At the excellent LinkedIn London Sales Connect event in October 2014, where I delivered a keynote on social eminence, there was a presentation from IDC (sponsored by LinkedIn) on the results of a recent study on social buying by Alys Woodward.
Alys provided an overview of a white paper titled “Social Buying Meets Social Selling: How Trusted Networks Improve the Purchase Experience”.
You can view and download the paper at the end of this post.
As this was a social selling event, it was fascinating to hear the primary research from a social buying perspective.
The whitepaper findings can be summarised as follows:
- To increase trust and confidence in making high-stakes company purchase decisions, B2B buyers leverage their professional networks
- online social networks play a vital role in the purchase process of 84% of the most senior B2B buyers
- In the final stage of the purchasing process, when stakes are highest, online professional networks are the number one information preference of buyers
- 75% of B2B buyers and 84% of C-level/vice president (VP) executives surveyed use social media to make purchasing decisions
- Online professional networks are the number 1 information preference of buyers in the final stage of the purchase process
- The average B2B buyer who uses social media 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 media
- B2B buyers find the greatest benefit of social media is gaining greater confidence in and comfort with their decisions
For these reasons, sales professionals (and anyone reading this post) needs to rethink how they use social in their selling and marketing efforts
As a refresher, I invite you to read my blog post on the importance of being eminent.
Key findings from the report
The Most Senior and Influential B2B Buyers Use Social Media for Their Purchase Process. This may be a surprise to some people who think the c-suite and senior management don’t use social media.
While they may not being social to post their every thought or move, when it comes to large and strategic purchasing decisions, they want to use all of the intelligence at their disposal to make the best decision.
The report found that Social media, especially online professional networks, plays a vital role for senior executives making company purchases.
A large majority, 84%, of C-level and VP-level buyers use social media for purchasing. Overall, 75% of B2B buyers consult social media when making purchasing decisions.
The figure below from the report highlights this fact.
While the report was sponsored by LinkedIn, the business network comes in for special attention, as over half of the B2B buyers surveyed have used LinkedIn to support their purchase process in the last 12 months.
For me, one of the most interesting parts of the study is the fact that B2B buyers who are active on social media represent are more senior and influential segment than those who do not use social media.
Social buyers, those who use online connections to support the purchase process, are:
1. more senior
2. have a greater span of purchasing control than non-social users
3. spend 84% more per purchase
4. make 61% more purchase decisions
Implications for sales professionals
So if your job is selling (and that doesn’t just mean you are in sales, as we all are selling in some way), then this report should be a wake-up call if you are not leveraging social, and not active on social.
Back in 2011, I coined the phrase “the art of the e-tap” to describe how you can “tap someone on the shoulder” virtually using social media to make them aware of you, your company and the way they can help you. Have a look at a short video below where I explain how this can work, and you can also read my blog post on this.
The IDC study has some key recommendations – namely:
Sales professionals who are not active social media users are missing an important opportunity to connect. Salespeople have long leveraged offline social networks for recommendations, referrals, and revenue because the strategy is so successful. All things being equal, people prefer to buy from those they know and trust. Now, sales professionals selling high-impact products or services (e.g., complex, expensive, important to the buyer) need to replicate their networking strategy online because social media is where peer conversations are happening. Salespeople active with online networks will gain additional benefits. Large numbers of relationships can be maintained more efficiently online. It takes less time to keep up with customer news and changes. Contact is made more quickly. Social media gives a sales professional’s positive actions more visibility and a longer shelf life. Online social networks may make it easier to build relationships with senior, influential buyers because the constraints of time and location are reduced for all parties.
One of the best soundbites from the report was in the latter section. Opting out of social media may cause real damage. Salespeople should recognize that they can’t opt out of social media if their buyers are there. Evidence of non-participation is just as visible as presence. Salespeople will inadvertently deliver a negative message with their absence.
Put simply, sales professionals must answer their social phones.
This is so true. I have made sure for the last 10 years that my “social phone” has always been on, and I continue to find success as a result.
Another key finding in the report was the fact that buyers place a great level of trust in their professional networks, and hence their professional social networks, such as LinkedIn.
Quoting from the report
Complex problems with complex solutions are fraught with risk. B2B buyers reduce that risk by practicing social buying. They leverage professional networks for buying support in order to increase their confidence in decision making. Buyers place greater trust in commercial relationships that have the stamp of approval from their professional networks
You can delegate tasks but you cannot delegate trust
The report highlights the fact that while time is scarce, trust and confidence can be even rarer, buyers making high-impact decisions will gravitate toward methods that make confidence building easier.
