Dissecting the Real Challenges to B2B Search

The truth is that B2B search can be challenging. The satisfaction of delivering new customers and demonstrating near-term revenue is often missing.

The known keyword universe appropriate for most B2B search programs is typically much smaller than in B2C. And with online conversions usually removed from actual offline sales, the inevitable question of “how’s our program performing?” is much more difficult to answer.

But B2B search is more satisfying for those reasons. It’s difficult. It’s challenging. It’s also much more rewarding when everything comes together and the strategic importance of search can be properly demonstrated.

Let’s investigate B2B search’s real challenges and overcome them one at a time.

Challenge 1: Lengthy Purchase Consideration Process

This one you’re likely familiar with. I even touched on it briefly in my last column, which called for more accountability from B2B SEO.

Common B2B Challenges

  • B2B search is fundamentally different from B2C.
  • B2B search is difficult to measure because searchers typically aren’t buyers.
  • B2B search is confusing because we don’t really know if our intended audiences are the ones who click through.

As B2B search marketers, we don’t have the luxury of operating in fluid transactional environments. Our courtship process takes time and success in search rarely equates immediately to success with sales. We have clients whose markets often see purchase decisions stretch beyond 12 months. But search is still a highly influential and important marketing channel; you can’t ignore it because you find success difficult to measure.

It’s important to stay in front of prospects with relevant and timely messages. Search plays an equally important role at every phase of consideration.

Start first by dividing your keyword targets, ad units, content and offers into “early-” and “late-stage” consideration buckets. Don’t feel obligated to over-engineer this. Keep it simple for now with two buckets; over time this will become more sophisticated and granular.

Measuring success is slightly trickier. The ultimate state of nirvana is for marketing and sales to be working in tandem with one another, sharing data, holding hands and skipping through the hallways. That rarely happens (especially the hand-holding and skipping).

If we then assume that the search teams likely aren’t privy to sales automation or CRM data, if it even exists and is properly maintained, then how do we connect those “early-stage” offers to “late-stage” offers? One simple way is to use statistical regression modeling to confirm or deny a causal link between two activities. If you find that people are downloading your white paper assets en masse, yet none come back to buy your product, your value proposition is likely lost on your prospects.

Challenge 2: The Community of Customer

The most critical component to successful B2B search is acknowledging that no one individual within a typical B2B organization has absolute decision-making authority when it comes to purchases. For marketing communications to succeed, multiple stakeholders across the organization must agree on the vendor or product chosen.

That’s not insignificant. For search, that means not only must we introduce a relevant and timely message across various stages of purchase consideration, but also tailor those messages to speak uniquely to various roles within the organization! All of a sudden, the placement of our cute little text ads becomes infinitely more complex.

These audiences also tend to speak different languages. It’s imperative that our search efforts not only address the needs of our intended audiences, but also speak their respective languages.

Take the concept of cloud computing for example. Generally speaking, we’ve discovered that an executive level audience will search on the term “cloud computing” and its derivatives, while an IT audience will search for more technical themes like “server infrastructure virtualization.”

If you do your homework, and properly construct a search program that speaks uniquely to all audiences, then you will be able to effectively troubleshoot problem areas.

For example, if you’re generating double digit conversion rates among an engineering audience at every phase of consideration, but are falling short with the early-stage IT audience, go investigate! You might find that your message is off or that your offers aren’t very compelling. A quick check of the competition and their web content and offers can help too.

This more sophisticated approach to B2B search will put you in a position to report back on highly qualitative insights. Your boss or client will love you for it.

Challenge 3: Psychosocial Motivations of Stakeholders to the Purchase Decision

In his book “The BuyerSphere Project,” Gord Hotchkiss of Enquiro called this “The Risk Gap.” Distilling Gord’s much more complete exploration of this topic, B2B buyers tend to face high risk with little reward potential when participating in a vendor review process. If the wrong selection is made, those on the purchase committee face internal scrutiny. They may even lose their jobs.

When the right decision is made, and the product/service solves the needs of the organization, there’s little immediate personal benefit to those responsible for making the right call. They aren’t always promoted, they don’t always receive praise (after all, it was their job to pick the right vendor!), there’s no high-fiving, not even a beer Friday to celebrate. It may make some look good in the eyes of others over time, but there’s no immediacy to that “reward.”

So in B2B search we’re left to work within an environment where risk aversion is often a central theme to our benefits positioning.

This was especially true during the lows of the recession last year. Throughout 2009 (and still well into 2010) we’ve had incredible success with search programs where risk aversion is a key theme. Across landing pages we point to third-party validation, testimonials, and awards; all in an effort to say, “Hey, we’re the safe play here!”

Challenge 4: Need for Integrated Communications

Search doesn’t happen by accident. People don’t just happen to perform random Google searches and discover websites and brands. Some other macro-level environmental triggers are required to then give the user reason to turn to search in the first place. This is true in B2C communications; it’s even truer in B2B.

In an integrated program, the coordination of multi-channel communications often places search at the strategic center. As audiences turn to search engines after being exposed to messaging through other channels, search can then vet the entire user experience.

Which keyword terms are people searching for? Which ads generate the highest click-throughs? Which landing page environments yield the greatest conversions?

Future iterations of all communications are then enhanced by what we learn through search. Without integration, search can’t possibly deliver all that.


Over the course of the coming months I intend to explore these themes much more completely, relying on real-world cases and data. Hopefully we can arrive at an end-point where there are no B2B search challenges too difficult to overcome.

Join us for SES Toronto June 9-11, 2010 at the Hyatt Regency Toronto. The event will be packed with sessions covering topics such as PPC management, keyword research, SEO, social media, local, mobile, link building, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization, usability and more while offering high-level strategy, big picture, keynotes, an exhibit floor with companies that can help you grow your business, networking events, parties and more.

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