It's the fashion these days to write short, minimal content for business-to-business (or B2B) websites, even when the product or service is complex. The theory is that no one reads anymore.
Websites are mainly for reading, or at least for browsing. When people make important decisions, they're hungry for information to guide their choices. They'll digest your content if you make it useful and interesting.
This post is for people who work at companies that sell complex, expensive products or services to other businesses. It focuses on ways that your website and the content you offer on it should be different from those of companies that sell simpler products.
Does your website provide enough of the right kind of information to help visitors make big buying decisions?
Hare are 10 suggestions to help you ensure that it does.
But first, a few words about what makes complex sales different from other B2B transactions.
How complex sales are different
A complex sale, by definition, is one where two or more people influence the buying decision.
B2B sales represent a broad range of complexity. The information needs of buyers vary widely across the spectrum of complexity. It's one thing to buy a new copier for the office. It's quite another to buy an enterprise software system for the entire company.
How complex are your company's sales? The answer depends on your customer's buying process. Here are a few of the many variables that add complexity:
- How many people are involved in the buying process?
- How many business functions or departments are involved?
- Do your customers normally issue a detailed request for proposal?
- Do they expect a formal ROI analysis?
These and other factors each add complexity. You can download a list of 22 factors here.
If you're unsure about the complexity of your customers' buying process, interview some customers and prospects. This is a great way to improve your website and your content marketing.
Sadly, few B2B companies interview customers to see how they can improve their content marketing. That's one reason why so many visitors to B2B websites find them lacking.
For more on this, see the 2015 B2B Web Usability Report.
10 ways to improve your content for complex sales
1. Anticipate a range of buying needs.
No two complex sales are ever exactly alike. A purchase decision that's very complex for one customer may be much less so for another customer. One customer may use different buying processes with the same vendor at different times.
Even if you intimately know your customers and their buying habits, each opportunity presents different circumstances.
Good salespeople know to handle each complex sale differently. They adjust their behavior to each situation.
In contrast, it's hard to adjust a website for sales of varying complexity.
Some websites use technology that displays different pages to different groups of visitors. Unless you have a website with this capability, you must design yours to work well for a "typical" sale.
With proper thought and planning, a good B2B website can accommodate common variations in the buyer's decision process.
For example, you can layer the information on your site so visitors can select the level of detail they want. You do so by using the "inverted pyramid" information structure used in news stories. You provide the general, high-level information first. Then you offer more detail deeper in your stream of content.
2. Provide clear and easy-to-find information for "scouts."
Early in a complex buying process, a company usually performs online research to identify potential vendors. The company may appoint one or more "scouts" to create an initial list for evaluation.
The scouts may be administrative assistants or junior employees who don't fully understand the business or its needs.
Scouts may also be senior executives. Surveys show that members of the C-suite often do their own research early in buying decisions that interest them personally.
If your company doesn't make it onto the scout's initial list, it will be hard for you to be considered later in their decision process.
Losing a potential customer early in their research process is especially damaging for big, highly complex sales. That's because there are fewer potential customers, and you have fewer opportunities to close such sales. Every loss, even at the top of the funnel, hurts that much more if your sales are big and infrequent.
So how do you appeal to a scout? First, your website must be easy to find through Google search and social media. It helps if your company is also listed by major directories and is covered by industry analysts and appropriate rating sites.
Second, your homepage and landing pages should provide clear and simple value propositions, without jargon. Clearly state the industries and kinds of organizations your company serves.
3. Provide enough detail.
Among companies that sell complex products or services, few provide enough information online.
Companies cite several reasons for providing less information:
- "Our product information or sales messages change too fast. It's hard to keep the website up to date."
- "We want prospects to talk to our sales reps, not make a decision from looking at our website."
- "We want to hide sensitive information from our competitors."
All these reasons make good sense. But they risk frustrating your visitors, and they may hurt your chances of getting the sale.
Today visitors expect you to put more information online.
Until recently, vendors could assume that a buyer would call a sales rep for more information. But today this is a riskier assumption, unless your company is among the best-known vendors in its industry.
Recent research suggests that many buyers are waiting longer before they contact a salesperson. I believe this research applies less to complex sales than to transactional B2B sales. Serious customers are likely to interact with a salesperson throughout a complex sale. Even so, the research suggests that all buyers are forming more of their opinions and preferences through online research before they talk to salespeople.
Don't kid yourself that most visitors to your website will pick up the phone to ask for information they can't find on your site. Some won't do it, especially during their scouting process.
Some portion of your potential customers may move on, never to come back.
Here's a safe rule of thumb: The more complex your customer's decision process, the more information you should provide on your website.
Many companies seem to have this backwards. The more complex their product or service, the less information they provide online.
You can provide shorter and more digestible content for early in the buyer's decision process, when you're still trying to build awareness and interest. But you should also offer more substantial information for later stages when visitors want detailed information .
If you're worried about providing too much information your competitors can see online, put sensitive or customer-specific information behind a password. Make the password available only to visitors your sales team has qualified.
