Marketing masterplan: how can partners engage customers?

Marketing masterplan: how can partners engage customers?

IDG’s sixth annual Customer Engagement Study finds that technology buyers are more aware than ever of the impact they can make on their organisations, but the ways they go about researching their options are rooted in tried-and-true practices

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Organisations have overwhelmingly bought into the concept of digital transformation, in which data is applied in all parts of the business to streamline processes, better understand customer preferences and accelerate innovation.

According to another of IDG’s studies, the Role & Influence of the Technology Decision-Maker, 93 per cent of IT decision-makers (ITDMs) said their organisations plan to pursue digital business transformation, yet only 28 per cent currently have an active “digital-first” approach.

The responsibility for bridging this chasm falls squarely on the IT organisation, which continues to be the primary driver of technology investments.

Despite the growing involvement of business owners in IT decisions such as the choice of software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors and mobile devices, the buck still stops with IT.

In fact, IDG’s 2019 State of the CIO research found that the percentage of tech investments directly controlled by the IT organisation will actually increase over the next three years.

Those technology leaders face more choices than ever, and the good news for technology marketers is that they are open to being educated by the companies they do business with.

In fact, 77 per cent of ITDMs on both the IT and business side said they are more likely to consider doing business with IT vendors / partners who provide educational resources than those who don’t.

While that number is down from 85 per cent in the 2017 study, it still reflects an overwhelming interest in trusted advice — regardless of the source.

IT leaders understand that their partners on the business side also need help. Nearly 2/3 said vendors / partners could do a better job of providing educational resources for non-technical users. While this represents an opportunity for vendors / partners, the research indicates that many fall short.

Asked how challenging it is to find high quality, trusted information related to enterprise IT products and services, 37 per cent of respondents said either “very challenging” or “extremely challenging”.

Perhaps more concerning for marketers is that ITDMs reported that only 40 per cent of work-related content they have downloaded provides value, meaning that 60 per cent of the time and budget marketers pour into content is effectively wasted.

Credit: IDG Customer Engagement Study

The top reasons ITDMs dismiss vendor / partner content include too much hype (56 per cent), lack of a truly independent perspective (46 per cent) and fear of being contacted by sales representatives (38 per cent).

It’s clear that they believe many marketers put delivery of a message ahead of the bigger goal of providing actual value, which undermines the effectiveness of their messaging. Buyers would rather hear success stories from other customers than empty claims and buzzwords.

Over the years, the research has firmly documented that IT buyers object to being called by sales representatives after they’ve filled out a registration form in order to download an asset.

However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to talk to companies that might have a useful solution. The key is constructive outreach at the right time.

The survey found that buyers take, on average, a little less than three days to read a document they’ve downloaded. However, they would prefer to be contacted after six days or more, giving them time to consume and perhaps continue their research if they have found value in that content.

Email is the preferred form of contact with vendors / partners with 42 per cent saying they prefer it, but in-person meetings are also preferred when strategic decisions are involved. Phone calls and text messages follow far behind at 12 per cent and four per cent, respectively.

One thing that’s clear is that vendors / partners need to move with deliberate speed when prospects fill out a “contact me” form or request for information. Unlike a registration form, this action signals the need for follow-up, and respondents said they expect it within about 17 hours.

The good news is that the race goes to the swiftest: 31 per cent of overall respondents and 35 per cent of IT executives said the first person to answer their questions usually gets the business.

Meanwhile, quality content is an important factor in gaining the buyer’s attention, and the lack of such content can work the opposite way.

Credit: IDG Customer Engagement Study

Asked what would cause them to abandon consideration of a vendor / partner during the purchase process, decision-makers cited promotional or self-serving content first followed by a general lack of content.

Interestingly, buyers at small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) indicated they are more sensitive to insufficient or poor-quality content than enterprises: 55 per cent of them said insufficient content will cause them to abandon research, compared to just 43 per cent of buyers at large companies.

Content tailored to specific needs is especially desirable; 93 per cent of buyers prefer it.

Content should be tailored to the buyer’s industry and/or the platforms they already use. Company size, job title and the stage of the buying process were seen as much less relevant.

Modelling the buyer journey

The way buyers research decisions has changed little over the years the study has been conducted. What has changed is their sensitivity to information quality.

Research has long shown that peer recommendations are the most important factor in identifying prospective vendors and our survey found that it’s the number one factor that increases trust in online information.

