Last week I had the opportunity to keynote the marketing track at Spiceworld 2018 -- an event that brought together 1,500+ IT pros and the marketers who aim to reach them.
Note: This event had no relation to Spice World, the movie.
Which, by the way, is truly an underrated artistic achievement of our time.
On stage, I asked the audience of IT marketers, are you cursed?
If you market or sell software, technology, or hardware to a business buyer — chances are, the answer is yes.
Competition is growing in every sector as B2B offerings become increasingly commoditized. Just look at three tech verticals in from 2017:
More options for the buyer means a tougher fight for vendors.
Most B2B products and services face this common challenge: we're grouped with our competition as the buyer makes their decision.
This is the curse of the B2B consideration set.
As competing vendors go to market, they are categorized into in a hard-to-escape rank and classification in the mind of the buyer. The more competition you have — the more crowded that group becomes, and the harder it becomes to differentiate and win the deal.
You’ve experienced this with slow deal cycles or maybe a price war with your rival.
How do you break free from the pack when the pack looks the same to the buyer?
Sometimes, the criteria and options at play are explicit in the RFP and procurement process. Other times, this grouping happens more passively and anonymously as the buyer conducts research well in advance of a formal sales process. In both cases, it’s a difficult place from which to control the sale or win.
But it’s a fantastic area of opportunity for marketers and our counterparts in sales.
We often forget the consideration set is created by a buyer’s own perception.
And perception is an awful thing to waste.
The more you look like your competition, the harder it becomes for your sales team to close the deal. The less you influence the buyer’s perception, the more likely your competition is to persuade their decision.
Today, different factors impact how your buyer constructs the consideration set — more research is done around ideas and issues, more word of mouth is at play, and more changes are occurring across all industries — leaving B2B buyers looking for clarity and guidance.
These are excellent conditions from which to affect change in buyer perception — and finally, break the curse of the B2B consideration set.
Here are five ways to escape the curse:
1. Move first and add value
Inbound marketing taught B2B firms to set up their web properties to capture prospects in-market, searching for solutions to their problems.
Now, account-based marketing is creating a renaissance for outbound prospecting, as more B2B firms recognize the limitations of an inbound-only approach. They're opting instead to proactively target high-value, good-fit accounts (something sales teams have always done organically).
One way to break free from the confines of a consideration set is to be the first.
You may know this as a first-mover advantage. But, for truly high-value accounts, you’re likely not the first vendor to contact them from your space. So, you need to be the first to frame a business challenge in a new way, offer an unexpected source of insight about their unique company situation, or address a previously unexplored problem.
Perhaps we should call this "first-thinker" advantage.
According to an ITSMA survey, the three most important factors in shortlisting and making a final decision on an enterprise sale are:
Knowledge and understanding of unique business issues
Knowledge and understanding of industry
Fresh ideas to advance business
Our account-based messaging and what we equip sales with needs to help them work with prospects to uncover a business challenge or opportunity — and frame it in a new way. First-thinker advantage is critical in escaping the crowd, especially as inbound hits mass adoption, content heats up, and search competition is noisier than ever.
2. Address personal value
“As B2B offerings become ever more commoditized, the subjective, sometimes quite personal concerns that business customers bring to the purchase process are increasingly important...”
...says new research from Bain and Company.
What B2B buyers find valuable is shifting, becoming defined by more individual and inspirational parameters.
Yesterday, we competed on our ability to meet specifications, price, regulatory compliance, and ethical standards. Today, if you can’t meet those value dimensions, you have no right winning a deal.
Most B2B messaging focuses on functional elements such as cost reduction, scalability, innovation, and product quality. But these are also becoming table stakes in today’s highly competitive business environment.
Researchers found new levels of B2B value are impacting purchases — and they’re far more personal: cultural fit, a seller’s commitment to the customer’s organization, reduced anxiety, appealing design and aesthetics, or the buyer’s marketability.
Your job as a marketer is to ensure you hit on each of these new, emotional, personal value components if you truly want to position your brand as differentiated and trustworthy.
3. Double down on brand
“Brands win in commoditized spaces (think about the bottled water industry)”
— Steven Forth, Co-Founder at TeamFit & Partner at Ibbaka
If you use any modern workplace app (e.g., Slack), you’ve surely noticed a kind of resurgence of B2B software branding to look more like consumer branding, with a renewed focus on experiences. This shift prioritizes the user and changes the nature of competition.
And this shift makes me wildly optimistic about the charter ahead for B2B marketing. Branding is about the human being behind the purchase. It forces us to think and act like human beings (go figure) and creates a new playing field for differentiation, influence, persuasion, and ultimately breaking the curse.
I'm not the only one on stage evangelizing the importance of brand in B2B. As DG from Drift so eloquently put it:
Yup. And it's not going away.
If your firm has relegated branding to be “something only consumer products need to worry about” it’s time to re-visit that mentality. We operate in a world where B2B buyers shop and decide — like consumers.
What endures after a marketing stunt, after a product demo, and through the long B2B sales cycle is your brand. It's what reminds the committee they made a good decision, and keeps them going down the long journey towards doing business with you.
4. Lead with your expertise
A buyer who has engaged with, and been influenced by, your ideas before they’ve ever seen your sales pitch is a much stronger prospect when they’re ultimately faced with the decision of which vendor to choose.
Forrester found, by a factor of 3 to 1, B2B buyers want to self-educate themselves by going to sellers’ websites to learn about offerings.
As they’re on your site looking for product details, are you providing them new and challenging ways to look at their industry and problems?
Give it away: your expertise, your point of view on the market, benchmark trends across your customer base, recommendations for navigating the changing waters of your industry, actionable ways for your buyer to look and sound smarter, a way for your buyer to score and measure their own current situation.
Your expertise on display early in the buying process just may seal the deal down the line, as evidenced in this study of IT infrastructure buyers (emphasis added by me):
Of course, product quality comes first — that’s a given.
(Nothing kills a bad product faster than good marketing.)
But as this study shows, expertise matters, as does a brand’s ability to give the buyer HOPE and a VISION for the road ahead.
5. Know your herd
Finally, break the curse in context. This is a lesson in knowing the herd before you break from the herd.
A recent study found 11 out of 19 business intelligence (BI) vendors rely on the same positioning — “insights.” The author puts it nicely:
"You can’t claim a position in your market if you are making the same claim as one of your competitors, let alone the same claim as most of them."
— Lawson Abinanti, founder of Messages That Matter
Prospects are attracted to powerful, unique claims. Our tendency to follow the herd does not serve us well in the long run.
We need to stay remarkably in-touch with our market. But what do we do once we find we’ve been surrounded, in a sense, by competition? What happens when everyone in our space is talking the same language?
That's the beauty of marketing — it’s an opportunity to recalibrate, and to stimulate change.
Be sure your positioning actually stands out — as “unique claims highlight the difference, gap, or disruption that the brain seeks in order to justify a decision”(Abinati). You need to create contrast in the mind of the buyer.
Breaking the B2B consideration set requires us to be agile as marketers and sales teams, and be hyper-aware of the sentiment, narratives, and messaging swirling around our buyers and industry.
Most importantly, if we hope to break free from the clutter, we need to tap into our internal expertise and boldly lay claim to unique points of view on our markets, truthfully, and in context with the elements of value our buyers need from us today.
Note: This content originally appeared on Spiceworks. Spice up your life.
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