Research: The 3 social media secrets of B2B buyers

secret

By John Bottom, {grow} Community Member

The newly-released 2013 Buyersphere Report is a fascinating study of the business marketing world. But it is a survey with a twist because it doesn’t simply canvas marketer’s opinions — it also asks 500 European B2B procurement professionals about what they actually did while considering a real, major purchase over the last 12 months.

The 2013 results provide a direct and frank overview of factors such as social media usage, information gathering techniques and general buyer behavior … and more interestingly, it reveals a few unexpected secrets!

I’ve outlined a few of these ‘guilty secrets’ below, along with my explanation of why I think they happened and what they mean.

B2B buyers: Social media curmudgeons?

The findings revealed an interesting polarization in terms of social media usage. Half of B2B buyers are distributed normally in terms of their use of social media: some more, some less enthusiastic about its value.

47% of buyers, however, do not claim to use it at all:

buyersphere 2

buyersphere 2

When invited to offer advice to a colleague considering using social media to support the buying process, a third said “don’t do it.”

Embedded within this statistic is a warning to brands to be selective and careful – not so much about their use of social media, but their emphasis on it. These are very different points.

There are clearly a number of buyers out there who don’t use social media. That is their choice – and bear in mind they are probably not guided by aversion to change, but by the usefulness of social media in their particular B2B niche. But, because they choose not to go on social media, they will probably never be impressed by the wonderful things your brand is doing on social media. Your thoughtful Facebook content and personable Twitter strategies will blossom without them, thank you very much, since you will only be showing that to people who care (to a greater or lesser extent, as shown by the normal curve). However, as soon as we start trying to divert the other half onto social media platforms against their will, we will have a problem.

A “share this on social media” call to action might be just about acceptable. But talk too much in print or on your website about the fun and games you are delivering exclusively on Facebook, and you may be inviting an antipathy that will ultimately dent sales. I can hear the anti-social media gang now. Given the choice of a supplier that talks my language, or the one that is constantly bleating on about how I should like them on Facebook, I know which one I would choose. Now, then, where’s my pipe and slippers? I’m just off to read my newspaper in peace.

Buyers are less rational than they believe

We know that there are emotional and rational reasons for a purchase. But this point was highlighted when we asked the question “Why did you set out to make the purchase in the first place?”

The idea was to find out what the initial driver was, so that marketers might be better placed to understand how to empathize with the buyer during the process. We offered a number of reasons for deciding to invest a large amount of money, ranging from “increased productivity” to “business expansion.” But we also threw in the option “because it was the kind of thing we should have.” A fairly arbitrary, emotional reason like this surely has no place in boardroom. Surely no hard-nosed business person would ever invest money on this premise – more to the point, surely they wouldn’t admit it.

But they did.

It was in fact the fifth most popular reason for starting the buying process. More important than “keeping up with competitors,” it had the same mean score among respondents as “the need to cut costs.”

base one 1

We might ask why. Is it that reasons do not always need to be articulated in rational terms? There is undoubtedly a material benefit to be gained from this emotionally-inspired decision, even though those responsible for setting the wheels in motion cannot explain it more explicitly. For me, however, I believe there is a further conclusion to draw, which is the idea of prestige.

The product or service in question may be “the kind of thing they should have” because it is known to deliver “the kind of benefit that they should be receiving”. But I think it also follows that the people who ticked this box would be more likely to deal with “the kind of supplier they should be working with”. It is another pointer to the nebulous but immensely powerful effect of brand awareness. It is the business equivalent of driving a Rolls Royce or taking photos with a Hasselblad. And it applies to the big ticket items. Keep that strategic brand investment going, dear marketers. It’s not all about short-term sales.

Don’t be dazzled by video marketing

If you believe certain people out there, video is the most powerful marketing tool on the planet. Prospects love to see videos on our websites. They show the personal side of the brand. They showcase our in-house expertise. They are rich media, and everyone loves shiny, rich media, right?

Not necessarily. We get a more realistic picture of the influence and popularity of video as a format is we compare it to the format of the slide deck. We know those clunky old Powerpoint files don’t look as slick, but the Buyersphere Report shows that buyers are TWICE as likely to use presentation decks as they are a video.

