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B2B buying behavior is changing. Now what?

NOTE: This is another partner blog, this one created with IgniteGTM, pod, and Beth McCullough, all Premonio partners with unique offerings and skills.

Much has changed in the way future B2B customers choose to purchase their products, mostly driven in response to the dramatic economic, political, and health changes of the last three or more years. To interpret what’s been happening, we’ll begin with a rough chronology that also covers LinkedIn’s growth and decline as a B2B sales tool, and TikTok’s rise as a cultural phenomenon. And, more importantly, what we see as new ways to engage with prospects to adapt to their changed behaviors following these unprecedented challenges since 2019.

What happened?

Here’s an abbreviated chronology of B2B selling and marketing changes we find relevant:

  • 2019 and earlier:
    • Account-based marketing and selling, long-form content, live events & meetings
    • Some pioneering use of LinkedIn automated outreach solutions (e.g. Dux-Soup)
    • TikTok user growth in the US almost 90% per year (source)
  • 2020:
    • Covid hits and in its wake comes a quick recession, driving a rapid shift to digital marketing and selling to still connect with prospects, but also to save money
    • LinkedIn assumes a central role in targeting tightly segmented ICPs; acceptance and connect rates rising, and LinkedIn ad cost effectiveness exceeds Google ads
    • TikTok user growth in the US still almost 90%
  • 2021: 
    • Massive economic stimulus spurs growth and together with low interest rates drive huge growth in investing in startups, and B2B vendors proliferate
    • New selling and marketing apps change the way prospects are being reached, and video-delivered content is improving conversion rates
    • Automated LinkedIn outreach grows as the low-cost way to reach prospects now
    • TikTok user growth slows dramatically to 29%, and beginning multi-year fall
  • 2022:
    • Dramatic economic slowdown in Q2 leading to sharply curtailed B2B vendor spending on marketing, in particular
    • LinkedIn ads stop performing as the feed is taken over by bland marketese and self-gratuitous content
    • TikTok user growth essentially flat, but has become part of a widespread change in how videos are created and consumed

Given these trends, here is what we see as three major drivers influencing how B2B future customers are now increasingly are choosing to purchase:

1) Proliferation of cloud-based vendors:

The oversupply of new B2B tech vendors is one of the drivers of the above cacophony of bland, undifferentiated messaging that most have started to tune out; we see the evidence in declining open and conversion rates.

Worse, this proliferation also confuses buyers’ experiences: Poorly differentiated apps that people can’t tell apart, especially If they all claim to do everything. For example, HubSpot is now also a CRM or Pipedrive automates email sends. If every app is a swiss army knife, then you have a kitchen just full of swiss army knives. Which one stands out? Scott Brinker, well-known MarTech authority, even blogged about this recently, discussing where and how innovation and differentiation could occur in the meanwhile 10,000 application strong MarTech landscape.

As another data point, just look at your LinkedIn feed over the last 2 years as the platform went from being THE lead source in 2019/20 to now being overwhelmed by publishers confusing it with Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Combine too many publishers with too much thin-beer content, and B2B buyers get apathetic as well as confused. And the serious publishers that want to deliver a differentiated, thoughtful message get overlooked among a sea of blather, and are looking for other solutions.

So, how can you stick out?

2) Do more with less:

Most future buyers have had to deal with budget cuts and have had to figure out how to do more with fewer dollars and resources. As a result, they want a concrete sense of personal value-add: What is the concrete ROI to me? How will my life be made easier, including the hidden costs below the waterline like implementation and training? What are the costs and benefits to my budget? And, at a more personal level, what will implementing this new solution do to my professional growth, or my career and standing in the company?

Few vendors get to a deep level of specificity of addressing the concrete needs of precisely targeted ICPs, and therein lies part of the opportunity. Once they do, we’ve seen connect and conversion rates double and triple. So how can you define and communicate a concrete benefit / ROI that speaks to the needs of your precisely defined target persona(s)?

3) The psychology of buying is changing:

Combining an overabundance of marketing and sales messages with a future buyer’s increased need to do more with less (and thus a strong focus on very concrete, “what’s in it for me” value propositions; aka WIFM), with an ongoing cultural transition to want to consume information in ever shorter soundbites (or better, videobites), and we’re faced with having to overhaul the way B2B marketing and selling should now done.

In this new environment, you have to be crystal clear on concrete benefits to very specific buyer segments, that are communicated in crisp one-sentence or one-paragraph narratives, in a way that out of the gate engages the buyer at a visceral, emotional level. 

Sounds easy? It sure ain’t. More on how to that below.

What are new principles that apply now?

We talked about a strong preference for a stimulating pitch, for cutting to the chase with a concrete “WIFM”. Tolerance for lengthy, overly rational pitches or corporate speak, marketing blather has gone way down. The ongoing trend toward “TikTokization” is just a nod to the fact that as humans we are always seeking a faster way to understand something. TikTok happened to crack the code by delivering a punch-line, the reward, dopamine boost in under 30 seconds.

On the sales side we’ve hinted at this for decades as “elevator pitches”. Also, according to Sprout Social, there is a place for B2B selling with TikTok, noting that “If you look through the hashtag #corporate, you’ll find TikTok videos poking fun at everything from email signature norms to video chat blunders. This light-hearted, snappy approach to discussing the idiosyncrasies that come with working a 9-to-5 job is essential to a rising TikTok subculture: “Corporate TikTok” (Source).

Second, in addition to the need to quickly deliver a concrete WIFM pitch, most B2B buyers have developed what we dub “Sales Allergies”. I.e., most people don’t want to be sold, they prefer to deal with vendors on a partnership basis where information is shared, not imposed. And they prefer to do their homework online before there is a live meeting. In this migration from “vendorship” to “partnership” the emerging truth comes home that while everyone wants to sell, nobody wants to be sold.

Third, we can apply insights from design thinking, borrowing from those principles of product design to “redesigning” how we sell. The design world is about creating solutions where humans can understand things better, and engage with both a product’s function and its meaning (i.e., its cultural significance and the emotional response it elicits). We find such Gestalt Design principles apply to redesigning new B2B selling and marketing, as well: 

  1. Similarity: Human nature is to group things into pre-existing buckets they recognize
    • Sales context: Prospects want to quickly label and group you into the “sales” or “useful person” bucket 
    • So what: Open with non-sequitur to avoid “tripping the wrong wire”, then engage with authenticity, curiosity and spirit of helpfulness
  2. Continuation: Eye will want the smoothest path when viewing lines.
    • Sales context: They want to “feel” no friction. They want to believe that working with you will be a “straight line” to a solution of their problems 
    • So what: In sales material visually communicate “simple steps ahead”. Verbally painting the journey ahead is going to be simple 1-2-3, and you’ll guide them to it 
  3. Closure: Brain will fill in missing parts to create whole
    • Sales Context: To engage is a decision they want to come to on their own. Putting information on the table that is not fully complete, but that intrigues them enough to analyze what they are seeing or feeling. That kind of empowerment doesn’t create sales allergies
    • So what: Create interesting openers .. networking vs. selling. “Hi, good to connect with you. This is what I do …“  (Pause – what, no CTA?). Let them choose their next steps – give them the power to control their journey

Where do we go from here?

Following these principles, this would mean we should redesign how we market and sell to B2B buyers in two key areas:

PUT THEM IN CHARGE: Enable prospects to take control of their interactions with you:

  1. Remap the customer journey: Follow how they approach and think (i.e., designing digital sales and marketing experiences) by understanding them. Vs. the ubiquitous sales and marketing talk about us, like when / how we were found, our technology and how it works, or what we are offering and how to implement that
  2. Offer a vendor partnership: Offer short-form content that’s easy to engage with as sellers prefer to do more on their own (Get to the point, man). According to Hubspot, “Short-form ranks #1 for lead generation and engagement” (source)
  3. Don’t “Pitch slap”: I.e., don’t launch an auto-sales allergy. Listen and engage
  4. Let them say “Don’t call me; I’ll contact you”: Signal that you’re empowering them to call you at their choosing; put out the honey, don’t go after them with a fly swatter