3. Provide information for the variety of people who influence the buying decision.
CEB (the Conference Executive Board) has published an often-quoted research finding that on average, 5.8 individuals are involved in a B2B purchase decision.
Don't fixate on that exact number. It may not apply to the kind of sales your company closes.
The CEB survey polled buyers who work mainly in larger companies. For an average of 5.4 influencers, the range is probably between 2 and 20, depending on the size of the customer's company and the complexity of the purchase.
The important point is that several buyers are likely to be involved. Maybe many will have a say, and your sales team may not be able to identify and reach all of them. To improve your chances of winning the decision, your website should serve their diverse information needs.
Effective websites provide information that helps your customer's scouts, internal advocates, or champions sell your solution on your behalf, at times without direct help from your sales team.
Decision influencers in your customer's company may come from various business functions, including Sales, Marketing, Supply Chain, Finance, Legal, Information Technology, Engineering, Manufacturing, and so on.
These people are likely to have varying levels of seniority, ranging from mid-level managers to the C-suite and even board members.
Each business function and each level of seniority is likely to have different perspectives, preferences, requirements, preferred benefits, concerns, and perceptions of risk.
Each individual will have different preferences in the way she conducts research and digests information. Some will use social media. Others won't. Some will prefer video to text. Some will prefer text to video. Some prefer more detail, and others want only high-level information.
These factors affect not only the kind of information to present on your site, but also the way you organize it. You must make the right information easy for each kind of visitor to find.
4. Provide useful information for different stages in your buyers' decision process.
Buyers need different information at various stages of their decision process. In the early stages, they may want only high-level information to determine whether they need your solution.
For these visitors, you might offer diagnostic information that helps them link their symptoms to causes and possible solutions.
As buyers progress in their decision process, they have different questions and want different kinds of information. (See the table below.)
Source: The content of this table was adapted from Neil Rackham's book Major Account Sales Strategy. 1989. p. 14.
It's short-sighted to think your website has served its main purpose when a prospect contacts your sales organization. A well-crafted site can still add plenty of value after a salesperson is involved.
In buying processes that last weeks or months, your website can provide good reasons for different decision influencers to keep coming back. Each time they're likely to be looking for something different. Anticipate that, and give them what they want at every stage.
5. Address the conflicted motives of your buyers.
Business buyers may have two driving motives. They want to do what's right for their company, and they want to serve their own interests.
Sometimes these motives are in conflict. For example, an influencer may see that a software product is good for her company, but it will make work life harder for her department. It may eliminate jobs for people on her team. Maybe the manager is concerned she'll lose power or authority. Or she thinks a different software product will offer her better career opportunities.
Often the manager can't talk openly about all of her personal motives.
Effective web content addresses benefits for the company overall as well as for specific business functions, departments, or employees.
6. Subtly engage your buyers' emotions.
In the past decade or so, research into the human brain has proved that people can't make decisions without engaging their emotions. Some psychologists and neuroscientists have suggested that emotion drives all human action.
We act emotionally, they say, and we justify our actions rationally.
Yet many senior business leaders still cling to the view that effective managers are rational, objective decision makers.
Don't believe it. Without emotion, humans don't act. And without action, there's no sale.
In complex sales, your website must evoke the right emotions without appearing to do so. This a matter more of art than science.
A good copywriter can achieve the right balance, with just the right tone for your audience.
7. Address the customer's pain.
Marketers know your website should sell the benefits of your offerings.
But often they don't understand that an effective website for complex sales must also help the visitor see his current situation as unacceptable.
Why? Because your sales and marketing materials must help buyers overcome their fear of change.
Pain can help buyers overcome fear
In big purchases, buyers are hesitant. If they have one foot on the accelerator, other is riding the brake. They want the benefits for their company and themselves, but they don't want the risks.
Fear is a dominant emotion in most big B2B purchase decisions. Many decision makers don't like to acknowledge their fear, so their more likely to talk about it as "concern."
People who make important buying decisions are very much aware the hazards of making the wrong decision. If the purchase goes well, the company gets most of the benefits, and decision makers get some of the credit. It the purchase goes badly, the decision makers are likely to get most of the blame.
Some may lose their personal credibility. They could miss compensation incentives and opportunities for promotion. They may damage their reputation, lose their job − even hurt their career. Maybe they'd have to move to a new city, uprooting their kids and putting them in new schools, forcing a spouse to change jobs.
For really big decisions, such risks are a real possibility. And whether they're real or not, they certainly cross the minds of decision makers.
In big buying decisions, it's often safest to recommend doing nothing. That's why so many big deals end with "no decision."
In big sales, benefits alone may not be persuasive enough
The buyer's perception of personal risk also explains why in big sales it's usually not enough to focus solely on the benefits of your solution. You also have to sell against the status quo.
Experienced sales people know this maxim for complex sales: No pain, no sale.
This comes as news to many marketers who know little about complex sales.
