B-to-B: Search for Business
Typing a product into a search engine is something consumers do, but it doesn't have a place in serious B-to-B selling, right? The assumption is that, instead of search, B-to-B buyers are more informed (directly or via partnerships), more strategic and more considered in their purchasing than consumers who rely on the Internet to find products, services and solutions. In truth, that premise is not just wrong, it's completely upside down.
If we divide B-to-B purchases into "considered" and "immediate," we could say the latter does behave in a consumer fashion—investing limited research effort and generally a primary desire to just find the best value point (although the brand story often remains a big influence, even here). These immediate purchases, too, may lend themselves to the small-office/home-office B-to-B markets; which, in many ways, behave as a consumer would.
But it's the considered purchases that are really where search marketing comes into its own, and where it gets interesting. That's where marketing has really changed.
Take the Story Back
Vendors used to have the majority of control on the information that informed buying decisions. However, peer group discussions have always been the top-influencing factor beyond vendors' control. And now, through search and social techniques, a buyer's ability to access a global group of "peers" is super-charged. Control has shifted.
Enlightened marketers quickly realized that to become a critical part of today's selling process, they needed to be able to curate peer-group discussions and relevant online content and leverage an analysis that flows from this. If done well, this analysis and resulting action can create a virtuous spiral of positive engagement: As more buyers and influencers engage with a marketer's own communities and content, this engagement will feature more prominently in search results and more buyers will see it.
Because search, social and content are inextricably linked, search engines tend to favor social content. And a huge driver of social visibility of marketing is driven by search visibility—we might call this linkage "a virtuous spiral."
Another often overlooked role of search in B-to-B marketing is that we can actually use search functionality as a driver of insight into target audiences—a research tool. Marketers who use search as a blunt inbound tool, and only look at clicks or conversions of their paid campaigns, miss a huge potential value of search—the analysis of the search terms themselves and the intelligence they can derive from these.
The constant shift of buyer search lexicography can fuel more relevant messaging and content development. It also can align itself far better with "real world" needs and terminology than language cooked up in sterile marketing laboratories or self-assigned blindly by product development teams.
Again, this research leverages search's links to social: The more authentically we can create the dialogue with our customers, the more likely it is to resonate and add value to the buying process. And, unlike other media, there is greater ability to analyze non-response while still showing potential interest.
For example, we can see the volumes of those who searched on related terms but did not click on our ads. While there are sophisticated tools to optimize ads to maximize clicks, this should not be left entirely to automation. Viewing search as a living window across multiple stages of the buyer's conversation means that frequent considered analysis and experimentation is critical to maximize search's power.
That brings us to another important point about search in the B-to-B buyer journey. If, as with any data set or digital tool, it's used without consideration of the varying nature of a (potential) buyer's position, then it'll tend to serve marketers badly.
Insight is often obscured by averages. Statisticians know that one has to start with an intelligent theory and then see if the data support a given premise. Agencies and marketers should have their customer personas at the heart of their engagement strategies, with clear segmentation in B-to-B around stages in the buying cycle and influence on purchase. Search and social are part of this engagement mix.
Looking just at the buying cycle, we immediately can see the role and power of search that is distinct within each cycle stage, but almost uniquely present in all. Comprehensive research data from Google Labs in 2011 in the B-to-B IT market shows that only personal contact from an individual sales rep can rival the use of search for the conduct of product research at all decision phases in the buying cycle.
Comparing models and prices, requesting budget estimates, defining company needs, learning about maintenance and warranties, reviewing product information and researching what products are available—all are common research activities across purchase cycle stages.
"Search was rated around as highly as the vendor's own websites for usefulness of content," in that same study. Given the pervasiveness of search in buying decisions and the complexity of considered B-to-B purchases, marketers should recognize the practical role of search and tailor search strategies to address these facets of buyer behavior and need.
Context Is King
According to Forrester Research's "Best and Worst of Search" series, business services vendors must first "master the basics" and avoid making common mistakes that their B-to-C brethren have learned to avoid. Failing to deep link to content, not referencing keywords and search terms in ad copy or landing pages, and engaging in cannibalistic bidding are all mistakes B-to-B marketers were shown to be still making.
As with any marketing channel, search strategy should be considered in context, should start with the customer need and should be built on an evolutionary road map of sophistication that the organization can support for the long term.
Finally, do not ignore the role of search in building brands. If you only treat search as a promotional, transactional click tool, that's all you'll get. Instead, step back and see search as a window directly into the ways buyers are thinking about your brand or your marketplace. It's a dynamic way of experimenting, testing and offering buyers value when they clearly have a need and their mindset is actively looking for facts or, more often in B-to-B, a narrative that can help them in their decision-making.
Whether it's paid or organic, see what stories are thrown when you search for your brand name, key product category and content message. See if there's brand clarity and consistency across the stories you own and can influence.
Search is both a window on the buyers' world and also a mirror into your own organization. It has a vital role in showing where you may be failing to create brand stories with power, with persuasion and with persistence.
A quote to end, which is always true, but feels particularly appropriate to an article about the role of search: "Do not trust those peddling answers. Instead, it is better to believe in those that give us the right questions to ask."
James Trezona is the European managing director for Mason Zimbler, a Harte-Hanks Company. Reach him at email@example.com.