Business-to-business (B2B) versus business-to-consumer (B2C) is one of the most important distinctions between different types of marketing. As a rule, content creators are quick to identify their content as one or the other.
B2B and B2C are fundamentally different types of marketing. Things that are effective in B2C can be – and often are – ineffective in B2B, and vice versa. This is because there is an entirely different buying process in B2B compared to B2C. In B2C, we typically see lower-value transactions with a single decision-maker who is also the end-user. In B2B, we see high-value transactions with multiple decision-makers who may or may not be end-users. Accordingly, the B2B buying has developed into a longer, more formalized process.
The B2B Buying process can be broken into three main stages, beginning with Awareness, moving to Evaluation, and finishing with Decision. These three stages can be further segmented into seven sub-stages, as shown in the diagram below.
Aligning the buying process with your sales process is the key to acquiring and converting more sales opportunities. To do so, marketers must thoroughly understand their buyer’s process and serve them stage-relevant content at each step.
Misalignment occurs when buyers receive messaging that is geared toward a different stage of the buying process. Misalignment creates confusion, which can delay, if not halt, the buying process. Early-stage content served late in the process is redundant and disengaging, while late-stage content served early in the process makes the contact feel pressured and leads to hesitancy.
Below, we’ll explore each stage of the B2B buying process in greater detail. We’ll also discuss the appropriate type of content for each stage and sub-stage.
The Awareness stage begins with the current status quo. The status quo is the starting point for any B2B buying decision. Basically, the status quo is the current state of the potential client’s company. The key objective of the “Status Quo” sub-stage is to alert the buyer of a need. To accomplish this, a marketer’s best tool is top-of-funnel, education content, like white papers and ebooks. These assets set the stage for your offering by explaining a general problem or opportunity for improvement.
Once the problem or opportunity has been identified, the contact moves to the “Need Recognition” sub-stage. The identification of the need may be clear-cut (a machine breaks) or hazy (potential workflow improvement). The key to the “Need Recognition” sub-stage is to remember that agreeing there is a problem (or room for improvement) is not the same as agreeing that the problem needs to be fixed. Factors such as costs, difficulty of implementation, and the need for executive sponsorship can prevent the actualization of needed changes. Need recognition is accomplished by instilling the value of the needed change, especially in the context of the required costs. Again, white papers, ebooks, and other educational assets are strong choices for this function.
The “Priority Shift” sub-stage begins when the potential buyer agrees that their need must be addressed. Fear of loss or deterioration of a current position is a stronger cause for priority shift compared to the opportunity for improvement; opportunity for improvement is a lower urgency and less compelling need. The goal of this sub-stage is to bring the recognized need to the forefront. This is accomplished by translating value into more absolute terms. At this stage, companies may introduce basic logistical information (though still remaining brand-agnostic). White papers and ebooks remain strong choices for this function, though reports and other more data-driven content are also a strong choice.
A presence during the “Priority Shift” sub-stage is especially crucial for companies. It is at this point where they are able to establish themselves as a trusted advisor. As a trusted advisor, they are able to exercise significant control over the buying vision and, in doing so, secure the inside track for the ultimate sale. According to Forrester, 65% of decision makers will award business to the company that creates the buying vision.
Once a potential client has: (1) agreed that the problem needs to be fixed and (2) committed resources to fix it, they have officially transitioned from Awareness to Evaluation. Evaluation begins with the “Research” sub-stage. From this point on, the buying process is no longer brand-neutral. During this sub-stage, potential buyers explore options and collect information on available solutions. They then use this information to formulate the consideration set.
Today, the vast majority of research is done on the Internet. This makes a company’s website the first and foremost source of information during the “Research” sub-stage. A company website should concisely explain offerings and their benefits, in addition to provididing options for more detail. It should also emphasize the factors that differentiate your offering from your competitors.
Once the prospective buyer has done sufficient research and generated a consideration set, they are ready to move to the “Compare Options” sub-stage. Here, buyers agree upon a set of standards, called the evaluation criteria. The evaluation criteria become the stick by which various offerings are measured.
For a seller, participation in the “Compare Options” sub-stage is highly valuable. A seller who has built trust and rapport with the buyer can use this influence to shape the evaluation criteria in their favor. Such an advisor is able to shift the relative importance of specific attributes, highlighting favorable comparisons and avoiding unfavorable ones.
If not already underway, one-to-one communications with a sales rep begin during the “Compare Options” sub-stage. Accordingly, it’s important that reps are knowledgeable in available options, common concerns, and points of differentiation for the offering. Comparative assets, like buyer’s guides, are a great choice to support reps in this function (though be sure to avoid obvious brand-allegiance).
Potential buyers move from Evaluation to Decision by narrowing their consideration set to a few offerings, often referred to as the shortlist. The initial sub-stage of the Decision stage is “Validation”. At this sub-stage, the shortlist is generated. Though the shortlist may consist of a handful of names, realistically, the decision is between one or two clear front-runners at this point. More often than not, the “Validation” sub-stage simply consists of establishing the required consensus from the buying team. The larger the commitment (risk), the more difficult this is to accomplish.
As far as content for the “Validation” sub-stage, social proof is king. Case studies, testimonials, and user ratings/reviews are among the most effective forms of social proof. They are crucial in reaching consensus among a diverse group of buyers.
Buyers conclude the buying cycle with the “Choice” sub-stage. Here, the buyer or buyers agree on a final solution and iron out the purchase details (final price, payment structure, delivery, etc.) with the rep. The “Choice” step concludes with a signed order.
The most important content for the “Choice” sub-stage is content designed to onboard clients following the sale. This content helps to get the buyer off on the right foot and set the stage for a long-term relationship.
Relevance is what separates valuable content from annoying clutter. Such relevance comes only with a strong understanding buyers and their buying process. Content greases the wheels of the buying process, but it’s only valuable when applied at the appropriate time and place.
It’s important to note that the duration and difficulty of each stage and sub-stage of the buying process will vary by company. Use data and anecdotal evidence to adjust the general framework (outlined above) to reflect your buyers’ process. Create and convert more leads by incorporating your unique buying process into your content and sales strategies.
Let us know what you think:
- Which sub-stage is the easiest for your company?
- Which sub-stage is the hardest?
- What is a quirk specific to your b2b buying process?