Content Strategy: Think Utility Before Customization

For a company with dozens of product lines, numerous possible personas, and a global presence, developing content can be a daunting venture. The number of permutations for information types and distribution sources can be overwhelming. But before going crazy, you might be surprised to know that customers may not need as much personalization as you think – what they really want from content is utility.

IDC’s 2015 IT Buyer Experience Survey examined the content requirements and preferences of various types of technology buyers. We compared buyers who work in the IT function with those in various business functions. We compared buyers of cloud solutions with traditional on-premise technology solutions. What we found surprised us.

IDC does recommend tailoring content for specific audiences. It is helpful for ease of consumption, for relevancy, and attractiveness. However, the buyer research told us that covering some basics was even more important.

  • Highest priority – make sure content is complete. Buyer groups are much more similar than they are different. Buyers have one primary commonality – they are all human. Humans follow the same type of a decision-journey. All audience groups generally need the same kinds of information and mostly prefer similar sources to get that information.  The highest priority task should be to make sure the core information is available. Clearly and simply answer the buyers’ questions for all stages of their decision-journey. Lack of critical information at a point when a buyer needs it will slow or stop journey progress.

  • Make core buying information easily accessible through at least four communication channels. Those four channels are your website, your sales team, search, and some number of third party publications – preferably voiced by objective people. Your website is the buyer’s default location for all information. Buyer’s talk to sales people at the point when they really need detailed answers. If sales people don’t have the answers, everyone loses. (Hint: a humble Q&A fact sheet for sales is super helpful).  Discovery is the name of game in the earliest stage of the decision-journey. Search is by far the number one tool for discovery and buyers also like to find ideas for improvement perusing both general business and special interest sites.

These content tasks may be more challenging than marketers expect.  Many of the buyer’s questions are not answered by even the best thought leadership pieces or the most well-messaged product data sheet. For example, Product Service Reviews was the second most desired type of content at the earliest stage of the decision-journey – not something most marketers have at the tips of their fingers.

Before going through the (worthwhile) effort to customize content for different audiences, make sure you are covering the basics and serving your customers’ the most important information needs.

More information is available in the IDC report, Categorizing the Content Needs of Different Buyer Types: IDC’s 2015 2015 IT Buyer Experience Study (#258780) (Subscription required)

 

Meet the Virtual Sales Rep

Robert sits in an office near Provo, Utah at what looks like the console of an air traffic

controller. But instead of directing jets through the airspace, he’s using Twitter to guide a software company’s buyer through her decision-journey. Part marketer, part sales, part tech service, Robert is one of an emerging breed of “virtual” sales reps. Could this be the dream team that B2B has been waiting for?

The B2B “Genius Bar”® as a Role Model

The “virtual” sales rep role in its ideal form provides the personalized, anticipatory, service of a five-star hotel. Think of it as the B2B version of an Apple Genius Bar – using virtual tools. The Apple executive team modeled the Genius Bar after Ritz-Carlton’s customer service. Hallmarks of this exemplary concierge service include a personal touch; a warm, friendly, attitude; and attention to satisfying customer needs at every step. Sales expert Anneke Seley says the “virtual” sales rep culture is a far-cry from the historical “me and my quota” rep.

Sales teams are finally coming to grips with digital age facts. The culture shift recognizes that engagement must be sensitive to the appropriate stage of the buyer’s decision-journey. “Buyers aren’t ready to buy until they are ready to buy”. Marketers all know by now that buyers prefer self-sufficiency and they avoid talking to sales people until the decision-journey is substantially complete.  IDC research shows that for tech products averages this distance averages about 50%. Now sales is also starting to appreciate that buyers are alienated when by placed prematurely into the arena. At the same time sales leaders don’t want to waste an expensive sales resource on someone who isn’t ready to buy.

Digital May Not be Enough

Content marketing is what companies must do to fill the gap when buyers won’t talk to traditional sales people.  Content marketing is a hugely important communication strategy and companies will not be successful without mastering it.

Yet, for B2B companies, a completely digital engagement solution may not ever be the right answer. For one thing, content marketing capabilities in most companies is still ramping. Even when content marketing becomes excellent, digital may never be personal enough. Some B2B solutions are so complex, customized, or require so much trust that a human must intervene for the buyer to be truly served.  It may also be in the vendor’s best interest to involve a good sales person early. One tech CMO told me that although the company could offer eCommerce, a human touch tripled the size of the deal.

The End of One-to-One

Sales must abandon the image of the lone hero acting alone. A distinguishing feature between traditional sales and marketing has been that sales covered one-to-one interactions and marketing covered the one-to-many. The evolving “virtual” sales model is somewhere in-between. Maybe we can call it some-to-one.

