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How to recruit business decision-makers for B2B marketing research

How to recruit business decision-makers for B2B marketing research

One of the biggest challenges in business-to-business (B2B) marketing research is finding business decision-makers to take part in surveys or interviews.

As a general rule, business decision-makers are time-poor, and participating in research is not a priority.

Therefore the approach you use to recruit these decision-makers must be carefully planned and executed. It is not possible to use the same methods that you might use for consumer research.

This article outlines some best practices and advice for finding, engaging, and screening business decision-makers for B2B qualitative or quantitative research.

 

Contents

    How to find business decision-makers for B2B research

    How to engage business decision-makers during research recruitment

    How to screen business decision-makers to ensure they are relevant

How to find business decision-makers for B2B research

The target market for B2B research is small. Those within the target audience are hard to find and may not be willing to take part in the study.

To make the process easier, we suggest starting recruitment by casting the net as wide as possible. Doing so may lead to you finding contacts who are not relevant to the research. That’s fine; at this stage, it is better to include irrelevant people that we can screen out than to exclude relevant people.

There are a lot of potential routes to finding relevant business decision-makers. Each route’s effectiveness will vary depending on the specific audience or project, so you may need to experiment with several of them for each project.

Recruitment sources

#1. Purchasing a list (or research panelists)

Many companies’ starting point for recruitment is to buy a list from a third party. This approach does work – and there are some reliable list brokers out there – but it can be an expensive way to acquire potential contacts. In our experience, other approaches are less costly and more effective.

A similar approach is to use a panel company or sampling marketplace (e.g., Cint, Lucid) to access decision-makers. Panels have several benefits and drawbacks, but are notoriously unreliable for B2B research.

Very few B2B decision-makers are likely to be on a research panel. And even when they are, the cost of recruitment can be prohibitive relative to other options.

However, many of these other options are only able to deliver a small number of potential interviewees. As a result, panels should be strongly considered when the project objectives require quantitative research.

#2. Leveraging internal data or knowledge

Searching online or offline for potential respondents can mean ignoring valuable internal knowledge.

A critical resource for B2B market research recruitment is a company’s database or CRM. This database is likely to contain many customers and prospects that might be worth interviewing.

Of course, only speaking to contacts in your CRM can introduce some bias to the study. For most research studies, you need to look beyond the individuals with whom you already have relationships.

The good news is that there are likely to be individuals in client-facing roles (e.g., sales) who can help. These individuals are familiar with the market, and can probably point you in the direction of companies or individuals who may be worth speaking to, even if they are not currently customers.

In some instances, they may be able to introduce you to these contacts, and provide support in setting up a discussion or interview.

#3. LinkedIn

LinkedIn is an excellent starting point for any project in which you need to recruit B2B decision-makers, particularly if you cannot leverage internal lists or knowledge.

Some decision-makers may not have profiles, and others may not log in regularly or have accurate data. Even then, in most industries, LinkedIn is likely to be the biggest and most accurate database for finding potential research participants.

LinkedIn profiles are similar to offline resumes and CVs. The job description may be inflated to make the individual look better, but the job title, company, and location are likely to be accurate 95% of the time. After all, if you lie about those things, someone will find out quickly.

Therefore, when using LinkedIn to find decision-makers, we tend to ignore job descriptions and use the search function to focus on finding individuals who match the locations, job titles, and companies in which we are interested.

LinkedIn can also be useful because of the different communities that exist. These communities often make it easy to identify groups of individuals with similar roles, responsibilities or interests, all of which might be relevant for a project.

Doing all of this allows you to build a pretty large initial data set from which to recruit. At that stage, you can reach out to contacts directly on LinkedIn, or try to contact them off the platform (which is often more useful – see next section for more).

#4. Twitter

Twitter is not seen as a ‘B2B social network’, and it is far less structured, but it has its uses when you are trying to identify business decision-makers.

Specifically, there are a few features that can help you to find potential interviewees if you know where to look:

  • Twitter Lists. The List function allows Twitter users to create public or private lists of accounts. Some of these public lists act as databases of niche audiences – for example, there are lists of venture capitalists and game developers – though not every audience is covered. Twitter’s usability means lists can be hard to find. In our experience, the Scoutzen tool can be an easy way to search for different lists
  • Followers/Following. Generally, looking at the Followers and Following of a Twitter account is not that useful, as the lists tend to be full of irrelevant accounts. However, these lists can be helpful in particular scenarios. For example, if you were a marketing agency trying to identify competitors’ customers for a project, you should look at who your competitors are following on Twitter.

In other words, while Twitter isn’t as valuable as LinkedIn, in certain instances, it is worth using.

