To reach your target buyer, you need to optimize the B2B sales funnel across all potential touch points.
Why this matters:
The B2B buyer’s journey is unpredictable. Their behavior is dynamic and never routine. Some say this behavior is purposeful, but I’m not sure. I can see why some may feel this way, given that B2B buyers aren’t huge fans of marketing, And I don’t blame them. Nevertheless, B2B decision-makers are the most marketed segment on the Internet today.
There are three ways to think about the B2B sales funnel. First, you have to look at it from the buyer’s standpoint and try to predict their journey. More on that is below.
Second, you must look at it from a B2B sales ad marketing funnel perspective and build digital marketing programs to reach them in disparate channels. And third, there’s reality. No one knows the psychology of why buyers do what they do. We have to rely on data and indicators to help make more intelligent decisions to reach buyers at every stage of the marketing funnel.
What is the B2B Sales Funnel?
A B2B sales funnel is a process that enterprise brands use to understand how potential buyers (business and IT decision-makers) decide which products and services to buy. The insights are used by marketing and sales teams to build content marketing programs that will reach these buyers at the different stages of the buying process.
There are hundreds of versions of the sales funnel stages. This post isn’t meant to reinvent the wheel or introduce a new sales funnel model. For the most part, they’re all the same. But to establish a baseline, let’s quickly walk through the traditional sales funnel–the awareness stage, consideration stage, preference stage, purchase, and loyalty (or advocacy).
The awareness stage targets top-of-the-funnel digital marketing programs. Content here is meant to create brand awareness, thought leadership, and top-of-funnel messaging. At this phase of the B2B sales funnel, buyers seek information that helps them understand their needs and challenges related to a particular industry or market segment. In some cases, they might just be looking for new technology that will help them scale and drive innovation within their company.
The consideration stage of the B2B sales funnel helps potential customers consider your product or service as an option to solve their business or technology problems. They will most likely be doing more research, comparing products and specs to each other, and cross-referencing that against their business requirements. The middle of the marketing funnel is when your potential customers will show interest but are not yet ready to buy.
The preference stage of the sales funnel is where your potential customers are almost ready to decide on the purchase. They have already narrowed down 2-3 different options at this stage and seek third-party validation from their peers, colleagues, analysis reports, the media, and influencers. The bottom-of-the-funnel stages is essential to generate quality leads and focus on customer relationships.
The purchase stage is before potential buyers sign a contract and use your product or service. It’s not uncommon for buyers to ask a friend or colleague for validation right before they decide to sign the contract, so enterprise companies must continue to push messaging that reinforces their value proposition.
The last stage in the B2B marketing funnel is loyalty. I prefer to call it advocacy. A happy and loyal customer will continue to purchase your product and renew their contract every year. The customer advocate will do that and tell everyone they know about it. One of the main benefits of doing business is creating brand advocacy by providing good products or services.
Optimize Your Marketing Funnel for the B2B Sales Pipeline
True success happens when sales and marketing can map their digital programs to the B2B sales funnel. This means they must understand the behaviors that B2B buyers go through at each phase of the marketing funnel. The B2B buyer’s journey is unique because every buyer is different. They use Google differently, they have conversations with various people differently, and they seek advice in forums, on social media, and over the phone differently.
Here are a few ways modern B2B companies can optimize the different sales funnel stages with content marketing. To be consistent, let’s use the classic sales funnel outlined above as an example–awareness, consideration, preference, purchase, and advocacy.
B2B buyers may or may not have heard of your product or service in this stage of the funnel. All marketing and sales initiatives must focus on top-of-the-funnel brand awareness.
Large brand partnerships and event sponsorships can reach large audiences across multiple sectors. This could be as big as a 30-second halftime commercial during the Super Bowl or a media sponsorship on Business Insider. Display and native advertising can also reach audiences at the top of the funnel.
In this B2B sales funnel stage, buyers are already aware of your brand, product, or service. And if you’re lucky, you might be a part of the consideration set. Still, lead generation will need to be top of mind for sales and marketing to continue feeding the B2B sales pipeline.
The messaging here is about differentiating your products and services from your competitors. This could be long-form content white papers and eBooks, emphasizing product comparisons, or collaborating with influencers and asking them to test your product, write a review and record a testimonial.
Preference Stage (also known as the Evaluation Stage):
In this stage of the B2B sales funnel, your product or service is one of two or three potential vendors or suppliers. In this case, you may be fighting to convert existing customers to your competitors. That’s the challenge with the marketing funnel. While you acquire new customers through marketing and sales programs, your competitors do the same. This is the evaluation stage, so until you can secure a commitment from your prospects, lead nurturing will still need to be prioritized to infiltrate the buying process.
Even in this stage, the B2B sales funnel is not yet complete, but it’s close. Marketing and sales teams are on the cusp of turning qualified leads into paying customers. After successfully leading your buyer down the marketing funnel, you will have to continue nurturing them by making them feel comfortable with their decision.
