B2B buyers and professional social networks in the purchase decision

In case you believed we can forget about social media in marketing and business, here’s a wake-up call: according to the latest Social Buying Study from IDC, 75% (!) of B2B buyers “studied social media” to SUPPORT purchase decisions.

Even more impressive: 84% of C-level/VP executives in the research also use social media for the same reasons. And there’s more: B2B buyers that are most active using social media to support their buying decisions, are more senior, have 84% bigger budgets and make 61% more purchase decisions.

On top of that, they have an influential say over more buying decisions than their peers who don’t use social media to support the purchase process.

Social media in the purchase decision of the B2B buyer - IDC via LinkedIn - click for PDF
Social media in the purchase decision of the B2B buyer – IDC via LinkedIn – click for PDF

Social media and content marketing

Before you go ballistic and start reactivating that Twitter account whose purpose you might have never understood or that Facebook page no one checks except if you pay Facebook for it (and maybe because you were poorly advised on what it could be), take a deep breath.

What is happening here? Isn’t social media “so 2010” and isn’t every B2B marketer throwing money at content marketing (in practice often interpreted as – native – advertising 2.0 and adding to the noise unfortunately) and customer experience optimization now? And isn’t social media about broadcasting (“distributing”) content since a few years? Aren’t marketers investing in – the somewhat vague concept of – thought – leadership and influencer marketing? Isn’t email marketing and marketing automation on everyone’s radar (again)? And why the heck would C-level execs use social media to support their purchase decisions?

Sure, there are evolutions and making sure they get seen and appreciated as trusted advisors, ranks high on the B2B marketer’s agenda, even if content marketing continues to become a hollow term in the practices of many organizations who prefer to pay too much to buy a place around the virtual – and physical – thought leadership table, armed with sponsored research and the ‘credibility’ they often borrow from expensive media and analyst firms, rather than focusing on their own strengths in creating customer and business value.

However, social media is far from a hype from the past. Depending on their individual goals and trusted resources in taking buying decisions, B2B buyers and C-level execs simply have integrated it in their way of working. This is in no way meant to state that vendors and solution providers have fully realized the potential of social media. On the contrary: I often come across so much low-hanging fruit opportunities – because of a lack of seeing the potential – that my head hurts and I dream of apples and pears. But that’s for another post.

And of course, social media and content marketing do tend to be good friends, when properly used, which is not always the case to put it mildly.

Professional networking as (un)usual: the rising role of the social network

Buyers with more influence are more likely to use social media says IDC - source IDC via LinkedIn - click for PDF
Buyers with more influence are more likely to use social media says IDC – source IDC via LinkedIn – click for PDF

So, again, what is happening here? There are many possible answers. Some B2B buyers and C-level execs have discovered the potential of specific social media, others have joined the ranks of the “social B2B buyer”, others have learned that they can see what their “usual” influencers think across a broad variety of media, today’s decision maker is not yesterday’s, but, first and foremost, online professional networks have become key in the final stages of the purchase process, IDC found.

According to the research firm, this won’t end anytime soon. As senior execs (a.k.a. “leaders”) move to social networks, others will follow, IDC states. I would argue the opposite is often true as well: as “lower ranking” people show the benefits they can get out of professional networks – and other social media and networking activities – C-level execs do follow them as well.

IDC warns that the gap between companies (vendors and solution providers) using social networks for buying and selling and “the others” will create a disadvantage for the latter. Furthermore, as it will take time for laggards in the vendor space to use social networks and as it requires a certain degree of transformation, new competencies will amplify the value buyers seek from social networks, IDC says. The result? “An echo effect, making social networks even more valuable to buyers”.

Trust: it remains a magic word in the purchase decision

The trust B2B buyers place in their professional networks - source IDC via and with LinkedIn - click for full PDF
The trust B2B buyers place in their professional networks – source IDC via and with LinkedIn – click for full PDF

A few remarks. First of all, note that the research was conducted in collaboration with LinkedIn, a “professional network”. In fact, LinkedIn published the results quite some time before IDC. What do people do on LinkedIn? It can be a mix of many things, depending on the goal of the day (“intent” matters) or in some case the strategy. They check out profiles, network, join – sometimes closed – communities and – since quite some time now – more and more “produce content” within the LinkedIn environment. The large majority is rather quiet publicly (except for maybe marketers and sellers). However, buyers do use the platform to support their buying decisions by finding answers, “content” and connecting with the influencers in their buying processes.

A core element remains trust. Or credibility. And that’s not something you create overnight.

Another key element – which is often not mentioned – is an existing relationship. In this case it can even be a “silent relationship”, for instance with an analyst or darn good – and thus trusted – expert with whom there can be no personal relationship at all.

So, find a proper mix of credible contribution, connecting and having something to add at all, instead of just joining groups and networks with many buyers to jump on each potential buying signal or sending in the troops to hunt down the buyer.

Sure, you want to sell. But first make sure you connect through value, even if you feel the urge to go hunting right now. And it’s not about value in your eyes as a vendor but about value in the eyes of the buyer. Listening and understanding the journey, needs and decision-making elements of buyers within their verticals doesn’t hurt here. Meet them on their terms while making sure you get on the radar in several ways.

The long run still matters too

Content will often play a role often, even if it’s clear, to-the-point and no-nonsense information when appropriate. Knowing that professional networks are mainly used in final stages of the purchase process, there is nothing wrong with sharing what you stand for and have to offer in the right places and at the right time (no, I don’t want a sales brochure in my LinkedIn Group).

As there is more to the channel-agnostic buying journey (including channels, ranging from other social channels to all the other stuff that makes sense for your customer out there) than the final stage, social media in the B2B buyer’s decision process is not just about professional networks nor LinkedIn. It’s also about doing your homework across other channels where you build valuable connections, share decent content and gather information to get a good view of what and whom you’re dealing with and what buyers want when/where the deals start getting closed. This also includes other touchpoints and target audiences (we’re talking a connected buying journey here with multiple stakeholders).

This being said: LinkedIn also allows you to send mailings and do campaigns. So, I guess most will continue to bet on two horses anyway. Still, a little listening, reciprocity, personality and value/trust never hurt anyone, well on the contrary.

But the real question you might want to ask is: how do I get in those trusted networks for the long run while realizing mutual value and scale?

PS: asking is never a bad idea, even in social networks. And there is much more than LinkedIn for the smartest and bravest (not the richest).