Have you been to a hospital emergency room lately? They often have a chart on the wall that shows patients how to rate their pain on a scale from 1 (no pain) to 10 (worst possible).
Every sales person is eager to find a prospect who's feeling pain in the range of eight or higher. Sometimes a good salesperson can uncover latent or unrecognized pain in that range. Several popular selling methods teach salespeople how to find, define, and connect sources of pain.
That's because the bigger the purchase, the more intense the current pain, or the potential for future pain, must be.
In most cases, companies will accept the risks of a major purchase only if the projected cost and risk of the purchase is smaller than the cost and risk of continuing with business as usual.
To put it another way, the pain of making the change must be smaller than the pain of continuing down the current path.
Some marketers avoid the topic of pain
Many marketers are uncomfortable with this idea. They prefer to stick with the traditional litany of features, advantages, and benefits.
Here's an example. One senior marketer in a multi-billion dollar B2B software company said her company's marketing materials can't speak to their customers' pain because to do so would be "off brand."
This marketer had helped write her company's branding policy. She holds a master's degree in fine arts. Poetry writing, in fact. She's apparently sold nothing more complex that Girl Scout cookies.
Why can't salespeople explore the depths of their prospects' pain, without involving marketing in that dreary work? Why can't marketing keep to the sunny side of the street?
Many salespeople have never been properly trained to identify and diagnose a customer's sources of pain. Some sales training programs, including Solution Selling and SPIN Selling, teach salespeople how to do it. But your sales team may not have had this training.
Sometimes even a well-trained salesperson simply doesn't have the opportunity to develop a customer's understanding of her pain. So it helps if your marketing materials also carry the message.
8. Help your visitor see the high cost of doing nothing.
A salesperson think she's sold your offering to a low- or mid-level manager, only to find that her best advocate can't get higher-level approval. That's why it helps to build a financially oriented business case for your product or service. It should focus on loss as well as gain.
Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Tversky, who worked together in behavioral and cognitive psychology, defined the principle of loss aversion. They and other researchers found that when we make economic decisions, our fear of loss is often twice as influential as our hope of gain.
Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002. For more on the work of Kahneman and Tversky, see Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Loss aversion helps explain why benefits alone are often insufficient to close a high-stakes sale.
It certainly helpd you close a big sale if your prospect is feeling intense pain. But pain alone doesn't make companies buy. Most executives won't make a big investment to relieve a source of pain whose effects they can't measure.
Jeff Thull, author of three excellent books about complex sales, says that if you can't attach a cost to a problem, the problem isn't likely to get the attention of a senior decision maker. For more on this, see The Prime Solution: Cost the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale and Thull's other two books.
In complex sales, it's usually not enough for some employees to feel frustrated or even miserable. The pain has to be big enough to appear on the company's balance sheet or its profit-and-loss statement.
To win the sale at a healthy profit margin, you often have to help your prospect do the math. Where does the pain show up on the balance sheet or the P&L? How big is it? How much will it cost for every month and every year they continue on their current path?
Your sales and marketing materials can and should help perform this service for your customers. Don't expect them to be as interested as you are in establishing the value of your solution.
9. Provide information about return on investment and payback.
Speaking of math, the other calculation your customers will eventually need is a calculation of their return on investment (or ROI).
For big purchases, a corporate finance organization is unlikely to accept a vendor's ROI projections. But a vendor's ROI model can help teach the customer where to find value and how to calculate it.
For more on this topic, see ROI Selling: Increasing Revenue, Profit and Customer Loyalty through the 360 Degree Sales Cycle, by Michael J. Nick and Kurt M. Koenig.
10. Provide information that mitigates perceptions of risk.
The buyer's perception of risk rises at the beginning of the decision process. Then it declines in the middle stages and crests toward the end.
The buyer is thinking about risk even you don't mention it. The bigger the purchase, the more risks your buyers will consider.
If your sales and marketing materials don't address risk, your buyer is left to resolve the topic on his own. A buyer's unguided assessment of risk may not go well for your company.
Your challenge is that you don't want to raise risks the buyer isn't already thinking about.
You can provide assurances without raising concern over specific risks. For example, you can provide legal protections such as guarantees or warranties.
You can build credibility and confidence by providing names of customers, investors, executives, board members, and important business partners.
You can build social proof by offering testimonials, third-party product reviews, and ratings or certifications by analysts or other independent services. You can provide specifications for data security, quality control, and so on.
Two risks are especially hard to protect against, even for big vendors:
- The vendor may not respond fast enough when the customer needs help.
- The vendor may not stay committed to improving and supporting the solutions the customer plans to buy.
Even big companies abandon their customers. All companies can be acquired, lose control of their business, or otherwise change strategic direction. And most companies stop investing in products that become hopelessly unprofitable.
For companies of all sizes, stories of a vendor's past behavior are the best assurance any customer can reasonably hope to receive. So by all means, share stories of how your company has taken care of your customers.
When you apply these 10 ideas, you'll be far ahead of most companies that create content marketing for complex sales.
What additional ideas do you suggest?