Because the Apple’s Genius Bar is not just a person. It’s a chain of orchestrated interactions constructed not only with people but also with data, technology, knowledge, content, training, and culture. It takes a village to offer five-star concierge service.

This shift means new responsibilities for marketing. To engage in a buyer-sensitive way, marketing must provision “virtual” sales reps, train them, and merge them into new types of campaigns. These new reps will be power users of CRM and marketing automation. They will be adept at social selling. They will depend on behavioral data and pitch-perfect content. Depending on the company business model they may generate leads, qualify them, develop business, close sales, or offer technical buying assistance.

IDC believes that the challenge of aligning with sales and instituting sales enablement will seem like baby steps compared to the full-on role integration of this new function. CMO’s should jump on this trend now.

Genius Bar is a registered trademark of Apple, Inc.

Social Buying: The Importance of Trusted Networks during the B2B Purchase Process

Everyone’s hot to leverage social selling and social marketing. But what about the other side of the equation? Do B2B buyers use social media for purchasing support?  An IDC study says yes! And contrary to common assumptions, it’s the senior executives who are most enthusiastic.

The most senior buyers are the most active social media users. IDC’s Social Buying Study, completed in February 2014 in collaboration with LinkedIn (Slideshare version) studied the online social practices and preferences of B2B buyers. The study concluded that 75% of the B2B buyers studied and 84% of C-level/vice president executives use information from social media and interaction on social networks to make purchase decisions. I’ll be talking about this study at the sold-out Sales Connect conference later this week.

Social buying improves decision confidence.  The operative benefit in social buying is the ability to access trusted networks to increase confidence in high-stakes decision making. When asked about their agreement with various statements about social media, respondents gave these top three answers:
  • They want to use vendors that have been recommended by people they know
  • They want to work with sales people who have been referred to them
  • Their social networks are critical for checking references

Social media make accessing trusted networks easier. Buyers have long trusted their offline professional networks for this purpose. Online social networks improve access to trusted existing networks and open up networks that more easily extend beyond traditional boundaries. The bigger the buying decision, the more important social networks become. The study found that social buying correlates with buying influence. The average B2B buyer who uses social networks for buying support is more senior, has a bigger budget, makes more frequent purchases, and has a greater span of buying control than a buyer who does not use social networks.

B2B buyers use different types of social resources at different stages of the decision-journey. It’s important not to lump all social media into one big stew of a category. “Social” is a media attribute that enables peer-to-peer audience participation. Some media are highly social and others not at all. 

  1. Early Stage: when buyers are exploring whether to solve their problem, they favor news-type resources. Industry-specific media are #1, internet search (a socially-curated information service) is #2, and microblogs like Twitter are #3.
  2. Middle Stage: when buyers are evaluating solution options, 3rd-party experts become #1, industry-specific media are #2, and internet search is #3.
  3. Final Stage: Online professional networks (e.g., LinkedIn) are buyer’s the #1 preferred information source in the final stage of the purchase process, when stakes are highest. This final stage is the riskiest stage because by this time, buyers are teetering on the brink of commitment where they will soon reap the benefits of a great decision or plunge into the abyss.  It’s at this point that they most need the confidence advice provided by their professional network. Online network services like LinkedIn make this easy. Third-party recommendations are #2 and topic-specific communities become #3.
ESSENTIAL GUIDANCE
  • Relationship building, referrals, and recommendations are shifting online, so make social marketing and social selling a priority. Social marketing and social selling are not responsibilities that can be relegated to a special team low in the organization. Marketing executives should consider social aspects to be an integral attribute of all campaigns. Sales professionals and others in key customer-facing roles need to be active on social networks. At best, companies will miss an important opportunity to connect and at worst could incur real damage.
  • Respect the context of social interactions. Understand that when using the digital channels, buyers are seeking access to their trusted networks for information to increase decision-making confidence. Social channels are not simply a new avenue for spamming or cold-calling. Instead, each individual must earn his or her place within the trusted network of people that buyers will invite to participate in the purchase decision.

