Selling vs. Buying: A Marketing Wake-up Call

Good Morning Marketers RoosterLast week I posted a New Marketing Framework which sparked a set of interesting conversations about how marketing is changing.  I believe that marketing needs to shift its focus from selling to helping customers buy and product marketing has a big role to play.

The categories of marketing we’ve used traditionally have been very focused on “selling”.  The big 4 marketing groups-Branding, PR, Communications, and Product Marketing, reflect this inside-out, sales-oriented thinking.  Even at startups traditionally “marketing” has meant communications.  PR was outsourced to an agency and product marketing was assigned to product management where it was generally ignored.  Helping customers buy has not been a major focus for marketing.

The world has changed a lot, particularly around how customers discover and evaluate products.  The result is a big shift in control of the sales process toward prospects and away from companies. For this reason marketing now has to shift from selling toward helping customers buy.  Here’s what’s changed:

  • We don’t believe advertising (in fact we don’t believe much of anything companies tell us)- There was a time when if a company said they the best at something, we believed it.  But those claims weren’t always true so now we don’t believe what companies tell us anymore.
  • Customers can broadcast to the world – They might be happy, they might be upset but they now have a way to broadcast their stories without going through any media gate-keepers.
  • Prospects can easily communicate with each other – Before, during and after the sales cycle, potential customers can ask each other questions and learn about your offerings and your company in a way they never could before.
  • Information about products is easy to get (without having to talk to the company directly) – Old media might be suffering but if you are looking for product information, there are more sources than there have ever been.  There have been an explosion of niche blogs and review sites covering products.  Everyone from consultants to resellers and service providers is a potential source of information that can be accessed anywhere anytime.  Gone are the days when your first step to getting information about a product was to contact the company.  For many prospects, that is now the last step.

So what does this mean for marketing?  What changes when we are helping customers buy rather then selling them stuff?  A lot, including:

  1. Messaging – Your messages need to be understandable and clear. They need to be free of vague or unsubstantiated claims.  They need to help prospects answer the question “Is this offering a good fit for me?” (rather than trying to convince people it’s a good fit for everyone) and it needs to be able to answer that question in a matter of seconds.
  2. Content – Customers are looking for materials that can educate them and help them determine what they should buy.  Prospects are looking for information that helps them understand different options for solving a problem and what the benefits and risks are to those options.  They are looking for best practices and knowledge to help them do their jobs better.  They are looking for the benefit of your expertise.  Your offering is only one piece of that – your content is another, very important piece.  Stated simply – your content needs to be helpful to be effective.
  3. Customer Relationships and Retention – In a world where the customer is highly in control of the buying process, customer relationships become more critical than ever.   Existing customers have given you permission to interact with them (something you don’t have with folks that are still just prospects), which is a huge opportunity build trust and loyalty.
  4. Visibility – In a world where customers don’t want to hear from companies, companies have to rely on other people to carry their stories and in some cases, sell for them.  How do you make it easy for non-users to see that others are customers?  How can you encourage people to share your content or invite their friends/network to become customers?  How can you demonstrate to prospects the benefits that other people/companies just like them have seen from the solution?

None of these is handled well within the traditional divisions of marketing.  In my opinion, in the next year we will see a rethinking of how a typical marketing department is structured so that these functions will have more clearly defined ownership within marketing.

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104 thoughts on “Selling vs. Buying: A Marketing Wake-up Call”

  1. It’s all about content marketing now I believe. And I’m not talking about interruptive TV ads, I’m talking about building a grassroots following by sharing ideas through blogs, tweets, and updates.

    Very well written April, nice job!

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      I agree with you that content is really, really important and not just any content, it has to be informative and interesting content that people are happy to get and happy to share.
      Thanks for the comment!
      April

    2. “Content Marketing” is an interesting concept, I would take this a bit further. Would you agree that the development of content could be conversation? This conversation, could become marketing.

      It’s just more proof that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Why do we become frustrated that our “content” isn’t getting to our target market, when our conversation isn’t open to our target market.

      In marketing, Conversation is KING, content at best is the documentation of conversation.

      1. Hi Val,
        Thanks for the comment. I’m not entirely certain about that conversation is king. Certainly you need to be listening to and talking to your customers to figure out how you can help them but helping them isn’t always about conversing with them (if that makes any sense). I agree that the conversation itself is a form of marketing, but it isn’t the only form and I’m not convinced it’s the most important form either.
        For example, IBM produced a CIO study every year that is an amazingly useful piece of content for customers. I’ve seen CIO’s use it to justify spending and as a catalyst for conversation within their organization about new trends in technology. There isn’t a lot of “conversation” going on between IBM and the CIO’s after the survey is done but I’d argue that it’s one of their most important pieces of marketing content. Does that make sense?
        April

  2. Hey April

    Great article as ever.

    I think you’re right about the changing marketing environment. Marketing is as you say shifting towards helping the buyer rather than selling to them. Advertising is still relevant though from a branding point of view in my opinion.

    The greatest danger from where I am sitting is that in realising they don’t need a sales push from their marketing, companies might downsize their marketing department (especially where I come from). Even though the new form of marketing (REALLY understanding your market, intermediaries and surroundings) will be more labour intensive, since it doesn’t produce direct results many business leaders will fail to see it’s value. I wonder whether you agree.

    As I said though, very thought provoking and interesting blog- just thought I would offer some thoughts from the other side of the world!

    Arek

    1. Hi Arek,
      Thanks for the comment.
      Any company that would downsize marketing in a response to the change doesn’t get it. First of all it’s almost impossible to outsource great content creation – it requires deep product and domain expertise so some things that were largely done outside (namely advertising) will increasingly be replaced by things you probably want to bring inside. Secondly, the shift in may cases doesn’t mean you stop doing lead generation tactics (as an example), it just means you do them differently. If you take a simple tactic such as a webinar as an example – you might switch from having the webinars focus on your products and services and have them focus more on being a delivery vehicle for educational content.
      April

    2. I’m not sure I understand your meaning. I beleive marketing needs a sales push, just a clean, clear one. I have found that meaningful marketing shortens the sales-cycle and has direct impact on this qtr’s revenue. The hardest thing buyer’s have is that they can’t differentiate between products because of fluffy sales and marketing. What should I buy? Sales folks should be able to tell me what product is the best for me. Don’t they know their competition?

      As a sales person I always maintained a competitive analysis, that I could give to my prospects. I used this same analysis to qualify my prospects. If I couldn’t explain the difference between my product and the competitor’s, or when is their product better than mine, I knew I was in trouble. I realized my product didn’t have to be for everyone. I also realized I could make more money by finding the folks that would be happiest with what I was offering.

      I tried to clearly articulate what kind of customer bought my product, and what were the cases when it made more sense to buy X, Y, or Z. The bottom line was that if they weren’t a good fit, it was more profitable to send them on their way.

      1. HI,
        Marketing has to drive revenue – we are in total agreement with that. My point isn’t that marketing should stop trying to move customers toward a purchass – not at all. It’s the way you do that that’s changing. The fundamental shift here is your marketing needs to be more customer-oriented than the traditional product and company oriented marketing we’ve seen.
        It also doesn’t mean we stop trying to qualify customers – that’s probably more important than ever.
        April

  3. April, nice story. I do agree that laggers need to become more invested in the shopper side of the equation. It often isn’t as simple though as providing more content in-store. I have been involved in reinventing many categories, and in some cases, shoppers stated they required little to no product information. The insights were more about attraction to the category and getting them emotionally involved. So it really depends on the category/segment and the channel.

    1. Hi Tim,
      Thanks for the comment.
      I can see where there might be some cases where people buy purely on emotion but for the space where I play (technology startups), I haven’t seen many examples where that’s the case. I think product is still king and where I can see “emotional invovlement” could be a tie breaker where products in a category were nearly equivalent, I don’t see investing in that over product.
      Established brands in established categories are a different matter altogether, and I believe that it’s largely because the products are seen by customers as more or less equal.
      That’s my opinion about tech anyway. I probably couldn’t sell toothpaste if my life depended on it 😉
      April

  4. “So it really depends on the category/segment and the channel.”