21% of buyers downloaded a presentation deck to support in their information gathering. But only half that number watched a video.

buyersphere 3

Yes – it seems incredible to me too but don’t forget we actually asked 500 B2B buyers what they did. These are their answers. Can’t argue with the truth – all we can do is to try and explain what it means.

For me, a key difference between slide deck and video is one of control. You control the speed, therefore you control the time it takes to consume that information. Buyers are busy people but, more importantly, they are impatient people. If presented with a ten-minute video (especially when the star of the video is unknown) a buyer is unlikely to invest the time. It’s all or nothing. You can’t skim-read a video. But because you CAN do that with a presentation deck – with the added bonus of then being able to adapt and re-present it as your own – I suspect this is one of the reasons behind this finding.

The advice is not, obviously, to cut the video budget and release every piece of content in PowerPoint. But just to be aware of the shortcomings of video which, I suspect, have contributed to this statistic, and to re-consider your content program accordingly.

Unearth your own guilty secrets

Of course these are snapshots and should be taken in the context of the wider survey – which is available here for anyone who wants to see the whole report. But can you find more anomalies? Or do you have other explanations for the findings? And what do you think we should do as marketers in order to accommodate these idiosyncrasies?

John.Bottom_largeJohn Bottom is the Co-founder of Base One, a specialist business-to-business agency in Teddington, London, where he is the Head of Content & Communications. He is was also one of Mark Schaefer’s first Twitter followers.

Illustration: Dublin Street art photographed by Mark Schaefer

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  • Rezwan Razani

    Thanks for this informative post. A resounding yes to your question, “Is it that reasons do not always need to be articulated in rational terms?” Jonathan Haidt wrote a great book on the topic. “The Righteous Mind”. See http://www.fusionenergyleague.org/index.php/blog/article/the_righteous_mind_why_good_people_are_divided_by_politics_and_religion

  • Holly McIlwain

    John Button, excellent read, thank you. I’ll attempt to answer your last question. Immediately while reading I start to apply these findings to my businesses and have to remind myself that the study is based on procurement professionals. Still, the study gives good insight and to apply them to a specific business requires understanding the customer, who they are, what they want and drill down as deep as you can into their DNA in order to plan a more targeted marketing and sales strategy. I have wondered about slide deck Vs video and this study showed 100% difference in the two. While seniors are becoming more Internet active, they may be more prone to watch a video than control the buttons on the slide deck, but I can see the trend toward controlling and skipping through to the content someone seeks. Also, if your viewers are in an office setting, they may not want peeps around to hear the audio. My self referencing criteria is to learn fast, so I prefer slid deck too. Thanks Y’all.

  • Gifford Morley-Fletcher

    Excellent post JB (though I would expect nothing less!). The social media findings completely reflect my experience in the B2B world. It’s not that social media doesn’t work and doesn’t influence purchase – I met only today with a client (from a very large, multi-national IT corporation) who claims that social media influences over $1.5 billion of revenue in Europe alone for his business. On the other side of the coin, however, I met last week with another – a total social media convert – who has totally given up, having tried everything possible and seen no returns. Maybe his audience just doesn’t use it and never will, or maybe he hasn’t cracked it yet, but to me it currently seems very black and white.

  • Great article! But I have a question about the people surveyed. When you say procurement, do you really mean the procurement department in large companies? Once it gets to that department, most complex B2b sales processes are already nearly complete. The vision gets developed in the business unit, not the procurement department. But if the purchases were for upgrades or replacements of existing systems, then it makes sense that procurement would have more control over the decision. Can you provide more insight on the types of people surveyed?

  • Oh dear I blabbed on and on and my comment was lost. Well…great article. Thanks very much! My observation is that in my 25+ years in marcom I don’t recall targeting “procurement” in our campaigns. I think that’s because in large corporations, public entities etc. “buyers” and “procurement professionals” are seen to be placing orders with vendors from an approved list vs. choosing products and services. I think that dynamic may play into these findings re: F2F, .ppt preference, and so on. It IS an old-fashioned process!

