The essential role research plays in B2B marketing

Tim Stafford20/08/2018

Conducting original research will establish your brand as an industry thought leader, help change the purchasing decisions your customers make and generate content you can use sustainably throughout the year.

For any company to make a success of content marketing, it must produce content that is credible, consumable and, in B2B sectors especially, informs or helps customers with a particular problem.

One of the best ways to do this is to create original, evidence‐based research. Collecting new data, using proprietary data or combining existing data in an original way allows you to say something new about the world. This can establish your brand as an expert on topics where you’ll often have more institutional knowledge than any other organisation on the planet.

Publishing and promoting this content and using your company’s subject specialists to add extra context in sales conversations, press interviews and so on will establish your firm as an authority over time. Better still, it positions your company as an authority on customer problems that your products and services can then help to solve.

As Jason Miller, content and social marketing leader for LinkedIn’s Sales and Marketing Solutions, says:

“There’s a real hunger for credible insight – and original, well‐sourced research is one of the best ways to generate that credibility.”
Jason Miller, LinkedIn

He adds: “In [LinkedIn’s] latest Demand Gen Report into B2B Buyers’ content preferences, 75 per cent said that they wanted to see more original data incorporated into thought leadership content. I think that says it all.”

‘Original research’ can be either primary research (collecting your own data) or secondary research (using existing data or studies), so long as it produces original observations or insights about the world.

From engaging potential customers at the top of the funnel through to closing a sale, the best marketers use content and insights that challenge customers, rather than just extol the virtues of a particular product or service.

At its best, this approach provides your customers with a perspective about their business that they hadn’t previously understood or even identified before. This then changes the purchasing decisions they make. It also makes customers more likely to advocate internally for a company’s product or service throughout the buying process.

Commissioning your own research is one of the most effective and efficient ways to provide this ‘challenging’ perspective. Not only will your research create a compelling piece of flagship content on its own, it also allows you to create a whole raft of other content using the insights you uncover as a ‘cornerstone’ to tell a unified story.

All B2B firms – regardless of industry or outlook – are in a strong position to use original research to anchor their content strategy.

But to make this approach work for your business, it’s important to think beyond internal goals like generating quality leads, progressing stalled sales deals or supporting new market entry.

The secret to making research the cornerstone of your content strategy is to stop thinking like a marketer and start thinking more like a publisher.

Why your customers’ problems come first

Today’s B2B buyers prefer to research their needs thoroughly before engaging with a supplier. In fact, they spend more time on this than on any other purchase activity.

Research from the CEB shows that the typical B2B buyer is 57 per cent of the way through their purchase decision before they contact a vendor. By the time they talk to a sales rep, they know a lot. They feel empowered to ask tough questions, they may already have established their purchase criteria and they’ll know roughly what they want.

Take the example of a head of sales at a company who finds that too many sales deals are getting stuck and her reps are failing to turn promising situations into hard cash. After reading up on the topic online, she decides she needs to find a provider that can train them on innovative “closing” techniques to secure deals more efficiently.

In this case, she has already decided what her challenge is – that she wants a specific kind of training for her sales team – and she may even have a company in mind she thinks will do it best. Through her research, she will seek to narrow her decision down to a manageable number of suppliers before she contacts anyone directly.

The key, then, for any B2B firm is to get inside this initial decision‐making phase – and that’s where your research comes in.

Showing customers what they don’t know about their own company

Independent, objective research that will engage customers in this initial phase must go beyond providing general thought leadership.

Thought leadership is content designed to teach customers that the supplier is smart, but ‘disruptive insight’ is designed to show them that they’re wrong – that they’ve missed something important.

“All suppliers position themselves as smart, but few have sufficient customer understanding to teach their customers,” explains Martha Mathers, Gartner’s marketing practice leader. “And it’s only when they can do the latter that they motivate action.”

Content doesn’t need to change the way that customers think generally about the world. But it must change – or ‘reframe’ – the way they think about their own business.
Martha Mathers, Gartner

Take our head of sales again. Thought leadership content may provide her with useful information about the changing nature of sales today and some of the best ideas for closing a sale. But, disruptive research can conclusively show her what’s causing her team’s problems.

Imagine she discovers a report from a leading business consultancy that provides new insights into how her reps can improve their results through constructive interactions with customers at the beginning of the sales cycle.

This type of content hasn’t just taught the head of sales something about her own discipline. It’s taught her something new about her own business – that her teams are failing to close because they aren’t doing the right thing earlier on in the sales cycle.

Not only has the company that produced this research grabbed her attention, it’s changed the context in which she’s making her decision. She’s no longer looking just for training on efficient closing techniques. Finally, it leads her back uniquely to the services that this company can provide to her.

How Xerox disrupted the US education system

Xerox provided a great example of this approach in practice when the printer company showed US teachers why they should think about education differently, and how their colour printers could help.

The market for printers in US education is highly commoditised. Xerox’s new product offered colour printing at almost the same cost as black‐and‐white. But despite this, the modern buying landscape was forcing Xerox’s reps into competing on price and often losing. More features or more brochures about “speeds and feeds” wasn’t making a difference.

They found that the people most likely to help them sell colour printers were the most sceptical – senior teachers. A school’s purchasing or IT manager would always choose the most low‐cost version. But the Xerox team realised that if they could show how they could improve students’ performance, they’d win over senior decision makers.

Based on this insight, Xerox commissioned credible and objective research that found children who have grown up in today’s world of high definition screens expect vibrant colour in their classroom materials. Coloured materials lead to higher knowledge retention and better pupil engagement versus black and white.

This then enabled Xerox and its sales reps to show teachers something they didn’t know about their own domain. It disrupted their “mental model” of what they were looking for in printing services and tied uniquely back to the services the company offered.

As one Xerox senior marketing executive put it, this research was “rocket fuel” for their reps.

Key takeaways

  • Research is a powerful tool in the B2B sales process. It can put you on a buyer’s radar during the research phase of their purchase decision and reframe their thinking around your unique offering.
  • The best research projects show buyers something they didn’t know about their own industry, revealing a challenge or opportunity they didn’t even know existed.
  • Consider how you can influence your audience beyond getting more clicks or generating more leads. What can you show them to change their way their think about how their business operates?

This is a chapter from our guide, Driving B2B lead generation with original research. Download the full report here.