Sporadic Customer Journeys in Low Involvement Categories
"Research is a process where you can spend a lot of money and come up with zero. Isurus guides me quickly through the key decisions, helps me avoid the pitfalls, and makes sure I walk away with high-value implications."
-Vice President of Marketing, Enterprise Content Management System Provider
Set it and forget it is the attitude in many low involvement categories – data security, business insurance, telecommunications, etc. Inertia keeps businesses from proactively evaluating alternative solutions or vendors. If the product or service is good-enough businesses don’t have the motivation to evaluate their options.
The purchase journey for these products and services consists of long stretches of inertia, interspersed with periodic spikes in interest in alternatives. During the inertia phase businesses pay little attention to the category: They don’t think about how things could be better or keep tabs on vendors or trends in the category. They remain happy with the status quo.
Product/service failures and significant price increases jolt business out of their comfort zone. They reach out to peers and advisors, conduct online searches, read online reviews, reach out to vendors, take sales calls, etc. Once they make their decision to switch vendors, or maintain the status quo, their inertia returns. They stop paying attention to the category and their awareness of vendors and options rapidly dissipates.
This buying journey cycle is a significant challenge for vendors that operate in these categories. If your product or service is a low-involvement one, convincing prospects that it’s worth their time to look around outside of their sporadic spikes in interest may require more sales and marketing resources than you have available.
It might make more sense to take steps to ensure you can take advantage of the opportunities when they do arise.
Be where they look
Although their need may be urgent, most prospects look into only a handful of vendors: Those they’ve used before, are familiar with, find in a simple online search, know their peers use or are recommended by their trusted advisors. To improve your likelihood of being in this initial consideration set:
- Keep track of, and contact with, individual customers and prospects when they move to new employers
- Attend industry events as a sponsor or attendee
- Identify the trusted advisor channels you can feasibly influence
- Invest in optimizing search results
- Advertise to maintain brand awareness (this varies in importance by market)
Understand the Failures
The purchase trigger in low-involvement categories tends to be a failure, or cost increase, rather than a proactive desire to improve the status quo. Prospects will be interested in the potential benefits of a new solution, but their first priority is to ensure they don’t get burned again.
When you understand the what, where, why, who and how of the typical failures that motivate prospects to switch vendors, your sales and marketing processes and communications can speak directly to these concerns. Convincing a prospect that the failures they experienced will not happen with you will be as compelling as the additional benefits your company provides. If a prospect feels at risk of the same type of failure with a new vendor, they have little motivation to switch.
Recognize the Price Shoppers
Some switching in low-involvement categories is merely price shopping. If you are the low-cost vendor in your category this works to your advantage. If you aren’t, don’t count on these customers for the long-term if you happen to win them. While some may come to understand the value your product/services provide, many will eventually leave for a better price.
Learn from new customers and recent losses
Your new customers are a great place to start to understand the types of failures that prompted them to switch, and how your company made it into their consideration set. Losses can provide similar insights – they may not have selected you, but something motivated them to evaluate options.
We recommend conducting interviews with the customers and losses themselves, rather than relying solely on the opinion of the sales team. Sales reps tend to focus on the benefits of your product/service that resonated with the prospect, not the failures that got them motivated them to evaluate their options in the first place.
Despite the best sales and marketing efforts, inertia keeps most prospects from changing vendors or trying new solutions, even when they display initial interest. Speaking to pain-points is often a more effective strategy than emphasizing aspirational benefits for overcoming the inertia that exists at the end of the B2B purchase decision journey.
B2B marketers naturally focus on the aspirational benefits of their solutions. The big interesting ideas behind their solutions provide much of their brand’s identity. The product management team spends its time enhancing solutions and gives Marketing more paradigm-shifting features to talk about.
These aspirational benefits, especially for new solutions, create excitement, generate buzz in trade publications, foot traffic at trade shows, and initial sales calls. But the level of sales generated often falls short of the expectations built on the positive reactions.
The problem with relying solely on aspirational benefits is that it:
- Assumes that customers are unhappy with where they are at now.
- Underestimates the market’s tolerance for good-enough
- Underestimates the hassle and challenges of switching vendors or changing processes.
