Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why You Need to Understand More Than the "Buying Process"

Understanding how potential customers make buying decisions is critical for successful B2B demand generation. But research shows that this is a big challenge for most B2B marketers and salespeople. For example, in its annual sales performance optimization surveys, CSO Insights asks participants to rate their ability to understand their customer's buying process. The following table shows the percentage of survey respondents who said their understanding of the customer buying process "exceeds expectations" in each of the past five annual surveys.

Part of the problem is that most models of the B2B buying process make it appear to be less complicated than it actually is. For example, the SiriusDecisions model that is shown below is a great high-level representation of the B2B buying process. I've used it several times in this blog to illustrate various points. However, even the SiriusDecisions model doesn't reveal the true complexity of the process. There's a great deal going on in those steps called "loosening of the status quo" and "committing to change," and most of what's happening has little to do with buying a specific product or service.

What most models don't make clear is that the B2B buying process is really a part of a larger change management process, as the following diagram illustrates. This is particularly true when a major solution-type purchase may be involved.

We understand parts of the buying process reasonably well, but the change management process is difficult to decipher for several reasons. First, most change management issues relate primarily to the prospect organization. They have very little to do with the selling company or its products or services.

Second, every prospect organization will have a unique set of change management issues, because many of the issues arise from the culture and the "political" environment of the organization, and from the relationships among the organization's decision makers.

And finally, change management issues are often difficult for decision makers to directly confront, so they aren't always discussed openly inside the organization, much less with an outsider.

For these reasons, it's difficult for marketing and sales leaders to develop accurate generalizations about their customers' change management process. In reality, you can't develop a detailed picture of the change management environment in an organization until you have spent a fairly significant amount of time interacting with the organization's decision makers. That being said, there are some change management issues that arise in most organizations.

  • Does the organization have a problem (or a need or a challenge) that needs to be addressed?
  • Does the problem (or need or challenge) need to be addressed now?
  • How will any potential change affect the existing organizational "system" (people, processes, and technology)?
  • Who must be involved in the decision to change?
  • Can the problem (or need or challenge) be addressed using internal resources?
  • What issues or concerns (whether expressed or unspoken) must be addressed in order to get buy-in from all necessary parties?
Until these and other similar issues are satisfactorily addressed, it's highly unlikely that any change will be made or that anything will be bought. So it's important for sellers to provide content and tools that will help decision makers work through their change management process. Some examples could include:
  • An assessment tool that helps decision makers quantify the financial implications of their problem, need, or challenge
  • A white paper that describes the limitations of potential workarounds and/or the challenges involved in developing an internal solution
  • A case study that demonstrates how the potential solution can be implemented with minimal disruption of existing operations
For marketing and sales professionals, the important thing to remember is that before you can help prospects buy, you must help them navigate their change management process.

Top image courtesy of Daniel Olnes via Flickr CC

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lies, Damn Lies, and B2B Marketing Surveys

Research surveys and their associated reports have become important marketing tools for many kinds of B2B companies. They are particularly popular with companies that provide marketing services and marketing technology solutions. Many of these companies conduct or sponsor surveys on a fairly frequent basis, and they feature the survey reports in their marketing efforts, which are usually directed at B2B marketers.

Survey reports can be valuable sources of information about industry trends and emerging marketing practices and technologies, but they can also be misleading. So it's important for B2B marketers to carefully evaluate the research reports they encounter. It's always a good idea to approach any research report with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. As Mark Twain once wrote, "There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies, and statistics."

In my work, I review lots of survey reports. I make extensive use of survey results and research reports when I'm developing content resources for clients, and I frequently describe survey findings in this blog. Over the years, I've developed a mental checklist of questions that I ask and things that I look for when I'm reviewing a research report. In this post, I'll discuss the first two questions that I ask when I start to review a survey report.

What is the Agenda of the Research Firm and/or the Research Sponsor?

Because many companies now view surveys and survey reports as marketing tools, I always begin by assuming that a research report has been designed to support a marketing agenda. The existence of a marketing purpose doesn't automatically mean that a survey or report is flawed or has no value. It does, however, put me on high alert for indications of bias in the design of the survey or in the presentation of the results.

Are the Survey Respondents a Representative Sample of the Target Population?

Sampling is a complex subject, and I won't attempt to explain it fully in this post. The most important thing to remember is this:  If the survey respondents are not a representative sample, the results of the survey cannot be "projected" to the overall target population. In essence, those results are only valid for the group of people who responded to the survey.