#5. Industry events and conferences

Industry events bring together many people with similar job titles. In some instances, it can be useful to attend them to research the audience directly (e.g., paying for a booth and doing intercept interviews).

But industry events can even be useful if they happened in the past, or if you are unable to attend. That is because some conferences/events publish lists of attendees or exhibitors, which can be a useful source of potential research participants. Acquiring these lists is typically an excellent free source of potential interviewees.

#6. Industry associations/communities

Industry associations/groups are often an excellent recruiting resource for B2B research. They may allow you to attend meetings, or advertise in publications.

More importantly, you can take a look at group membership, attendance, or speaker lists to identify people who may be able to take part in your study.

#7. Online forums

Online forums can be useful for the same reason as industry associations, i.e., you can search through membership lists. Many forums also allow you to post questions, or invite people to take part in research (or more accurately, to ask them to complete a screening questionnaire to check they are eligible).

#8. Trade journals and magazines

Trade publications tend to be targeted at specific verticals (i.e., industry) or horizontals (i.e., job function/role). For some B2B research projects, they can be a handy recruitment resource.

First, you can pay to place a banner ad on a trade journal website or in a print magazine or email newsletter. This approach tends to provide a low return on investment, although some publications provide reasonable response rates.

In other situations, for example, if you are looking for thought leaders in an industry, lists of magazine contributors can be a great source of potential contacts.

#9. Competitor marketing materials + website

Competitors publish a lot of information about themselves that can be used in B2B research recruitment. Many companies talk about which companies they work with on their websites. Some also reveal their clients’ names and job titles, often through testimonials or case studies.

This information is particularly useful if the research project is about gathering competitive intelligence.

#10. Training and professional development centers

Some companies provide continuing education to business professionals. In a small number of instances, they allow companies to invite their students to participate in research.

#11. Your website or marketing materials

Just as you can purchase a banner ad on a trade magazine’s website or purchase space in a trade magazine’s newsletter, you can also publish content on your website or in your newsletter.

The success of this approach depends on the level of engagement your customers have with your marketing efforts, but it can, in some instances, help to improve response rates.

The downside of the approach is that it can require a lot of time to set-up (e.g., asking IT or marketing to set-up a banner ad or newsletter), and it biases the responses towards site visitors. Therefore, you should combine it with other techniques.

#12. Past research

At the end of research interviews, we tend to ask participants if they’d be open to taking part in research in the future. Not everyone is open to the idea, but many consent as long as the request is reasonable. Taking this approach makes it easier to identify potential interviewees when you are trying to target a similar target audience.

While this approach is cost-effective, there are potential pitfalls around data privacy (due to GDPR and CCPA), so you have to ensure you are getting consent to store and use the interviewees’ data.

 

How to engage business decision-makers during research recruitment

Once you have identified potential interviewees, the next step is encouraging them to participate in research. Or, in the case of qualitative research, encouraging them to complete a screening questionnaire to make sure they meet the eligibility criteria (see next section).

In our experience, there are several things to consider when trying to engage business decision-makers:

  • Personalize your outreach. It is tempting to take your list of potential interviewees and to invite them with the same generic approach. While this might make your life easier, it is less likely to engage your target audience, and will lead to lower response rates. In some instances, you will achieve your target number of interviews. In many cases, you will not. We suggest personalizing the outreach based on the information that you’ve gathered. For example, if you captured their data from a conference list, maybe refer to the conference
  • Use multiple methodologies. Despite what some may claim, there is no single channel that works best when trying to reach business decision-makers. Some individuals prefer email. Some prefer LinkedIn. Some prefer a phone call. Some may even respond most to direct mail, if budgets allow you to use it. We advise using multiple approaches in parallel to ensure you cater to all tastes
  • Avoid peak business times. Medical professionals and retailers are particularly busy at the end of the year, and are less likely to participate in research during those days or months. Customer service professionals are often hectic first thing on a Monday morning as they catch-up with a backlog of requests, and are more likely to ignore any requests you send during those hours. It is essential to consider these factors during the outreach process
  • Be patient. Businesspeople are not always available when you engage them. Alternatively, they may be willing to participate but unable to find a time slot that works. To allow for decision-makers being ‘time-poor,’ we recommend allowing more time for B2B research studies than you might for B2C studies
  • Be open to revealing the research sponsor if necessary. In most research projects, a ‘blind’ approach (i.e., not saying which company is sponsoring the research) is preferred. However, ‘blind’ recruitment is not always possible in B2B market research. It may be necessary to reveal the research sponsor to convince the decision-maker to give up their time. In some instances, the decision-maker is happy to compromise – for example, agreeing that the research sponsor will be revealed towards the end of the interview. Either way, researchers should be open to the fact that a fully ‘blind’ recruitment process may not be possible in B2B. We often suggest to clients that we start recruitment ‘blind’ and review the decision after a week. If you are going to reveal the research sponsor, one way to improve engagement is by providing a letter from the sponsoring company that gives legitimacy to the recruitment process
  • Make a case for why they should participate. A variety of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ incentives can be used to explain to the decision-maker, or their gatekeeper, why the research may be of interest. It’s not just about offering some sort of financial benefit. Often the most compelling incentive is explaining how the study might help the business decision-maker in the future. For more information on the optimal approach for incentivization, click here