- Lacks customer focus – aspirational benefits talks about what the product can do, not what the prospect needs.
Volumes of research into purchase decisions shows that people and organizations typically only invest when they face a pain-point and feel a pressure to act. For decades, sales training organization have made “selling to pain” a pillar of their approach.
Selling to pain is not the same as selling directly to fear, nor is it a negative message. It involves speaking to the areas where prospects are falling short of their goals and objectives and how your solution will help overcome the barriers they face. It focuses on the mundane, nut-and-bolts challenges they face.
Pain surfaces when customers are under pressure to adjust to market changes such as new regulations, loss of market share to competitors, or a general shift in the market’s expectations. It can also come from internal pressures such as slowing growth and top-down directives.
Psychology drives the bias towards pain over aspirational fulfillment in B2B markets. Businesses are made up of decision-makers and decision makers are human. Pains and pressures trigger our loss aversion tendencies and are easier to conceptualize for most people.
- Loss aversion: We feel the loss of something much greater than we do a corresponding gain. Negative feelings about losing $100 are stronger than the positive feelings brought on by winning that same $100. Businesses and B2B decision makers feel pressure when they are afraid of losing something such as market share, profitability, a promotion, or even their job.
- More concrete: Most decision-makers know the problems they face and can conceptualize how a new solution will address their problems: This supplier has a lower price so my overall costs are lower, this CRM system eliminates the duplicate data and work my staff has to deal with, etc. The aspirational benefits (profitability, efficiency, security, etc.) can be ambiguous, especially to a company that feels they are doing an ok job today and that their solutions are good enough.
Corporate vs. Product Marketing
Aspirational benefits still play a critical role in the sales process – they get prospects into the top of the funnel. They garner attention and can position firms as thought leaders. They are core to a vendor’s brand identity. As such, corporate marketing and branding should focus on the big picture aspirational benefits a vendor and its solutions provide.
As prospects move through the decision journey, product marketing, sales collateral, sales processes should begin to emphasize pain-points and pressures, the question of “What is the prospect struggling with today?”.
Identifying the pain
B2B markers have multiple means of identifying the pains and pressures that motivate purchase decisions in their markets.
- Sales team – As part of their process, good sales reps will seek out where prospects have pain. They can provide insights into the broad trends they see across prospects.
- Implementation teams /account managers – Functions that touch customers on a regular basis can provide insights into how customers are using solutions in the real world – what are the using the solution to address.
- Industry news – The key issues business struggle with will surface in what users (not vendors) talk about in trade journals, conferences, user groups, etc.
- Primary research – In-depth interviews and surveys can directly explore pain-points and pressures within customer and prospect markets.
Communicating the big-picture, aspirational benefits of your solution is key to generating interest in B2B markets. However, once you have the prospect’s attention, start speaking to their pain points or they may slip away into the morass of inertia.
Across the many frameworks available on the topic, there’s consensus that a successful B2B content marketing strategy is built on knowing the target audience, how they progress through the buying process, and their needs along that journey. Yet, it is rare for marketers to use buyer insights to inform their content market strategy. Doing so requires a documented content marketing strategy and a recent study finds that only 32% of B2B marketers have one.
If you’re embarking on a new content initiative or evaluating the effectiveness of an existing one the first step should be to develop buyer personas and outline the customer decision journey.
- Buyer Personas: Personas define who buyers and influencers are, their goals for a purchase decision, their motivations and biases, and behavior in the buying process. Many B2B decisions involve multiple personas—for example, an executive champion, the day-to-day manager, and the financial decision maker. Effective content speaks to each buyer’s role in the decision, what motivates them (including functional and emotional factors), and the outcome they seek to achieve in the process.
- Buying and decision journeys: Research from Gartner and others has shown that buyers spend only 32% of their journey interacting with supplier-side content or sales people. Content marketing has the potential to extend a vendor’s reach into the buying process by engaging a buyer before they might typically contact Sales. To do so, the content strategy needs to identify what information a buyer needs at each stage of the buying process. For example, a buyer early in the process of investigating marketing automation solutions needs content that helps them decide whether or not to invest; later in their journey buyers want to examine product features.
Building personas and buyer journeys can draw on data from a range of sources. The most accessible sources are typically the Sales team and Customer Advisory Boards. While these perspectives are valuable, they each have blind spots.