Unfortunately, some report authors either ignore this limitation or use language in the report that fails to make the limitation clear. For example, I recently reviewed a survey report that deals with the use and benefits of "predictive marketing analytics" by/for B2B companies. The report was based in part on a survey of 150 B2B marketers, and the report does not claim that the survey respondents are a representative sample.

Forty-nine percent of the survey respondents said their companies are using predictive marketing analytics, but the report contains the following statement:

"Forty-nine percent of companies are currently using predictive marketing analytics." (Emphasis added)

The problem is, this statement isn't supported by the survey results because the survey respondents aren't a representative sample of marketers in all types of B2B companies.

Very few of the surveys that I review are based on representative samples, so this issue almost always exists. These types of surveys can be useful, but they can also easily be misused, because unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to focus on the specific survey findings and forget the limitation.

In a future post, I'll discuss several other issues that B2B marketers need to watch for when they're reviewing survey reports.

Illustration courtesy of Daniel Oines via Flickr CC.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Activity Metrics Still Matter in Measuring Marketing Performance

Faced with growing demands by senior business leaders to demonstrate the value that marketing brings to the business, marketers have made measuring marketing performance one of their top priorities.

But despite all of the attention given to marketing performance measurement, recent research indicates that many marketers have more work to do to prove the value of marketing. In the Marketing Performance Management Study 2016 by VisionEdge Marketing and Demand Metric, only 23% of survey respondents said their CEO's would give marketing a grade of "A" on its ability to demonstrate its value and contribution to the business.

Many experts contend that the disconnect between marketing and the rest of the C-suite exists because marketers focus primarily on measuring marketing activities and the immediate results of those activities, and they don't put enough emphasis on measuring the impact of marketing on strategic business outcomes.

Some commentators have started calling activity measures "vanity metrics," so it's tempting to think that measuring activities and immediate results is no longer important.

It's clearly vital for marketers to measure the impact of marketing on strategic business outcomes and to communicate that impact to senior company leaders, but that doesn't mean that marketers should ignore activity metrics altogether. Measuring the impact that marketing has on strategic business outcomes is a critical aspect of managing marketing performance, but an effective performance management system for marketing must support several functions. For example, it should:

  • Measure the performance of individual marketing activities and programs so that marketers can make sound investment and marketing mix decisions
  • Enable marketers and other business leaders to evaluate how well their marketing strategy is working
  • Support both strategic and tactical decision-making
  • Enable marketing leaders to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of operational marketing activities and processes
In order to support all of these functions, a performance management system for marketing will necessarily include several types of metrics, including activity metrics. More specifically, an effective marketing performance management system will include:
  • Financial and non-financial measures
  • Metrics for leading and lagging performance indicators
  • Measures that focus on the strategic impact of marketing and metrics that support tactical decision-making
  • Measures of ultimate business outcomes and measures of activities, outputs, and intermediate outcomes
  • Revenue and cost metrics
When communicating with C-level executives, marketers should emphasize metrics that demonstrate the impact of marketing on strategic business outcomes, and it's usually a good idea to omit any detailed discussion of activity metrics. But activity and other operational metrics still play a vital role in managing the marketing function and improving marketing performance.

Think of it this way. For most of us, the primary reason for exercising regularly (our "strategic outcome") is to improve our health. We periodically monitor our health through physical exams and various tests, but many of us also track and record the results of our daily or weekly workouts, because they provide an indication of our health and physical condition. Our spouse or significant other is much more interested in the results of our latest annual physical than he or she is in how far we ran yesterday. But exercising regularly and monitoring our improvement are still important to a healthy lifestyle.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Why B2B Marketers Need to Care About "Casual Learning"

Much of the conversation in the B2B marketing world over the past several years has revolved around the emergence of empowered and independent buyers. A wealth of easily-accessible information now enables buyers to perform research about business issues and possible solutions on their own. The most widely-discussed result of this development is that many - though by no means all - buyers are postponing direct interactions with potential vendors until later in the buying process.

Information abundance has also led to a dramatic increase in what I call casual learning. As I'm using the term, casual learning refers to learning and information gathering activities that occur before an intentional buying process has begun.

Most traditional models of the B2B buying process assume that the process begins when a company's leaders or managers recognize a need or problem, and decide to address the issue in some way. These "buyers" then gather information about the need or problem and possible solutions, they evaluate the available options, and they may or may not decide to purchase a product or service to address the problem or need.

So, our traditional view of buyer behavior is that most information gathering occurs after an intentional buying process has started. Today, however, information is so abundant and readily available that many business people routinely consume information about business issues long before they have formed anything close to a "buying intent."

