Guiding customers through the buyer journey: It’s now marketing’s job No. 1

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A long time ago, a wise marketing consultant told me, “The role of the sales person is to teach the customer how to buy.”  And that is still true today, but less so. Today’s b-to-b buyers control their own journey through the buying cycle much more than today’s sales person controls the selling cycle. Although it varies with product complexity and market maturity, today’s buyers might be anywhere from two-thirds to 90% of the way through their journey before they reach out for a sales person. For many product categories, buyers now put off talking with salespeople until they are ready for price quotes.

This new dynamic changes the role of b-to-b marketing in a fundamental way. Marketing now owns a much bigger piece of the lead-to-revenue cycle. And b-to-b marketers must take responsibility for engaging with the customer through most of the buying cycle. In 2012, the role of marketing is to guide the customer through the buying journey. This new remit is not without its challenges.

Forrester research shows that today’s b-to-b buyer will find three pieces of content for every one piece that marketing can present or sales can deliver. Buyers find this content in an ever-expanding number and variety of channels. Without debate, the business from business buyer is already much more multichannel  than the  business-to-business sellers are. Buyers of business products and services are online—in social channels, on YouTube, going to events  and evaluating options on their iPads and smartphones. The buyer’s journey looks a lot more like this than the linear models (e.g., the funnel) that we usually use as a graphical representation. 

Understanding the customer journey across these touch points is a critical success factor for any b-to-b marketing program. B-to-b marketers nurture prospects for months or years before they become sales opportunities. You must engage with each buyer, with the right content, in the right context—at every stage of the buyer journey.

Most of the marketing executives I engage with get this. But they are stymied by a legitimate question, “How can we engage with buyers, on their terms, in a proliferating channel mix, when my budget is not growing and my staff never gets any bigger?”  

Enter marketing automation. Today’s buyer demands more personalized attention, and to be more personal the marketer must be more automated. Marketing automation captures buyer behavior—the greatest untapped asset that marketers have. Marketing automation lets us know which specific content buyers are consuming. Marketing automation tells us where our buyers are finding our content. Marketing automation tells us what they do next. With this data, and the knowledge it drives, marketers can deliver targeted content and offers which serve to both improve buyer engagement and increase conversion rates. It’s a lovely irony that to become more personal, b-to-b marketers need to become more automated. Marketers need to constantly and automatically evolve their programs based on how their buyers react to their marketing messages. Behavioral marketing is no longer an option—it’s now table stakes.

Stop thinking about campaigns and start thinking engagement. Buyers will engage with marketers who meet their needs— their changing needs— for different information and options during the buying journey. Marketers who continue to "go to customer" with product-centric campaigns and offers not only miss the mark on guiding the buyer’s journey; they risk becoming irrelevant.  

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