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The Empowered Business Buyer Is a Myth [New Demand Generation Research]

Editor’s note: We’ve updated our Demand Generation research study for 2023.

One of my favorite scenes in a movie is from Men In Black. Jay, played by Will Smith, is a new “man in black” and has just dealt with his first aliens. He asks his boss Kay, played by Tommy Lee Jones, why they don’t just tell the world that aliens exist. Kay says humans simply couldn’t handle it. Then, he adds this:

Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll ‘know’ tomorrow.

He perfectly encapsulates that even though we humans can intellectually comprehend something new, it’s often difficult for us to take it in and make rational changes.

What do we know about business buyers

Today, many B2B businesses think an asymmetric relationship exists between their companies and potential customers. They perceive the buyers are in control and armed with more and higher-quality information than ever before. They see the prevalent research that says 41% of B2B buyers consume three to five pieces of content before engaging with a salesperson and 90% of buyers won’t take a cold call.

Many #B2B marketers perceive the buyers are in control and armed with more and higher-quality content than ever before, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent @Vidyard. #Research #DemandGen Click To Tweet

Marketers conclude the modern empowered buyer and their preference for self-service knowledge should be the center of the buyer’s journey conversation. Sales teams provide the differentiating product features and ensure that the company is positioned as the best supplier of such research and information.

Then, demand generation teams distribute thought leadership and product/service information to websites and resource centers. These teams vow to become buyer-journey-focused. They use all their energy to dump mountains of research, data, and information and become the first available answer to why should we change?

They seek to meet their mission: To generate demand.

There’s only one problem: Many of today’s buyers are not empowered, and what’s more, they have little interest in being so.

Many of today’s buyers are not empowered and have little interest in being so, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent @Vidyard. #Research #DemandGen Click To Tweet

Just imagine what you might know tomorrow.

Myth of the empowered buyer

Five years ago, research from CEB (now Gartner) illustrated that buyers are “deeply uncertain and stressed.” Yes, modern research concludes buyers are self-directed. But the follow-up question we marketers should ask is why are they self-directed?

Increasingly, it’s because their organizational leadership assumes all information they need is readily available. It’s just a “Google search away.” Thus, these managers are under increasing pressure to self-educate and become subject matter experts.

Yes, almost two-thirds of buyers are now likely to be part of a buying committee of four or more people, according to Gartner. However, as marketers, we must again ask – why? One of the prevailing answers is they are dying to speed up the long, complex acquisition process. To do that, they divvy up rationalization arguments for purchasing a product/service. As Brent Adamson, principal executive advisor at Gartner, says:

In many ways, the single biggest obstacle to purchasing today is a buying problem that has nothing to do with the supplier at all.

Put simply, there are reasons why today’s buyers perform so much online research before talking with a salesperson. They usually don’t know what they’re looking for, where to get it, or whom to trust when they do.

Is it any wonder that so few buyers want to talk with a sales rep first? They’re already worried they haven’t gathered enough information and education they can trust. They have no time for people who will distract them from that task and simply offer more information that they don’t know if they can trust.

Further, many demand generation marketers created an unintended result by providing more and more content focused on evolving a sophisticated argument about why a prospect should change. Buyers see the same point of view repeatedly but from different angles.

The buyers’ goal is to learn how to play chess. The demand gen marketers are bombarding them with points of view on the history of chess and why it’s such an important game.

This leads, as the Gartner research found, to “unproductive, open-ended learning loops by the deluge of information.” While providing more high-level educational and product-oriented content feels more customer-centric, buyers say it actually decreases their purchasing ease.

This process almost certainly doesn’t leave the buyer empowered or better enabled to make the best purchase. What’s the answer? What kind of content should demand generation marketers produce if more thought leadership, research, or product information isn’t helping?

New research for demand generation

Things are different in 2022. As we emerge from the pandemic-related disruptions, marketers are moving back into familiar habits. We, once again, are getting comfortable with what we know to be true.

In our 2020 version of this research, reported on in a market brief titled, Architecting Desire: Connecting Content Marketing Experiences to Generate the Best Next Steps Along the Buyer’s Journey, CMI recognized the difficulties of remote work, challenging economic conditions, and the waterfall of negative headlines.

This newly released 2022 report, Challenging the Myth of the Empowered Buyer, based on CMI’s 2022 Content Marketing for Demand Generation survey, sponsored by Vidyard, illustrates a return to some demand generation priorities of the past and recognizes (and challenges) the myth of the empowered buyer.

New CMI demand gen research illustrates a return to some priorities of the past and recognizes the myth of the empowered buyer, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent @Vidyard. #Research #DemandGen Click To Tweet

As you’ll see, demand generation marketers still focus on top-of-the-funnel brand awareness but are also starting to recognize content should focus on making it easier to buy.

Chart Showing Stage in Buyer's Journey Where Organization Receives Most Value From Content Marketing Used for Demand Generation

Demand generation teams are beginning to find better results by focusing earlier and later in the process and making it easier to purchase rather than pouring on more information to convince people to change. While generating awareness increased slightly (56% from 54%), consideration/intent dropped to 24% from 30%. And interestingly, late-stage doubled from 4% to 8%.

Big jump in account-based marketing

One of the more interesting findings in this year’s research is the jump in account-based marketing (+13 percentage points). While this increase was markedly more among enterprise companies (1,000-plus employees), it was also meaningful among smaller companies. More demand generation marketers are focused on creating valuable content for buying committees or teams that make decisions about solutions.

Today, in demand generation, content marketing is vitally important (and, in fact, has become more important over the last year, as our research found). So, if not thought leadership, research, or more product information, then what?

When we ask, “What business is the demand generation team really in,” we might note the myth of the empowered buyer. We might ask ourselves the following clarifying questions:

  1. What if instead of seeing every prospective buyer or buying team as a highly informed expert looking for yet more requirements, alternatives, and other education, we see them as people eagerly looking to decide about a thing that they probably aren’t terribly passionate about? Instead of coming up with more sophisticated arguments to convince prospects to change, what if we created easier and more valuable methods of actually helping them understand how to change?
  2. What if we were more prescriptive and consultative about the entire buying process? What if the business enabled all kinds of frontline workers to help distribute education while exuding confidence, delivering value, and anticipating the needs of a buying group? Put simply: What if the demand gen team worked more with onboarding and customer teams rather than (or in addition to) industry subject matter experts.
  3. Can our companies evolve from a reactive “buyer experience myopia” to connected consultative experiences that make for new kinds of customer experiences? What if we did give away the best practices of how to implement, make the change, or deliver value – instead of teasing that our solution is a magic “black box” of unicorns and rainbows that creates satisfied customers on the other side?

What customers really want

Customers don’t buy products; they buy results. Professor Theodore Levitt taught us this. But the question is, what results? Building a strategic content operation that can better help our teams answer that question is the first step in challenging the myth of the “empowered buyer” into a more expansive and differentiated consultative experience.

Get more insight and survey results; download Challenging the Myth of the Empowered Buyer based on CMI’s 2022 Content Marketing for Demand Generation survey

Want to dive deeper into demand gen? Join us online May 18 and 19 for the Demand Generation Summit. Sessions cover video for conversions, content as fuel for demand, first-party data, agile marketing, personalization, and more. Sign up free. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute