Small business purchase journeys: how B2B marketers can make an impact

Small business purchase journeys can be quite different from their enterprise counterparts.

Moving prospects along the awareness-research-purchase journey is bread and butter to marketers, but when the prospect is an SME, things just aren’t that simple. If they were, 90% of brands wouldn’t be struggling right now to connect with small business decision-makers.

At some point on the journey, something just isn’t landing. Probably because the marketing was conceived with corporates in mind and, unsurprisingly, SMEs don’t think or act like big corporates.

In a nutshell then, one-size-fits-all marketing doesn’t work. This is why 75% of SMEs feel that large companies do not market their product effectively when targeting the small business community.

Below, we highlight how brands can market more effectively to SMEs by revealing how buyers behave and are influenced at each stage of the purchasing journey, based on insight from a new study by Earnest in partnership with Imperial College London.

The awareness stage

According to our study, there’s an element of serendipity as buyers begin their journey and formulate their strategy – 27% of small businesses claim they first noticed a certain product or service while scanning the market, but just 7% cited advertising and 3% social media.

The most-trusted information source is self-conducted research (27%), followed by recommendations from friends, family and colleagues (20%), then online reviews/blogs (17%).

How to increase your impact

Direct your efforts towards building brand familiarity and favourability – it’ll help shortcut the process for buyers.

  • Think pull strategies, not push: Hang out online where your buyers hang out, rather than bombarding them with unsolicited communications.
  • Create bundled, easily digestible content: SME buyers are time poor and overwhelmed by the volume of information out there, so make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for.
  • Explore co-authoring content with analysts, trusted experts and industry influencers: Buyers have a healthy scepticism about the integrity of content, so bringing independent, unbiased voices to the conversation lends your brand third-party respectability.

SME buyers consider between five and 10 alternatives – but recommendations from family, friends or peers can reduce this to as few as three options.

The research stage

Good news: buyers are open-minded – 52% said they enjoy discovering new products and services. And once they start their research, the internet plays a major role, making it easy for buyers to compare products and services, and get the opinions of peers and experts.

However, our study revealed that during the research stage, for buyers there’s no substitute for actually trying the product themselves – the demo or trial is the most trusted source of information (56%).

Another interesting finding is that buyers aren’t ready or willing to be wholly self-sufficient online, and sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available. Which may explain why 53% of respondents said they prefer to visit a store and speak to a rep to get reassurance they’re making the right decisions.

Our study also revealed recommendations and reviews are critical, with 49% citing them as their top source of information during the research stage. Again and again we heard how small business buyers turned to peers for advice – which significantly influenced their choices and shortened the overall buying process.

And when it comes interacting with your brand face to face, your reps’ knowledge and bedside manner really matter. In our study, 55% of respondents said they’re looking for suppliers who ‘share their own business values and vision’, with 38% even describing their regular suppliers as ‘good friends’. So a personable, well-informed sales exec who can advise a customer on what’s right for them can be the clincher (even if the customer ends up buying online).

Finally, a word of caution about the research stage. Buyers are becoming increasingly irritated by brands that harass them after they research their products online. So think twice about bombarding people with follow-up calls and emails the moment they download a whitepaper.

How to increase your impact

  • Run demos so people can try before they buy, and for buyers who can’t visit you in store, consider video conferencing, live chat, and posting demos online.
  • Offer free trials so buyers can see how your product works in their own environment – it’ll help them make a compelling business case for a full roll-out.
  • Educate your sales execs on what SME buyers care about (and what they don’t), so they’re in a position to help, rather than sell.
  • Encourage sales execs to make an emotional connection with buyers – no trust, no sale.
  • Ask customers to be advocates and post positive reviews online – if you deliver a great customer experience, most customers are happy to sing your praises.

Social and sales

  • Over 70% of buyers use social media for research
  • Facebook is the highest-ranked social platform for new product awareness
  • YouTube is the most used for product research and final product decisions.

The purchase stage

When it comes down to sealing the deal, online is the preferred channel, largely for its convenience (58%). Just under a quarter (24%) prefer to buy in person and 15% are happiest buying over the phone.

How to increase your impact

  • Provide the option to buy online: Keep the process simple, don’t put unnecessary obstacles in their way, and avoid overwhelming them with too many options that risk turning them off.
  • Use clear and transparent pricing, easy to understand terms and conditions and flexible contract terms: They say a lot about your brand.
  • Communicate with customers post-purchase: Add value by sending content that helps them get the most out of your product, or run exclusive customer offers.

Three common SME marketing fails

Using lazy segmentation

Too many brands treat small businesses like they’re all the same, relying on basic segmentation strategies. How you slice and dice the data really matters. Size alone won’t cut it. Address everyone, impress no one.

Read more about alternative strategies in Segmentation beyond firmographics.

Running campaigns that interrupt, not engage

Small business owners are insanely busy. They don’t want brands trying to sell to them while they’re busy working the day job. Cold calling, unsolicited emails, LinkedIn stalking. All nailed-on ways to grind prospects’ gears.

Talking the wrong talk

Nothing turns off small businesses more than big brands talking down to them. It reveals a lack of understanding for what they do – and a lack of respect for how hard they work. And if you really want to lose a buyer double-quick time, hit them with corporate jargon.