    I think you have to emphasize that.

    Although April is generally correct – going forward, helping customers buy will become the focus as customers take control of the buying process – you still have to remain tuned in to your customers and their preferred buying habits at the moment. If you hunt around the internet and cannot find a single customer talking about your products, if you still remain the best & most reliable source of information out there, then it might be a little early to be switching your marketing programs away from traditional mechanisms.

    1. Hi Patrick,
      I agree with you on that. If your customers can’t get info any other places, they will come to you for it. That said, the expectations will change even in those segments as those customers will be used to getting less of a hard sales pitch on products they are buying in other markets.
      What I’m talking about in this post isn’t so much about what you’re doing it’s more about how you’re doing it.
      April

  5. I would strengthen this phrase.. “Prospects can easily communicate with each other” by changing it to “Prospects can and do easily communicate with each other”

    Great post!

  6. Hitting some long balls recently, April. Nice work.

    One of the things that has always frosted my cookies in the industry is the insistence that you need MABUSHI in your collaterals, otherwise it wouldn’t be taken seriously. This just made it harder for buyers to understand what you were offering. To your point of helping buyers decide what they should buy, at a startup I am helping, I am taking collaterals down to a basic, quickly opt-in language: What does it do? How does it work? Who is it for (expressed in terms of buyer persona problems)? What results can users expect (also in terms of buyer persona problems)? How is it different? etc.

    I agree about nurturing conversations and providing valuable content but that last step of self-qualifying when they hit the web site is important, too.

    1. Hi Tim,
      I agree with you that there is still a place for stripped down collateral (or other content) that helps prospects quickly determine whether or not the product is for them. It’s really important for smaller companies especially to understand that they don’t have to be everything to everyone and making sure you are attracting customers that are a good fit for your offering is really important.
      Thanks for the comment. LOL – long balls, I like that!
      April

  7. My boss and colleague here at Forrester has a term for what you’re describing: community marketing. The vendor is not the only source of information, and not the one to which people turn most frequently. Peers and colleagues are almost always the top resource, hence the “community” in “community marketing.” Here’s the link, if you have access to Forrester’s research:

    http://www.forrester.com/rb/Research/community_marketing_new_discipline_for_business_technology/q/id/45974/t/2

    The whole model is different. Instead of the vendor initiating the transaction, the prospect comes to the vendor to see if there’s a match between need and offering. What most vendors overlook is that the process includes more stages than vendor selection, which is what most marketing is designed to influence. There’s a lot happening before and after the selection that marketing can and should address.

    1. Hi Tom,
      Thanks so much for the comment. I don’t have a Forrester subscription (but I know folks who do so I will try to check that one out).
      I agree that Community Marketing is a big part of what I’m talking about here. What I’ve seen however with some descriptions of community marketing is that it is often so focused on generating customer conversations online that it excludes very effective offline tactics or tactics that aren’t very conversation-oriented, particularly the ones focused on retention (such as customer advisory boards, user group meetings, traditional customer success marketing,etc.). The emphasis on conversations also often excludes pure visibility tactics such as using website badges for social gaming and other online companies, where it drives a lot of business without much “conversation”. If you call all of that community marketing, then yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.
      April

    1. Hi Brian,
      Thanks for the comment and I like that post. You and I are on the same page about the need for clean, clear messaging is stronger than ever.
      April

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  9. April,

    I always enjoy your content. As a sales guy rather than a “marketer” you are touching on much of what Jeff Gittomer preaches on the sales front. People don’t want to be sold but they want to buy. Sales professionals and marketers need to get on the same page as that potential customer and provide value and I don’t mean price.

  10. Hi April,

    I love your site:) so much great content here!!!

    I think this article is interesting because its very applicable to any business. I did read your other post about the Marketing Framework and while it’s great information, I find it a bit academic for most of the local businesses that I deal with. In contrast, you’ve made some excellent points here that are easy to understand for the average business owner/marketer.

    Have you ever seen the new consumer decision journey? http://www.slideshare.net/MarcBinkley/the-new-consumer-decision-journey

    Thanks again:)

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