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What is B2B research? A guide to B2B market research methods and approaches

What is B2B research? A guide to B2B market research methods and approaches
Contents

What is B2B marketing research?

Why do businesses conduct B2B marketing research?

What are the key methods for conducting B2B research?

How do you find B2B research participants?

How do you best engage business decision-makers during research recruitment?

How do you screen business decision-makers to ensure they are relevant?

How do you conduct B2B research projects to ensure they lead to action?

What is B2B marketing research?

Business-to-business (B2B) transactions consist of one company selling a product or service to another company.

Behind every good consumer product is a string of B2B transactions, involving multiple B2B products and services. Let’s take the example of a chocolate bar:

  • The companies supplying the raw materials and ingredients to the chocolate bar manufacturer are B2B organizations
  • The chocolate bar may be manufactured at a ‘co-packing facility’ rather than in a factory operated by the brand owner. That co-packing facility is a B2B organization
  • The brand owner may get advice from professional services organizations such as marketing agencies. They are all B2B organizations
  • The brand owner may sell to businesses as well as consumers. So they may themselves be a B2B organization

In short, B2B is big.

And B2B markets differ from consumer markets in several ways.

First, there are significant differences in terms of who is being sold to:

  • In B2B, there are far fewer customers to sell to
  • The gap between the highest spending and lowest spending customers tends to be higher
  • Decision-making units are larger
  • Decision-making units are also more volatile because people move roles/companies
  • Decision-makers are harder to engage and locate

Second, there are differences in terms of what is being sold and where:

  • Spend on products tends to be higher in B2B markets
  • Products are more customized and complex
  • Products are likely to be sold through multiple distribution channels

Third, there are differences in how B2B purchases are made:

  • The B2B buying journey is long as it has more stages and stakeholders
  • Buyers require more information throughout the buying process
  • B2B purchases are (slightly) less emotionally driven

Business-to-business (B2B) marketing research is the practice of exploring B2B buyers’ attitudes, motivations, and behaviors. This knowledge is used to inform sales and marketing strategies for B2B organizations.

Why do businesses conduct B2B marketing research?

B2B organizations use B2B marketing research to achieve a variety of business objectives.

First, they use it to build market segmentations, including developing:

  • Buyer personas
  • Customer or market segments
  • Competitor/marketplace maps

Second, they use it to better understand the buying process, including determining:

  • Who influences and makes decisions (i.e., the decision-making unit)
  • The inter-personal dynamics within the decision-making unit
  • How and where customers find them
  • What drives the target audience to select a provider (e.g., price)
  • Finding out why they won or lost a sale

Third, they use it to develop their brand, including understanding:

  • Perceptions of their brand
  • What makes their brand unique versus competitors’
  • What keeps customers coming back
  • What the target audience thinks of potential new messages or straplines
  • The optimal marcomms channels and messaging frameworks
  • The optimal brand architecture

Fourth, they use it to track perceptions of their business, including measuring:

  • Brand equity (e.g., awareness, consideration)
  • Customer satisfaction and loyalty
  • Performance in crucial decision-making criteria (e.g., price, ease of doing business)
  • Which products or services are most appreciated

Fifth, they use it to develop products and services, including:

  • Generating new ideas and opportunities
  • Testing product and service ideas
  • Developing go-to-market strategies
  • Optimizing pricing
  • Developing market forecasts

Finally, they use it to develop content and thought leadership, including:

  • Developing content strategy and identifying key topics to engage your audience
  • Developing research-based content and thought leadership reports
  • Tweaking existing content and messaging to resonate more

Most businesses only have time or budget for a small number of projects each year. In our experience, there are a few projects that B2B organizations should prioritize:

  • Exploring what matters to customers and identifying segments. Not all customers are the same. B2B organizations often segment their customer base by firmographic factors (e.g., size, sector). Segmenting by customers’ motivations, behaviors or ‘jobs to be done’ can help to set a foundation for all future research
  • Monitoring performance. Once an organization knows what matters to customers, they then need to check that they are meeting customers’ expectations. Generally, agencies recommend measuring Net Promoter Score (NPS). NPS is not always relevant in B2B markets, as the nature of loyalty is different, so it should be used with caution if at all
  • Identifying what is on the customer’s mind. Research can help businesses to keep on top of what keeps their customer up at night. For example, it can identify the trends and threats customers are responding to, which should inform product and service development. It can also inform the creation of content about how to respond to these trends and threats

What are the key methods for conducting B2B research?

Marketing research tends to use a mix of:

  • Primary research methods – engaging directly with the target audience to elicit insights into their attitudes and behaviors. These engagements can use qualitative (in-depth, exploratory) or quantitative (structured) techniques
  • Secondary research methods – using publicly available data to answer questions about business decision-makers’ behavior and attitudes

Most B2B marketing research projects include some element of primary research.

Our experience is that secondary research is also essential for each project. Behavioral datasets are a far better way to understand how people act or think than asking individuals for their opinions directly, so secondary research should be used in parallel with primary research to validate the results.

