May 2016 Feature

The Digital Evolution: Trends to Drive Your 2016 Marketing

New B2B buyer behaviors suggest better marketing strategies and media mixes.

by Hobart SwanDouglas Buel

In some of our recent writing we’ve been focusing on the impact of the changing B2B buyer’s journey. More and more buyers who purchase products and services indirectly are using Internet search to identify vendors and partners. As such, it is imperative that partners change their marketing efforts to capture the attention of these buyers.

To delve deeper into this topic, we spoke with digital marketing experts from Google and Cisco about their thoughts on how partners, with the active support of vendors, can make this transition. Seenu BrahmarouthuDouglas Buel is a Google Channel Specialist who works to empower technology vendors and their business partners to make meaningful connections with customers. With over a decade in advertising and sales at Google, Douglas has consulted on some of the world’s largest technology brands. Seenu Brahmarouthu is a Google Strategic Partner Manager who, like Douglas, promotes digital marketing partnerships with tech companies and their channel partners. Prior to Google, Seenu worked at Intel for 12 years, jointly driving go-to-market strategies for B2B and B2C segments with Intel partners, both OEMs and channel. We also had a chance to speak with Cisco Chad ReeseDirector of Partner Digital Marketing, Chad Reese. Chad’s role at Cisco is to extend the company’s digital marketing execution capabilities with and through channel partners. In his more than 17 years at Cisco, Chad has led various partner demand generation functions including Worldwide Commercial Field Marketing, Partner Revenue Marketing and Partner Digital Marketing.

Adjusting Marketing Models to the New Buyer

Adapting to the new buyer’s journey requires that partners change the way they market, and change can sometimes be hard to accept. Many people keep a landline phone even though they spend the vast majority of their time on their cells. Some people just like the sound of the morning paper hitting their front door—even though the world has moved on since the newspaper was printed the night before. And some of us still balance our checkbooks each month—even though we can view every one of our transactions online.

One of the most disruptive changes in the B2B buyer’s path is the trend toward Internet search. Click To Tweet

On the subject of change, Douglas referred to a recent tweet from former Gartner VP & Fellow Tiffani Bova that made its way across the Internet like a meme. “Bova pointed out that the most disruptive thing in the market is not technology, but rather the customer.” And one of the most disruptive changes in the B2B buyer’s path to purchase is this trend toward using Internet search.

Recent Google research supports Bova’s statement. Its data shows that the vast majority of business buyers now use search to build short lists of the one or two vendors and channel partners they will work with to fulfill their technology needs. That conclusion, along with new information about how modern B2B purchasers are researching potential vendors, can help channel professionals adapt their marketing strategies and media mix to get on these short lists. But the bottom line is that channel partner organizations need to change—and vendors need to help them get there.

Combine Digital and Traditional Techniques

One of the biggest challenges facing technology channel partners today is whether and to what degree they should adopt new digital marketing strategies to capture the attention of B2B buyers. Using the telephone, making appearances at trade shows, buying ads in trade media—these more traditional ways of reaching customers still have a role to play. But in response to the change in the buyer’s journey, partners need to start adding digital techniques to their marketing mix to reach these modern end-users.

According to Seenu, “buyers are more sophisticated today because there’s so much more information available online as they do research and make purchase decisions. Channel partners should definitely be thinking about adding digital marketing tactics to their traditional off-line activities.”

On average, B2B purchasers rely on Internet search to such an extent that now they get more than 75% of the way through their purchase process before they reach out to a potential partner or brand. The following findings from Google and Millward Brown Digital‘s 2014 Study on the “B2B Path to Purchase” support this shift:

  • 86% of Tech B2B buyers/researchers use digital during their purchase/research process, with 77% of them starting the process using a search engine, and 43% searching on their mobile device.
  • 58% of Tech B2B buyers use trade publications, 39% use consultants, and 37% go to trade shows.
  • The bulk of B2B buying is being influenced by a younger age group, with 78% of influencers younger than 45.
  • From 2012 to 2014, there was a fivefold increase in visits to partner websites.

Partner Marketing Strategy Must Match Reality

So what do these data points mean to channel partners that want to maintain strong ties to their vendors and continue to grow revenue? They mean that partners have to change their marketing habits—put less emphasis on traditional methods like events, and focus more on digital marketing avenues.

“Since so many B2B buyers are starting their research with a search engine,” Douglas says, “partners should take steps to ensure their website is designed to rank strongly in the buyer’s search results.” To get a high ranking, partner sites should host the kind of information buyers are looking for. As ever, buyers need relevant technical specifications and capabilities. But they are also looking for user-generated content like reviews, blog comments, and social media posts.

