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My colleague Andrew Moravick and I recently gave a talk entitled, “Are You a Marketer or a Mind Reader?” Our talk’s subtitle was, “How to Know What Your B2B Buyer Is Really Thinking.”

We kicked off our presentation with a simple proposition: In B2B marketing, unlike in B2C marketing, it is not (necessarily) the goal to get people to want something they don’t need. Rather, the goal of B2B marketing is to find people who already want something and then convince them to buy your version of that something.

Finding the people who already want something like the thing you sell is where the mind-reading comes in. How do you know who wants to buy the thing like your thing? And if it seems like someone is going down that path, how do you know? And how do you know where they are on the path?

The main way B2B marketers try to figure out what is going on with potential buyers, we argued, was to map the buyer’s journey and then create content that aligns with said journey. The ideal result should look something like this:

buyers-journey-map

Whereas the basic assumption here is that B2B marketers create content that, ideally, guides the buyer through to purchase, the reality is much messier:

buyers-journey-mess

What goes wrong?

Things get messy from the start because, on the one hand, we don’t know specifically who we are trying to reach, and when we reach them, we don’t know what they actually care about.

That is, we don’t identify potential buyers, find where they are on their “journey,” and then provide them with the information they need. Instead we create content based on what we imagine people will want to know when, make that content available – either by making it findable or by inviting people to consume it – and then, if someone actually reads something we wrote or attends a webinar or whatever, we make an assumption about what they might be thinking based on that fact.  

Although this approach is not totally flawed, it does have some inherent problems. The first is simply that it involves a lot of guess work. Signing up for a webinar or downloading a white paper, as isolated events, can’t adequately provide us with the information necessary to deduce someone’s intention.

The second and much larger problem is inefficiency. We end up either writing so broadly that, though we attract readers, very few of them actually convert into leads (let alone customers), or we have to cast such a wide net that, though we do get a few hits, we get far more misses.

Think of it this way. The average clickthrough rate for email marketing is roughly 3.74%. If you do an email send to a list of 5,000 contacts, you will get 187 people to click. That means 4,813 people didn’t. Even if you are more generous and focus on average open rates (22.17%), that still means that 3,891 contacts either ignored or were annoyed by you.

How to Avoid the Guessing Game

If you actually knew what your buyers were thinking, of course, you wouldn’t have to guess (or, to be fair, if you had to guess a little, at least you could make your guess educated).

In our presentation, we said that there were three basic ways that you could know what your buyers were thinking:

  1. You could ask them.
  2. You could use data.
  3. Instead of trying to read their minds, you could try writing them.

Asking Buyers What They Think

Let’s face it, if you want to know what someone is thinking, the fastest way to find out is to ask them.

While that may seem obvious intellectually, it’s not what happens in reality. In fact, our research has shown that 46% of marketers don’t interact with customers directly. By contrast, our research has also shown that 77% of leading content marketers actually do speak with their customers.

Granted, in the B2B world, there are obstacles that get in the way of marketers speaking with customers (or speaking with people who look like your customers). The biggest obstacle can be the fact that your sales team may “own” customer relationships and be protective of them. In my experience, this obstacle is absolutely overcomeable. All it takes is a collaborative approach.

The other obstacle, which is not trivial, stems from the fact that, frankly, you can’t speak with every customer, every prospect, and every person who visits your website. The common practice of creating buyer personas addresses this obstacle and it can be effective, especially if you are conscientious about speaking to enough customers (actual and potential), asking them the right questions, and updating your personas on a regular basis.

The basic idea here is simple: If you know enough about what some customers are thinking at different stages of the buying process, you can make educated guesses about what most customers are thinking at similar stages.

Data Is a Door into the Mind of the Buyer

As I mentioned, you can’t talk to every person who visits your website or attends one of your webinars. The beauty of contemporary marketing is, however, that this does not mean that you know nothing about them.

Everyone today leaves a data trail and, in fact, that data trail, viewed in the aggregate, can be surprisingly rich.

Now, data might not tell you what your buyer is thinking, but it can help you infer it. Indeed, as I mentioned above, many B2B marketers use content exactly in this way. If someone downloads a white paper focused on the pros and cons of private cloud, we assume that they are thinking about private cloud adoption. If they download a buyer’s guide that helps rank different private cloud providers, we believe that they are closer to purchase, and so on.

Sometimes you will have enough data to help you build a model linking content consumption and buying behavior. A colleague of mine, for example, noticed that one piece of content she used regularly was part of most paths to conversion taken by buyers. Did this tell her what buyers were thinking? No. But it did tell her that people who ultimately thought as she wanted them to think usually interacted with this piece of content as part of the process, thus letting her know that it was “working.”

Just as speaking with buyers can give you a general picture (persona) of what buyers look like, so can data give you a general picture of how buyers behave. That is, data can give you a statistically valuable picture of what that behavior looks like and the impact that your actions/content have on it. With this picture, you can then begin predicting how your actions might influence individuals or, alternately, predict whether a person who has done x and y will then do z.

Many companies will be able to construct at least a partial picture of their buyers based on the data these companies have themselves captured. That being said, I still believe what Jakob Nielsen said many years ago, “Users spend most of their time on other websites.” This means that, in the vast majority of cases, someone else will have the behavioral data you need. It should also come as no surprise that, in many cases, this data is actually for sale. (Full disclosure: Bombura is a partner of Aberdeen Group and, in fact, we sell data, too.)

In Part 2, we get into the mechanics of mind writing proper. Stay tuned!

Image Source (Creative Commons): Banalities.

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