It seems that businesses, whether they’re small or global 2000 concerns, are buying more supplies using search at some point in the B2B procurement process. Some people begin and end a procurement journey with search. They actually buy the products through a strictly search-dependent process.
Yet many still use a combination of word-of-mouth, search and traditional information gathering to guide them to the best deals on the most goods.
To find out just how much B2B buying behaviors are shifting, Enquiro Search Solutions conducted a survey earlier in 2007. They found that online search was consistently employed throughout the entire buying process, from awareness right through to purchase.
There’s still a lot of back and forth: Offline factors influence online activity, and vice-versa, for a merging of the online and the offline worlds. In an audio podcast discussion, as well as the accompanying BriefingsDirect multimedia video-podcast, I helped plumb the depths of Enquiro’s findings and then vetted them through the experiences of B2B search engine ZoomInfo.
Listen to the discussion (43:43 minutes).
Here are some excerpts:
Search and Ye Shall Find
Gord Hotchkiss: We did the original survey in 2004 and, at the time, there wasn’t a lot of research out there about search in general, even on the consumer side. There was virtually nothing on the B2B side. The first survey … certainly proved that search was important. We found that online activity, in particular that connected with search activity, was consistent in a large percentage of purchases. In 2007, we added more insight to the methodology. We wanted to understand the different roles that are typical in B2B purchases — economic buyers versus technical buyers versus user buyers. We also wanted to get more understanding of the different phases of the buying cycle.
As far as the main takeaways from the study, obviously online activity is more important than ever. In fact, we asked respondents to indicate from a list of over 30 influencers what was most important to them in making the purchase decision. Online factors, such as interaction with the vendor Web site and interaction with the search engine, were right up there with the traditional winner, word of mouth. What we see is a real link between those and looking for objective information and specific detail.
We did notice an evolution of behavior as you move through the funnel, and the nature of the interactions with the different online resources changes how you navigate to them and how you go to different sites for information. But, online research was consistent through the entire process, from awareness right through to purchase. There’s a lot of back and forth. … We saw a merging of the online and the offline worlds in making these decisions and trying to come to what’s the right decision for your company or what’s the right product or service.
A Change in Behavior
We just found increased reliance on online to do that research. When we say “increased reliance,” we’re probably talking 10 percentage points up over the three years. So, if 65 percent of the people were doing it in 2004, 75 percent of the people are doing it now. That’s primarily where we saw the trends going.
When we looked at the different phases of the buying cycle, it starts with awareness. You become aware that you need something. There was a high percentage of people — in the high 60 percent range — who said, “Once I become aware that I need something, the first place I’m going to go is the search engine to start looking for it.” A lot of that traffic is going to end up on Google. It was the overwhelming choice among general search engines for B2B buyers.
But, as you move through the process, you start doing what we call a “landscape search.” The first search is to get the lay of the land to figure out the information sites that have the information you are looking for. Who are the main vendors playing in this space? Where are the best bets to go and get more information to help make this purchase decision?
Search as Navigation
So, those first searches tend to be fairly generic — shorter key phrases — just to get the lay of the land to figure out where to go. As you progress, search tends to become more of a navigational shortcut, and we’ve seen this activity increase over the last two to three years. Increasingly, we’re using search engines to get us from point A to point B online.
We also wanted to get a retroactive view of a successful transaction. So, in the second part of the survey, we asked them to recall a transaction they had made in the past 12 months. We wanted to see whether that initial search led to a successful purchase down the road, and, at the end of the road, how the different factors influenced them. So we actually approached them from a couple of different angles.
Dana Gardner: Now, 85 percent of these people say they’re using online search for some aspect of this purchasing process. It strikes me that this involves trillions of dollars worth of goods. These are big companies and, in some cases, buying lots of goods at over a hundred thousand dollars a whack. Do you concur that we’re talking about trillions of dollars of B2B goods now being impacted significantly by the search process?
Hotchkiss: Absolutely. The importance of this is maybe the most mind-numbing fact to contemplate. Traditionally, the B2B space has been a little slow to move into the search arena. Traditionally, in the search arena, the big advertisers tend to be travel or financial products. B2B is just starting to understand how integral search is to all this activity. When you think of the nature of the B2B purchase, risk avoidance is a huge issue. You want to make sure that whatever decisions you make are well-researched and well-considered purchases. That naturally leads to a lot of online interaction.
The business information search is a primary factor driving [ZoomInfo’s] growth. Our company right now is growing on two fronts. One is our traditional paid-search model, where we have subscription services focused on people information that is targeted at salespeople and recruiters as a source for candidates and prospects.
Bryan Burdick: The more rapidly growing piece of our business is the advertising-driven business information search engine, which I think is a really interesting trend related to the concept you guys were just talking about. Not only does the B2B advertiser spend lots of money today trying to reach out, but the B2B searcher has new tools, services, and capabilities that provide a richer, better, more efficient search than they’ve had through the traditional search engines.
Hotchkiss: Everybody needs to be focused on search. I can’t see an exception. You mentioned the percentage that said they would go online. We segmented out the group that didn’t indicate they go online to see what was unique about them. The only thing unique about them was their age. They tended to be older buyers and tended to be with smaller organizations, where the CEO was more actively involved in the purchase decision. That was really the only variants we saw. If it’s a generational thing, then obviously that percentage is going to get smaller every year.
Burdick: From a vertical business information search perspective, that we’re really in the first inning here. A lot of interesting trends and enhancements are going to be coming down the road. One in particular that may have an influence in the next year or two is the community aspect within the search. … I think that you’ll start to see a marriage of, not only B2B search, but also online community and a factoring into that whole process. Then, who knows where we’ll go from there? … The word of community.
Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, which tracks trends, delivers forecasts and interprets the competitive landscape of enterprise applications and software infrastructure markets for clients. He also producesBriefingsDirect sponsored podcasts. Disclosure: ZoomInfo is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect business productivity podcasts.