Isurus article featured in Quirk’s Marketing Research Review
"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
The February 2019 issue, focused on B2B market research topics, includes our article “Overcoming Inertia: How to understand sporadic customer journeys in low involvement B2B categories” .
The Isurus team is honored that Quirk’s selected our article for the B2B issue in 2019, and made it the featured cover story. Quirk’s is an industry-leading publication, and provide valuable thought-leadership for insights professionals, as well as product marketers and marketing professionals seeking research expertise.
“The best thing about doing this is that I got to have coffee with my Dad in the barn every morning until he passed. Now I have that cup of coffee with my son and will as long as he stays involved.”
This statement paints a clear and vibrant picture of a small business owner’s emotional drivers. It surfaced in a series of qualitative in-depth interviews and encapsulates an emotional theme that ran through the interviews. It speaks to one of this audience’s core values and influences even their most rational decisions. B2B marketers hunger for these types of insights as they look for ways to bring a human element to their messaging and positioning.
The resonance of the theme and its usefulness for developing customer personas and journeys stems from the methodology that uncovered it – qualitative in-depth interviews. B2B marketers and their agency partners often face resistance from internal stakeholders who doubt the value of insights that aren’t expressed as a statistical projection of the market. But in-depth interviews provide the time and format that enable an individual to make the journey from superficial reactions to overly rational answers, and finally to what it means to them personally. As a full disclosure, it’s not always as clear or powerful as connecting with a father who has passed on but relative to surveys, big data and social listening – it gets you closer to the human side of the B2B buyer.
This is not a criticism of surveys, VOC programs, and other more quantitative methodologies. We routinely use those approaches because they provide robust insights needed for branding, market sizing, pricing, and bundling strategies. But when you want to understand the human side of a B2B buyer, qualitative in-depth interviews are one of the best tools in the research tool box.
But having a tool in your tool box isn’t enough. You need to use the tool correctly. The most common mistake B2B marketers make when using qualitative in-depth interviews is to treat it like a survey and create a list of 50 specific questions. You also cannot simply ask, “How does xyz make you feel? How does it connect to you as a person?”.
So, what should you ask?
Qualitative research structured on the following guidelines are more likely to yield insights about the personal and emotional drivers in business decisions.
Limit the number of topics and questions: Three to four topic areas with a few broad questions within each is a good place to start. This gives the interviewer flexibility and time to probe, follow-up on unexpected insights that arise, and gives the respondent time to linger over their answers.
Focus on their needs and challenges: B2B marketers, or their stakeholders, often want to focus the questions on their product and service – “How do you abc? What challenges do you encounter when doing this specific task?” This doesn’t mean you cannot ask specific questions; just be careful not to turn your conversation into a survey.
Change the question frame: Ask questions that make them take an outside view of themselves: How they think their colleagues view them, what they hope their colleagues will say about them after they retire.
Use projective exercises: Picture sorts, word associations, and other exercises help respondents articulate emotional or personal dynamics that shape their business decisions. And remember, the insight is not which picture they select, but why they selected the picture they did.
Let them talk: Some of the best insights come at the end of a section when the respondent says, “One more thing.” It might be the last thing they say, but often the best articulation of what they’d been circling around in their previous responses. If you force-march the respondent to get through a long list of questions, these insights don’t have a chance to surface.
These guidelines can be scary for those unfamiliar with qualitative research. For some B2B marketers and stakeholders it can be easier to justify the investment in research (time and dollars) if they see a long list of discrete questions they will get answers to. And in truth, not every human-focused in-depth interview provides grand insights. But you must be willing to take the duds to get the gems.
This highlights the importance of gaining consensus on the overall objective of the research and what its outputs and uses will be. In some cases, the best approach will be to explore specific needs and challenges around a list of product attributes. But if you want to want to understand the human side of a B2B audience, let them talk.
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.
The Art of War advises that we can outsmart opponents and avoid battle when we “know thy enemy”. While marketers typically define direct competitors as the enemy, internal barriers within prospect organizations pose equal peril.
Isurus has seen many innovative ideas in 20 years of B2B market research for technology companies. Some ideas meet great success out of the gate, others languish for years before taking off, and some recede and disappear altogether. Through this experience, we’ve identified four major reasons that prevent prospects from adopting new technologies.
