How Self-Service Research Will Change B2B Marketing

Greetings! This is week three in my journey as a Forrester analyst serving you, B2B marketing professionals, after nearly as many decades as a practitioner like you. I'd like to start our conversation by sharing an idea I had the opportunity to explore during the interview process for this position.

It was a process I enjoyed tremendously by the way, because it allowed me to connect the dots between several trends I had observed in my most recent role, where I led marketing for a digital engagement platform vendor, and some recent research from Forrester, most notably the Death Of A (B2B) Salesman report that struck such a nerve in the Forrester client base and beyond.

One of the conclusions of that and other Forrester reports that resonated most with me is that B2B buyers now prefer do-it-yourself options for researching products and services prior to purchase. And it’s not even a close call!  The survey conducted for the Death of a Salesman report showed that by a factor of three to one, B2B buyers want to self-educate rather than talk to sales representatives to learn about products and services.

Ironically, we B2B marketers have only ourselves to blame for this dramatic shift. By creating, publishing, and promoting a wealth of content to maximize the results from our SEO, PPC, and marketing automation campaigns, we’ve also made it possible (but not yet easy) for prospects to learn much of what they need to know prior to purchase. This has enabled more than half of all B2B buyers to now develop a set of selection criteria or finalize a list of potential vendors — based on digital content alone — without ever speaking to anyone at those organizations.

But it’s still too difficult for prospects to find the content they need. As Laura Ramos pointed out in her report B2B Content Fails The Customer Engagement Test, the best content matching the buyer’s research needs is too often missing or buried deep in vendor websites, typically hidden under a “resources” tab. This structure might make sense to a website designer or content manager, but it’s unhelpful to the business buyer. Another impediment to self-service research is site search, which all too often returns an undifferentiated — and unhelpful — list of content that includes press releases, blogs, and documentation. 

I believe this is where B2B marketers can learn from their colleagues in Customer Care — the industry I came from — who have been enabling self-service for decades and are committed to removing every possible source of friction from the customer experience. We B2B marketers should adopt a similar mindset and make it a core part of our mission to help buyers find the information they want (not the information we think they need) throughout their unique journeys — especially in the research phase. 

And the best way for B2B marketers to enable this self-service research that buyers are now expecting is by deploying proven customer care solutions — starting with knowledge management (KM)/FAQ and intelligent virtual assistant (IVA) applications. Both directly facilitate prospect-driven journeys and can connect buyers with the content they need to understand and evaluate your offerings.

By helping your prospects follow their preferred self-service research process, more of them will have the opportunity to “declare” their qualification through the frequency and depth of their engagement with your content — or even by opting into a conversation or accepting a personalized offer. B2B marketers can then enable inside sales to engage in more “intelligent outreach” — a great term coined by my new colleague Mary Shea in her report B2B Inside Sales: "Inside Or Out?" — That Is The Question — where these self-qualified prospects feel they have been looking for the inside sales rep by the time they actually connect.

Which is not to say these self-service solutions should replace the interactive content technologies and predictive analytics that enable you to attract prospects and anticipate their next moves to present content that moves them closer to purchase. You just need to augment all that command and control with a little more random walk. By ensuring that if a prospect chooses to break out of your tightly prescribed and automated marketing process at any point to create their own research journey, they can find the content they want, without too much friction.

I've already begun talking to vendors and buyers to explore this topic more deeply, and I’d welcome your feedback here as well.