The way B2B technology buyers conduct research and make buying decisions is changing. Marketers who understand how these behaviors are evolving can set up their companies for success in the coming decade. Those who don’t risk misallocating marketing budgets by focusing on the wrong tactics.
Buyers now consistently rely on five top sources of information–yet vendors typically concentrate on only two of these. Nearly two-thirds of B2B tech buyers are now under age 40. And those professionals rely on different sources for decision making than their more senior colleagues.
Those are just a few of the findings from B2B Buying Disconnect: Forecasting Radical Changes in Tech Buying Behavior just published by software rating site TrustRadius. The 63-page study provides a wealth of insights for B2B marketers and product managers. Here are seven of the key findings, supplemented by additional observations born of experience.
Mismatched Content Type Priorities
As shown in the Venn diagram below, there is a mismatch between the top information sources used by tech buyers and the top tactics B2B marketers focus on.
Per the report, “The top five tactics vendors use to engage buyers are different from buyers’ top five information sources. Both vendors and buyers use demos and vendor/product websites. But beyond that, there’s a big disconnect between the resources buyers rely on and tactics vendors use…
“In short, vendors spend more time and marketing dollars on content that buyers don’t consume as much. To make the most out of their marketing budgets and remove friction for buyers, vendors should invest more in user reviews, rep enablement, and product-led growth.”
While there’s no reason to doubt these findings, a few caveats are important to note:
- The relative value of user reviews versus case studies is highest for relatively simple, low-cost (under four figures per certainly, under low five-figure purchases often) SaaS products versus enterprise software. Case studies become relatively more important in high-value (six-figure and definitely seven-figure) purchases of complex enterprise applications and suites.
- Similarly, free trials and accounts are popular for relatively low-cost, simple SaaS products. For complex, high-value enterprise platforms, a proof of concept (PoC) is more commonly used.
- Case studies and customer references are also more important to B2B buyers when purchasing professional services (implementation, consulting, training, etc.) as opposed to products.
- Both buyers and sellers agree on the value of product demos. When possible, the best approach is to give buyers control of how they experience the demo. Virtual event software provider Shindig, for example, offers daily public group demos; private, one-on-one demos; and self-guided demos.
B2B Buyers Are Getting Younger
According to this study, “60% of all B2B technology buyers are millennials (age 25 – 39), and 2% are from Generation Z (24 and younger). ” And younger buyers rely on different information sources than their GenX and Boomer colleagues (more on that below). But two key points to note:
- Except for the simplest, lowest-cost purchases, buyers are part of a collaborative decision-making group, which often includes more senior workers as well. For marketers, this means using a variety of information channels to appeal to the broadest possible range of age cohorts.
As TrustRadius notes, “Buying decisions are largely still collaborative, but buying committees are likely to be composed of more focused groups of between 2-5 individuals.”
- Are technology analyst firms in trouble? Per the report, “Our data shows that millennials and Gen Z buyers are less likely than older generations to use analyst rankings and reports while purchasing business technology. Given that the percentage of buyers is trending younger, the fact that they rely less on analyst reports & rankings is a serious concern for traditional analyst firms.”
The analyst firms are well aware of this shift, which is why Omdia now partners with TrustRadius, and why Gartner has acquired three of the five most popular software rating sites.
Search is Getting More Important
As noted above, the majority of B2B buyers are under age 40. And those buyers are almost twice as likely as “older generations” to discover a product by searching online.
Search is among the top three ways younger buyers discover tech products, along with peer and vendor recommendations. The importance of search means vendors need to focus on SEO as well as having a presence everywhere their buyers may find them online: software review sites, influential blogs, social media platforms, etc.. They also need to embrace mobile-friendly media including video and podcasts.
Industry events are less impactful for Millennial and Gen Z buyers, though this may change over time, especially post-pandemic.
