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August 17, 2021

Long B2B Sales Cycles: How Marketers Can Improve Engagement

By Matt Pilon, Content Strategist

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Selling B2B products has become an even longer and more involved process, thanks in part to more deliberative buyers and market forces accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent research from Demand Gen Report, Forrester, and TrustRadius reveals the trends, which create uncertainties for B2B vendors and merit a review of inbound marketing and content strategies. Report highlights include:

  • More than half (55%) of B2B buyers have increased their purchase decision timelines this year, and 21% of them significantly so. That follows similar double-digit increases in 2020 and 2019.
  • Online research has been a sizable piece of the B2B buyer journey for some time, and the trend is accelerating. One-third of buyers spent more time on research and product comparisons in 2020, while the number of information sources they used to make purchasing decisions jumped 35%.
  • Meanwhile, the number of buyer interactions -- including self-guided research and personal interactions with vendors and third parties -- before a final purchase decision increased to 27 in 2020, up from 17 the year before.

Here are three things to consider for B2B vendors and marketers seeking to make sense of the trend.

Content is more important than ever, so give B2B buyers what they want.

B2B buyers are doing more product research online, including on vendor websites, so vendors and marketers need useful content waiting for buyers when they arrive. A recent Demand Gen survey found that B2B buying decisions were most influenced by easy access to relevant content that spoke directly to their company, as well as content that demonstrated expertise about their needs and industry. Meanwhile, nearly four in five buyers said their winning vendor’s content significantly impacted their buying decision. 

Vendors can build trust with B2B buyers by offering informative content that helps them better understand and frame the specific problem they are trying to overcome. Content should speak the buyer’s language, conveying a clear understanding of buyer pain points and how a vendor’s solutions can solve them.

Executed properly, buyer-driven content will be more likely to draw and hold buyers’ attention as they conduct online research. That’s the first step toward meaningful buyer-vendor engagement designed to guide the buyer with useful and increasingly specific content, down the path to an eventual sale.

Vendors weighing changes to marketing content should first (as always) work to understand the buyer.

B2B buyers are doing more online research, but marketing teams shouldn’t assume that simply creating more online content for buyers to consume will generate better results.

Every buyer is different. While a majority reported longer purchasing timelines in the past year, more than one-third reported no change at all. So before investing time and resources into content pivots, vendors and marketers should first seek to understand their customer base better.

If buyers are open to discussions, vendors should ask them: Are their purchasing timelines increasing? What’s driving them? What are they hearing from peers? Are delays concentrated in certain stages of the buyer’s journey? Vendors should ask their sales teams to share what they’ve heard too.

The answers will help determine whether and where changes to content strategies are needed.

Remember, every piece of content a B2B vendor shows to a targeted buyer should match that company’s present stage (awareness, consideration, or decision) of the buyer’s journey.

Buyers may be slowing down in one stage of that journey, but not others. If a vendor's discussions with buyers reveal specific challenges that are driving longer decision timelines -- perhaps increased financial pressures or disagreements between key purchasing decision-makers -- vendors can start to brainstorm and test content that better address those challenges. For example, if buyers are in a budget crunch and worried about justifying purchasing a new software solution or other product, vendors could try providing an in-depth analysis of their solution’s return on investment.

For companies with a deadlocked purchasing committee, vendors might create and test content that better addresses how their solutions create value and solve problems for specific roles or departments in which committee members are most invested..

Marketers should revisit their SEO practices.

Vendor websites are a top resource for B2B buyers researching products and services, but they’ve got to find them first, which isn’t always easy for websites that don’t rank well with Google or Bing.

Buyer-focused content is meant to generate quality sales leads with better odds of converting, but even the best content is only relevant to potential buyers if they can easily discover and consume it.

The answer to climbing those rankings is search engine optimization (SEO), a term describing a variety of technical and content-related practices that help search engines better understand and index web pages.  Effective SEO strategies have long been a driver of successful inbound marketing efforts, but the space is always evolving. Search engines regularly update their ranking algorithms, spurring marketers to adapt their SEO tactics to keep up. Those that fall behind on SEO are more likely to lose ground to competitors in search results. 

Vendors and marketers that haven’t changed their SEO practices in years are probably leaving money on the table. An SEO audit and update to internal best practices will produce measurable improvements in search rankings, making it more likely that vendors will connect with more sales leads.

Conclusion

B2B buyers conducting more online research and taking more time to reach purchase decisions are both ongoing trends that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every B2B vendor will decide for itself whether the slowdowns are temporary or permanent and whether the shift necessitates changes to content strategies.

At the very least, vendors should probe those questions in discussions with customers, prospective buyers, and sales teams, then use what they learn to assess how well their content is meeting buyer needs at all stages of their journey.

The process may lead to major content changes to content, tiny tweaks, or nothing at all, but no matter the result, there’s value in the exercise. The buying process will evolve over time, and trends will ebb and flow, but understanding the buyer and providing useful high-quality content tailored to one of the three stages of the buyer journey, paired with a commitment to the latest SEO practices, will continue to be central pillars of successful content marketing strategies that produce measurable results.

 

Sources

Demand Gen Report, 2021 B2B Buyers Survey.

TrustRadius, B2B Buying Disconnect, November 2020.

Beth Caplow, Forrester, Three Seismic Shifts in Buying Behavior from Forrester’s 2021 B2B Buying Study.