What is the Major Shift in B2B Buyer Behavior?

ITSMA’s (IT Services Marketing Association) Annual Marketing Conference just wrapped up in Boston last week.

The event was buzzing of social media, best practices and an exploration of some MAJOR changes underway in B2B marketing (several of which I’ll expose over the coming weeks).

During an incredible presentation by ITSMA’s Julie Schwartz, Senior Vice President, Research & Thought Leadership revealed a new study showcasing the rise of the social buyer in B2B and the significant changes in buyer behavior and content consumption.

One of the most surprising shifts was that peers were no longer the #1 source of information during the early stages of the buying cycle. Quite the opposite, actually. Solution provider websites and solution providers were the two most significant sources of information. Since 2008, ITSMA has been tracking this data and consistently reporting the importance of peers (all the way through the 2010 report last year). In 2011, peers are cited as the #9 source of influence.

If you take a look at the chart above, you will see that peer influence has slowly been declining over the past several years.

However, it’s important to note that buyers are NOT interested in talking with sales. Rather, buyers are pushing your sales people out of the sales process. They don’t believe you. They want to do their own research! Who they’re looking to hear from is your subject matter experts and they’re expecting these experts to provide great insights into your businesses category and solutions (aka thought leadership content).

To me, this is exciting news as organizations have an opportunity to capture the trust and attention of buyers early on in the sales cycle. However, what comes along with this shift is the REQUIREMENT for marketers to set their subject matter experts up for success, including:

  • Insights into buyers and key stages in the buying cycle
  • A platform to engage with buyers (via industry blog, building community, etc.)

Another impressive data point was that 74% of buyers in the ITSMA study found social media useful during the buying cycle. This universe is categorized as the social buyer.

With the rapid rise of the social buyer, we can’t simply ignore traditional channels and move our marketing plan online. There is still a robust segment of traditional buyers to support (roughly 26% of the universe of buyers based on the ITSMA survey). Needless to say, this bifurcation of buyer types has made our jobs as B2B marketers jobs more difficult. We now have two very different audiences who consume information in very different ways. And, not surprisingly, the most defining characteristic of the B2B social buyer is age. If you take a quick glance at the chart below, you’ll see that majority of social buyers are under the age of 39.

The B2B social buyer has a voracious appetite for information – with the majority spending well over 7 hours a week consuming information on their industry and category.

The study reported the best channels for reaching the social buyer:

  1. Social media
  2. Virtual seminars
  3. Research reports
  4. In-person seminars

Conversely, traditional buyers are best reached via:

  1. In-person seminars
  2. Research reports
  3. Print publications
  4. Sales calls and private briefings

While we have a challenge keeping both buyer types satiated with content and insights to match their information preferences, the good news is that there are similarities in the type of content they want to consume — information from your subject matter experts!

I was busy tweeting up a storm during the event, so if you want to see some other key topics and trends from myself and other tweeters during the conference check out #ITSMA-AC11.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. I’m also happy to share more data points and insights I gathered at the event.

7 Responses to What is the Major Shift in B2B Buyer Behavior?

  1. Lauren,

    Your post is dead on in terms of the events that have been happening with regards to the social buyer. I have been researching qualitatively the social buyer and have highlighted perspectives in several posts on the social buyer. The speed of the information seeking is relegating Peers lower on the scale since it is harder to reach or get access to peers quickly. Your key point of gaining insight into buyers and buying stages is critical. I look forward to more discussion on your recaps!


  2. Kevin Renner says:

    Nice summary. There is undoubtedly an industry effect here as well. There are several categories of B2B buyer, and they behave differently. Let’s simplify the world for a moment, into:

    1. Service companies
    2. Software, SAAS, and “fast moving” IP type companies (e.g. mobile platforms)
    3. Hard / deep technology, e.g. hardware, IT infrastructure
    4. Manufacturing

    These are very different animals. Some eat grass. Others eat what they catch and kill. The more complex and customized a company’s offering, the more the marketing and sales channels need to be personalized, vs. commoditized categories where there is low value added in the distribution channel.

  3. […] (For deeper insights into the ITSMA research, check out Lauren Goldstein’s post, “What is the Major Shift in B2B Buyer Behavior?”) […]

  4. […] a reminder, the full 72-page IBM CMO survey is available for download […]

  5. John Bottom says:

    Lauren – thank you for summarising so well. Fascinating insight, but I can’t help wonder at the reasons for ‘peers’ slipping of the scale so dramatically. I don’t mean to be harsh, but reasons may include:

    • The label “peers” has come to signify real word of mouth – as opposed to social media based recommendations, blogs, papers etc. Otherwise this figure would have been higher, surely? And do “online communities” count as “peers”?
    • New answer options were available in the 2011 survey, eg solution provider websites. This may account for the change.

    And I find it hard to believe that web search is used less than “professional trade associations”!

    My aim is not to disparage your research at all. I do similar surveys myself and often struggle to find meaning in them – and certainly to report it as articulately as you do. But do you really think the 2011 results are a sudden change in buyer behaviour, or a reflection of a new set of categories in the questionnaire?

    BTW – I agree totally with your conclusion that we have different types of buyer to support. We could debate for hours which channels buyers use. The unavoidable fact is that they are different and varied, and there is no single answer to how to serve them!

    Great post, thanks.


    • Hi John,

      This is Julie Schwartz from ITSMA, the author of the study. You make some really good points in your comments. We were very surprised by the data in the study too. let me comment on a few of your comments.

      Regarding peers: The change is not quite as sudden as it appears. In 2010, the second source, industry analysts, is so close to peers that they are virtually the same. So we started to see the change last year. It did not happen overnight. It was a gradual process.

      Does this mean that peers are no longer important? No. Peers are still important, but the way buyers are accessing their peers has changed. Picking up the phone and calling a trusted peer at the beginning of the buying process is no longer the way most of these buyers do it. Instead, most are looking for aggregated peer opinions in online communities and social media. Further, peers are still the best sources of referral, recommendations, and references, but not as a source of information.

      Regarding new answers: Yes there were some changes in the survey questions over the years. And, in order to fit so much information on the one slide to show the trends, I shortened/simplified some of the titles of the answer choices. Still, I believe that the data retains its integrity and fairly portrays the trends, especially the change in how the B2B social buyers define and access their peers.

      You might notice something else about the numbers in 2011. They are lower than the numbers in the previous years. The first source in 2009 was 68%. In 2011 it is a mere 31%. Half. There is less concentration in sources of information—a wider variety of sources being used. This is a direct result of the bifurcation of the market into social and traditional buyers. Each group is gravitating to different information sources and that is “diluting” the averages.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. if you have any other questions let me know!


  6. Kyle Lussier says:

    Excellent post and segmentation. In 10 years will it be all social?

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