The conversations are happening, and as marketers we do not have control of them. That much we know, and for anyone who doubts it, David Meerman Scott's discussions on the topic are excellent - http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451f23a69e2010536ba07b6970c.
But, what does that mean for us as B2B marketers? What do we do to help prospective customers discover what we offer, learn about it, evaluate it against other options, and come to a buying decision?
The most important learning that we can take from the rise of social media is that we need to think in terms of a buying cycle not a selling cycle. When we use the term “sales process”, or anything similar, we are subconsciously acting as if we are in control. We have to re-orient our thinking to a buying process, controlled by the prospect, guided by their social conversations, and on their timeframes.
Okay, but what does that mean exactly:
1) The prospect knows what information they need: social media provides an excellent source of context, awareness, and discussion. If a prospect’s interest is piqued, they may end up on your web site, through things they have discovered in social media, or guided through search. However, when they do, they are coming with a specific question in mind. It may be high level (what is this company all about) or highly detailed (exact product specs on a certain model), but they are coming to your website with a specific question in mind.
2) The prospect is operating on their own timeframe: whether they are doing research, looking for a demo, or making a comparison among possible solutions, the prospect’s timeframe is governed by events that are happening in their business. You can make information and resources available that assist them to move from one stage of the buying cycle to the next, but you cannot control this timeline. It is also not linear; they may move from general awareness and light research to a deeper evaluation or demo, and then return back to merely doing light research for a few months.
3) The prospect does not want to be “sold” to. They do want assistance in understanding whether to buy, how to buy, and what is available to them, but they do not want a sales pitch. Aggressively selling to someone who is just educating themselves on what is available from your organization will push them away.
So, if this is reality, how does this appear to a marketer? Instead of inquiries and leads coming to you in predictable “buckets”, governed by your schedule of outbound campaigns, the flow reverses. It is governed by the world of the buyer, not the schedule of your campaigns. The inquiries and leads will come in a continual flow; each unique in terms of what stage of their buying process they are at, what they are looking for, who they are, and when they appear.
To succeed in this environment, you need to shift your marketing organization’s posture from outbound to inbound. The following 6 areas of focus are important for that shift:
- Set your information free. Make all of the resources a buyer will need to educate themselves readily available. You can ask for some information in return if the information is valuable enough, but make sure it is readily available. If you provide great, non-salesy, information, you will be one of the sources passed about in the world of social media.
- Focus on being credible. The transparency and availability of information in the social media world means your audience will know more about you than they ever have before. If the information you provide on your web site is entirely mis-matched with what your prospects have learned, you will lose credibility. Use the opportunity to broaden their perspective, show them ideas they may not have been exposed to, and provide ways of framing issues that they may not have thought of.
- Understand their buying process. Use your interaction with the prospect to gain an understanding of where they might be in their buying process. What they search for, what they look at, and what they respond to gives you great insights into where they are in their buying process and where they are not. Work to understand whether they are educating themselves on your space, comparing you against a competitor, or evaluating one of your products against a very specific need. Terracotta did a great job of this as seen in this case study.
- Match your marketing to their buying process. Match how you communicate with your prospects to both their timeframe and their interests. If they are in an education and awareness phase, high level nurturing on the main concepts in the market area are often best. If they are mainly interested in customer case studies, ensure they are aware of any upcoming customer webinars. When they are ready to discuss how to purchase and negotiate contracts, help put them in touch with the appropriate salesperson.
- Keep interest high through nurturing. Buyers obtain a variety of views and opinions through their exploration of social media resources. However, if you have identified their interests, and understand where they are in their buying process, you can add value to them by sharing ideas, insights, and resources. By doing this, you'll be able to keep the prospect funnel from leaking.
- Only sell when they are ready to buy. Only connect salespeople with buyers who are ready to be connected to a salesperson. If you connect them too early, you will offend the prospect and waste the time of the salesperson. Lead scoring, based on the prospect's interest level, is necessary to understand who is ready for engagement with sales.
As B2B marketers, we don't control the conversation. However by adjusting our marketing approach to the new realities of how buyers gather information, we can help influence those buying processes. In doing so, we can add tremendous value to the organizations we serve.