Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Age of the Self-Directed Buyer

The starting point for understanding the new face of B2B marketing is the fundamental shift in power from B2B sellers to business buyers. Now more than ever before, prospective buyers control the buying process. They decide when and how they will access information and research purchasing decisions and when and how they will interact with potential suppliers.

A good analogy is the self-directed learning courses offered at many universities. The course requirements are spelled out, textbooks and other course materials are identified, and mileposts (required exams, papers, etc.) are established. Then students study at their own pace to complete the course. In the world of B2B marketing, we're now living in the age of the self-directed buyer.

The driving force behind the empowerment of business buyers is the Internet. The Web has put a huge volume of information about almost every conceivable product and service at the fingertips of business buyers, and they've become convinced that they can find whatever information they need, whenever they need it, on their terms. In fact, the Internet has become the primary source of information for many business buyers. According to a survey by Forbes Insights, 81 percent of business executives who are under 50 years of age use the Internet daily to gather business information.

Last fall, Adam Needles provided a detailed discussion of the changing nature of B2B buyers in an excellent post at his Propelling Brands blog. He identified four major characteristics of today's B2B buyer.

  • B2B buyers are using online sources of information (especially early in the buying cycle) to research purchasing decisions, and they are delaying conversations with vendor's sales reps until late in the cycle.
  • B2B buyers are leveraging social media to collect information and opinions about prospective vendors, products, and services.
  • B2B buyers are using several communications channels to research purchasing decisions.
  • B2B buyers are increasingly part of a "buying unit" rather than acting as a single decision-maker.

The bottom line is that easy access to information makes business buyers much less dependent on sellers than in the past, and this means that many traditional marketing and sales techniques and practices don't work as well as they once did.

What is working today? That's what we'll discuss in future posts.

1 comment:

  1. I found your post because I did a search on “self-directed buyer” … because I’m actually writing a blog post called The Myth of the Self-Directed Consumer.

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written. But I guess here’s my question: Who do you define as the self-directed buyer?

    You base your premise on a Forbes survey of business executives under 50 years old. The company I work for sells a small-ticket advertising services to small to mid-sized companies. (The decision-makers of these companies probably do not even read Forbes.) They are not self-directed “business executives who … use the Internet daily to gather business information.” They are “crazy-busy” self-employed business owners trying to deal with the day-to-day hassles of running a business. They are not using online sources of information to research purchasing decisions regarding the product we sell. And they are most certainly not leveraging social media to collect information and opinions about companies like ours.

    Because our product is advertising – and as such is an intangible – perhaps it doesn’t really fit into the context of your advice. But if we were to decide that the age of the self-directed buyer had arrived and stopped our “traditional marketing and sales techniques” like cold-canvassing and cold-calling, we’d be out of business in, well, probably a few weeks.

    I think it’s a misconception to label all B2B buyers as self-directed. I even see that trend in books like ‘Selling to Big Companies” and “How Winners Sell.” They assume all B2B sales is big-ticket consultative selling. Because ours is a smaller-ticket item with a much shorter sales cycle, a lot of what those books teach is not practical and doesn’t apply – like the default assumption about the self-directed buyer.

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.