Busting the Myth of Sales Disintermediation

Are IT Buyers so self sufficient that sales people will no longer be needed? Much was made in 2013 of the notion that IT Buyers make a large percent of their decision before engaging with sales. Every major market research company had its own number but they all ranged north of 50%, a scary thought especially if it represented a rising trend.
As shown in the figure below, enterprise IT buyers actually rely very heavily on vendor input for enterprise solutions. Buyers can make categorical decisions like “we need a new CRM or billing system.” But they need a great deal of information from marketing, sales and technical sales in order to complete their decision making processes.
Finding the Right Mix of Marketing and Sales Engagement
Q.        What percent of your decision for an enterprise-level purchase when multiple vendors are competing for your business has been made by the time you first speak with a salesperson?
Source: IDC’s 2013 IT Buyer Experience Survey, n = 193
The implications for supporting customer journeys is significant. For purchases that are low cost, familiar and low risk customers want to be as self sufficient as possible. And sellers need them to be because it costs too much for even telesales or online chat to support these transactions. At the other end of the spectrum of course it gets far more complex and that translates into opportunity for vendors – if they are truly aligned with the buyer’s journey
One of the most important value adds that most sales and marketing lacks is the need to educate customers on how to buy as much as what to buy. For costly complex purchases, customers need guidance on:
  1. How to evaluate the strategic priority of the solution as well as the technical and business benefits
  2. How to build consensus across line of business, corporate IT and other key players in the decision making process.
According to our latest IT Buyer Experience research, marketing and sales teams that provide this insight early and often will help buyers make their decisions up to 40% faster, putting them ahead of the competition and ahead of forecast.
For more information on this and related research please contact me at gmurray(at)idc(dot)com.

Sales process – the missing ingredient for marketing ROI

Most marketers in B2B enterprises have never been trained on sales process. If I were running your marketing or sales organization this would be the first thing on my agenda. Why? Because without understanding sales process, marketing is essentially set up to fail. How can anyone improve or contribute effectively to something if they don’t know how it works. It’s like setting up your manufacturing to produce blue widgets but not telling your suppliers what parts you need for your particular widgets. So they ship you tons of blue stuff and hope that somehow it all works out. That’s the position, to one degree or another that most enterprise marketing organizations are in even at some of the most advanced process-centric companies in the world. Largely because they have chopped up the customer creation process into a collection of departmentally independent activities. 

In a large enterprise with many products lines, business units and segments, there are likely to be a number of different sales processes. Marketing and sales resources should be aligned against these processes horizontally. This is the key to making the shift from a siloed command and control organization to a responsive, integrated customer focused one. Not only is it important to design around sales process, which should be designed around the buyer’s journey, but it is important to design for change. Markets are dynamic and sales processes change.
Marketing automation systems, especially those that are integrated with the sales force automation or customer relationship management system, have begun to provide marketing with some clues to sales process. At least they can see what happens or does not happen when they deliver something to sales. But the data does not always explain why, and that’s the critical part. Marketing needs to understand very specifically how Sales operates in order to optimize around customer outcomes. The alternative is for marketing to optimize around departmentally focused KPIs like the number of MQLs (ugh), or SALs, or worse vanity metrics like hits, sentiment, likes, etc. These metrics are useful indicators for some marketing activities, but not as business drivers for marketing investment.
Aligning marketing and sales around sales process is the first step to formulating an enterprise customer creation process that extends across all customer touch points, including: billing, fulfillment, service and support. At each stage of maturity, marketing, as well as all the other customer facing departments, gain much greater visibility and accountability to the whole process and its connection to corporate objectives for growth, market share, and margin. This is all necessary for a true picture of marketing ROI.
Your action items:
  • Marketers: lobby your top executives to make regular sales process training for marketing a priority. 
  • Sales executives: demand that marketing know how the different parts of your sales force work so they can more effectively develop prospects and serve customers. 
  • CEOs: get smart about your customer supply chain by applying the same level of due diligence and process discipline to it that you have to your product and services units. As a result, you will make much more effective use of marketing investment and be able to hold your whole customer facing team accountable for its contribution to your strategic objectives.

Create and Close Customers up to 40% Faster

IDC’s CMO Advisory has conducted an annual IT Buyer Experience survey for the past six years. We have tracked many changes and interesting trends, but one thing stands out as a consistent inefficiency in the market: every year IT Buyers report the purchase processes can be approximately 40% shorter. Over the course of a 10-month average process that means the potential is to accelerate revenue by an entire quarter. This is a huge opportunity for both buyers and sellers with tremendous financial incentives for both and yet no improvement in six years. Why not and what to do about it?

Buyers put about 2/3 of the blame for this inefficiency on themselves. There are scheduling issues, conflicting agendas, changing budgets, changes in personnel, immature purchase processes, etc. The challenge for vendors therefore is two-fold:

  1. Reduce the inefficiencies that are inherent in their own marketing and sales processes, and
  2. Better facilitate the buyer’s process(es)

Gap between actual and ideal IT purchase processes, 2009-2013

To do this, vendors need to intimately understand the Buyer’s Journey. It starts with Exploration, moves to Evaluation, and ends with a Purchase.  Buyers spend the most amount of time in the Exploration stage, largely independent of direct vendor interaction. As they move through each stage, their agendas change dramatically and the process accelerates. Buyers spend less time in each subsequent stage and have higher expectations of vendor response times. By carefully defining and monitoring buyers’ journeys, marketing and sales can better serve customer needs, keep pace with buyer expectations, and cut out big chucks of inefficiency.

