Claudia Bate, Head of Technology, Director and Partner, FleishmanHillard UK
It has been more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic transformed our lives forever, disrupting the way we travel, shop, spend, socialise and work. As consumers, we have drastically changed our behaviour. With non-essential retail shut for most of last year and now into 2021, even previously late adopters switched to online shopping – probably forever for 17.2 million Brits, according to a Retail Economics report.
But what about B2B buyers? Beyond the shift to ecommerce, how have their pre-COVID ways of researching and making purchasing decisions changed? Have changes to buying behaviour made early in the pandemic persisted or shifted? We commissioned new research to understand the current buying landscape as we look ahead to the new financial year.
Taking a temperature check on B2B buying
As a follow-up to a FleishmanHillard UK research report produced with TRUE Global Intelligence last September, The Power of Business Communication: Navigating the Changing Landscape of B2B Buying, we recently asked 150 business decision-makers in the UK about their current buying experiences. Combined with a similar study amongst senior business leaders in the US, this latest survey showed that, as in the consumer sphere, the pandemic has continued to have a significant, lasting impact on B2B buying. – and not always for the better.
Putting the brakes on decision making
Months of working from home, with only virtual access to colleagues, partners and suppliers, has made B2B buying more challenging for many. The process has become less efficient, with four in ten buyers saying that decision-making has slowed down, potentially due to more layers of approval. Significantly, almost double the number of respondents in the US reported involving more people in decision-making because of the pandemic (31%), compared to the UK (16%). It’s unsurprising that ongoing uncertainty has made procurement teams even more cautious.
Our research shows that belts have been further tightened and existing supplier contracts are facing even greater scrutiny (52% compared to 41% in September) as purchases try to find a better deal elsewhere. Continuing to operate under lockdown restrictions saw a growing number of respondents delay decisions and press pause on existing projects.
Remote research and new routes
With physical industry events on hold, and printed titles gathering dust in closed offices, B2B buyers have chosen to explore new sources to inform their purchasing decisions – and online channels have become increasingly influential in reach and moving sales through the funnel. Traditional sales information on products and services had become far less useful to respondents at the time of our survey, as they increasingly consulted a blend of different forms of content, including social media.
While analysts, peers and online industry publications continued to be the most influential sources of information, over a quarter said they draw on content from their LinkedIn and Twitter news feeds and searches. Meanwhile, US respondents were almost twice as likely to consider Facebook very influential compared to their UK counterparts (34% versus 20%).
Blurred boundaries… and beliefs?
Two-thirds of B2B buyers are now applying content they consume in their personal lives to their professional lives too, providing evidence of the notion that the two are more intertwined than ever due to home-based working. If expectations as consumers now equal those as business buyers, this is significant for suppliers who must shift their communications strategies accordingly.
B2B buyers, now used to brands vying for their attention in their living rooms, will expect bespoke recommendations, tailored emails and seamless user experiences. Between our two surveys, there has been a 7% increase in the appetite for personalised emails and newsletters. Personalisation is more important to UK versus US B2B buyers: 43% of UK respondents ranked personalised emails in their top five content sources, compared to 31% of US respondents.
Three-quarters of respondents (73%) agreed that the way they make purchasing decisions has evolved through the pandemic. While some changes have been frustrating, others – such as less business travel and flexible ways of working – may well be preferred, and likely here to stay.
Based on what we know as B2B communicators, how can we help drive lead generation and sales for our clients in this new purchasing paradigm?
- Get creative – the communications industry needs to keep being creative, even when it feels like a risk. More interactive and engaging types of storytelling will not only resonate with B2B buyers but will help messages to stand out across a more diverse range of content sources.
- Transform your content – it’s more important than ever to meet the needs of buyers who have adopted a digital-first approach. Now is the time for B2B businesses to seize the opportunity to freshen up their approach through use of visual content, highlighting industry insights to drive thought leadership and borrowing inspiration from B2C brands in terms of paving the path to purchase.
- Foster connections – talk directly to audiences through tailored and relevant communications that reflect their challenges and needs, not those who want to sell to them. Given that B2B audiences have been wearing two hats almost simultaneously for more than a year, we need to think about new ways of reaching them beyond the traditional routes.
As we enter the vaccine era with burgeoning hope for more freedom and economic recovery, we look forward to helping more businesses adapt their approach to the new B2B normal.
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May 11, 2021