In their book, Absolute Value, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen call this type of information gathering "couch tracking," and they argue that couch tracking is one of the major emerging trends in consumer decision-making. The same abundance of easily-available information that drives couch tracking by consumers also drives casual learning by business decision makers.

The growth of casual learning has important implications for B2B marketing, but many marketers have not fully appreciated its significance. Most B2B marketing tactics and programs are designed to identify business people who are ready to begin a buying process, or to encourage those already involved in a buying process to move toward a buying decision. At any given time, however, most of the people affiliated with potential customers are more likely to be "casual learners" than "buyers."

Creating relationships with casual learners is important because the impressions they form during casual learning remain influential when they become involved in a buying process. Therefore, if a company can create and sustain positive relationships with casual learners, it will have a competitive advantage when those casual learners turn into buyers.

Unfortunately, most B2B companies don't have marketing programs or content resources that are specifically designed for casual learners, and therefore, they aren't particularly effective at building relationships with this important group of "embryonic buyers." In a future post, I'll discuss how B2B companies can successfully engage with casual learners.

Illustration courtesy of Craige Moore via Flickr CC.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Building a Team of Teams

Tomorrow is Independence Day here in the States, and it's appropriate that the topic of this post is a book by General Stanley McChrystal (with co-authors Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell). General McChrystal commanded the US Joint Special Operations Task Force (the "Task Force") from September 2003 until August 2008. During this period, one of the primary missions of the Task Force was to engage and defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq ("AQI"). When General McChrystal assumed command, the Task Force wasn't winning the fight against AQI.

Team of Teams:  New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World is a business book written against the backdrop of a major combat operation. It tells the story of how General McChrystal and his leadership team transformed the Task Force in the middle of a war so that it could defeat a new type of adversary in a new and very different warfighting environment. General McChrystal and his co-authors argue that the lessons learned from the Task Force transformation can be applied to companies competing in today's complex and rapidly-changing business environment.

The basic problem facing General McChrystal and his leadership team was that organizational silos and bureaucratic management processes were preventing the Task Force from acting quickly enough to deal effectively with AQI. The Task Force included many small, specialized units or teams. Each of these teams was very good at what it did. Because of training and culture, the individual members of each team knew and instinctively trusted each other. Each team was highly adaptable because every team member knew and trusted what other team members would do in almost every situation.

Unfortunately, the same training and culture that built such a high level of trust and cohesiveness within each team led to a lack of trust and cohesiveness among teams. As a result, the Task Force as a whole wasn't as flexible and agile as it needed to be. As General McChrystal put it:

"For decades, we had been able to execute our linear approach faster than the external environment could change . . . But by 2004, the world had outpaced us. In the time it took us to move a plan from creation to approval, the battlefield for which the plan had been devised would have changed. By the time it could be implemented, the plan - however ingenious in its initial design - was often irrelevant."

General McCrystal and his leadership team recognized that they needed to "scale" the trust, cohesiveness, and agility that existed within the small teams across the entire Task Force. In other words, they needed to transform the Task Force into a team of teams. To make this transformation a reality, every team in the Task Force needed to have insight into how their peer teams functioned and how all the pieces fit together. Each team also needed to trust the other teams in the Task Force.

Task Force leaders took several steps to build this shared consciousness and trust, but two stand out in importance. First, they replaced the "need to know" mentality normally found in military organizations with "information sharing on steroids."

All Task Force operations were run out of a Joint Operations Center, the principal feature of which was a large central room that provided space for representatives of all the functional specialties of the Task Force, as well as representatives of "partner" organizations such as the CIA. A wall of screens at the front of the room provided real-time information regarding Task Force operations, so anyone in the room could know instantly about the major factors affecting the mission of the Task Force at that moment.

To further encourage collaboration, Task Force leaders designated this entire room as a top secret security space. This meant that almost any document or topic relevant to Task Force operations could be discussed and debated by anyone anywhere in the room. Task Force leaders also conducted a daily meeting called the Operations and Intelligence brief, which was designed to integrate everything the Task Force was doing with everything it knew.

The second major step was an "embedding" program. Under this program, Task Force leaders would take an individual from one team and assign him or her to a different team in the Task Force for six months. The idea was to allow these individuals to see how the war looked from inside other teams and build personal relationships across teams. The objective was to build more trust among the teams in the Task Force.

These and other changes enabled General McChrystal and his leadership team to transform the Task Force from a fairly traditional military organization into a true team of teams. This transformation wasn't completed overnight, but over time, it enabled the Task Force to produce an impressive record of success.

In a future post, I'll discuss how B2B companies can use a team of teams approach to drive improved marketing performance.