The most senior buyers are the most active social media users. IDC's Social Buying Study, completed in February 2014 in collaboration with LinkedIn (Slideshare version) studied the online social practices and preferences of B2B buyers. The study concluded that 75% of the B2B buyers studied and 84% of C-level/vice president executives use information from social media and interaction on social networks to make purchase decisions. I'll be talking about this study at the sold-out Sales Connect conference later this week.
Social buying improves decision confidence. The operative benefit in social buying is the ability to access trusted networks to increase confidence in high-stakes decision making. When asked about their agreement with various statements about social media, respondents gave these top three answers:
- They want to use vendors that have been recommended by people they know
- They want to work with sales people who have been referred to them
- Their social networks are critical for checking references
Social media make accessing trusted networks easier. Buyers have long trusted their offline professional networks for this purpose. Online social networks improve access to trusted existing networks and open up networks that more easily extend beyond traditional boundaries. The bigger the buying decision, the more important social networks become. The study found that social buying correlates with buying influence. The average B2B buyer who uses social networks for buying support is more senior, has a bigger budget, makes more frequent purchases, and has a greater span of buying control than a buyer who does not use social networks.
B2B buyers use different types of social resources at different stages of the decision-journey. It's important not to lump all social media into one big stew of a category. "Social" is a media attribute that enables peer-to-peer audience participation. Some media are highly social and others not at all.
- Early Stage: when buyers are exploring whether to solve their problem, they favor news-type resources. Industry-specific media are #1, internet search (a socially-curated information service) is #2, and microblogs like Twitter are #3.
- Middle Stage: when buyers are evaluating solution options, 3rd-party experts become #1, industry-specific media are #2, and internet search is #3.
- Final Stage: Online professional networks (e.g., LinkedIn) are buyer's the #1 preferred information source in the final stage of the purchase process, when stakes are highest. This final stage is the riskiest stage because by this time, buyers are teetering on the brink of commitment where they will soon reap the benefits of a great decision or plunge into the abyss. It's at this point that they most need the confidence advice provided by their professional network. Online network services like LinkedIn make this easy. Third-party recommendations are #2 and topic-specific communities become #3.
- Relationship building, referrals, and recommendations are shifting online, so make social marketing and social selling a priority. Social marketing and social selling are not responsibilities that can be relegated to a special team low in the organization. Marketing executives should consider social aspects to be an integral attribute of all campaigns. Sales professionals and others in key customer-facing roles need to be active on social networks. At best, companies will miss an important opportunity to connect and at worst could incur real damage.
- Respect the context of social interactions. Understand that when using the digital channels, buyers are seeking access to their trusted networks for information to increase decision-making confidence. Social channels are not simply a new avenue for spamming or cold-calling. Instead, each individual must earn his or her place within the trusted network of people that buyers will invite to participate in the purchase decision.