Satisficing: Inertia poses a strong barrier for products that improve on an existing process or system. Decision makers start with a mindset of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. This is especially true with complex systems, where change leads to significant disruption. Unless the status quo is broken and painful, the new product needs to show large improvements in cost savings, productivity, competitive advantage, and the like, to overcome the inertia. Satisficing also occurs when decision-makers or end users lack a point of comparison for their existing system: The current system seems okay until they step back and compare it to what’s possible.
Competing priorities: Purchase decisions are made in the broader context of organizational priorities. A new product competes with all the other technology projects, even if they address a completely different need. For example, a new supply chain management application competes with a virtual network automation project. A new investment must prove why it is better than the status quo, and why it deserves resources that could be allocated to something else.
Pain of transition: Gone (mostly) are the old days of giant ERP implementations that were years and millions over-budget, and earned the permanent scorn of end-users. Still, some level of process change and learning is inherent in a new system implementation. The benefits of the new system may depend entirely on successful adoption by end users. For example, if Sales doesn’t enter information into the new SFA system, it can’t deliver the intended benefits. The decision to buy a new system will take all this into account: What is the level of change required for the customer to realize the benefits of the new solution? How realistic is it that the customer organization can achieve that change, and what will be required to do so? When is the right time to embark on that journey? The benefits of the new solution have to outweigh the pain of transition, or minimize the pain altogether.
Ecosystem dependencies: Some new products depend on other processes, technologies and systems to succeed. These dependencies occur at a macro level and within individual organizations. Subscription pricing for software is a good example of macro level dependencies. Fifteen years ago, software providers experimented with the ASP model that enabled customers to license major business applications on a yearly basis instead of making a large up-front investment. The subscription model failed to gain traction until virtualization and cloud technologies evolved to make software-as-a-service reliable and cost-effective. At a micro level, an individual prospect needs to have the ecosystem in place to support a new product. For example, a mobile device management solution will resonate much more with companies that allow Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).
It’s worth stepping back to consider how these four patterns apply for your product or market. Start by determining which barriers are relevant and most important in your market. While they are all present to a degree, typically one or two will rise to the top and pose a bigger challenge to your success. Source the data from internal expertise and experience, insights from Sales, or formal market research.
Then decide where the challenge is most effectively solved: Is it a product problem? For example, is it just too complicated for users to adopt? Is it a Marketing problem–are we targeting the right prospects with the right message? Is it a Sales problem–does Sales need to engage stakeholders to address change management concerns?
Approaches to mitigate each barrier include:
- If satisficing is a top barrier, Marketing and Sales need to highlight hidden pain points that the market doesn’t yet recognize. This can include identifying new stakeholders who are most likely to be unsatisfied, or to have the most to gain from disrupting the status quo.
- The pain of transition may require that the implementation process be a focal point in the sales process, to show a clear and successful methodology for achieving the goals for the new system.
- To compete against other priorities, Sales needs to understand IT’s broader plans and goals. This knowledge equips Sales to make the case for your solution. It may also provide a reality-check on the likelihood of a sale, and timing of the decision.
- Mapping ecosystem dependencies at a macro level informs the market opportunity analysis and business case for a new product. If critical elements of the ecosystem are missing, adoption will be slower, take longer, and require more evangelizing. At a more micro level, knowledge of the ecosystem dependencies can be implemented to improve lead generation and qualification.
Successful adoption of innovative products (at an individual customer or for the market as a whole) depends on many factors. Incorporate this analysis into your strategy to effectively allocate resources against the barriers present in your market.
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.
Speaking to Trust in B2B messaging
Communicating trust in B2B sales and marketing messages requires showing, not telling. Here’s one way to do it.
In many B2B sectors, Trust, or Trustworthiness, sits near the top of market’s vendor evaluation matrix. Given that trust is earned over time presents a barrier to prospects switching to vendors that they don’t have experience with. When vendors say Trust me, at best the market views it as marketing-speak, at worst it conjures up images of unsavory car salesmen.
At a high level trust equates to delivering what’s promised. This promise consists of a mix of discrete rational and emotional elements (e.g., ability to understand the customer’s need, expertise to provide the right solution, on-time delivery, confidentiality, financial stability, makes me feel valued, has my best interests in mind, etc.). The emotional dimensions need to be experienced to be credible. However, using the rational elements in value propositions and messages begins to build trust in the marketplace – it shows that the vendor understands what is important to customers and prospects.
