A marketing campaign is a conversation. It’s a conversation between a business and a group of prospects, but a conversation nonetheless. And like a conversation, it will be short-lived and unproductive if one party fails to show respect and deference to the other.
We’ve all, at some point, been trapped in a dead-end conversation with someone who has too much ego and not enough respect — someone who disregards our interests, opinions, and attention span.
We stop listening and make for the door. We avoid a relationship with this person, or worse, start to hate them a little. I’m thinking about a guy I knew in college who would invite people to coffee shops just so he could regale them with stories of his talent and success. Few of these unwitting targets befriended him.
B2B marketing campaigns are no different. If you market without regard for prospects’ challenges and objectives, without regard for their place in the B2B buying process, don’t expect to see any significant ROI. Instead of converting into business opportunities, your prospects will avoid you.
We’ve been writing a lot about the B2B buying process lately. That’s because it’s fascinating, maddening, infinitely complicated, and critically important to understand. In theory, once you’ve developed a working knowledge of the buying process, you can build campaigns that match it.
Easier said than done.
In this post, we’ll provide some practical guidelines to help you get started.
Map the B2B Buying Process
Buying process, purchase process, customer journey, buying cycle, whatever you want to call it, you need to know how your customers move from A to B when they buy (or subscribe to) your products.
The textbook stages of Awareness, Consideration, and Transaction are fine as a theoretical model, but you need to be more specific than that. If you sell a SaaS product, for example, a typical customer might discover your platform on a third-party review site, then visit your site, download a couple whitepapers, compare alternatives with their procurement team, move through a drip campaign, request a free trial, and ask for contract amendments before finally committing to purchase. Of course, that progression will be different for each buyer, but you’re looking for a pattern, not an exact map.
It’s also important to consider that most B2B purchases are made by groups of stakeholders (5-6, on average) rather than a single decision-maker. In one of our recent infographics, we laid out seven steps that define the group buying process:
- Defining a problem
- The buying group emerges
- Solution ID and research
- Group negotiation (consensus weakens here)
- Vendor selection
- Request for proposal
- Purchase or churn
There’s also the part of the buyer’s journey that comes after the purchase — the stage in which a vendor can build loyalty, influence a repurchase, and turn a loyal customer into a brand advocate. Thanks to the growth of advocate marketing and ABM, many campaigns now focus on these stages as well.
ALSO READ: What Does ABM Mean for the B2B Sales Funnel
If the familiar stat is true — buyers have already made 57 percent of their decision before they reach out — much of this process will happen under the radar, which can frustrate your efforts to understand it. Even so, you should be able to paint a fairly accurate picture using market research, marketing automation, and web analytics tools.
Adjust Your Campaigns
Now that you have a better understanding of the B2B buying process, you can adjust your campaigns to align with each stage and each type of lead. First, take inventory. What campaigns are you currently running, and where are they deployed? For most B2B companies, the spread will look something like this:
- Paid search/display
- Organic search
- Email nurturing
- Outbound telemarketing
- Social media
If you notice any obvious gaps or redundancies, you already have an opportunity to improve. In the digital age, multichannel marketing is par for the course. Buyers use an average of six different “interaction channels” throughout the decision journey, and if your brand isn’t engaging them at every turn, you may lose business to a competitor. Roughly 65 percent of buyers are frustrated by inconsistencies between channels.
If you don’t have the resources to run multichannel campaigns or are weak in one area, you might consider partnering with a third-party lead generation service — a fairly common practice in the B2B sector.
When you feel confident about the reach and scope of your campaign mix, zoom in on these three silos:
Segment Your Content
Almost every marketing campaign is provisioned by some form of content, so it makes sense to start there. Whether it’s a blog post on your site, a downloadable whitepaper, or an email survey, every piece of content should appeal to buyers’ interests and priorities at a specific stage of the buying process. You wouldn’t send a new blog subscriber a pricing guide for your product, but you also don’t want to waste time with “fluffy” content when buyers actively evaluating solutions.