The messaging is about reinforcing brand differentiators and doubling down on your core marketing messages. If the brand message is about quality, the messaging needs to support why your products are the best on the market. If it’s about scale or security, messaging needs to keep that security-specific content.
I am sure that you have heard this before. It’s more expensive two acquire new customers than to retain existing ones. Digital marketers need to keep their relationships strong with existing customers. I am prioritizing community engagement, active listening, and responding to customer complaints.
Gartner’s B2B Buying Jobs & The Sales Funnel
Gartner fielded a study about the B2B sales funnel and identified six buying “jobs” that potential customers must complete before finalizing a purchase. This study is valuable for both sales and marketing teams.
The six buying “jobs” are below:
- Problem identification: This is when potential customers realize they have a problem and need to find a solution quickly. This could also be considered “identifying an opportunity” to drive technology innovation.
- Solution exploration: B2B buyers start assessing the landscape to understand the technology vendors in the market. They may read the Gartner Magic Quadrant and other reports that evaluate various technology solutions.
- Requirements building: This is when buyers start to document all the internal requirements to ensure a smooth deployment of new technology.
- Supplier selection: Once the B2B buyer has the list of B2B companies and vendors, they will seek buy-in by collaborating with other internal business decision-makers and stakeholders.
MEDDIC and The B2B Sales Funnel
The B2B sales funnel has evolved over the years. It used to be linear, or marketers thought it was linear. A few years ago, we completed a project for a client where we built a buyer persona (informed by accurate data), and we mapped their conversations to MEDDIC—an acronym for Market Mapping, Economic Buyer, Decision Criteria, Decision Process, Identify Pain Points, and Competitive Landscape.
MEDDIC is a sales process that emphasizes better customer qualification and is used globally by sales and marketing teams. It tracks how buyers and IT Decision Makers consume content and media in the marketing funnel.
Market Mapping. Market mapping is the first step of the MEDDIC sales process. It involves building a set of market-related questions designed to assess the opportunity, competitive dynamics, and potential of a target segment. The purpose of this sales process is to separate high-value projects from those that wouldn’t be worth pursuing. Market mapping builds upon research spanning different industries and geographies to provide unique perspectives on the market landscape and digital ecosystem.
Economic Buyer. In contrast to market mapping, the economic buyer involves a set of questions that focus on the customer side of the business equation. These questions identify what people want from a product or service and why they might consider buying one like yours. This analysis ultimately drives how to define a target segment, which customers to pursue first, and then how to reach them as they navigate the B2B sales funnel.
Decision Criteria. Decision criteria involve documenting questions about what will – and won’t – influence customers’ purchasing decisions within the target segment. Enterprise and B2B companies often sell multiple products to a single customer, but these customers have budget limitations and preferences for how they want to be sold. Sales teams must understand these preferences and prepare language, documents, and other collateral to overcome objections.
The decision process is a parallel set of questions about the audience within the target segment within the B2B sales funnel. This includes which players are involved, what information they have access to, and what types of contracts or deals they favor. Gartner’s “buying jobs” above is a good example of this.
The fourth step of the MEDDIC sales process is to identify pain points. This involves a set of questions that help customers articulate their reasons for not buying our product or service and any other problems associated with their current solution. The purpose is to help marketing and sales understand what issues we can address during each stage of the sales cycle and how those issues affect their ability to close deals.
Finally, the fifth step of the MEDDIC sales process is to analyze the competitive landscape. To be successful in today’s market, companies need a thorough understanding of their competitors’ moves and initiatives. The purpose is to understand what makes a product different from similar products and services, how they stack up against competitors, and how their company’s strengths can counter competitors’ weaknesses.
The MEDDIC sales process is a powerful model that provides a much-needed structure for sales prospecting. It allows companies to identify customer pain points, create targeted marketing messages, tailor the selling approach accordingly, generate qualified leads, and ultimately close more deals. This sales process can make all the difference in today’s highly competitive sales environment.
Now, let’s look at the buyer’s journey from their perspective.
What You Need to Know About the B2B Buyer’s Journey
Interestingly, the number of buyers in B2B markets is growing and changing. Seven years ago, in 2015, Google released a study in partnership with Millward Brown called “The Changing face of B2B marketing“. Roughly 3,000 B2B buyers were surveyed about how they purchase software and use digital and social media channels. Google also analyzed a year’s worth of clickstream data from Millward Brown Digital’s desktop panel.
At that time, the results were surprising. I remember reading the report and sharing it with colleagues because no one thought millennials were a natural target for B2B marketing.
One of the report’s biggest surprises was that nearly half of all B2B buyers are, in fact, millennials, and this was in 2015.