To get more time, executives can reprioritise tasks and use productivity-enhancing tools, but they cannot delegate trust.
This is an incredibly important part of the buying process, especially when million-dollar sums are at stake.
If you will let me be indulgent for a moment, some time ago there was a saying “no-one ever got fired buying IBM” – most probably referring to the trust in the relationship when dealing with a company as large and established as IBM. [disclaimer – unless you’ve been under a rock, you would know that I was a Partner at IBM].
The study also looks at how social media drives confidence and credibility in the purchase decision.
Quoting from the report:
Buyers need trust to buy confidently and would like to ensure this trust is maintained online. When asked about concerns they may have about social media, respondents answered that their top concern is that vendors and sales professionals would not be authentic.
Of those survey participants who acknowledged concern about social media, 62.2% are concerned or strongly concerned about the authenticity of online profiles.
“There are a lot of false promises and profiles [online], that’s why references are key for us.”
In spite of this concern, respondents were overwhelmingly willing to use social media for purchasing support. 75% of B2B buyers surveyed have already used it, and of the remaining 25% who have not yet used it, only 5.2% are unwilling to try.
Making the right connection online.
Those of you reading this post that are relatively new to social media should not go out and start spamming and tweeting and Linking-In to all of your connections!
The report highlights the need to respect the connection.
Sales professionals can certainly use social media for direct outreach to buyers who they don’t know. In the IDC study, many buyers were open to this contact under the right circumstances. 62.6% agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “I appreciate being contacted by vendors at the right time with relevant information and opportunities.”
This is a very key point – “at the right time with relevant information and opportunities”.
Social is therefore not a substitute for a good account plan and knowing who, when and why to contact someone about a sales opportunity.
While those that have been used to cold calling might see social as an opportunity to “cold tweet”, this is simply the wrong approach.
Making a connection, then at the right time later on leveraging that connection is the best way to use social media in the sale cycle.
Timing is everything
The IDC report suggests that when sales professionals interact via social media, it’s better if they approach prospects through a mutual connection.
Even when a connection isn’t possible, sales professionals must boost buyers’ confidence by being visibly present online in an authentic, transparent, and reasonably complete way.
This doesn’t happen overnight. If you are in sales and have a very low presence on social media, it will show. In contrast, if you google my name or search on social media, you will find a large amount of information, recommendations endorsements, and presentation videos produced over the last 15 years or so.
The report also breaks down the purchase cycle into 3 key stages and explains how social can be used in each.
- The earliest stage of your purchase process includes investigating how you can improve business and/or productivity, determining whether your problem(s) is important enough to invest in a solution, and investigating possible alternatives (features you may need, etc.).
- The middle stage of your purchase process includes constructing a “short list” of specific brands and products and determining implementation challenges and solutions.
- The final stage of your purchase process includes getting answers to final questions, finalizing decisions, and negotiating terms and conditions.
The report finishes with some key recommendations, many of which I have been blogging about for the last few years – so good to see that IDC agree with me!
1. Increase social proximity
- Find the social connectors (people in your industry with strong social networks and influence), and try to get to know them.
- Grow social networks to be closer to more people/right people.
- Be at the intersection of conversations, as presence alone helps build familiarity and eventually trust.
2. Improve social presence
- Be present in the right way. Buyers will want to get to know a sales professional in advance of a deeper relationship, and people who may serve as possible references will also be looking. Manage a professional identity (trusted personal brand). Be credible, authentic, accurate, information rich, and service oriented.
- When sharing thought leadership or expertise, consider the interests of potential buyers with respect to the purchase process stage. For example, buyers who engage with content intended for final-stage decision making may be primed to purchase, which is a signal for salespeople to increase attention and outreach.
- Engage earlier and with a lighter touch. Approach people with a “warm” introduction — through their valued social network.
3. Build social capital (build up a reservoir of “like” and trust)
- Conduct research before making sales calls. Review the prospective buyer’s profile, follow the individuals and companies of interest, and investigate group memberships and other social media activity to ensure relevancy. Salespeople with knowledge of the person/situation are more likely to be able to serve as a trusted advisor.
- Facilitate peer-to-peer recommendations. Make others proud to be a reference. Make it easy to share information.
- Be a good guy. Send thank you notes, share knowledge freely, facilitate exchange between peers (help them help each other), provide referrals, and rarely ask for favors (social capital is built when people give without demanding immediate exchange).
This is in my mind one of the most comprehensive, and insightful reports on social buying I have read, and I encourage you to download and read in more detail.