Finding the right elements to emphasize becomes the challenge. Primary research offers different approaches that help marketers understand how to build trust with prospects. Quantitative research uses statistical analysis to measure the impact of specific attributes in cultivating trust. Qualitative research explores the personal dimensions of trust in B2B relationships. The following provides a high-level overview of how primary research can help identify the core drivers of trust.
Statistical approaches such as regression analysis can measure the strength of the relationship between trust and specific service/product attributes, e.g. to what degree does billing clarity drive trust and how does its influence compare to other factors such as on-time delivery, or security.
The first step in regression analysis is to generate a list of attributes that likely contribute to trust; the more specific the attributes are, the better. Most B2B marketers start their lists with the intuitive ones such on-time delivery, product quality, no hidden fees, etc. But it is important to include factors along the customer journey that may seem small, but can have a big impact on trust such as accurate billing, things work the way they were described in the sales process, consistent account reps, does not go over my head to win business, etc. Some B2B marketers can generate diverse and comprehensive lists based on the team’s collective knowledge about the market, others find conducting a small set of customer interviews helpful.
The next step is to conduct a survey with customers/prospects to measure how the company performs across the discrete elements related to trust and overall trustworthiness. A regression analysis of the data will identify the strength of the correlations. A key benefit of regression is that it derives predictors of trust by exploring how customers view their vendors and relationships, rather than through importance ratings (what customers say is important and what drives their perceptions in the real world may be different). Once the core drivers of trust are identified they can be leveraged in sales and marketing communications.
Even if a B2B marketing team does not have the budget to conduct survey research with customers and prospects, going through the process of systematically identifying the possible drivers of trust can help the organization. It provides a framework for the team to conduct an internal assessment of how the organization performs across these dimensions and identify any critical gaps that should be addressed.
Qualitative research approaches such as open-ended, in-depth interviews (IDIs) with customers and prospects can provide fodder for the personal narratives around trust. IDIs are a good methodology to understand how individuals develop opinions and to explore the emotional side of business decisions. In IDIs, individuals are asked to talk about experiences such as: When a vendor exceeded their expectations, let them down, provided peace-of-mind in a crisis, how these things affected them personally, etc. Their responses provide insights into the characteristics of vendors that customers deem trustworthy and their emotional connection to those traits. B2B marketers can use these themes, tonality, and vocabulary to develop value propositions and messages that resonate with the market and speak to them in their own words.
You can trust us because…
At the end of the day real trust is earned through repeated successful customer interactions. However, B2B vendors can credibly position themselves as trustworthy, by demonstrating that they understand what it takes to earn a potential customer’s trust.
Not long ago brand strategy and strategic brand management languished on the sidelines of B2B marketing. Branding is now experiencing a resurgence. B2B marketers (and their bosses) increasingly embrace the notion that business decision makers are people after all, and that emotions strongly influence business decisions. This year’s ANA/BMA16: Masters of B2B Marketing Conference highlighted success achieved by AON, GE, TD Ameritrade Institutional, Hiscox, and others in engaging with business decision makers at a human, emotional level.
Presumably, B2B buyers have always been humans, so what explains this renewed recognition that in B2B that brands are powerful tools that need to be managed strategically?
Two of the factors are 1) increasing complexity and 2) talent management.
Brands help humans simplify the world. Brands are short-hand summaries of complex sets of information, experiences, and emotions. The field of behavioral economics provides compelling evidence that people rely on heuristics to make decisions throughout their daily lives. These cognitive short-cuts are even more essential as people face more information, more decisions, and more demands on their time. In a recent study, 65% of executives agree that an increasingly complex business environment has made it more difficult to base decisions on purely “functional factors,” such as cost, quality or efficiency. Companies contribute to decision complexity as they become larger and more complex through M&A, expanded product lines, and ever growing feature sets. As a case in point, AON’s global rebranding and Empower Results strategy began in part as a reaction to realizing that customers and even employees struggled to answer the question “what does Aon do?” A clear, compelling brand rises above the clutter and complexity inherent to many large businesses. It enables customers and prospects to connect their needs to your business, and it helps unify employees around a shared idea.
