The B2B buyer journey is not fit for purpose, here’s how to fix it

The B2B “funnel” is redundant. New thinking that accommodates nuances in buyer behaviour is required if B2B marketers are to drive growth for their organisations.

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B2B marketing is fascinating and intellectually stretching – but it’s also really challenging. This is not helped by the legacy thinking holding many B2B marketers back. Prime example: the concept of a “funnel” – assuming a single buyer moving through a linear series of choices – is not in tune with the reality of B2B buying today.

I’ve spent the last 20 years in B2B at global, complex companies like Accenture, Thomson Reuters and now PwC, observing first-hand how marketing has transformed from an events-heavy, sales support function to a real driver for business growth. But more needs to be done to realise B2B marketing’s potential – starting with the buyer journey.

People buying expensive services on behalf of their company are in a precarious position. They need to make the right choice. The wrong one could affect the business’s ability to succeed and survive. It can be career making or breaking for them as individuals. Decisions can take months, even years. It is inevitable then that marketing budget cycles are out of sync with market buying cycles, which is a problem for marketers facing intense scrutiny from finance demanding short-term returns, or sales teams trying to hit annual targets.

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People buying expensive services on behalf of their company are in a precarious position.  They need to make the right choice. The wrong one could affect the business’ ability to succeed and survive.

It’s also true buyers are engaging with sales teams later and buyer demographics are shifting, with more people involved at every stage, who all have different information needs and personal styles.

The days of sales teams “owning” the customer experience are over. Now marketing teams set expectation of experience for clients through digital channels and thought leadership – and therefore have greater insight into what the buyer is doing than anyone else in the business.

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Rethinking the funnel

Marketers need to think differently about the buyer journey. My proposed framework suggests five parts to a high cost B2B purchase. The funnel, as it was, redundant. The model accounts for the fact that buying groups vary at each stage, with different people in each, and helps provide a more precise way to talk to business stakeholders about where to put effort to ensure best return. Buyers typically enter the framework at stages one or three.

  • Horizon scanners: buyers in a strategic role, assessing how market trends or innovation provides opportunities or threats to current business models. They are looking for opinions and insights to shape strategy.
  • Explorers: buyers that have identified what they need to do at a high level and are defining a point of view, deciding whether they need to do anything at all and if they need external help as opposed to doing it themselves. They need relevant industry points of view and opinions from others who have faced similar choices.
  • Hunters: buyers who know the service they need, understand the challenges and are familiar with the solution landscape.  They have either been through the first two phases or have bought the solution before.  They want detailed information, proof points and case studies.
  • Active buyers: buying teams who are doing due diligence and comparing a small group of competitor suppliers. They need specific answers to detailed questions.
  • Existing customers who have already bought some of your services: here there is an opportunity to build loyalty and keep competitors out, or to expand share of wallet by selling a broader set of solutions.

The content, channels and metrics are different at each stage. Choose the wrong one and your targeting will be ineffective, and buyers will have a fragmented experience. Creating plans that meet buyer needs across the whole journey means you can assess the amount of work needed at each stage and decide where to invest for greater return. You will also be able to glean insight into when your buyer is moving from one phase to another. These early clues will drive more efficient sales, faster pipeline conversion and competitive advantage.

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New journey, greater impact 

This framework will help in several ways. Firstly, you will create content and channel strategies that better meet buyer needs – but importantly, you can design them with a secondary objective: to generate insight into your buyer’s process. For example, you may consider someone moving from a piece of thought leadership to more detailed case studies as an indicator they’re building an internal business case for funding, so moving from Explorer to Hunter. This means you should start giving more detailed information about your solutions and the benefits of working with your organisation.

Secondly, it provides a new way to talk to your business about return on investment. For example, it might take nine months of Horizon Scanner activity, then six months to move from Explorer to Hunter, followed by a four-month procurement process. If buyer timelines look like this, return on investment occurs in year two, whereas a recent LinkedIn study showed that 77% of marketers are attempting to demonstrate campaign ROI within a month.

Without a buyer journey view, this pressure to justify return means B2B marketers run the risk of putting money into short-term lead conversion – which is arguably the place that companies need it least. It also jeopardises building awareness with the many buyers in Horizon Scanning and Exploring phases who are not in the market to buy yet, which in turn hurts future pipeline.

Thirdly, it provides a helpful way to think about brand, which can be a tricky subject in B2B. Companies look for trade-offs between investing in brand or lead generation, when in fact brand impacts buyer choices at all points, just in different ways.

Research by Source Global Research showed brand perception is as important at the Active Buyer phase as it is at the Horizon Scanning phase – it is a key driver of choice at the point of purchase.

Fourth, it helps assess the value and prioritisation of investment in technology. Identifying where you lack insight and data on your buyer’s process means you will make better choices about what technology to purchase as well as getting valuable information that makes your marketing investment more effective.

Finally, as today’s buyers are engaging with sales much later in their decision process, the framework can help you reset marketing and sales team relationships.  There is no longer a single “hand-off” between marketing and sales. No part of the journey is either 100% marketing or 100% sales. This framework allows you to define the roles each of you are playing at each stage more precisely and agree critical success factors like how much effort to put into attracting new prospects versus keeping pipeline alive, what good looks like at each phase, what signals show that buyers are on the move and more realistic conversion rates grounded in buying behaviour as well as annual sales targets.

We need a new way of thinking that accommodates the many nuances in buyer behaviour. Making sure strategy, tactics and measurement flex according to the buyer’s objectives at each phase means you can build a relationship with them over time, rather than just push products or services.

In turn, this transforms marketing into the owner of buyer insights and a genuine lever for commercial growth.

Antonia Wade is global chief marketing officer at PwC. Her book, Transforming the B2B Buyer Journey: Maximize brand value, improve conversion rates and build loyalty is out now.