However, buyers are becoming more selective about taking recommendations at face value, as evidenced by the fact that association with a familiar source such as a media brand or vendor / partner is the second most important factor in establishing trust.

This may be an overhang from the fake news phenomenon and the tendency of people to share information without fully vetting its authenticity. Essentially, buyers are triangulating their decisions.

Interestingly, the professionalism of the website that provides the information is also a major trust factor, as is related coverage from media organisations.

Taken together, these results indicate that buyers are becoming savvier about vetting information sources and less likely to take information at face value just because it appears on a website.

The value they place in a track record is evident in the finding that 80 per cent of buyers said that known and trusted brands are more likely to make their short list.

Credit: IDG Customer Engagement Study

This contrasts to a similar question in last year’s survey that found that only 55 per cent of buyers cited trust as a short-list factor, behind both cost and quality.

Executive IT (29 per cent) and business management (37 per cent) respondents were both more open to being among the first clients of a new or emerging vendor, far more than IT managers (20 per cent) and IT professionals (16 per cent).

On a product category basis, SaaS and web application start-ups are most likely to get a hearing, while fledgling enterprise software and mobility makers have the most difficulty penetrating the executive suite.

This disparity is probably a function of corporate standards, since mission-critical software is perceived as too important to entrust to untested companies and most buyers have probably settled on a limited set of mobility platforms.

The typical short list includes three to four prospective candidates. Enterprise shortlists tend to be longer, while resource-constrained SMBs generally have a smaller field of candidates.

Credit: IDG Customer Engagement Study

Buyers research companies on their short list intensively, downloading product information, reviewing testimonials and contacting sales representatives.

The research documented some interesting variances in the way buyers go about making decisions for different types of products.

For example, they researched an average of seven vendors when considering the purchase of Internet of Things (IoT) products but only four when buying desktop or laptop computers.

This probably reflects the dynamic nature of new markets in which many start-ups compete for attention and few clear leaders have emerged. In contrast, the PC market is mature and stable.

This new openness to evaluate new vendors / partners has probably been influenced by the intense entrepreneurial activity of the last few years in areas such as cloud and big data. And it appears that buyers are more willing to take risks.

Those who said they will evaluate new vendors only upon recommendation from trusted sources fell to 17 per cent from 21 per cent in last year’s study, indicating that the benefits of being the first on the block with the new technology are increasingly being perceived as outweighing the risks that it will fail.

Information consumption

The volume and variety of advisory content is proliferating, and decision-makers are showing a willingness to use all of it.

The type of content they prefer varies by product category, however, as does the way they prefer to consume it.

For marketers seeking leads, the good news is that 92 per cent of ITDMs say they’ve registered for tech-related content during the past six months, trading information about themselves for something they deem valuable.

Throughout the survey, respondents showed a greater appetite for information about areas that are new, rapidly changing or that address risk.

Not surprisingly, security tops the list, with two-thirds of decision-makers saying they’ve registered for content related to that topic. Among IT executives, that number climbed to 72 per cent.

Security is followed closely by cloud computing at 63 per cent, with IT services, SaaS and data/analytics in a virtual tie for third at just over 50 per cent.

At the bottom of the list are mature technologies like PCs and telecommunications. IoT devices also ranked low, but that’s probably a function of their limited penetration in the market.

Credit: IDG Customer Engagement Study

The same pattern is evident in the number of assets buyers download during the purchase process. For example, they download an average of six assets about the topics of cloud computing, SaaS and enterprise software, but only two about PCs.

The buying decision takes a little less than five months to complete, on average, which implies that buyers seek different assets at different stages of the process.

This is supported by the most popular types of information they request, a varied list headed by demos and product literature, tests and reviews, technology news, vendor presentations, analyst research and market overviews.

The variety of this content supports the view that buyers look for advisory information about an overall market early in the selection process and then drill down to more specific details about specifications as they near a decision.

This pattern influences both the type of content they desire and the way they consume it. For example, previous surveys have found that video case studies are widely used by lower- funnel buyers whereas those just beginning their research prefer white papers and market overviews.

Some interesting distinctions arise when these numbers are broken down by region and company size.

SMBs show a higher interest in product tests and reviews than enterprise buyers by a 59 per cent to 53 per cent margin. Conversely, enterprise buyers have a stronger proclivity for vendor presentations and analyst research.

