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The Changing Shape of Business Buyers

The B2B marketing landscape has drastically changed in recent years, and this is especially true of those making the purchase decisions on behalf of a business (i.e. business decision makers), who have come to expect personalized content and services as it relates to their own specific needs.

One factor in this evolution is the growing influence of millennials in B2B purchasing decisions, which brings a new set of challenges for younger audiences with rising, B2C-like expectations. Our research shows that brand building and positioning, along with CX, continue to be a top priority for B2B marketers. Leading brands interact with audiences across a greater number of channels. They also have more personal contact than those who lag behind the competition.

While engagement doesn’t necessarily correlate with winning business, we know reliability and preeminence are important attributes throughout a buyer’s relationship with a brand. This means customizing the total experience is critical to their overall customer journey.

The role of marketing is still about reaching the right audience at the right time with the right message and persuading them to take a desired action. The monthslong process leading up to a purchase (ranging, on average, from six weeks to seven months) is essential for brand building and cross-channel exposure.

The way marketers go about that engagement is looking much different than it did five years ago. But not everything has changed.

What has stayed the same

Something that hasn’t changed, however, are the long, often complex, B2B buying cycles that are still a fact of life for B2B marketing and sales professionals.

The impact of content types and media exposure on decision dynamics is not something to overlook, either. Trust and confidence, in both leading and lagging brands, is enhanced by ongoing media and marketing exposure. It’s a nuanced process where both logic and emotion have a role to play, and millions of dollars could be at stake.

One thing is for sure – regardless of age or industry, customer expectations are rising, making it essential for companies wanting to make the most out of every moment to get it right the first time or risk losing out to the competition.

Marketers must understand their customers’ individual wants, needs, desires, and pain points as buyers move along their journey to ensure their messaging resonates with the brand positioning. Having rich customer insights is also critical to adapting strategy for new platforms, channels, and routes to market. This can be examined using quantitative and qualitative surveys and engagement data with earned and owned channels.

What’s changed

In short, a lot.

The way B2B buyers are engaging is dramatically shifting as well. The buyer’s journey now includes multiple steps and isn’t necessarily linear.

The rise the digital-first millennials in the decision-making process means that much of their journey has already taken place online before they ever encounter a sales rep. Younger B2B buyers also have an insatiable appetite for instant gratification, convenience, want to be able to self-serve, and prefer to work with socially responsible brands. Successful brands not only need to meet business needs, but also the buyers’ individual needs with ESG (environmental, social, and governance) and brand purpose being key factors when choosing a brand with whom to do business.

Compared to baby boomers and Gen X, we know that millennials spend the most time in the decision-making process, and in more information channels, than other generations. Sellers have fewer opportunities to influence customers directly. Conversely, due to an abundance of options and a proliferation of online content, customers find it harder and harder to buy due to the endless flow of information – oftentimes cycling through several steps multiple times. This may make it harder for sales teams, but it also presents an opportunity for B2B companies. If you can position your business well online, you have a better chance of reaching potential buyers and, ultimately, drive customer lifetime value

Buyers are now sitting at the intersection of online and offline. In fact, more transactions are taking place online – even if they are influenced by digital in some way or another. Ecommerce now outperforms phone and email as the most popular sales channel – but that doesn’t mean B2B ecommerce experiences are meeting user expectations. One study shows that 50% of B2B ecommerce sites are not fully meeting expectations, whereas 94% of B2B buyers suffer customer experience challenges online.

So, what do B2B companies need to be focusing on to keep up with this rapid change?

Embrace the digital working relationship by conducting customer research.  These insights can be used to inform “problem statements” and help set company-wide goals/metrics (online and offline). Select the best tactics to solve those problems. Leverage training and education, hybrid events, and transparent culture-building initiatives to help prepare you for success. Test, learn, and iterate.

Now is the time to act. The new digital landscape won’t wait for marketers who are stagnant and slow to evolve their strategies. Buyers’ behaviors are changing, and if you won’t adapt to meet their needs, one of your competitors will.