The report discusses how brands must go beyond the C-Suite when building a marketing plan and sales process targeting an inbound buyer’s journey. I couldn’t agree more. I have done much work with the buyer journey mapping, and one thing is consistent. I have found that other internal stakeholders influence each customer journey stage.
I am also a B2B buyer. I have probably managed about a dozen or so software RFPs since 2006. The first one I was involved with was in 2006, when I worked for Intel. We were in the market for enterprise collaboration software when building our community platform strategy. At that time, there weren’t many vendors in the space, and we signed with Clearspace, which became Jive Software.
In the early days of social media, we also looked at software providers like Scout Labs, Radian6, Sysomos, and Collective Intellect for social media monitoring, publishing, and analytics. But unfortunately, none of those platforms exist anymore.
I have also gone through several RFPs for publishing and social CRM platforms like Sprinklr, Spredfast, Involver, and Vitrue. I also helped my clients navigate the employee advocacy space and helped them decide on platforms like Dynamic Signal.
My Buyer’s Journey Stages Are Different Than Most
One of the advantages of my career is that I have been in the social media space for a long time. In my bio, I often say that I have been “building brands online since Al Gore invented the Internet.” That’s a joke. But, to give context, I joined Twitter in 2007 and have been tweeting nonstop ever since.
Because I was an early adopter and user of social media, I knew many technology vendors in this space. So rather than downloading a white paper, filling out a form, reading a blog post from a SaaS provider, and going through the traditional sales process, I would typically tweet a colleague asking about a demo. I would usually get a response very quickly, take it offline and set up the meeting.
I would always ask for a 30-day or 60-day free trial access to the platform. After that, I wanted to get my hands dirty and test the software for as long as I could have access to it. My colleagues and I would like to joke around and say that we like to break the platform quickly. I want you to know that this isn’t the typical B2B buyer’s journey, but I am not your standard B2B buyer.
How Much of the Customer Journey is Digital?
This is a good question. I would say that 99.9% of the buyer’s journey is digital for several different reasons. First, as mentioned above, many B2B buyers are millennials and digital natives. They live and breathe on the Internet. They don’t pick up newspapers, and they don’t notice outdoor ads. Google is their homepage.
Secondly, today’s culture is about mobility, apps, and access. Even with the pandemic, we want access to information quickly and efficiently, whether traveling or not. When traveling, we want the ability to access apps to help us with our everyday tasks, whether a ride to the airport, ordering takeout food, or grocery shopping.
Our culture today is digital. 100%. So is the buyer’s journey.
What is Buyer Journey Mapping?
Buyer journey mapping is an exercise of creating content and programs meant to intercept buyers as they are weaving in and out of the purchase funnel. Let’s look at the buyer’s journey below and read it linearly. You will see that the first thing a buyer goes through is realizing that they either have a problem or that there’s an opportunity. Many refer to this as the awareness stage.
- Product Differentiation: The discovery of software that offers more innovative solutions different from the existing platform.
- Goal Alignment: The realization that there’s a need to acquire software to help align with other internal business or technology goals.
- Speed to Value: The realization that the current software stack is slow and not innovating, and the C-suite is pushing to see the value right away.
- ROI: The realization that you need to see the ROI of your software investment sooner than later, and your given solution will never prove a tangible ROI.
- Scale: The discovery of software will help scale the current martech stack and drive business growth.
Once the needs are identified, the rest of the buyer’s journey is all over. Gartner calls it looping. It makes sense as much as that sounds like a science fiction movie, similar to the matrix. It’s another way of saying that the buyer’s journey is unpredictable.
Predictably, the B2B buyer spends most of their time researching information. So it would make sense for marketers to create relevant content that addresses each of the factors and pain points listed above. These are all buyer actions that you can use to create demand. You can create content related to each problem in your industry and then answer why your software can solve that problem.
There’s an opportunity to create white papers, blog posts, and even social content that addresses these issues. It would also make sense to partner with influencers and co-collaborate on content. This could be a video series where influencers interview executives, existing customers, or partners. It can also be as simple as paying influencers to promote branded content on their social media channels. In all of these cases, it’s about creating content at every B2B sales funnel stage.
The Common Denominator of the Buyer’s Journey: Research
After the problem is identified, the rest of the buyer’s journey touches the consideration stage and involves requirements building, exploring different solutions, and selecting the right vendor. Those three steps can take the majority of time throughout the buying journey. But the common denominator here is that buyers are consistently using Google.
This is where long-term planning comes into play. Because it takes so much time for Google to index long-form content, you’d have to think about this 6 to 12 months before your program or campaign. Investing in long-form content like blogs and YouTube videos will ensure that your content will appear in the search engines over time.
It should be noted here that social media content is excellent for engaging with influencers and buyers in real-time. However, it is not meant to drive long-term visibility for the brand. This is because the shelf life of social media content is less than a day and, in many cases, just a few minutes. On the other hand, the shelf life of long-form content is forever, assuming it’s written well and addresses all the keywords your buyers use when going through the B2B buyer’s journey.