 

How to screen business decision-makers to ensure they are relevant

In both qualitative and quantitative research, a critical step is to ‘screen’ potential respondents to ensure they are the right person.

In quantitative research, this is conducted as part of the main questionnaire. In qualitative research, it is done separately, i.e., the individual is ‘screened,’ and then an interview is scheduled for a later date.

This screening questionnaire typically has two types of questions:

  • Screening questions, which check that the individual meets specific eligibility criteria. For example, they are based in a country or sector that is in scope
  • Profiling questions, which check that you are achieving a ‘mix’ of individuals. For example, you may be running a project that targets large businesses. Any industry vertical may be in scope, but you still need to ask a question about each company’s primary activity to make sure that you’re not just interviewing individuals who all work in the same sector

Here are a few things to consider when designing a screening questionnaire to ensure it is optimal:

  • Avoid broad definitions. Let’s say that you’ve defined the target audience as being ‘US-based investors or investment groups.’ That sounds pretty specific, but it is still broad by market research standards, as you might still interview individuals who are not relevant to the project. For example, the following is just a selective list of people who might say they are ‘investors’: venture capitalists, angel investors, family and friends of entrepreneurs (‘personal investors’), people on peer-to-peer lending platforms, employees of ‘family offices,’ banks, government agencies, accelerators/incubators, investment arms of corporations. You need to be very precise about which of these will and will not be in scope, and that may require asking several questions
  • Focus on job responsibilities, not job title. We usually recommend asking for job titles in a screening questionnaire. It provides crucial context/background, and it can help you to identify individuals who are not relevant for the study. However, we don’t recommend relying only on job titles to judge someone’s eligibility for an interview. Job titles mean different things in different companies/sectors – sometimes someone with ‘executive’ in their job title is senior, sometimes they are junior. Sometimes marketing managers have strategic decision-making responsibility; other times, they operate tactically and have no real decision-making power. Therefore, it is essential to ask a question about an individual’s responsibilities, especially their influence on decision-making, not just their job title
  • Check that they can speak knowledgeably and be articulate. Someone may meet all the right criteria but still be a low-quality interviewee, either because their knowledge of the topic is limited, or because they aren’t very articulate when asked qualitative-type questions. When screening for qualitative research, we recommend including an ‘open’ question, which checks that the decision-maker will be a useful research participant. It could be as simple as asking them a question from the interview to see how they might respond to it
  • Keep it short. Ideally, you would ask each potential interviewee a lot of questions to check that they are the right person. Unfortunately, there is a limit to the patience of business decision-makers. Besides, you will be wasting their time if you spend 10 minutes asking them questions before telling them they are not a good fit. As a general rule, we suggest a maximum of 10 screening questions.

recruitment quote

 

Summary

How to find business decision-makers for B2B research

There are a lot of potential routes to finding relevant business decision-makers: purchasing a list (or research panelists); leveraging internal data or knowledge; LinkedIn; Twitter; industry events and conferences; industry associations/communities; online forums; trade journals and magazines; competitor marketing materials and websites; training and professional development centers; your website or marketing materials; past research.

Each route’s effectiveness will vary depending on the specific audience or project, so you may need to experiment with several of them for each project.

How to engage business decision-makers during research recruitment

Once you have identified potential interviewees, the next step is encouraging them to participate in research.

In our experience, there are several things to consider when trying to engage business decision-makers: personalize your approach; use multiple methodologies; avoid peak business times; be patient; be open to revealing the research sponsor if necessary; make a case for why they should participate.

How to screen business decision-makers to ensure they are relevant

In both qualitative and quantitative research, a critical step is to ‘screen’ potential respondents to ensure they are the right person.

Here are a few things to consider when designing a screening questionnaire to ensure it is optimal: avoid broad definitions; focus on job responsibilities, not job title; check that they can speak knowledgeably and be articulate; keep it short.

Chris Wells
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