Glenn is the founder and CEO of GaggleAMP, an employee advocacy and engagement platform.
The B2B buyer journey transformation was underway even before the pandemic; Covid-19 merely fast-forwarded and cemented the rise of digital buying behaviors. According to Gartner, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will take place on digital channels by 2025. Emails, chatbots, video conference calls, social media and beyond now inform every step of the B2B buying journey, including research and discovery, requests for proposals, vendor selection, repeat purchases and contract renewals.
It’s no surprise that solution providers are investing significantly in new buying capabilities and online content. February 2022 research found that at least 83% of European B2B manufacturers plan to increase their investments in digital business strategies. In the U.S., “B2B martech spending will hit $6.59 billion by the end of the year and exceed $8.5 billion by 2024,” outpacing B2C growth, eMarketer reports.
That is all well and good. The problem is that, in an effort to master digital tactics, many companies have lost sight of a critical truth: B2B buyers don’t engage with companies, they engage with people—your employees.
Let’s start with how B2B buying patterns have evolved and end with how your company can influence a mostly digital path to purchase by coupling technology with human touch.
Change 1: The increased complexity of purchasing decisions begets more research.
Company decision-makers are investing in complicated solutions that play integral roles in their ability to compete. Increasingly, companies expect these solutions to integrate with one another so they can create a seamless tech stack to access and activate valuable data.
Let’s pause for a moment and step into the wayback machine. I am sure I am not the only one who remembers how B2B sales used to work. You would learn of vendors from trade show booths, conferences, colleagues, friends or niche industry magazines. You might even fill out a business reply card (BRC) declaring your interest in a particular service. Then, sure enough, businesses would reach out—the ones that had purchased leads from the magazine or third-party lead generator.
In-person events still play a role in decision-making, and this influence is bolstered by the right digital marketing strategy. But return from your time travel and you will immediately note the ease with which buyers can conduct research from the comfort of their homes.
Change 2: Buyers were forced to adopt to online buying tools—now they prefer them.
During the pandemic, even those buyers who favored in-person discovery processes were forced to get comfortable with digital research. Most now prefer it. According to 2020 McKinsey research, 70% to 80% of B2B decision-makers prefer digital self-serve and remote human engagement to in-person sales. Industry events are back and are a welcome chance to reconnect with colleagues. But the digital sales process is here to stay.
Change 3: The role of social, including dark social, has increased tenfold.
From third-party review sites to Reddit and Quora, company blogs and social media networks, decision-makers have no shortage of material to draw from. Business leaders understand that. What some may overlook, though—or at least struggle to act upon—is the importance of engaging buyers on the person-to-person level.
If you doubt the role of human engagement, consider a time you lost a contract because your main champion left the company. How can you engage in a human way beyond emails, sales calls and lunch invitations? One answer is social media: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and whatever other platform that your buyers spend time on.
Nearly 85% of CEOs and vice presidents say they use social media to help make purchasing decisions. On the flip side, 93% of B2B CMOs describe social media as “essential to their marketing strategy.” They are using social channels to raise awareness and earn trust, deliver exceptional service and experiences, and collect business intelligence. By doing this, they help drive the relationships that attract and keep customers.
That is just the social chatter you can see. Imagine what is happening beyond your purview, on Slack, Teams, Discord, WhatsApp, email, texts and other private messaging channels.
A little over 77% of shares happen “in the dark.” I will share more in a future Forbes piece about how to best influence dark social channels. But I want to introduce a simple concept that requires nuanced execution:
How To Influence Dark Social—And Beyond—One Decision-Maker At A Time
I often see companies investing hefty budgets into resource libraries they host on owned platforms. But no one is visiting your site for research unless you have already earned their trust. The challenge for most companies is establishing trust early enough, before that researcher has made a decision leading them down a certain path.
How do you do that? As a company, engage with as many people as you can to increase the chances of your brand coming up in more conversations—whether these conversations are held online or off, “in the dark” or in public forums.
The marketing team alone cannot do that. Neither can executives. You need to turn the entire workforce into an informed, personable engagement machine to create a stacking effect. This requires:
• Educating teams about when, where and how they should be chiming in on relevant social discussions.
• Arming people with the content and tone-of-voice guidelines they need to provide real value.
• Establishing clear guardrails so people know what is and isn’t okay (you don’t want to encourage the workforce to flock to social, only for you to be unhappy with what those channels are saying).
• Creating a strategy for measuring results and collecting and sharing success stories.
It is and always will be people.
The modality of communication may have changed (move over, BRCs), but the core reasons a buyer proceeds with a partnership are the same: They like and trust the person they are doing business with. They feel an emotional connection to the person beyond your company and brand—and your market reputation and strong branding validate their instincts.