As the report concludes, “Expect to see more millennials taking part and taking charge of buying decisions. Prepare for this by making sure information about your product is easily accessible across online channels, especially channels that younger buyers prefer— like Google search results, user reviews, and self-service offerings. ”
Self-Service > Sales Reps (Sometimes)
One of the most crucial takeaways from the report is “28% of buyers want to self-serve their buying journey, without ever talking with a vendor representative. Today over half of buyers (57%) who influence a technology purchase decision do not consult vendor representatives when making a purchase decision.”
Before B2B sales professionals start looking into career change en masse, however, two important caveats to note:
- As noted in the opening section above, “vendor representatives” (i.e., sales people) remain among the top five information sources used by buyers. The role has been evolving for several years now, as buyers educate themselves online before contacting a sales rep. But sales professionals remain vital in closing deals.
- Self-service prevails in low-cost, low complexity buying decisions. A tech buyer doesn’t need a sales rep to help them decide between AWeber and Mailchimp (or better yet, SendSquared). They do need to interact with sales professionals to decide between Oracle (Eloqua) and Marketo.
Review Sites Are Important (Usually)
B2B tech buyers use a lot of different information sources to help with decision making, as show in this chart:
Software review sites are unquestionably important for tech vendors, particularly for relative inexpensive, simple products in popular software categories.
As the report notes, “45% of buyers rely on user reviews when making a technology purchase. User reviews have been one of the top 5 critical information sources used by buyers for the past 5 years in a row. For these buyers, the most important factor when evaluating products on a review website is the review content (i.e. the qualitative feedback).”
That said, it’s worth noting that, despite what was said about sales reps in the section above, “vendor representatives” (that is, sales people) score nearly as high. Again, it depends on the complexity and cost of the decision.
Also worth taking with a boulder-sized grain of salt is the relatively low score for vendor blogs. First, blogs are most valuable at the top of the funnel, for product discovery and brand awareness.
Second, “vendor / product website” is the second-most important information source; blogging significantly increases search visibility and traffic, making that website much more likely to found by prospective buyers.
Five Things to Stop Doing, (And What to Do Instead)
As noted in the opening section above, there is often a disconnect between the information sources and marketing channels buyers view as most effective and those vendors focus on.
More specifically, here is what not to do as a B2B technology marketer. Per the report:
Top 5 Marketing Tactics Tech Buyers Hate:
- Receiving too many emails
- Cold calling
- Aggressive sales reps
- Uninformed sales pitches
- Non-personalized communication
Ouch. What should you do instead?
Offering self-service options tops the list. Make it easy for prospects to find information about your product and compare it to alternatives. For simple, relatively low-cost products, offer free trials and an easy credit card purchasing process. Self-guided demos and explainer videos work well for almost any type of software.
Yet this remains a significant disconnect. As the TrustRadius research reveals, “33% of vendors do not offer buyers any self-service options even though 87% of buyers want to self-serve their buying journey.”
User reviews, SEO, and personalized communications are also productive areas for increasing marketing budget allocations.
Buyers Are (Generally) Optimistic About 2021
Nearly half of the buyers surveyed said their companies had cut technology spending in 202o due to the pandemic—a figure which is not likely to surprise most technology marketers. But what about the outlook for next year?
56% of B2B tech buyers predict that spend will either return to previous levels or increase in 2021. 16% think spending will decrease next year. And 27% are unsure of the outlook for their organizations.
In summary, while there is reason for optimism that live will return to something approaching “normal” in the coming year, some of the changes caused or influenced by the pandemic are likely to stay. Many employees will continue to work remotely, at least part time, post pandemic.
Many events that transitioned from live to virtual during COVID-19 will choose to remain virtual, given that virtual event technology has rapidly improved, online events work well for many purposes, and costs are much lower.
And buyers who switched from going out to ordering online for everything from groceries to restaurant meals in their personal lives will increasing expect the same convenient, self-service experience from B2B technology vendors. B2B marketers should check out the full report from TrustRadius to get the complete story.
What Charles Darwin is quoted as saying about species will certainly remain true for B2B vendors in the post-pandemic world: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”