- Sales has visibility into only part of the customer buying process. As noted previously, some data suggest that the majority of buyer activity happens absent any visibility from Sales, therefore Sales is making educated guesses about what takes place in most of the buyer’s journey.
- Customer Advisory Boards by definition represent only part of your target audience. The criteria, motivations, and journey of the prospect who considers your product and drops out of the funnel, or never considered your product, may be very different from existing customers, especially those on an advisory board.
A more complete view of the market will incorporate:
- Insights from lost deals: Interviews with accounts who considered but did not buy provide an important complement to the feedback from existing customers or Sales.
- Industry reports: Studies from industry analysts, management consultants, associations and trade press provide a useful data on macro-level trends and dynamics. Depending on the industry, these reports can provide data on the market’s top priorities and challenges, and investments to date and provide valuable context for understanding the market.
- Proprietary market research: Custom studies provide data that is directly relevant to your industry, your audiences, and your information needs: 61% of B2B content marketing teams use proprietary studies to create thought-leadership whitepapers, webinars and infographics. These studies can take the form of statistically reliable surveys, or qualitative approaches such as focus groups or depth interviews.
A strategy built on buyer insights will become even more important in the future. Content marketing received 28% of the average B2B marketing budget in 2016, and most organizations expect spending to grow in 2016 and beyond. This means that each year your content will have to fight through an ever-increasing mass of content in its struggle to break through and win attention from prospects. Aligning your content strategy with the buying journey will increase the relevancy of your content and the likelihood that your investment will produce results.
Using research for content marketing
A recent Content Marketing Institute study found that 44% of B2B marketers use research reports in their content marketing strategy. Isurus regularly conducts custom studies to provide data for content marketing initiatives; the sponsoring client leverages the results to create reports, webinars, infographics, whitepapers, microsites, and a range of social and email marketing to promote and share the content.
As a marketing or PR person interested in using research for content marketing, you have the option of taking a DIY approach or hiring a professional market research firm. Isurus’ clients use both approaches, and we can offer some useful guidance on when it makes sense to keep it in-house and when it is worthwhile to partner with a market research firm.
Take a DIY approach when:
- The target audience is easy to identify and survey: General consumer studies (e.g., adults 18+) are typically easy to conduct as an online study, and many online panel providers can assist DIY clients with defining sampling parameters to ensure the survey reaches the appropriate target audience.
- Budgets are limited: DIY approaches (using a self-service research tool or working directly with an online panel company) and developing the study and analyzing the data internally can reduce the total external cost of the project.
- Internal bandwidth and expertise is available to take on the project: Time is the hidden cost of any DIY project, and research is no different. Depending on the length and complexity of the survey, expect to spend 40-100 hours on the research component of the initiative.
Work with a professional market research firm when:
- Credibility of the results is important. Using a professional market research firm provides a de facto “stamp of approval” that the study is objective and unbiased. In addition, an experienced market research firm can advise you on the sample size and other study design requirements for optimizing credibility. Lastly, a market research firm can co-present the study in webinars and conferences to further solidify the credibility of the research.
- The topic is complex or nuanced: A professional research firm applies their skills to develop questions and analytic approaches to accurately assess topics that are multidimensional or latent, and therefore not easily measurable. For example, Isurus worked with a leading provider of payroll and benefits administration services to understand the strategic evolution of the HR function in mid-size companies. At the time, most mid-size company HR functions were not acting strategically but well-crafted questions and data analysis surfaced indicators that most HR functions faced significant pressure to become more strategic. These data enabled the client to provide true thought-leadership in its content marketing.
- The target audience is unique or difficult to reach: Many B2B audiences, and some consumer audiences, are not easy to define or to reach. A professional market research firm can advise on how best to define the qualification criteria for your study’s participants, as well as the most effective methodology for reaching the audience. A market research firm can also help to ensure your data is a true representation of the target audience, and doesn’t come from a biased list source.
Original research data can add significant value to a content marketing strategy, particularly if the goal is to demonstrate thought-leadership in your industry. Make the most of a research investment by thinking through the parameters of your study and ensuring you have the right team and resources in place to execute successfully.