B2B is Complex. So is B2B Marketing

Late in 2014, a new study from the Content Marketing Institute said that if you want to influence B2B buyers, use video. According to Daisy Whitney in a post at Mediapost, “Video is one of the top three most effective content marketing techniques, because B2B decision-makers usually have very little time, the survey of business marketers found. When researching potential purchases, decision-makers often turn to video because they can get quick and understandable information about the product they’re considering.”

B2B marketing

I don’t disagree with any of that – in the right circumstance. But both the study and the coverage are over-simplifying what is a tremendously complex issue. Video is not a B2B silver bullet. In fact, if you serve it up to the wrong person at the wrong time, it can do more harm than good. I don’t know why marketers – and the press that caters to them – continually tries to reduce everything down to the lowest common denominator. We seem to always be looking for the one-size-fits all simple solution. And the problem is that buyers – especially B2B buyers – come in all different sizes. If you try to jam them into a solution that doesn’t fit just because you’re avoiding complexity, you’re going to get an uncomfortable buyer. And uncomfortable buyers will go somewhere where they feel more comfortable.

Let’s take this video for example. Imagine I’m a B2B technical buyer. That means I’m the person who has to make sure the specs of whatever we’re buying meet our internal requirements. In many complex B2B purchases, I’m the guy that can stop a purchase dead in its tracks. I don’t sign the check, but if I don’t approve, nothing gets bought. My goal is to quickly find the specs that I’m looking for. The last thing I’m looking for is a linear video which may or may not have the information I’m looking for. I’m looking for information laid out in a non-linear “random access” format, like text. I can quickly scan text to find the sections most relevant to me.

In my book, The BuyerSphere Project, I looked at length, at the types of content and persuasion techniques needed to support a B2B purchase. As I said there, these types of purchases are all about avoiding risk. But risk is not defined the same way by the different types of buyers you’ll find engaged in an organizational purchase – especially a complex one. We found that B2B buyers tend to fit broadly into one of two categories: either Doers or Buyers. One might argue there’s a third category: Bosses. In the book I lumped these in with Buyers. Here’s a quick definition of each:

b2b doers


These are the people who are actively engaged in the business of the business, whatever it might be. They are the ones that get stuff done, whether it be on the shop floor, the sales floor or the office. These are the ones who will be directly interacting with the product or service. In many types of purchases, Doers fill the essential role of approving the purchase options. In addition, they are often the one that trigger the initial need. Doers are the ones that envision how the purchase will make their jobs easier. For them, risk is directly related to job and product performance.

buyers (1)


Buyers are the ones who manage purchases. In large organizations, these would be the procurement people. It’s their job to make sure the purchase process stays within corporate guidelines. They’ll manage the RFP or RFQ process. They’ll also negotiate the purchase. Generally, there’s a hand off from Doers to Buyers part way through the purchase. Buyers will then guide the purchase to completion. Buyers define risk differently than Doers. For them, risk is related to the purchase itself: does the vendor meet corporate requirements, does the price fit within allocated budgets, will the vendor provide after sales support.

b2b sosses


Finally, there are Bosses. Bosses are usually only involved in big ticket or strategic purchases. They generally rely on Doers and Buyers to do the due diligence required, and then may be required to approve the purchase. As you might expect, Bosses have their own definition of risk. It revolves around corporate risk and profitability. Theirs is, by necessity, a long-term view of risk.

Now we start to see why B2B purchases are so complex: we have at least three different types of buyers, with three very different definitions of risk. And each definition must be understood and dealt with by the vendor. Adding to the complexity is the fact that these different roles will take turns driving the process. Generally, Doers are more involved early in the purchase, Buyers get involved later and Bosses might exert their influence at any stage during the process. At each stage, with each individual, the vendor has to read the situation and persuade the sale to go ahead.

Now, if that wasn’t complex enough, let’s add another wrinkle. If all the persuasion that was required were of a rational nature, life would be much easier. We could just provide the facts – or, more realistically, our version of the facts – and let the buyer sort through them. But that’s not how humans make decisions. That’s how computers make decisions. Humans rely on emotions as well as logic. So, as they work their way through the purchase process, they will encounter two different types of “friction points” – emotional and informational. These two types of friction points need to be dealt with very differently. If it’s an informational friction point, all you need to do is get the prospect the right information, probably in a format that allows for easy and random digestion of the information. In these cases, text is probably best. But if it’s an emotional friction point, you need to respond with an emotional format. It’s in these cases that a video might work well. Or – even better – a face-to-face visit.

As marketers, we’re all too willing to accept tips, shortcuts or advice like that offered in the Content Marketing Institute study and treat them like gospel. We’re always looking for “what” will work, without asking “why.” And with almost any of these tips, you have to assume they come with the caveat “it depends.” They may be true in some circumstances, but not always. It’s hard work, but taking the time to understand the full complexity of your market’s decision process will pay off many times over. You may even learn to like it. One of the reasons I love B2B marketing so much is because of its complexity.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.

Author: Gord Hotchkiss

In understanding search and online user behaviour, no one is a more respected voice than Gord Hotchkiss. Besides being the CEO and co-founder of Enquiro, he is a past director and Chairman of SEMPO, a columnist for MediaPost and Search Engine Land, a regular presenter at all the industry shows and a popular keynote speaker. He is also the author of The Buyersphere Project: How Business Buys from Business in a Digital Marketplace. He’s currently working on a new book on corporate strategy and is launching a cycling tourism business in Canada.

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