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  • johnbottom

    Thanks Holly. I hadn’t really considered the audio factor, but you are right that a large proportion of these people will be in an office where silent slide decks are preferred to interruptive video…

  • johnbottom

    Thanks Rezwan – the Righteous Mind sounds interesting. The rational part of me says I don’t have time to read another business book but, emotionally, I’m drawn to look it up on Amazon right now…

  • johnbottom

    Kind words Giff – thanks. And I’m not surprised about your experiences. The trick (on the agency side, as we are), however, is to try to talk sense to either side. I don’t see it as hypocritical to enthuse with the social media geeks one moment, and then gripe about the pace of progress with the old guard the next. Both have valid reasons for their viewpoint, and we have to accept both because our job is to communicate effectively with both. It’s just tough to do it in the same room at the same time…

  • johnbottom

    Jeb – to clarify, I called the respondents procurement as a general term for those who buy – they are not necessarily ‘procurement professionals’. Agree with your point that the job of said procurement professionals is to facilitate the buying process once the purchasing decision has been made (ie to get the vendor to take 10% off the bill :-)) So their behaviour is not of much interest to us as marketers since we don’t target them. I checked the respondent profiles and only 5% of them fall into this category. The most common job role was “executive management” which accounts for 35% of respondents. Sorry for the confusion – and thanks for the comment!

  • johnbottom

    Candyce – thanks for your comment. See my response to Jeb above, who made the same excellent point, with which I entirely agree. In my experience, procurement are an essential part of the buying process, but mainly from a compliance and negotiation point of view – by which I mean that they ensure that they take minimum risk and you make minimum margin…

  • John, I realized that I misunderstood when I read your EXCELLENT research report. Wow, that is packed with very useful information that will help us make better strategic recommendations for our clients. So thank you for publishing it, and thanks to Mark for allowing you to share the info with {grow} readers. Otherwise, I would not have discovered it.

    I wonder if you could share any insight into the share of new purchases related to new business initiatives versus repeat/renewal/expansion purchases? Also, was there any difference if you slice results based on complexity and length of sales process or in value of deal size?

  • johnbottom

    Praise indeed Candyce, thank you. In answer to your question, the survey specifically excludes repeat purchases – obviously they would significantly skew any findings and we thought it would be more interesting to focus just on new purchases.

    And it is possible to slice and dice the report in a million different ways. Unfortunately, the need to pay the bills means I have a finite amount of time to devote to analysis (!) but the research analysts we use promised me that if there was a significant anomaly in terms of responses from different nationalities, job titles, company sizes, sectors, age groups, experience, size of decision making unit etc, they would have pointed it out. Sadly, I have only their word for that.

    The break down of the respondent base is detailed in the first part of the report, but I’m afraid I can’t give you much more on that – and the report is 86 pages long already!

  • Oooh! Then this IS kinda scary – an eye opener for sure. Sorry to be such a lazy sot, but is there any demographic accompaniment? Thanks, John!

  • Ahh that pesky reality check of needing to pay the bills.

  • johnbottom

    Not really – roughly half of respondents were 41-50, with more than 6 years in their current role. Even spread of industries (manufacturing and business services were first). Note these were from UK, France and Germany, so it’s a European study. I would expect US to be a little more social-media-inclined, but it’s still a scary stat – especially when you consider that 31% of the purchases in question were for IT services or equipment!

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  • Gillian Morris-Talbot

    Very interesting post and report. I was surprised, though, to not see demos included as a way to get information, and how do live events link up with the information-obtaining? I didn’t see that in the report, and yet I’m sure that’s where most people see demos. As an ex-industrial buyer and current marketer, I find it very difficult to believe that the only info of any influence is specs and pricing.

    Clearly though, the premise that 70% (or whatever the figure is) of the buying decision is made before you even get in front of the customer seems to hold true based on these findings. I would love to see some specific research done on that subject. It supports the case for content marketing as lead nurturing.

    I’m also really curious as to how exactly buyers get the peer advice – lunchroom/water-cooler chat? LinkedIn (or similar) groups? Professional associations? It’s the informal stuff that matters. We already know that this happens; that’s how technology “crosses the chasm”. I just want to know how.

  • johnbottom

    Hi Gillian – see your point about demos. They are key, but the main intention was to examine ‘remote’ information types that buyers sought – ie downloading stpapersff, or viewing things online. Demos would usually be given by sales reps in person. That’s why I didn’t give options of contacting call centre, arranging sales meeting etc. However, I now see that I shouldn’t have included physical events in the ‘formats’ by the same logic. No research is perfect (and I’m sure you were not aiming to criticise!)

