Google’s B2B Report Analysis: How Digital Evolution Transforms The B2B Industry

New research shows that potential business-to-business (B2B) consumers are increasingly utilizing digital channels to create opinions about their major purchases. The digital evolution is dramatically changing the B2B industry and transforming business practices, giving rise to a new challenge for B2B marketers to be present and active in various digital tools and channels at all times with quality content that will educate business buyers and help guide them with their critical and commercial decisions.

In 2011 and 2012, tech giant Google and CEB’s Marketing Leadership Council polled 1,500 business leaders that have been recently involved in key purchases for 22 top B2B firms. The results of the Google B2B research survey suggest there is a new paradigm in B2B (business-to-business) marketing that has taken hold.

Let us begin with some role-play. Imagine yourself as the purchaser of information technology services for a medium-sized firm. One day, the top gun of the company, the chief executive officer (also known as the boss of your boss), approaches you, dissatisfied. He says he has gotten tired of his computer lagging or freezing every time, but the sales personnel have been lamenting for quite some time now about issues concerning live demonstrations. He wants his computer fixed, but there is a condition: the overall information technology budget for the entire year can only go by as much as 10 percent; nothing more, nothing less.

So what should you do? You know there are a lot of information technology vendors out there, not to mention gazillion of available specifications. The first thing you would do is figure out first what the boss or your company actually needs. If you are like many business buyers, you go and surf the Internet to research. You begin with some top corporate information technology suppliers, groups whose names you have probably heard before or read somewhere in the news. For more additional leads, you also begin to check with some of the respected and authoritative voices in the corporate information technology world: bloggers, tech writers, information technology industry journals, and experts you have listened to in seminars or conferences. You might also go and visit an Internet discussion forum or Facebook community groups on information technology services where you have gotten some valuable information and discussions from previously. You now end up with four or five vendors that can help you with your needs, invite them to do presentations, and go for the lowest bid. Mission complete! Now, you have solved your company’s problem and the chief executive officer loves you.

Makes perfect sense, right?

However, if you are into B2B marketing, this scenario should give you something to pause about: All your activities happened even without the input of one single sales person.

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The challenge now is digital

Why? Let us begin by providing some numbers on our story. The example is not quite far-fetched. In fact, the Google-Marketing Leadership Council survey showed that business buyers like you generally do not directly get in touch with suppliers until about 57 percent of the buying process is complete or about two-thirds of the overall purchasing process. Forming educated opinions, understanding technical details, listing requirements lists, and selecting choices from a list are happening, with minimal influence from you.

It was not like this before. That business consumers can now engage in self-directed learning is happening thanks to the Internet, which has democratized access to information; that consumers are now learning about and buying solutions and products themselves is an indication of higher budget process in an economy that has been stagnating.

So, what is wrong with waiting for consumers to come and approach us? Well, because by the time that consumers do, they already have hardened information, demands, and expectations about the things they want out of a company or supplier; thus, your job is now merely reduced to taking their order and filling it for the cheapest price possible. Consumers are learning on their own, so there is no additional room to teach them that what they learned themselves is wrong.

It is the job of B2B marketing to influence the sale that occurs usually on the web before sales contract, but three issues—incomplete digital integration, a poorly-optimized channel mix, and ineffective content—are keeping them from growing mindshare and making the most of what they are already getting.

True integration

Most leaders in the B2B marketing industry still regard the digital media as an unwanted appendage on the usual and traditional marketing campaign cycle, which roughly goes like this: Create a new service or product, design a marketing campaign touting its benefits or features, look for a place to stick digital channels within that marketing campaign architecture, implement, measure, repeat.

Take a second look at the story we started with, and it becomes clearer why this traditional marketing approach would not work. Customer learning is occurring all the time, and news flash: it does not coincide with your company’s marketing campaign calendar.

Marketing companies have mostly been established from the ground up to support as well as optimize campaigns, and not maintain the continuous media presence the digital channel requires. In order to survive and be more successful, marketing management should adjust. If the consumer is always learning, marketing leaders should then always be teaching.

Focused, persuasive content

Actually, it is not even enough for marketing gurus to teach; they have to teach very well. However, here lies the dirty little secret of many content marketing campaigns: they do not teach either. It is not surprising why. Content creation has been growing organically, and in fact has spread across various product and service lines. Yet, they all lack a cohesive and consistent message.

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This leads us to the number one problem with B2B digital approaches at present: They often rely on content that is not generally useful at all for B2B customers who are in the midst of their learning experiences. Most content out there in digital campaigns are often low value; they may be interesting or attract a lot of Facebook likes or Twitter engagement, but they do not translate to helping B2B buyers make critical, commercial decisions.

It is thus a structural problem. B2B marketing’s content creation approach is not designed or established to send out consistent and focused messages.

A better, smarter mix

When do consumers prefer whitepapers, and when do they prefer watching YouTube videos instead? Matching customer need with the right digital channel is certainly among the top challenges in digital marketing, and for B2B marketers, doing it right needs data on how consumers use different channels to be—to a certain degree—all in one place and comparable.

Marketing groups are decidedly not established for those things. Generally, they have responded to digital media with a fragmented way, where a team does whitepaper creation for a certain product or service line, while another team produces webinars for another service or product, while a third marketing team produces and owns YouTube videos for the entire company, and so on. Getting not only a sense but also understanding of channel effectiveness are tough in such an environment, and the consequences of integrating all consumer data various teams should be looking into are usually negated by the expense and time required to do the integration right.

