For a successful approach to B2B sales and marketing, much can be learned from the world of gardening. Why? Because as anyone who got green-fingered for the first time in 2020 will tell you: it’s all about patience. Many are the plants and vegetables whose nurture takes time to achieve best results (hello rhubarb, which shouldn’t be harvested at all in the first 12 months lest future yields be risked), and who would never deliver the desired return if cut down or pulled up too early.
Faced with a choice between careful nurture of big gains, or just impatiently snatching merely what is available right now, it’s clear what the sensible course of action should be in the long-term. And yet it is impatience, and a failure to understand the value of growing something over time, that too many B2B brands find themselves guilty of.
Short-termism and tunnel vision is the enemy of B2B marketing.
The principles at play in consumer-facing sales, like quick wins, fast ROIs and emotionally driven conversions, cannot be applied here. A whole different set of values, based around patience and understanding the audience’s challenges, is needed, because not only is B2B selling a longer game, it’s also becoming more complex.
Here are two things you need to know for 2021:
- Purchase journeys are getting longer and more complex
- Without effective nurture, you’ll lose four out of five leads
These should be of concern to anyone working in B2B sales and marketing. Average times taken to make a purchase have been growing in recent years, and continue to do so, but into this space has grown an opportunity for businesses: content-driven nurture. Buyers are hungry for useful branded content across all stages of the funnel, but not all B2B brands make the most of this. In any given field of B2B or professional services, there is likely an opportunity for your business to exploit. But first, let’s take a look at both of those earlier bulletpoints in a bit more detail.
Purchase journeys are getting longer and more complex
As far back as 2018, there was growing evidence of a lengthening of typical B2B purchase journeys. Stats at the time showed that ROI analysis before making a purchase decision (77%); using more information sources for research and evaluation (75%), and increasing the number of people involved in the decision (52%) were the most common reasons for the increasing lag.
Edge forward to 2020 and now more than two thirds (68%) of B2B buyers say their purchase journeys have got longer compared to a year ago, according to research by Demand Gen Report. And this isn’t all Covid-related. Quite apart from the fact we were seeing this trend three-to-four years ago, more than half of those asked said that the pandemic has had no impact on their purchase intent, or budgets.
Then there’s the increasing complexity of buying journeys. On top of the oft-repeated facts that prospects may conduct up to 12 web searches, or view between seven and 11 pieces of branded content, or be as much as 57% of the way towards a decision before contacting your organisation, there is evidence that shows a growing likelihood of people repeating parts of the purchase journey, looping back through previously ‘completed’ parts.
A study from Adobe found 90% of B2B buyers now take a non-linear route through the buying journey, twisting back, looping and moving ‘sideways’ within different stages as they work towards a decision. Put simply, these processes are getting more complex as well as taking longer (in reality, the two things are inherently linked).
We wrote recently about how understanding your customers’ buying journey is central to marketing success, and how taking a more detailed, zoomed in view of stage-based or hierarchical models such as AIDA can have a significant impact on long-term results. In fleshing out your typical buying journey with more detail, you will often find that cyclical or intra-stage movement accounts for a lot more customer activity than you realised.
So, the answer is simple, right? Just wait longer for the B2B conversions. Have patience. If we build a website, the clients will come. Sadly, that’s not quite the case, and the reason is related to another blindspot which can afflict businesses who sell to other businesses: failure to grasp the true value of a content-driven nurture process.
Without effective nurture, you’ll lose four out of five leads
According to Lead Forensics, 79% of leads generated by B2B marketing never convert into customers or clients, because of the lack of an effective nurture process based around audience behaviours and needs.
The argument made here is simple: how can a prospect client become aware that your service or product is suitable for them unless you make it clear? All prospects have business challenges or service needs, and it is often through those that their paths cross with potential suppliers, for example through the prospect landing on a blog post or video, or conducting a search (71% of B2B buyers begin their research with generic Google searches).
Successful lead nurture is about more than just ‘keep in touch’ emails that aim to keep your business front of mind. A combination of compelling content – making clear the ways in which your service meets the needs of targets and why your business is the best supplier on the market – and good timing are required for truly effective nurture. In terms of timing, making sure prospects receive communications at intervals of between six and 45 days tends to work best for most B2B environments, although the exact best timings will vary by audience and will need proper testing to reveal.
When it comes to communicating benefits, content is your friend – that’s obvious – but did you know that it might be working harder for you than you think? The same Demand Gen Report that found buying cycles are lengthening also reports that 76% of buyers say that after making a purchase decision, the winning supplier’s content had a “significant impact” on the outcome. A total of 70% said “relevant content that speaks directly to our company” was “very important,” while a starker stat rams the point home: 96% of those asked said that content based “directly [on] our industry needs” was a vital part in their process.
Digital content doesn’t just feature more heavily in purchase decisions these days. It’s also seen by a higher number of people. Remember that stat earlier that said one of the reasons for decisions slowing down in the past 12 months has been because of more people being added to the ‘buying group’, or having involvement in making the call? Most respondents to that survey (61%) indicated the number of stakeholders involved in a purchasing decision had increased this year. And 71% went further, saying their business has “a formal buying committee” that reviews purchases.
In light of this, a key consideration for B2B marketers today is that content may need to perform a job beyond its primary intended audience. This can present a challenge: your explainer videos might go down really well with a certain buying persona on the client side, but fall completely flat with another. How do you ensure content that is “passed around” as part of a purchasing decision is detailed enough to speak to specific needs, but broad enough in tone and content to succeed at all levels? It’s the subject of another post entirely, but the key thing to remember is that you may need to cut and repurpose content to make it easier for clients to digest and share internally. What works for the C-suite will probably lack the detail others need. In getting this right, it pays to have a clear picture of all the personas you’re creating content for, not just the primary contact.
For companies who get it right, the benefits of nurturing content along the pipeline are many, but can be summed up in one neat bulletpoint:
- Nurtured leads deliver 47% more value after conversion
That’s why nurture is such an important part of B2B sales. And that’s before you consider the sheer hunger out there for branded content based around buyers’ needs. Research from the Content Marketing Institute says half of all the time buyers spend online is spent engaging with branded content, which feeds into their experience and appreciation of a brand. What’s more, 80% of B2B buying decisions are based on brand experience, with only the remainder based on price or actual offering.
So, content-driven nurture is not just what you communicate to prospects, but how you make them feel over a prolonged period. This last point is particularly important when you consider that – given average contract lengths and life spans – many of the prospect clients your business attracts the attention of will not be able to become a customer until a set date in the future, such as when an incumbent supplier’s contract runs out. This window could be anywhere between six and 18 months.
Who will the prospect remember best and most fondly? The business to who they gave their email address and received only monthly newsletters and invites to irrelevant events, or the one who sent them a carefully curated flow of helpful, useful, highly relevant information, who at times surprised and delighted them, over the course of the intervening months? There might be people in your database who are feeling unloved right at this very minute.
As we enter a time in which maximising returns and making the most of what we’ve got are becoming ever more important, reviewing how (if?) your business communicates with prospects, and how much of your marketing resource goes towards progressing leads, could be a really valuable exercise. And with two thirds (67%) of B2B content teams still saying they focus exclusively on top-of-funnel content, the opportunity to embrace content-driven nurture is there for the taking.