OVERHAUL YOUR MESSAGING: Change what you say to them and how you say it:

  1. Tune into your future customer with what you say that maps to their concrete WIFM:
    1. Giving prospects a concrete sense of what’s in it for them can be accomplished by focusing on three layers of a value proposition:
      1. Meet their current Zeitgeist – e.g. what is going on in, say, Q4 that is important to them (i.e., close out the year, plan for the next year, get ready for important board meetings with new forecasts and budgets, etc.)?
      2. Meet their personal value prop – e.g. what does a VP of demand gen want vs the CFO, or the marketing manager? Each job has concretely different needs; make sure in your messaging you align with them and their needs
      3. Then build up to your differentiated brand and product promise – i.e., what does your company stand for, and why is your mousetrap better than concrete alternatives, which need to include “do nothing”
    2. Keep it short and simple – i.e., one line vs. 10, dense packed slides. Open up by talking about them and their issues, not yourself and your needs or skills. Column Five Media confirms that “A catchy headline that speaks to someone’s immediate challenges is much more effective than a sales-y listicle about all of the reasons they “need” your product.” (Source)
  2. And connect with the future customer by how you say it:
    1. Be mildly provocative – Challenge the prospect to think about something they haven’t considered before, and become aware of the disadvantages associated with their current solution
    2. Market to buyers’ limbic systems as that’s critical for how we buy – Forbes research shares that “According to neuroscientists, the ‘logical brain’ is only responsible for 5% of decision making. The remaining 95% of the decisions we make aren’t rooted in reason. That’s why companies cannot win people over with logical benefits alone but must appeal to instinct and evoke emotion.” (source)
    3. Describe your non-sequitur to get attention – After you raise your provocative question, follow up with an unexpected statement, question or observation that piques their interest since they did not expect it.
    4. Connect emotionally, show empathy – For example, if a prospect worries about having to produce more leads for less budget, don’t launch into how you can improve their productivity. Instead, you could just say “that’s not fair, isn’t it”. That provides a quick opportunity to connect with the prospect, signal you understand their problem, and then make them more open to hearing your pitch.
    5. Keep it short, snappy, and to the point – Borrow from the TikTok phenomenon: Create an Initial impression that buys their attention for the first 5 seconds, and with those 5 seconds buy yourself the next 30 seconds. If a short video does the trick, then use that as we’ve found those to be effective (less than 90 seconds). Or maybe a short-form blog, or simply a quick story relevant to the prospect.

The final recipe:

B2B buying behavior is changing in response to a cacophony of bland marketing messages and blunt attempts at sales outreach, driving a need for crisply formulated benefits of your differentiation relevant to the context of their specific problems. And it’s driving the need to repackage those messages into shorter, punchier narratives whose delivery is emotionally engaging and tickles the recipients’ curiosity for more. 

Here is how we’d summarize all that into a final recipe for marketing and selling B2B products in this new, post-Covid, post-boom environment:

  1. Short, thought-provoking messaging:
  • It’s okay to be mildly controversial
  • Controversial does not need to be outrageous or out of brand alignment.  It can be in the design, data points (surveys) or delivery of content if it’s not part of the main brand. It’s about pushing the person to think more deeply. This way – you cut through the noise of similar messaging out there.
  • For inspiration, this article highlights what BuzzSumo has voted as 18 awesome B2B content examples
  1. How you say it is as important as what you say:
  • Show empathy for and deep understanding of a specific target persona’s issues
  • Borrow from TikTok to create short format content that excites the prospects’ limbic system as much as it engages their frontal lobes
  1. Get noticed and connect:
  • LinkedIn is still good for that, as are many other platforms that might be more specific to your targeted personas

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