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ITSMA survey: Offline research still key in large tech purchases

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B-to-b tech buyers are devoting more time than ever to research, according to ITSMA's recently released "How Buyers Consume Information Survey." Though much of this research happens online, buyers can't find all the information they need on the Web, the survey found. "Buyers are smarter, they are more self reliant, they have access to all kinds of information and, yes, the process starts online—but it doesn't stop there," said Julie Schwartz, senior VP-research and thought leadership at the association. More than 430 executives who purchase business or technology solutions valued at more than $500,000 participated in the Web survey. Schwartz spoke with BtoB about what the survey results say about the value of offline communication, and how marketers can help a company scale its network of subject matter experts.

BtoB: How is the way that b-to-b tech buyers approach the market changing?

Julie Schwartz: Over the last 10 years the amount of research has been increasing. We've now got this new kind of buyer, the b-to-b social buyer. Younger digital natives and now digital migrants are spending a lot more time doing research. And they're not just using social and online channels. Research is being done both online and offline. There is a lot of talk that 60% to 70% of the buying process is over before anyone speaks to sales. For some purchases that may be true, but we have to be careful not to paint everything with the same brush. We looked at large companies doing complex, high-stakes purchases. For those purchases, all of the research is not done online. If you're spending $6 million on a new system, you have to understand the product, the solution, the services in your particular environment. The only way you can learn that is by talking to people. The other research is not wrong; the danger is that you cannot apply the process you would use to buy office equipment to half-a-million-dollar solutions.

BtoB: How early in the process should marketers incorporate face-to-face?

Schwartz: You'd be hard pressed to find a buyer who says they are in the purchase process when they are doing research. They are always doing research, because they need to keep up. We call this the epiphany stage. They're looking for a competitive advantage. At any point in time, something could trigger the realization that they have a problem that can be solved. Years ago most purchases were done during an RFP. We used to say that whichever vendor got in when the RFP was being written would be more likely to win the deal. You're shaping the need. We don't have RFPs anymore, outside of government and some other large-scale procurement situations. Now the people who get in early during the epiphany stage will be the ones most likely to win. They're shaping the realization of needs and solutions. It's important to build relationships early, even before a formal pursuit has begun.

BtoB: How does marketing help a company achieve that? Subject-matter experts represent both a popular and a finite resource.

Schwartz: Look at ways that you can scale them. On websites a lot of companies are putting a face and a name with content. It's not just a white paper. It's Mary Smith as the author of the white paper. She's available. Send her an email, call her, participate in a Twitter chat, read her blog. They're putting that face to the content and building that expert's personal brand. [Also] we've found that you can get sales people to act more like subject-matter experts. We talk about it as thought-leadership selling. Sales people are able to educate. Marketing has to help sales get up to speed on the buyers so they understand unique business imperatives. It's about marketing enabling sales, providing them with training and tools.

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