Social media theorist Erik Qualman once suggested that “we no longer search for news, products and services we wish to buy. Instead they are pushed to us by friends, acquaintances and business colleagues.”
But in this age of push strategies and user endorsements, we’ve never had so much information on our screens. But do executives now find information trawls and purchasing decisions simpler? And as buying teams sift testimonials and user sentiment, do they find this information of practical value – or are they simply overwhelmed?
To understand the new rules, we examined 300 UK technology purchasers’ opinions of their buying cycle, while our parallel business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketers’ survey gauged 59 professionals’ views on their changing brand communications challenges.
Responses show three discrete purchasing unit roles: the "recommenders" and "short listers" of supplier information; "influencers" who may affect the short-listing and buying choice; and "decision-makers"– typically the most senior member of the team.
Using social media to decide on purchases
How do these team members use social media in their trawl of potential IT suppliers and decision-making?
While supplier events, trade shows and peer forums were once the staple of the technology market circuit, our survey data suggests that some categories of these essentially face-to-face meetings are being overtaken in value after only a few short years by online publications and IT blogs that share knowledge in a time-efficient way.
More on social media
A shift to newer online interactions is also suggested by our separate survey of technology marketers. Their responses suggest that the three biggest drivers are budget cuts (81% of respondents), social media (75%) and a greater focus on driving sales (68%).
Social media’s extended networks and updates help purchasers to optimise their time, but our research indicates a desire among buyers for more personalised interaction.
Asked what made suppliers’ marketing information more accessible, the buyers’ shopping list is headed by “making content easier to find” (40% of respondents), “smaller face-to-face events” (38%), “more frequent online events” (38%) and “more content available via social media” (28%). Buyers have supplier information delivered to their screens, but it seems they are filtering it.
Somewhat surprisingly, decision-makers find a range of offline and online information sources ‒ media, events, supplier information, analysts, blogs and social media ‒ more useful than the other two categories do.
Decision-makers easily outstrip purchasing colleagues in connecting to bloggers, analysts and media on social platforms. And they share more information via social media than those colleagues too.
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While 61% of decision-makers use Twitter to follow analysts and 50% follow the media there, this activity was much less pronounced among purchasing teams’ influencers, at only 36% and 25% respectively.
Over half of decision-makers (53%) hooked up with industry analysts on LinkedIn, but only 22% of the influencer category was likely to. Over 40% of decision-makers regularly share insights with people in or outside their organisation, but only 17% of influencers do so and still fewer of the short-listers (13%).
Assessing social media's value
But how useful is socially-derived insight? It seems likely that purchasing teams’ decision-makers are probably better at filtering information.
But alternatively, are they, as time-poor senior management, simply more adept at or allowed to delegate much of their information trawl to their team? The information short-lister category we identified that is doing the supplier validation legwork could be forgiven for treating emerging information channels with no more enthusiasm than existing ones.
And is the technology market adequately assessing social media’s value? Buyers’ responses to our survey ‒ endorsing new channels alongside old events ‒ suggest an acceptance of working with multiple information sources as they evaluate potential suppliers.
Marketers are having to adjust rapidly to understand and reach customers in today’s social media environments. While clear majorities of marketers use market data reports (69%), customer feedback surveys (68%) and market research (64%), under half of them are using social media/analytics (44%) and less than one-third social media tools (31%).
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Of those marketers using social media in their market research activity, over half (58%) carry out this task using in-house tools, but almost a quarter (23%) do not track their customers’ social presence at all.
Technology purchasers are using multiple information channels, increasingly including social networks, to build their product, supplier and industry knowledge. It’s likely that because of individual buyers’ familiarity with social networks, suppliers will need to continually improve their understanding of how their targets engage with and filter information from such fast-evolving channels.
The survey suggests that senior buying personnel derive real value from social interactions – they seem to want an ongoing conversation and build their knowledge of supplier offerings. This trend also adds weight to the argument that technology marketers need to adapt their market research and insight processes as well as their product innovation operations.
But as Erik Qualman might acknowledge, in this shifting landscape, how quickly can technology suppliers turn the data from these activities into deeper insights and personalised content that buyers want and need?
Kevin Withnall (pictured) is a director at Vanson Bourne.