However, just because you write a blog post doesn’t mean it will rank in Google for the right keywords. So you must ask yourself whether you did the proper research before writing the blog post. In many cases, B2B marketers create target audience personas that give a 360-degree view of the buyer.
An intelligent blog post is grounded in data. Likewise, all marketing must be grounded in audience data.
Did The Pandemic Transform the B2B Buying Journey?
Forrester released their latest B2B Buying trends report, revealing how the pandemic shaped B2B purchasing. According to the report, B2B buyers now exercise more due diligence than ever before, reinforcing what we have known for years. Buyers spend more time researching and engaging in more technical conversations with vendors and 3rd parties before deciding.
Here are a few data points from Forrester’s B2B Buyers Journey Report:
- The number of buyer journey actions has increased nearly 60%, from 17 in 2019 to 27 in 2021. A buying action is considered online research, conversations with vendors, and other steps to learn about technology on the market.
- Digital buying actions outpace human interaction. The proliferation of digital content assets and resources, including product review sites like G2 and Captera and online communities, has contributed to this shift in digital buying actions.
- 55% of B2B buyers find human interaction valuable during the buying cycle. This is up 20% from 2019. Similarly, 53% of buyers find self-guided actions helpful, up 20% since 2019.
- The B2B buying process continues to be complicated. Over the last several years, the B2B buying process has involved more than one decision-maker. This also validated Gartner’s buying journey, when decision-makers are trying to gain consensus with the other decision-makers regarding which software to purchase. According to the report, 43% of B2B buyers say that the buying process is complex, up 19% since 2017.
- The B2B buying process involves several internal stakeholders. Due to bottom-line concerns and increased scrutiny of technology purchasing decisions, the influx of the C-Suite, finance, and IT are now heavily involved in the decision-making process. According to the Forrester’s B2B Buying Survey, 75% of executives have increased their role in making purchase decisions, followed by 51% of finance leaders and 63% of IT.
The Forrester report confirms what we have long suspected: the pandemic has irrevocably changed how B2B buyers operate. Buyers are now conducting more due diligence than ever before, researching options exhaustively and engaging in lengthy conversations with vendors before making a decision. This new reality presents both challenges and opportunities for software vendors.
On the one hand, the increase in buyer complexity makes it more difficult to win business. Vendors must now contend with more extensive and diverse stakeholders with priorities and concerns. Furthermore, buyers rely more heavily on digital resources, making it harder for human sales reps to stand out.
On the other hand, the increased scrutiny of purchase decisions presents an opportunity for vendors who can provide a differentiated offering. In a world where buyers do their homework, those with a strong product and a track record of success will be well-positioned to win business. Similarly, sellers who can effectively navigate the new B2B buying landscape will be well-positioned to succeed in this rapidly-evolving market.
The pandemic has changed the B2B buyer’s journey and made it more complex. With more stakeholders involved and more research being done, vendors need to be prepared to engage in longer, more complex sales cycles.
Creating a B2B Buyer Persona is Smart Marketing
Creating B2B Buyer Persona isn’t hard to do. Anyone could download a template from Google and add any content they want. But savvy marketers build audiences and create B2B buyer personas driven by 100% accurate data.
Here’s an example of an IT decision-maker B2B buyer persona.
All of the data on this persona is real. I have written at length about creating buyer personas if you’re interested. But one of the things that should be included when developing a B2B buyer persona is conversation analytics.
A conversation analysis will help uncover what keywords and phrases B2B buyers use publicly on social media. This data is critical. It can inform your entire editorial strategy when creating content. You can create a data-driven approach and reach buyers with relevant content through blog posts, white papers, and ebooks. The point is to create content throughout the entire customer journey.
Final Thoughts on the B2B Sales Funnel
Understanding B2B sales funnels aren’t like playing a game of checkers. Sales and marketing teams must understand that the buyer’s journey can be as long as 18 months, so a long-term strategy must be developed to create a sales pipeline and close deals.
With that in mind, I started to map some initial thinking to address the B2B sales funnel:
- Empathize with the tech challenge
- Provide unbiased & alternative solutions
- Reinforce product capabilities of the tech stack
- Elevate customer references, and amplify them everywhere
- Activate influencers for 3rd party validation
The B2B sales funnel isn’t linear. It doesn’t map to the marketing funnel you learned back in business school, either. It’s unique, ever-changing, and dynamic. More importantly, the buyer’s journey is unpredictable. Mapping data-driven content to the buyer’s journey is essential to your brand marketing efforts.
The B2B sales funnel isn’t dead, despite the industry punditry. It is changing, yes. But the beauty about data is that you can uncover insights that will help deliver content in the right channel, to the right audience, and at the right time.