By Judy Mod

Social Media Influence on Marketing for Complex Purchase Decisions

Many CMOs have started social marketing programs but are struggling to integrate these programs into the rest of their marketing efforts and to justify their investments. Marketers are challenged in building traditional justification and accountability models for social marketing. And, the more complex the sales process, the harder it is to calculate the business impact.

Buyers are leveraging social media to assist in their purchase research, but the real disruption is that social media is actually changing complex purchase behaviors. Buyers are leveraging social markets to build their business case for making investments in complex solutions BEFORE deciding on a solution, choosing their supplier and justifying their choice.

Simply put, buyers are evaluating suppliers prior to the traditional engagement with the sales organization. They are making decisions about suppliers even before engaging with them; sourcing options, soliciting recommendations, building long lists, validating vendors reputations, building short lists and even building requirements and expected ROI. Previously, traditional complex purchase decisions were made during the sales process and then the customer built the business case with the sales organization to justify their decision. Not anymore.

Today, we are seeing the business case precede the vendor discussions. If you are not influencing that process upstream of your involvement, you are not really in consideration. This is forcing a major shift in the roles of marketing and sales as the responsibility of the business case now lies with marketing, not sales. Marketing’s role is no longer to create soft awareness or gin up demand, but now they have to shape the business case to get in the door even before the sales team can be engaged. The sales team is still responsible for customizing the solution and assisting in the selection process, but now they have the added responsibility of assisting marketing in evangelizing the business case, protecting brand equity, and extending the company’s sphere of influence within the market.

In my conversations, I have heard the frustration as to the misalignment of expectations and the challenges that both sales and marketing organizations are struggling with as marketing was not supposed to make the business case nor was sales responsible for brand.

We are seeing the challenge with this new dynamic manifest itself in several ways within sales organizations; low response rates from traditional lead generation, sales teams struggling to reach decision makers, buyers coming to the table with better defined requirements, external market sources like blogs and peer networks being used more heavily by buyers to source companies less willing to schedule onsite sales appointments, and gatekeepers increasingly blocking the sales team’s attempts at relationship building prior to decision. As a result, your team is invited to do a presentation for the selection committee. Your team brings a canned presentation to educate the client, only to learn that they were already ahead of you in their education and expected you to be able to discuss the specifics of how this applies in their organization. Your sales team is getting more and more detailed RFPs without the ability to engage with the prospects to influence the requirements. You can lose a deal because the buyer based their decision on outdated information about you in the market which led them to believe you lacked a key capability that they needed.

In marketing, we are seeing the results in less direct, but just as telling ways. The bloggers and review sites aren’t influenced by your latest rebranding messaging, click-through rates from SEM are declining, and email marketing responses are slowly eroding over recent years. You purchase a list to give to the telesales team and despite their best efforts, they are getting about a 3% interest rate. You know it’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing. Your agency built your presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter; your team is distributing content through these channels and you generate a good number of “followers”, but you can’t prove that any sales resulted directly from these programs despite the upgrades in marketing automation and analytics.

For social marketing to be effective and impactful, there are four major “themes” that will assist your organization in thinking about this from your buyers’ perspective:

1. Killer Applications vs. Killer Features

The majority of buyers in the market have a business pain/problem/need and have yet to determine the solution.

Buyers can’t tell which is the best solution if they can’t figure out how it’s going to solve their problem. They can’t build their business case on generic/theoretical information/approach. They need to build different business cases for different applications. Social marketing allows for “mass customization” of these business cases.

Rather than focusing on “killer features”, marketers should be analyzing and assessing the market to understand the buyer’s pain and deliver the “killer applications” that will best support and guide their self-directed needs assessment.

2. Evangelism and Advocacy

The ultimate goal is to align the buyer’s business case with your solution to influence the decision on their investment. Rather than relying on your buyers to figure it out for themselves, help them. It’s no longer just about the homework you’ve done on them; it’s about the homework they’ve done on you.

Evangelism is about helping buyers figure out what they need to do (business case). Advocacy is about helping the buyers through their decision support process so they invest in you (justification).

To build credibility, you have to do both, at the same time, in real time, in a balanced fashion. If you swing too far towards evangelism, you’ll educate the buyer, but they may not select you. If you swing too far towards advocacy, you may be seen as self-serving.

3. Complex Buying Process

Today, buyers go through a very complex, multi-directional, multi-dimensional, multi-influence, networked buying process to build consensus around the investment while mitigating their risk around the decision.

Rather than managing segments solely based on demographics/attributes in this process, it’s critical to understand what types of buyers they are, their motivations, what’s going to trigger a change in behavior as they transition from browsing to shopping.

Focus on the specific interactions that will compel the buyers to take action and propel them further and faster in their buying process.

4. Economics of Buying/Selling

The supplier that can assist buyers in building their own “custom” business case earlier in the process has a greater chance to become the winner.

The business case is not a one-sized-fits-all canned document, but is a component based, distributed set of thought leadership, business decision support tools that enable buyers to quickly assemble the information they need, when they need it, and in their own terms, to compare solutions options and validate your offering on an apples-to-apples basis.

When done correctly, social marketing’s delivery of this business case can be tracked, measured, and will produce a hard ROI in terms of efficiency for the both your organization and the buyers.

The ability to easily validate from other customers the quality of the delivery and the caliber of the customer experience is a part of the business case as buyers who have to go out of their way to check references and validate your claims have to absorb that cost. Companies that foster that transparency and cater to their existing customers have a huge advantage in that they can easily reference customer satisfaction in their business case.

We are seeing those companies that have transitioned from marketing communications via social media to more buyer decision support to assist buyer’s in lowering the cost of acquiring their solution are finding that they are able to measure the returns to their business.

If you had told me several months ago that the ability to generate a tangible ROI from social marketing would hinge on the ability to deliver a customized business case; I am not sure I would have recognized the importance. However, we are now seeing that this may be the foundation for really producing effective results. More importantly, we are also seeing this as the “tip of the spear” in terms of building the larger social business case within the organization. If you can tie a hard ROI from revenue growth to social business by assisting buyers in building their business cases while aligning the organization to improve delivery of the solution; it will be much easier to justify the soft ROI from enterprise collaboration and productivity gains from social business.

Judy Mod, Principal of Social Gastronomy, is an executive who specializes in Social Buyer Target Marketing, Network Selling, Social Networking Strategy and Community Adoption, and Enterprise Social Business Programs. Judy serves as the president of the Social Executive Council, the premier organization for senior executives to collaborate on developing enterprise-wide social business strategies. For more information on Judy, you can check out her LinkedIn profile at www.linkedin.com/in/judymod, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JudyMod or contact her directly at jmod@socialgastronomy.com.