    In general though, you’re right that it supports the case for content marketing. Don’t think anyone can doubt that. I just like the way research like this makes us reconsider certain parts of it…

  • Rezwan Razani

    Go with your gut : )

  • Gillian Morris-Talbot

    Thanks for the reply, John. Definitely not aiming to criticise, just musing out loud and hoping to provide suggestions for future research. I often find myself in a position of having to convince people to do this or that, and figures like this can help enormously.

    From this research, what I might be able to prove is that spending on a dedicated social media resource is probably not worth it. Spending on PR expertise to obtain featured articles in trade magazines probably is. (These are my premises that I found backing for in the figures. ;-)) OTOH, I wouldn’t like to make the research available because then the techy (and not-so-techy) people I work with would say, “see! what people want is datasheets!! it’s all about the features; who cares about the benefits?!” You see my dilemma?

  • Some troubling charts if you are in the process of building a more social presence for your B2B business. Luckily, we are using our own website (and blog) as the foundation of those digital communications – versus relying solely on Twitter and Facebook interactions.

    I just had the discussion about video this week. I still use video on my own blogs, and we just released our first one on the corporate blog. However, I always prefer to include a summary or full transcript…because I know a lot of readers will just skim the headers and text without EVER clicking on the video. Hey, I do it myself…can scan in seconds versus spending minutes in a very busy world.

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  • Great study John! Do you have any plans to do an accompanying US market study? I would also imagine those answers will differ somewhat, but I’m incredibly curious to find out. If a US version is not already underway, I’d love to help!

  • Andrew Lermsider

    Mark,

    Just wanted to say I heard you on Traffic Jamz and was really impressed with you. I have been marketing and building some veery successful businesses online for the past 13 years. Rarely do you come across experts like yourself that just gets things so clearly in an easy to follow but yet very analytical way that transcends every level of intellect.

    thanks,

    Andrew Lermsider

  • johnbottom

    Thanks for commenting Brian – and good to see personal back-up of the video scannability issue. Video clearly has a value in terms of communicating personality and delivering a more dynamic experience – but that’s not the whole story. BTW, there’s no reason why video should not be used via a link at the end of textual content. By that point, the reader will know whether they are interested enough in your viewpoint to spend time viewing a video. So the scannable text is the hook to grab the attention of the busy prospect, the video is then the second piece to reinforce it…

  • johnbottom

    Thanks Josh. We do it as a European survey because that’s where our clients are, but it might be interesting to run the same questionnaire/methodology in the US. It’s not cheap to canvas 500 buyers (we do it by paying a panel provider – ResearchNow) but if you’re interested, drop me a line at @basebot.

  • johnbottom

    I do. Sadly, research like this doesn’t give any hard answers – just more things to think about. Why on earth do we do it???

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  • nancerosen

    I love your point about video’d slides not working better – or as well – as viewer driven PPTs. Video demos work for my http://www.ShoutBrand.com clients who have something AMAZING to show. Video tutorials have been huge for developing qualified leads. But, you want the audience to drive whenever possible online. When buyers are online they prefer self-controlled, on-demand information. Gratuitous video when slides or blogged content would do a better job? Shows you’re not customer-centric.

  • johnbottom

    Absolutely – I thought this was perhaps the most interesting finding. It’s easy to assume that beautifully produced video will work harder but – as you say – that would be ignoring customer preferences… I think another point it makes is the importance of authorship. If you know who is in the video you might have more reason to make that leap of faith and invest time in watching it. One of the reasons Google is making such a big deal of Google Authorship.

  • Tariq Khwaja

    John, thanks for this post and the fascinating research report – which I’ve profiled and linked to from my own marketing consultancy’s blog (www.tk-associates.com/blog) with some personal thoughts on the findings which particularly struck me. Thanks for sharing the info. Best wishes, Tariq

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  • Carolyn Hodge

    Thank you for putting some real metrics to social influence in B2B. If I am buying services for my own company I am not perusing Twitter or Facebook – maybe, maybe LinkedIn. AND if I see one more video demo with plinky piano, “see how easy!” music track… Social is “fun” and it gives us marketing people an excuse to hang around on newsfeeds and facebook, but its not how people make business buying decisions. This information is very useful for B2B marketers who need to answer CEO demands for Pinterest accounts…

  • Great information shared “The 3 social media secrets of B2B buyers”, really a creative writing post…

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