Back in prehistoric times (before the Internet, that is), b2b buyers learned about products and services by reading (print) magazines and (printed) analyst reports. Once they developed a short list of vendors for consideration, they contacted the companies (using phones, which were connected via wires) and the companies sent them (printed) sales collateral by mail (postal, that is). Then sales people would contact the prospects and use a “consultative” sales process. Buyers would tell each sales rep all about their company, industry and problems, and each sales rep in turn would then explain why his or her product/service was absolutely the best fit to meet the buyer’s needs. Marketers spent a lot of time creating attractive sales collateral materials–brochures, specification sheets and the like–and getting these printed on nice, glossy paper. Store rooms and offices were full of these glorious materials.
Then the Internet came along, and despite pronouncements that it would “change everything,” it really didn’t for the first several years. Sure, it was a leap forward in distribution technology: websites replaced printed magazines and reports, email replaced postal mail and faxes, phones lost their wires, and online conferencing reduced, somewhat, the need for travel. But processes didn’t really change much; marketers still spent a lot of time producing brochures and spec sheets, only now there were more often delivered in PDF form than printed. The sales process benefited from electronic communications, but remained largely the same. Detailed information about vendors and their offerings was still limited, enabling marketing and sales to act as gatekeepers of information. Even in the late 1990’s, sales people were still trained on how to control and manage the sales process.
Things began to change when blogging became popular about seven years ago. Established voices (journalists and analysts) had a new channel for expression. Customers, competitors, and other people with expertise in a given area even if they “had no dog in the fight” became new information sources for prospective buyers. Blogs were different from other forms of communication: less formal, more matter-of-fact, (sometimes) unbiased, and most importantly, they provided the opportunity for feedback. Readers could respond to and extend the conversation through comments. Marketing and sales were still largely in control, but buyers were entering sales cycles with more and better information.
But it’s been the explosion of social media and user-generated content over the past three years that has really changed the sales process. Prospects can ask questions, within or beyond their social networks. Anyone can answer; not just the traditional “experts,” but anyone inside or outside of a vendor organization, including customers. Journalists, analysts and other industry influencers have new channels for communication. Employees who in the past were far removed from customers, or at least certainly from prospects, can join online conversations. Customers can say pretty much the same things they’ve always said, only now instead of talking to only a few close colleagues and peers, their words can reach thousands or tens of thousands of social media readers and participants.
The result is that prospects can learn far more about an offering before ever contacting the vendor. Marketing has more involvement before the sale; marketers can’t control the conversations, but they need to monitor them and participate. By the time a prospective buyer contacts a vendor, they are closer to a decision and their information needs reduced to a small number of very specific questions (almost always including price). And they no longer have time for that “consultative sale;’ just as they are coming to the sales conversation armed with a tremendous amount of information about the vendor and it’s offerings, they expect the sales person to know about their company, needs and industry trends as well. No wonder sales groups are among the heaviest corporate users of social media. Tools like LinkedIn, Twitter and blogs not only enable sales pros to learn more about their prospects before the sale, they also raise the expectation that sales people will do so.
This is not necessarily bad news for sales. Social media has the potential to lengthen marketing cycles but shorten sales cycles, and by enabling both sides to begin the process knowing more about each other, to allow for higher-value conversations.
All of this is one reason webbiquity, or web presence optimization (WPO) is so important. Prospects are going to be checking you out online, well beyond your website, long before they have “raised their hands” and made themselves known to you. What will they find?