2) Talent management
Many B2B companies compete not just for customers, but also for talent. Brands are powerful tools for engaging employees behind a shared idea, and address employees’ needs for a sense of purpose, prestige or self-identity. Technology talent provides easy examples. Google, Apple, Amazon and others need top developers to continue to innovate. Their brand image helps attract the best and brightest who want to be a part of the company’s vision. In constrast, companies without a brand identity attract people who are looking for a job. The power of brand in talent management is relevant to more than just market leading technology companies. Many companies struggle to attract and retain Information Security talent in the face of more data breaches.
Brand is especially important for engaging Millennial talent: Research with this generation shows they want a sense of purpose at work and show less loyalty to employers. GE’s latest brand campaign addresses the talent problem head-on by using employee characters to showcase GE as a digital industrial company. In one ad, a woman working on an aircraft engine explains how digital and industrial fit together at GE through a humorous exchange with a family touring the plant. The brand message tells GE’s story of what it means to be a digital industrial company, and that Millennial talent should give it a second look.
Complexity and talent management are just two of the compelling reasons to invest in a brand strategy, and ensure the brand is well-managed. B2B marketers increasingly recognize that a strong brand is one of their most important assets. However, recognizing the importance of brand management is one thing, executing a brand strategy is another. One of the first steps most marketing experts recommend is to understand the brand’s existing position and equity – how does the market (not you) view the brand relative to competitors. This exercise consists of understanding 3 key market dimensions:
- What vendor attributes and characteristics does the market use to evaluate vendors?
- In the eyes of the market, how does your brand perform on these criteria?
- In the eyes of the market, how do competitors perform in these areas?
This analysis can be conducted informally based on internal knowledge, or using a formal systematic approach.
The results will highlight your relative brand position, and identify opportunities to strengthen and differentiate the brand going forward.
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.
Customer centricity is reshaping IT in many organizations, as customer experience becomes an increasingly important source of competitive advantage. We’ve seen this trend developing over the past few years and it is now gaining widespread attention. Customer centricity means aligning IT’s resources and objectives to optimize the customer experience. Increasingly, IT’s strategies, organizational structure, and role in the organization are evaluated in relation to the external customer.
The shift to customer centric IT impacts:
- Goals and objectives: IT’s overall goals become more aligned with customer and business objectives. Rather than viewing internal business functions as its customer, IT works to build its knowledge of the external customer. This is a significant change in mindset for most IT functions, with wide ranging impacts on organizational structure within IT, relationships with the business functions, and staffing at all levels within IT.
- Organizational structure: IT becomes less isolated and more integrated with the business and customer-facing operations. IT organizations are creating new roles and teams—like Business Relationship Managers and Customer Engagement teams—to act as a bridge between business functions and IT’s technical expertise. Some organizations are integrating IT more tightly into business functions like Marketing and Operations by embedding IT staff within the business function.
- Talent management: New customer-centric roles and objectives require a different mix of skills and abilities than traditional IT roles. Communication, business knowledge, and entrepreneurial spirit are more important than in the past. IT leadership is focusing more on the chemistry needed for team members to collaborate effectively with external and internal customers, and less on technical skill alone.
- Vendor relationships: Customer-centrism impacts needs for and expectations of external vendors. Some IT organizations are re-evaluating their outsourcing strategy to bring activities that provide competitive advantage back in-house. Vendors are generally expected to bring a greater understanding of the business, and be able to connect their solution to the overall business goals.
Customer-centric IT has important implications for technology sales and marketing:
- As IT becomes more connected and embedded with business functions, they’ll become more involved and influential in the buying process. Cloud-based solutions have targeted the business function as the primary decision maker and gone around IT, seeing the function as a road block. But organizations and their IT departments have begun to realize the downsides of each department selecting their own solution – they end up with less than the sum of their parts. As with any pendulum swing in the market expect, IT to once again become involved earlier and at a more strategic level. The business will increasingly view IT as a partner rather than an adversary.
- New roles and organizational structures mean that the individual personalities that make up the IT function are changing. Messages and creative that resonated with a traditional IT buyer need to shift to be compelling to the business-focused, entrepreneurial mindsets of the customer-centric IT organization.
