B2B Purchasing: A Risky Proposition

May 8th, 2009 Posted by B2B Search Engine Optimization 0 thoughts

In the last couple years, I’ve written that risk is a primary motivator in B2B purchase decisions, and that fear of making the wrong decision strongly influences B2B supplier selection. And rightly so. The wrong choice can have long-lasting business and career implications.

This week, Enquiro, released a white paper entitled Mapping the BuyerSphere (registration required). The white paper presents findings of Enquiro’s recent research into B2B buyer behavior; illustrates risk as the common, dominant factor in B2B purchasing; and explores an alternative model for targeting and mapping markets and prospects. Gord Hotchkiss and his team have done a great job, and the paper is well worth downloading.

If you haven’t thought about B2B purchasing in these terms before, it can really make you question and rethink your approach to the market. If risk is the primary motivator, how do you need to adjust your tactics, your messaging, your positioning?

B2B buyers assess risk, and each participant in the buying process is going to assess corporate and personal risk from his own vantage point. To maximize your chances of success, you need to understand each participant’s potential concerns in this regard. What you actually do with that information will vary based on your organization, the market you want to go after, and prospect-specific factors. However, we can talk about a general approach.

If risk is the primary motivator in B2B purchasing, the key to success lies in “tools of assurance.” That is, what do you have (or need to create) that you can use to effectively assure prospects that they’re making the right decision.  To complicate things, there are multiple points along the buying process at which you may need to provide different tools of assurance.

In fact, in some cases, you might be smart to provide assurance even after being awarded the sale. How many times have you been told by an excited buyer that you got the sale, only to find out post-purchase concerns derailed your win before you got a contract in place? Take heed. Euphoria over finally making a key decision is often followed by anxiety.

Some tools of assurance require personal interactions. Some tools of assurance are legal, such as a guarantee or warranty, or, to set yourself apart, your willingness to go beyond the normal industry guarantees. Others potential means of assurance are things you can’t change quickly, such as depth of experience or your location.

But, since this is Search Engine Land, let’s talk about some potential tools of assurance you might use in the online world. Here are few to think about:

Thought leadership. This can be a very compelling tool of assurance. Thought leadership can be evidenced through many different vehicles, including case studies, white papers, published articles, media coverage, etc. Make sure these available and are easily found on your site—and that they’re optimized for natural search. Assess what you have. Make sure these assets indeed provide assurance and reduce perceived risk for your prospects—and that they’re not merely dribbling on about you.

Blogging. Blogging provides a great forum for demonstrating thought leadership. It also let’s you show forth some personality, a glimpse of what it might be like working with you (a form assurance). Blogging is also great for SEO. Done right, it can also help you get found for desired search terms. Your interaction with other bloggers via links and comments can accelerate your visibility and help position you in the marketplace. There’s more on B2B blogging in an article here and here.

Search engine optimization. Your ability to be ubiquitous in your niche can play a huge role in terms of assurance. Sure, you can buy your way into PPC visibility, but B2B buyers overwhelmingly look at and click on organic results first (see Enquiro’s earlier research; registration required). Regardless of your size or market share, you can be perceived as a leader if you seem to be everywhere in the organic results for your niche (but only if your site continues to build on that perception once the searcher clicks through). And don’t forget, it’s not just web search: it’s news, video, image, book, blog, and local search, too.

Paid search. You can use paid search to augment your organic visibility or to make up for the lack thereof. But don’t just go after head terms; remember the long tail. As buyers progress in their decision-making process and look for assurance on their direction, their search terms change. Now in addition to the head term, they may append “case studies,” “white paper,” “article,” “warranty” and other modifiers.

Social media. Your corporate and personal profiles and what you say and do on social media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr, and in social bookmarking sites, forums or wikis, says a lot about you and your company. Be visible, but be smart. Do you instill confidence, trust, and assurance, or do you create cause for concern? What do others say about you or your brand? Are you a professional on LinkedIn and a loose cannon on Twitter? It only takes a couple of seconds to find out—and the number of Twitter searches is accelerating at an astounding pace, up more than 500% from January to April, according to Hitwise.

Positioning. How you position your company online strongly influences perceived risk of doing business with you. Ideally, you want to identify and migrate to a position of market leadership where your brand has few credible substitutes in the marketplace. For most companies this means narrowing your focus, which can be scary. But people hire experts. And they pay them more. And they recruit them from further away. Why? Because specialization reduces risk. Because the seller’s historical success in a focused niche helps assure prospects that the seller has the knowledge, people and processes in place to replicate past success with future clients.

So step back and evaluate how your target market perceives you. How you position your company online, the search terms for which you get found, and what you say and do in social media all contribute to how prospects perceive your position in the marketplace—and the risk in doing business with you. Are you the safe choice? Are you reducing your prospect’s risk or giving them cause for concern?

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