those business objectives. Yet, only 29% of reps are prepared to understand business problems[i].
How does a particular solution deliver value back to the business? What is the short and mid-term cost of ownership? These are key questions for a business leader. That’s what I want answers for. Later on, when I have a better sense of the solution I am after, I will ring up the technology leader to find the best one.
Right now I need content that deals with my business problem. By knowing the search terms I will use, the savvy “problem-solver” (the “seller”) can fashion the right content to serve me. While I may find the content through search, I am just as likely to ask my peers. Either way, the content has to be worthwhile and shareable to encourage people to link to it and pass it along.
The content has to be real. Not just a veneer of utility hiding a chunky sales interior. If you help me now and set aside your “self-orientation,” I will come back to you later when I have a better idea of the solution I need. Show me how others have solved this problem. Break it down conceptually such that I can form my business case for my bosses. Give me evidence of the business value. That’s content I can use.
Make your experts available
Beyond content, people want to connect with….people. While this qualifies as the blindingly obvious, how many organizations either restrict or fail to encourage their experts from establishing themselves online? If you are considering your choices in cloud computing, virtualization or employee collaboration, chances are you might benefit from finding an expert on the subject. IBM (client) actively encourages their experts to publish and establish themselves through “tuned up” LinkedIn pages and content centers like the Slideshare Expert Network. This is perfect for the business leader. We want access to an expert not a sales person. Everyone likes hearing from someone who knows what they are talking about and doesn’t force their agenda.
Software companies like Sun (now part of Oracle), Microsoft, and SAP have made their experts available for years. User communities blend staff and external users to build affinity around a particular solution. Now, it’s time to use the tools and tricks of the personal branding gurus to elevate these experts even higher. Creating strong social profiles that return well in search takes more than content optimization. These people need to be connected to and followed by others. Now they need super-optimized LinkedIn profiles with the right Skills and multiple user endorsements to come to the top.
Organizations often hesitate to profile their experts in such a public way. They are afraid of setting up their best people for poaching and recruitment, diverting their attention to time-consuming and unproductive conversations (“I need my best people working not answering tweets from random people”) and potentially giving away their intellectual property (IP). There are answers to each of these assumptions but ultimately a business leader will need to choose for themselves what they value more – the benefits of experts high on customers’ social radars or the illusion of control. There; I made my bias clear.
Revise our approach to relationship building
Two thirds of vendor switching is due to sales relationship problems[ii]. Why should relationship building start when a lead is generated in a database? If so many organizations are failing at relationships, we ought to rethink our approach. From creating and connecting via useful, problem-solving content to getting your best people out in front of your customers, there are fresh ways to build relationships even earlier in the sales process.
Every day we look to our social graph for information we use at work. We notice people who are expert in their field and are generous sharing ideas and content. Those are the folks we want to build relationships with and social media makes it possible for us to maintain networks for years just waiting to be tapped on a business problem. Saying social media isn’t relevant to B2B marketing and sales is like saying the telephone isn’t useful.
It’s all Social Selling
Social selling is the kindest form of selling. It requires you to give away useful content, connect buyers with experts inside your company before they even know they are buying something and put a higher value on relationships. Hallelujah.
Today, we graze and collect information. We don’t go to one website. We follow a few trail heads in search and try to find a prevailing trend or promising solution. Whether an illusion or not, with all this information at our fingertips and our peers’ advice a Quora question away, we would like to think that we are the deciders. We have more control of the information and the final decision.
John Bell is the Global Managing Director of the 360° Digital Influence team at Ogilvy.