- Technology vendors need to understand how their buyer (either as a segment or at the individual organization level) views the IT organization, especially which aspects of IT are sources of competitive advantage and which are commodities. The value proposition and message for a technology that contributes to competitive advantage will be different than one that is a commodity. What constitutes a competitive edge will be different for a pharmaceutical company than a bank.
- Technology vendors can build relationships by helping IT transition to a customer-centric orientation. Through thought-leadership and content marketing, vendors have the opportunity to help IT better understand the end customer or navigate the implications for organizational change.
Technology marketing and sales organizations that recognize the shift to customer-centricity now will be in advantageous position to differentiate from competitors and help IT navigate this transition. Take the time now to understand what customer-centricity means for your target audience and your offering.
B2B Product Messaging Checklist
Product messaging to B2B audiences is challenging. Marketers need to convey complex messages in simple but compelling terms. Here are five recommendations that will help you in the initial stages of message development, when decisions about message content, benefits and value propositions are made.
- Understand your audience
- Focus your message
- Make it credible
- Use ROI messages with care
- Consider your brand’s position in the market
1. Understand your audience: This simple piece of advice yields powerful results. Doing the homework upfront to understand the target audience translates into messages that resonate and feel relevant to your audience. To determine how well your message connects with your audience ask: Does your target audience conclude from your message that you understand:
The business processes challenges they face relative to your offering?
- How they conceptualize their pains, i.e., lost revenue, risk avoidance, etc?
- Where their current solutions and approaches fall short and where their needs are being met?
- What they see as direct or substitute alternatives?
We are not suggesting that one message must convey all of these themes – they are simply examples of ways to demonstrate an understanding of your audience.
2. Focus your message: The most effective product messages focus on a single audience or type of decision maker. B2B decisions typically involve multiple decision makers, and although they work for the same organizations these audiences experience different priorities and pains and become involved at different points in the decision process. Spreading one message across multiple audiences dilutes its effectiveness and it resonates with none of them. Messages focused on a single audience or decision maker on the other hand enables the message to speak to the themes that resonate most with that audience.
3. Make it credible: All B2B marketers know that credibility is essential to effective product messaging. Being credible is difficult though: Business buyers are dubious of claims regarding ease of use, cost savings and revenues gained. It’s not that they don’t value these attributes; they do and are willing to pay for them. Unfortunately in their experience they have found a gap between what the message claims and what the offer delivers.
The key to developing credible messages is communicating proof points around how your offering delivers the benefits. What does it do differently, what problems does it eliminate, how does it make a business more efficient, etc.? Proof points used in messaging needn’t be highly detailed; they should provide a short, simple answer to the “how” question and invite the target audience to learn more.
Doing your homework at step one to make sure you understand your audience and focusing on them as recommended in step two provides a baseline of credibility to your message: The audience is more likely to believe your claim if you demonstrate that you understand them.
4. Use ROI messages with care: All products and decisions eventually have an impact on the bottom line and ROI messages can be powerful. They can also be overused and ineffective. Here’s why. Although decision makers must cost justify their purchases to get budget ROI doesn’t necessarily drive their initial consideration of a product. They’re typically more interested in general performance improvement. In addition many products and associated business processes are so far removed from the bottom line that they lack a practical connection in terms of cost justification.
If you do use an ROI claim in your messaging, providing concrete examples of how ROI is delivered, e.g., the product enables you to process X-times more orders per hour or it reduces the cost of a specific task by Y% adds credibility to the claim. And, in keeping with recommendations one and three above, make sure the ROI claim demonstrates that you understand the target audience and is credible.
5. Consider your brand’s position in the market: Your brand awareness and reputation shape the extent to which product messaging needs to prove that you understand the target audience or provide proof points. Category leaders can rely, at least to some extent, on their reputation as a surrogate for these things. If your reputation is not as strong, your product messaging needs to communicate that you understand the market as well as the benefits and proof points for the product.
The underlying theme across all of these recommendations is to see the world from your market’s perspective. If you can demonstrate this type of understanding you are more likely to gain credibility in the market’s eyes and more likely to gain consideration. Use these ideas as a check list to evaluate how well current product level messaging resonates with your audience.
This exercise may raise some questions which you may be able to answer with existing internal knowledge. If questions remain, primary research can be a useful tool for developing a better understanding of your messaging and your audience.