This is probably a function of the nature of the business, since many small businesses don’t have the luxury of interacting with vendor sales representatives directly or buying syndicated research.

Credit: IDG Customer Engagement Study

Geographically, respondents in the Asia Pacific region favour product demos and literature by a 66 per cent to 51 per cent margin over North American buyers. Global companies should consider this when designing campaigns that will be aimed at specific regions.

They should do the same when targeting job titles within an organisation. While product demos and tests are near the top of nearly every decision-maker’s list, some significant differences are apparent between people on the business side and those in the IT trenches.

For example, 56 per cent of business managers said they value vendor presentations compared to just 32 per cent of IT professionals.

Specific to analyst research, the difference is even more stark, with 54 per cent of business decision-makers finding those assets valuable compared to just 23 per cent of IT pros.

This trend has been consistent throughout the six years the survey has been conducted: Business leaders want context while front-line IT workers want details. Preferences also vary by the type of product being researched.

While product tests are near the top of the list for nearly every product category, the value of analyst research is especially high for buyers researching cloud computing and analytics products.

In contrast, analyst research doesn’t even make the top-five list in servers, storage, networking, telecom and PC decisions.

Buyers clearly lean more heavily upon expert advice when evaluating new markets than they do for mature ones.

This would indicate that marketers in high-growth businesses would do better to align themselves with thought leaders than those in which price and performance are dominant buying criteria.

Events evolve

The days of giant IT trade shows are long gone, but events continue to enjoy a special place in the minds of buyers on both the technology and business sides.

For ITDMs they are all but essential, as evidenced by the 90 per cent who told us they have attended at least one industry-related event during the past 12 months.

Some important distinctions are apparent between the interests of business and IT leaders, however.

While buyers prefer technology-specific event topics such as “cloud computing” to broad themes like “digital transformation,” business managers show a significantly higher interest in those big themes, probably reflecting the nature of their jobs.

Credit: IDG Customer Engagement Study

For marketers who seek to attract buyers across the spectrum, choosing a mix of technology- and business-focused events is probably a good strategy.

Among the most popular event topics respondents cited are security (60 per cent) and cloud computing (55 per cent). Both are of higher interest to IT executives than to the overall respondent base.

Other high-performing topics include IT services, data/analytics and SaaS. At the bottom of list is desktops and laptops, cited by just 18 per cent of respondents.

The fact that PCs once supported massive trade shows like Comdex and PC Expo should dramatise to marketers how changeable the event space can be.

Not surprisingly, decision-makers attend conferences to connect with others. This is consistent with the finding that 54 per cent of respondents prefer face-to-face contact when making strategic decisions, well ahead of email at 33 per cent.

The top benefits of attending events are to meet with industry experts (cited by 57 per cent), see new products (also 57 per cent), learn about new vendors and offerings (53 per cent), bring value back to the business (50 per cent), and meet with current vendors (49 per cent).

Business managers have a much stronger interest in learning about new vendors and technologies to spark ideas for future business projects more so than people on the IT side.

It’s worth noting that buyers’ interests in connecting with vendors at events seems a bit out of step with the aversion they exhibit toward calls from salespeople.

The difference is contextual: Buyers at a conference are in control of the discussion and can choose who to interact with.

In fact, 71 per cent say they have attended an event in the past 12 months that gave them the opportunity to interact with vendors, a choice that was far ahead of the runner-up road shows, trade shows and regional events.

Bottom line: know your customers

Digital transformation is an opportunity for forward-thinking organisations to establish new bonds with their customers, whose information needs have never been greater. However, the bar to success is high.

Buyers want timely information that’s customised to their needs and is free of hype and buzzwords. They interact through more channels than ever before, and their needs differ by role, geography and industry.

Savvy marketers will learn which stage of a digital-first business their customers and prospects are in to get a better grasp on the technologies they are purchasing.

They’ll understand the focus and roles in which customers are operating and how content impacts their decisions. And they’ll engage with decision-makers through valuable content and follow-up tailored to timing and messaging preferences.

By aligning marketing activities with the ways customers want to interact, marketers can become trusted sources who outclass their competitors by being the first to deliver useful information.

Evaluate every possible channel and narrow choices to those that influence prospects at key stages of the buying process.

Finally, educate the sales team to focus on delivering value, not just closing the deal. More than ever, buyers want to do business with brands they trust.

The challenge - and the opportunity - for marketers is to become an ally in their success.

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