Today's conventional wisdom is that business buyers are using online information to educate themselves and that they're delaying conversations with sales reps until later in the buying process.
Research from several sources has been used to support the conventional wisdom. For example, SiriusDecisions says that business buyers are now performing 67% of their buying process online. CEB and Forrester Research go even further and say, respectively, that business buyers are 57% or 67% through the buying process before they engage with salespeople.
These research findings have led many marketing industry thought leaders to advocate a model of B2B demand generation in which marketing plays the dominant role in lead acquisition and lead nurturing. Supporters of this view argue that buyer independence has made lead generation by sales reps less effective and more inefficient than in the past. This model also seems to match how most business buyers now prefer to obtain information.
The key word in the preceding sentence is most, because it's also clear that some buyers still prefer to obtain information via sales reps. For example, research by ITSMA shows that many business buyers want to interact with salespeople earlier in the buying process than the other studies suggest.
In ITSMA's 2012 How Buyers Consume Information Survey, over 70% of B2B technology buyers said they want to engage with sales reps before they identify a short list of preferred vendors. When asked at what stage of the buying process they find it useful to engage with salespeople, 24% of the respondents said during the "epiphany" stage (when they haven't yet recognized a definite need but are learning and exploring possibilities), 23% chose the "awareness" stage (when they have an identified need and are clarifying objectives and researching alternatives), and 24% selected the "interest" stage (when they are identifying a list of preferred vendors).
The reality is that the B2B demand generation environment isn't as simple as the conventional wisdom would suggest. It's clear that a large majority of business buyers (probably 70% to 80%) are performing independent research before they interact with a sales rep. It's also clear, however, that perhaps one in four buyers will turn to sales reps early in the buying process.
The important point here is that early engagement is vital to success, whether it's created by content-based interactions or in-person interactions. Forrester Research says that solution providers who engage prospects early in the buying process win 74% of the deals, while the win rate of those who engage late in the process is only 26%. Early engagement probably isn't the only cause of the higher win rate, but it's clear that early prospect engagement plays a major role in successful demand generation.
The bottom line is, B2B companies must be ready to engage prospects on their terms. Marketing must have content resources that are specifically designed for early-stage buyers, and sales reps should always be leveraging their existing relationships (with both customers and non-customers) to uncover new opportunities.