Enter “The Age of the Customer”

As a normal part of the buying process, whether it is a consumer buying a refrigerator or a company buying a CRM system, customers want to hear what other customers like them are saying.

Imagine you are a B2B buyer looking for a technology solution. On your own, with no guidance except maybe what your 30-year-old colleague suggests, you start searching online to create a short list of potential partners to work with. The first site you visit provides glowing case studies, links to online reviews, comments on the partner blog, and replies to and retweets of partner social posts. The second site you visit provides none of these. In the past, partners that didn’t make this kind of information readily available might have had to work a little bit harder to start a relationship with the buyer. Today, partners that lack a strong online and social presence are out of the running before they realize there’s a race.

Vendors Need to Help Partners Adjust to the Digital World

Generally speaking, partner organizations tend to run lean and mean. Their job is to stay up to speed on vendor solution offerings and then sell, sell, sell. Only the most sophisticated channel partners will have a marketing department, and it is even rarer for a partner company to have social media expertise.

This is where vendors like Cisco step in to help partners close the digital marketing gap.

“We train our partner marketing managers to become digital marketing consultants,” says Cisco’s Chad Reese. “With in-depth training in digital marketing, our managers can help partners direct more of the MDF dollars to activities that will engage prospects and customers online to drive revenue, and also help them work with our third-party digital agencies to spend those dollars well.”

Vendors like Cisco understand that if they want their channel to thrive in an increasingly search-driven buying environment, they need to be very proactive in helping their partners provide buyers with the right information in the right online places.

The benefits to vendors of doing so are obvious. By taking their best partners in hand and walking them through the process of “getting social,” they are vastly increasing the chances that those self-motivated, self-guided B2B buyers will put their channel partners and, hence, their solutions, on their all-important short lists.

And that is the name of the game—getting on the short list. Seenu points to more results from that same Google and Millward Brown Digital Study: “Seventy-one percent of B2B buyers start their research with a non-branded, generic search (CRM solutions).” And since most people look at only the top three or four links, vendors need to help their partners do the kind of digital marketing that will land them at the top of the search results page.

Playing the Long Game

The rise of the ‘Age of the Customer’ poses considerable challenges to vendors and partners alike. Both players must change rapidly to stay relevant in the new path to purchase—and do so in a way that positions them for long-term growth. Smart vendors will seize this moment if they are to accomplish both goals.

One of the most useful things vendors can do is to start gathering information on partner best practices. Is better and faster customer follow-up paying off? Does being more prepared and understanding buyers’ requests lead to faster closes or larger sales? How important is it to leverage vendor marketing programs that help partners match the brand in what they present to the buyer? And how important is social media?

For a particular kind of partner selling a particular kind of technology, does the largest revenue growth come from maintaining an active blog or from being active on social networks? Does it work better to populate a website with customer testimonials and case studies or links to social media posts? What incentives are most successful in changing partner salesperson behavior? And what rewards will convince a salesperson to post regularly to social media or to the partner organization’s blog?

Tangible Steps to Determining Best Practices

There are a number of things vendors can do to give their partners a leg up and help them implement digital marketing best practices. They can lend resources to their partners and give them access to vendor marketing staff who are adept at social selling, marketing boot camps, and marketing concierge services. They can provide technology, resources and incentives for partners to invest in website SEM (search engine marketing). They can pair their partners with through partner marketing agencies that know how to measure action outcomes. And they can implement partner relationship management technology that, as part of its core capability, analyzes the relationship between action and results to arrive at best practices.

Cisco’s strategy is to help partners shift the mix, which currently is heavily focused on traditional outbound events and what Chad refers to as hospitality marketing (golf tournaments, seminars, etc.). “We know that digital, inbound, social, and data-oriented marketing and demand generation represent the future of channel marketing. And we are very actively re-aligning our resources to help our partners get there as quickly as possible.”

A Symbiotic Relationship Is a Beautiful Thing

The natural world is filled with examples of symbiosis, which is defined as “the interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.” It is the flower that provides nectar in return for the bumblebee carrying its pollen to other flowers.

The relationship between vendors and their partner ecosystems can and should be symbiotic, too. Vendors, with size and resources that dwarf even the largest partners, can provide partners with the technology, education, and funding to become more effective. Partners, meanwhile, can serve as the on-the-ground embodiment of the vendor, building customer relationships that reward partner and vendor alike. It is as natural a relationship as the bees and the flowers.