For example, in the Exploration stage, the buyer’s main objective is to establish fit between their business challenges and a solution. The main resources they use are related to trends in their industry. The primary internal influencers are business buyers (functional leaders, business unit mangers, and executives.) Once they enter the evaluation stage, however, their objective and trusted sources change completely.

In our report, IDC CMO Advisory 2013 IT BuyerExperience Survey: Create and Close Customers up to 40% Faster, we outline specific steps IT marketers should take at each stage in order to get the right messages to the right decision makers. For more information, please contact me at gmurray (at) idc (dot) com.

Start Operationalizing Your Buyer’s Journey

I was surprised to hear so much talk about the ‘buyer’s journey’ at a recent Sales 2.0 conference. More talk than I often hear at marketing conferences! Having said this, it was clear that many people who talked about buyer’s journeys did not know what the term meant.

A hesitant raise of hands at one sales enablement panel showed that a little more than half the room thought that their company used a buyer’s journey framework. The panelists didn’t buy that answer. Sniffed one, “Most companies lift the sales stages right out of their CRM system and call that a buyer’s journey.”

What isn’t a buyer’s journey? It isn’t a sales methodology. It isn’t build rapport, uncover needs, identify options, propose solutions, and close the deal. It isn’t a product life-cycle. It isn’t development, launch, grow, mature, decline. It isn’t marketing stages. It isn’t build awareness, create interest, engage, and persuade. All of these processes can be useful to guide an important function. However, they all describe vendor’s journeys – not buyer’s journeys.

So, what is a buyer’s journey? A buyer’s journey is a framework that describes the cognitive process each buyer must personally traverse leading from Apathy (Do I care?) to Commitment (How can I buy this?).  IDC’s Customer Creation Framework highlights three simple stages of this journey: Exploration, Evaluation, and Purchase. You can break these stages into sub-steps if you like.

In the simplest terms, a buyer’s journey is really nothing more than a list of questions.  Buyers have different questions at different steps of their journey.  If buyers get their questions answered clearly, positively, credibly, and with relevance, they will take another step. If they do not, they stall or abandon their quest.

Let’s take the example of some questions on a buyer’s journey towards a new car:

  • Exploration: Is my current car headed for a problem – how do I know? Are there new cars that I would like better? What cars are new this year? What do I really need?
  • Evaluation: Which cars offer the best value? Which do I find most attractive? Is this supplier trust-worthy? What do the experts say? What do my friends think? How can I test drive?
  • Purchase: How much can I afford? Should I buy this now? Do I find terms acceptable?
Operationalizing a buyer’s journey
 
1) Collect a list of questions.
 
Start small. Select just one of your products and its most typical buyer. What questions does this buyer have about the problem? About alternative solutions? About acquiring, adopting, and using products like the one you offer? Finally, what questions might a buyer have specifically about your product?  Most companies will need multiple question lists for multiple situations. But don’t boil the ocean at the beginning.

Where do you get these questions? Ask your buyers! Ask the people in your company who talk to buyers – sales people, customer support, systems engineers, etc. Listen to social media chatter.  My experience has been that you can collect 95% of the questions you need after you have talked to about 30 people who have a broad range of roles and backgrounds.

 2) Answer the questions.

 
If your company has EVER sold a product, then somewhere, someone has the answers to the buyer’s questions. It probably isn’t the marketing team – but that’s okay. Go back the same people and places from which you gathered the questions.  Some questions can be answered easily. Others will be thorny.  Some questions will have happy answers. Other questions will be evil.

Do not avoid the thorny and evil questions!  I like this quote from Robert Frost, “The best way out is always through.”  Every unanswered question is a place where prospects can get frustrated and where leads will stall or fall out of your pipeline.

You can collect both the questions and the answers in a spreadsheet or an FAQ document.

 3) Put the answers on your website and give them to your sales team.

 
Keep your initial content super simple. Make sure the answers to all the important questions are easily found on your website. Make sure that your sales team has easy access to all of the answers.
 

 4) Improve

 
Later, you can explore the best way to deliver your answers to buyers – how should the message be voiced? What content types and media work best at different steps and with different buyer personas? How do I best map the buyer’s journey steps to the sales process?

 But these are secondary issues. If you don’t first have the answers that your buyer needs, all these secondary questions are a total waste of time.