ALSO READ: 7 Companies Winning at B2B Content Marketing
That means you need to establish a hierarchy of content based on your marketing/sales funnel. Group your assets by funnel stage and by persona, and make sure those assets are delivered at the appropriate time.
You can go a step further by personalizing your messaging, where possible. That could mean industry-specific calls to action, an email that uses first name and browsing behavior, or a custom retargeting ad that follows a visitor away from your site. If your marketing automation and content management tools have this ability, it’s a no-brainer. Companies that personalize their online experience see an average 19 percent increase in sales.
Diversify Lead Nurturing
If you still haven’t graduated from “batch and blast” email campaigns, you’re going to have a hard time aligning your campaigns with an infinitely complex, highly variable buying process. These kind of one-off efforts might get a few clicks here and there, but they won’t engage with leads on a personal level, and they won’t earn the kind of trust it takes to win a complex sale. Companies with lead nurturing programs generate 50 percent more sales-ready leads at a third less the cost.
If you’re already running lead nurturing programs, make sure you aren’t forcing all of your leads into one or two homogenous email lists. There are a number of different campaigns you can (and should) run based on your leads’ behavior, firmographics, and engagement metrics. According to a 2015 benchmark study by Demand Gen Report, early-stage programs are the most common type of email campaign, but far from the only type.
The key is to stay responsive. Don’t assume leads will follow an ascending progression from inquiry, to interest/intent, to MQL. Some may churn (unsubscribe) or fail to engage with your offers. Zapier, for example, has an email for leads who opt in to a free trial but never use it:
Try Account-Based Marketing
As we’ve already mentioned, the B2B buying process is markedly complex, and the challenge of group consensus further complicates matters. According to CEB, the likelihood of purchase drops by 26 percent as soon as a second decision-maker joins the group. Many B2B vendors are turning to account-based marketing (ABM) to help overcome this obstacle and smooth consensus among buying groups. Instead of focusing on individual leads, ABM seeks to nurture and convert target accounts.
ABM basically works like this:
- Identify Target Accounts (using lead identification tools and market research)
- Map Accounts (identify decision-makers and influencers in the organization)
- Create Content
- Launch Campaigns (personalized retargeting, email, direct mail, micro events, etc.)
- Measure and Analyze (engagement, aggregate lead scoring, revenue)
Using ABM campaigns to target and mobilize advocates within specific accounts can be a great way to help the buying process overcome some of its natural hurdles and maximize the value of won deals. As of last fall, 71 percent of marketers were already using account-based marketing to drive more revenue.
Other Best Practices
In addition to segmenting your content efforts, improving lead nurturing, and rolling out an account-based marketing initiative, there are some general best practices that will help you improve both the process and the quality of your campaigns.
Whatever you do — no matter the channel, the persona, or the product — don’t press a hard sell too early in relationship. There’s no bigger turn-off for a lead then being propositioned before they’re ready. Instead, focus on educating leads, adding value to their jobs, and learning about their needs. When the time is right (i.e. they’ve clearly expressed a need or pain point), give each lead a chance to try your product for free.
Secondly, make sure you have a mechanism in place for efficiently passing leads from marketing to sales (and the ability to pass leads back if they aren’t qualified). In almost every case, that means an integrated CRM and marketing automation platform. As soon as a lead’s score reaches your predetermined threshold, get them to sales for follow-up as quickly as possible. Roughly 76 percent of B2B companies say a timely follow-up is the biggest success factor in the sales development process.
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There’s no telling where marketing technology will take us in the next 10, 20, or 30 years. But for the time being, we can’t predict buying behavior — at least not in a literal sense. We can only measure, analyze, and anticipate. You may find it frustrating that buyers elude your reach and contradict expectations, but they’re only doing what’s best for their business: being careful. Your job is to be careful with them. Learn what priorities inform their decisions, what needs motivate their search, and what kind of language appeals to their interests. Then pour all of these data points into your campaigns.
Don’t let your brand be the narcissist in the coffee shop, preening over its own accomplishments. Have a two-way conversation with your prospects.