How do you address this conundrum? Rather than spending your money and time to perform dubious models that claim specific leads to various pieces of content, B2B marketers should focus on two main things: simpler and more actionable marketing models and analytics talent.

If you can get digital media integrated with your broader marketing mix, get the message about your product or service right, and select the right format for those marketing messages, your business will be well on its way to surviving in the digital media landscape.

We hope this article on the Google B2B research report and findings helps you understand how digital evolution has transformed the B2B industry. Feel free to share your opinion on the article with us.

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9 Comments »

  • Jay says:

    This is a must-read for old-school B2B marketers. I still find plenty of B2B suppliers with notoriously stiff websites and no social media presence at all even if they provide superb service. Sadly, the Google study is right, many buyers today judge you by your digital presence. To dig deeper into the digital mix, user reviews are more potent now than case studies. Buyers are getting good at online research and can smell a paid case study from a mile; but user reviews provide a more objective 360 view of the supplier. Expect this paradigm shift in the digital mix as well. Clearly, digital strategies will dominate traditional marketing. I just wonder how this is affecting the relationship between sales, advertising, and public relations in large corporations.

    • chrissunner says:

      Not so much about shuffling of power, in most cases, public relations take a more active role and advertising has just to pay more attention to other teams than they did in the past. In our company we created a digital team with the marketing head at the top and the sales, advertising and PR putting their best ideas forward and the team fine tunes a campaign mix. It’s traditional in a sense, only that the PR guys have operational control of the digital platform because they’re better suited to talking to customers. As for the digital mix, the goal is to project thought leadership, especially in the B2B ecosphere, where the insights of a supplier’s CEO published somewhere can influence a client. This is I think the hidden message of the Google study. It’s time the CEO gets into the selling action and the Internet is his playing field. What is he in power for but to sell, right?

  • zen says:

    Lost in the hype of the increasing importance of the digital evolution is the need to adhere to traditional disciplines of marketing: ROI, media mileage, per unit cost comparison, these things have aided the marketing manager to justify his budget and these things will ever be more needed to tame the erratic metrics and measures of content marketing and organic campaigns. If there’s one thing this Google study wants to tell us subtly, it’s that paid search pays dividends. I read the study and I agree. Throw it into your digital mix along with seo and paid online ads and use the traditional marketing metrics and complement them with organic campaigns to have a serious digital presence.

  • aj says:

    Although I agree that B2B customers are “forming educated opinions, understanding technical details, listing requirements lists, …with minimal influence from you,” you can create significant influence during this period. Use SEO/SEM techniques and content-driven marketing, and make sure to keep a close tab on your social mentions so you can respond fast to questions, issues, or concerns. But do these things to reinforce your quality product or service, not magically transform it. In B2B these online marketing tactics cannot candy coat a poor service or low-quality product. Likewise, whoever said that the best SEO is when you communicate with transparency across your digital channels. No black hat can compete with that.

  • Lucy says:

    I used this CEB report to restructure our digital setup. The key takeaway is to centralize and specialize. In the gamut of digital channels across the Internet, you have to have a dashboard where you can glance ALL your digital footprints and your key audience’ mentions of your brand. Failure to do this can mean a small customer rant cascading into a full blown social media crisis. There are a lot of apps that help you to consolidate all these data. At the same time, it’s time you identify and designate experts in your staff to answer specific FAQs or handle issues, which we did. We’re not just talking about customer service agents here. We also involved the technical guys and sales teams in cases when the issue is specific to their areas of operations. We’re liking the results so far.

    • Brian Crane says:

      Same here. The key now is to involve all key units of your company to manage your digital presence. This sounds simple, but it took us months to nurture this setup because you’re dealing with the territorial resistance from different departments. If you’re having this problem, let me share a tip. We started to organize meetups between our customer service (the central figure in the whole digital setup here) and key departments like I.T., product development, and marketing. We have had big parties and simple coffee meetings just to introduce the staff to each other and create rapport. Funny because what’s driving our digital engagement with customers, where there are no face-to-face, body language opportunities, is our personalized, face-to-face social meetups among our staff. Behind an effective digital strategy is a basic human need to see and talk with actual people. Something to think about.

  • fred says:

    That’s why we never abandoned the “unglamorous” email marketing. B2B marketing gurus like Perry Marshall and Daniel Levis know email is still an effective way to influence a customer. Here’s why–these executives and managers still read emails daily. Inside the email universe, you have their sole attention, far different in social media where distractions are all around. Emails are deeply personal; thus, a subtle relationship is established at once. The hard part, of course, is how to have them subscribed to your list. But if you’re gonna invest time in B2B digital marketing, pour in 60% of that in email marketing.

    • Kate Liddle says:

      If by email marketing you mean opt-in, yes, it’s influential. But how many chances do you get to build email with opt-ins these days? Most email campaigns are built around paid lists. Spam, in short. Managers hate it and your campaign can backfire. Investing 60% in email marketing is vague. First, the rate of opt-ins today has dramatically decreased because people are in social media and filling in a subscription box is so old school (from users’ point of view). Second, yes, managers are still reading emails, but understand they’re reading emails to do their jobs, not to wait for pitches from a marketer. These are things you need to consider.

  • Trondheim says:

    The moment you use a digital mix because others are doing it is the time you’re messed up. Instead, study your analytics and decide which digital properties to prioritize and which not. Does Google ads work best for you? Do you really need a Facebook page that you cannot maintain? It only makes you look pathetic. Is Twitter better, then? What territories are you most present? There are a lot of factors and work to do before you can arrive at a digital strategy that truly works. Sadly, many marketers are just too lazy and will rather follow the herd.

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