The B-to-B Buying Revolution, and Five Ways Marketers Need to Change Their Game

The Internet has driven dramatic changes in business buying behavior. Just as no one buys a car anymore without first checking prices and features online, business buyers now research and educate themselves online, months—even years—before ever seeing a salesperson. This has big implications for B-to-B marketers.

The Internet has driven dramatic changes in business buying behavior. Just as no one buys a car anymore without first checking prices and features online, business buyers now research and educate themselves online, months—even years—before ever seeing a salesperson. This has big implications for B-to-B marketers.

In the old days-just a few years ago-when business buyers had a problem, they’d call in their vendors for advice on how to solve it. So a sales person was in a nifty position to educate—and influence—the buyer from the earliest stages of the process.

But these days, the sales person has lost control. Buyers don’t really want to talk to vendors until somewhere akin to 70 percent of the way down the road, at the stage of writing RFPs and getting quotes. By then, the possible solutions and the specifications are already set.

But there’s more. Business buying processes are getting longer, and-most important-involving more parties than ever before. The so-called Buying Circle in large enterprise B-to-B-the influencers, specifiers, users, decision-makers-comprises as many as 21 people, according to Marketing Sherpa.

So marketers have to think differently today. First, you need to take an active role in the early stages of the buying process, to ensure that your solutions are front and center, and that you are in the game of influencing buyers as they educate themselves online. Second, you must gain access to each member of the Buying Circle, so you can understand their needs and interests, and deliver relevant messaging to them as they move from stage to stage in their buying journey.

These developments bring front and center five important areas requiring renewed focus from marketers:

  1. Complete and accurate data on customers and prospects. To influence the multiple Buying Circle members, and get to them early, you need to know who they are. Not an easy task, but more essential than ever. Here are some resources for gaining access to prospect data, and keeping your database clean.
  2. A deliberate contact strategy. Beyond blasting out prospecting campaigns, marketers must move toward a series of ongoing outbound messages, via multiple communications channels, to connect with multiple parties, over time. Here’s where marketing automation becomes an important resource for B-to-B marketers.
  3. Active social media outreach. No longer an experiment, social media has become a must-have element of the B-to-B marketing toolkit. A well-written blog, promoted by Twitter and LinkedIn groups, is a good way to start.
  4. A superb website, the core resource for engagement with buyers at all stages of the process. Enhance its interactivity by adding downloadable content in exchange for registration.
  5. A library of content assets. Populate your website with white papers, research reports, videos, how-to guides, technical documents, archived webinars, all written in objective, non-salesy language, to help educate buyers and help influence them toward your solution. Be sure to title the documents with plenty of keywords.

It’s a different marketing world today. But an exciting one, as long as marketers evolve along with buyers as they change the way they work.

A version of this post appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Dealing With This Season’s Burned Out Subscribers

In September, all email marketers have good intentions. They meticulously map out segmentations; plan a logical calendar to support strategic initiatives; and commit to holding firm on protecting margins, avoiding the trap of ever increasing sweeteners as we near the end of December.

In September, all email marketers have good intentions. They meticulously map out segmentations; plan a logical calendar to support strategic initiatives; and commit to holding firm on protecting margins, avoiding the trap of ever increasing sweeteners as we near the end of December.

Then reality sets in. Although this year has been significantly better than last year in terms of business buying and consumer spending, most email marketers are quickly caught up in the email marketing return on investment trap. When times are tough, the pressure goes up to send just one more email campaign in order to boost revenues and response.

That strategy can work in the short term, but come January, the reckoning takes hold. This is when email marketers must rebuild relationships sullied by overmailing and lack of targeting. Hopefully, your business can pause and take a deep breath in order to both slow down the frequency as well as improve customization and relevancy. If you still see low response rates and list fatigue, then it’s time for a strategy to win back your audience.

Strategies for winning back subscribers
A win-back strategy can be anything from a friendly reminder to visit the preference center to a full-on bribe, like offering a steep discount or free service if the subscriber clicks now. Test a few of these ideas on subscribers who didn’t open or click on your emails in December and January. After a few attempts to win them back, if you still don’t see any activity, it may be time to clear the dead wood from your file.

While suppressing data is an anathema to direct marketers’ hearts, clearing nonresponsive subscribers from your email marketing file can help with everything from reducing churn to lowering costs to improving the new engagement metrics used for inbox placement and deliverability. Logically, it makes sense. More active subscribers are more likely to respond.

Surprisingly, however, clearing nonactive addresses from your file also improves response. That boost in response isn’t just on the rate off of a smaller base, but is also on absolute response and revenue per subscriber. Why does this happen? By focusing on the needs of active subscribers, marketers improve relevancy and lower frequency. They start to segment their files with tighter subscriber profiles. Be sure to note that this is the opposite of what you’re able to do in the rush of end of year.

Even permission files end up with anywhere from 25 percent to 65 percent of inactive subscribers. These subscribers, despite giving permission at some point, haven’t opened, clicked or converted from email in the past year or more. Unfortunately, the fourth quarter is when most subscribers burn out. The overflowing inbox at a busy time of year just becomes too much. They tune out your messages if you’re not offering value. Pretty soon, ignoring your emails becomes a habit.

For a long time, it was widely believed to be reasonable to keep all those dead addresses on your file, as it didn’t cost much to mail them and having a larger denominator made complaint rates and other deliverability metrics seem lower. Plus, marketers are ever hopeful. Even if a subscriber hasn’t responded to their emails in a long time, they still believe that today’s message will be the one that rouses them to profitable response. Of course, very few of these sleepers ever wake up.

However, internet service providers and mailbox providers like Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail have long been suspicious of marketers who keep such nonresponsive data on their files, believing that they’re trying to game the system and escape penalties of higher complaint rates. In the past six months, all three global providers have introduced new metrics as well as new inbox management tools to help them see subscriber-level activity. MSN/Hotmail was the first to announce the use of activity measures to block senders from a particular subscriber’s inbox (I wrote about this in early September).

I’ve seen some success in win-back campaigns that respect subscribers, are honest about the offer in the subject line, and keep the message and tone in line with the brand. Test a few alternatives and segment as much as possible to improve relevancy as well. For example:

  • A publisher tested several approaches and found that “We hate spam, too. Change your email settings now” in the subject line was the best way to encourage 90-day nonactive readers to adjust frequency and title choices. Typically, I find that clarity trumps cleverness in a subject line. Just say clearly what the subscriber is being asked to do.
  • A retailer sent an email campaign to six-month inactive subscribers inviting them to vote for the brand’s next catalog cover. The engaging campaign consistently earned 25 percent clickthrough rates. By focusing on the click (the action needed to prove that the subscriber isn’t truly dead), the campaign earned a very high response rate. As a bonus, while many subscribers were on the company’s website they took advantage of specials offered on the landing page.
  • A retailer tested the effect of a win-back campaign versus lowering frequency to six-month inactive accounts. Lowering frequency is a commonly used tactic to respect nonresponding subscribers level of interest, but, of course, does nothing to actually engage them. The win-back strategy was the clear winner, earning a 10 percent response rate and $900K in revenue versus a 2 percent response rate and $150K in revenue from the segment that received lower frequency.

Let us know how you’ve successfully re-engaged subscribers by posting a comment below.