As B2B marketing comes of age, can B2B research step up?

By Rebecca Ashley, Co-Founder and Director of The Planning Department.

Over the past decade, B2B marketing has come of age. It’s no longer the dour, rational, box-ticking comms of old. Yes, there’s still some of that around, but much of it now is engaging, empathetic, and – occasionally – even humorous.

We know what’s driven this. As our work and home lives increasingly merge, there’s a recognition that people aren’t in ‘work mode’ or ‘mum mode’ or ‘keep fit mode’ or ‘Friday night mode’ (even though we are going out less, it will take a much longer pandemic to stop Fridays feeling special). As such, marketers are appealing to the more human, everyday side of their audience – evidenced by just glancing through the shortlist of entries for events such as Drum’s B2B awards.

But if B2B marketing is to continue along this heartening trajectory, it needs great insights to keep it relevant, exciting…. and effective. We need research to uncover these insights… but are B2B research methodologies able to deliver?

Effective audience recruitment is pivotal to success

B2B market research is often put in the ‘too hard or too expensive’ box. Sample recruitment can be notoriously challenging, meaning we sometimes rely on the brilliant but (by definition) limited perceptions of our sales and marketing teams. Admittedly, they can tell us what they know about their customers but have limited insight into what they don’t know about them.

When recruiting a sample of customers, the obvious approach is to rely upon contacts of the sales teams – who will know ‘the right’ client to talk to as part of the research. Inevitably, however, the ‘right client’ has a particularly good relationship with their contact and are likely to have a more positive view of the organisation as a result. Having said that, provided the B2B Marketing research is conducted with this context in mind, we can still gain great insight. Be warned, though, that recruitment relying heavily on client contacts often results in research that is delayed or under-recruited, because sales teams have far more pressing calls to make than asking their customers to participate in research.

We tend to know far less about those who are not customers. Yet these are often the very people we want to influence our marketing. This is where most of the investment in B2B research will come into play – spending time (and money) recruiting the right people, who reflect the marketing objectives of the company going forwards.

The holy grail of B2B recruitment lies with briefing a professional recruiter (which, ironically, are also hard to find!). If GDPR allows it, and they can be released into a client’s database, all the better. If not, they will have to ‘free find’. It can be expensive, but it will result in a collection of interviewees worth its weight in gold.

Next, there’s the decision around whether to incentivise the individual directly or pay into a charity on their behalf – offering a choice usually helps to optimise recruitment rates.

Adapting to new social norms with B2B Research

Before Covid, the vast majority of my B2B research took place as one to one depth interviews via telephone. Since Covid, the normalisation of Teams and Zoom means it feels OK to conduct B2B research in this way too – and I believe this has been a hugely positive move. Seeing people via a screen rather than hearing them down a phone provides more focus to the interview, the respondent is fully committed (it’s harder to be doing other things), you get to know your respondent a little more, and there can even be camaraderie (this does depend on your interviewing style – mine has always veered more on the side of the informal).

As an aside, whilst the move onto Zoom/ Teams has benefitted B2B research, B2C has had more challenges. During my most recent consumer research, one lady had a seemingly never-ending supply of wine and kept flitting between her lounge and the garden (for a cigarette), whilst a man spent much of the session lying down on his phone. I was so taken aback by this astonishing behaviour I’m ashamed to say I did little to stop it …. clearly, the ‘social norms’ we have during face to face research that aids cohesion of the group are less dominant when we are merely faces on a screen. I’ve now integrated a serious introduction to research groups that explains what is acceptable (focus, paying attention to others) and what is not (phones, wandering around the house). I’m yet to work out how to control wine consumption…

Good insight vs great insight

Back to B2B! So, we’ve got the right person to interview, we’re looking them in the eye (almost), and now we’re reliant upon the researcher’s bible – our discussion guide. This is where we make the difference between gaining good insight vs great. Let’s say, for example, we’re doing some research to inform Persona development for a particular category. Without a doubt, there are some fundamental ‘need to know’ questions… like the decision-making process, who is involved, key stages, judgement criteria, etc. But what’s also important are the emotional aspects of this – what about your role keeps you awake at night? What are the consequences of poor decision making on you personally? What does a great week in the office feel like?

When we ask our respondents questions, we need to understand the business answer – but the impact on them as humans too. Doubts, hopes, challenges, worries, aspirations – we need to ‘get’ the person to understand their work persona. We are sometimes asked to use company personas as a source of insight to develop campaign strategy – but we are too often faced with rigid persona templates that don’t consider an organisation’s culture, how long the key decision-maker has been in the role or even the TYPE of organisation they’ve come from – are they risk takers or traditional? It’s also important to look for the themes that unite people as well as those that pull them apart.

I was lucky enough to work with THINK! on a piece of research for their client Venom IT, looking to understand Heads of IT. We learnt so much, but I was particularly struck by how Heads of IT are – in the main – unflappable, massively capable problem solvers, without whom the whole working from the home situation during the pandemic would have been a very different story. (What’s also notable is that – as is often the case – this insight came to light through analysis and interpretation of the interviews overall rather than being something that was stated by the respondents).

I love B2B research. I often think I get to know B2B respondents better than B2C… perhaps it’s because we’re both in ‘work mode’ (which I admit contradicts my comment at the beginning of this piece). Perhaps it’s because it’s often 1-2-1, so you have more opportunity to understand what makes them tick. Maybe B2B respondents are less exposed to marketing and research making the discussion less cynical. Whatever the reason, I believe it helps the research process. And it’s more than satisfying to know that the insight we gain helps develop some truly brilliant marketing.

The Planning Department is a strategic services agency based in Manchester that supercharge clients thinking by bringing in new, diverse perspectives to solve problems and create new ideas.


Written by

Paul Grogan

Creative Director

Award winning, and self-confessed typographic and graphic design perfectionist, Paul has 26 years experience in the industry and is our managing and creative director.

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