Looking at each technique in turn…

Qualitative research

Qualitative methods are necessary for B2B research for four reasons:

  • B2B markets are small, and the target audience can be niche. In some instances, quantitative research isn’t even possible
  • B2B markets are more complex, and understanding them requires more detailed questions
  • The B2B decision-making process tends to be more opaque, and qualitative techniques allow us to pick up non-verbal signs
  • B2B decision-makers are accustomed to doing things on their terms, and tend to respond better to more open, exploratory techniques

Indeed, qualitative research is often the only way to achieve the following business objectives:

  • Generate and develop new product and service ideas
  • Obtain a detailed understanding of B2B decision-making processes

Qualitative research is also needed, in parallel with quantitative research, to:

  • Evaluate reactions to websites and promotional materials
  • Explore perceptions of a company, brand or product
  • Identify the optimal brand positioning or marketing strategy
  • Develop market segments
  • Develop content marketing and thought leadership

There are a variety of different qualitative techniques that you can use when conducting research, including:

  • In-depth interviews, which can be conducted face-to-face, by telephone or by videoconference
  • Ethnography, which should be done in-person, but can be approximated using mobile apps
  • Focus groups, which can be done face-to-face or online

Not all of these techniques are relevant to B2B marketing research due to the hard-to-find nature of the target audience.

qual pros and cons

In many projects, one-on-one interviews via telephone/videoconference are preferred. For specific audiences (e.g., junior decision-makers), it is sometimes preferable to conduct focus groups (online or in-person) or remote observation by mobile app.

Regardless of the qualitative technique used, it is essential to follow best practices:

  • Don’t just speak to customers and prospects, make sure to interview internal stakeholders, who will have a wealth of insight into the target audience
  • Use skilled (and independent) qualitative interviewers and moderators, who can limit bias and improve the quality of insights
  • Use a range of techniques (e.g., projective questions, neuroscientific techniques) to dig deeper and elicit responses you wouldn’t get through direct questions

Quantitative research

Quantitative techniques are necessary for B2B research for three reasons:

  • You can conduct many interviews cost-effectively, which is useful when the research is going to inform critical business designs
  • Quantitative research is more structured than qualitative research, which limits bias and makes it easier to compare responses between individuals or groups of individuals
  • Quantitative data sets can be the foundation for some fascinating analysis (e.g., combining with CRM data or doing statistical analysis). It can also help to settle contentious internal issues

Indeed, quantitative research is the only way to achieve the following business objectives:

  • Validate and test a product or service concept
  • Identify the optimal pricing strategy
  • Track and manage brand perceptions and levels of customer satisfaction
  • Identify changes in market trends and patterns

Quantitative research is also needed, in parallel with qualitative research, to:

  • Evaluate reactions to websites and promotional materials
  • Explore perceptions of a company, brand or product
  • Identify the optimal brand positioning or marketing strategy
  • Develop market segments
  • Develop content marketing and thought leadership

Quantitative research can be conducted online, face-to-face, or by telephone. In B2B marketing research, online surveys are typically preferred because they are more time- and cost-efficient.

However, online research is not always possible – for example, you may not be able to access a list of potential respondents’ emails. In those instances, the survey needs to be conducted via telephone. Face-to-face surveys are scarce in B2B due to the nature of the target audience.

Regardless of the quantitative technique used, it is essential to follow best practices:

  • Be comfortable with smaller sample sizes than consumer surveys
  • Be careful about where you are sourcing participants (see below)
  • If you’ve done qualitative research, use it
  • Don’t just speak to customers (or prospects)
  • Use a range of techniques to dig deeper and unlock hidden insights

Secondary research

Typically, qualitative or quantitative interviews tell only part of the story. Often there is additional information available, both online and offline, that could help us to obtain a better understanding of an issue.

Secondary research – also called ‘desk research’ – can be a cost-effective, easy, and quick way to access even more information.

Information gathered through secondary research is often used to help with the design of the primary research questions, e.g., coming up with a list of competitors to include in a survey. However, desk research can also help with some of the core objectives for a project.

So what are the benefits of secondary market research? In our experience, it can help with the following project objectives:

  • Understanding the structure and size of a market
  • Uncovering brand perceptions
  • Gathering competitive or customer intelligence
  • Building lists
  • Developing an initial understanding of the buying process
  • Informing content marketing strategy
  • Exploring industry trends
  • Undertaking a risk analysis

Once you know what you are looking for, you need to know where to look. There tend to be ten types of information source that are useful in B2B secondary research:

  • Government datasets of business (e.g., census.gov, Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • Special government reports (e.g., rulings by competition and consumer protection authorities such as the FTC)
  • Company directories and databases
  • Market research reports (e.g., marketresearch.com, Statista)
  • Company websites, especially Investor Relations pages if they exist
  • Online communities (e.g., LinkedIn groups, review sites, and specialist online communities)
  • Business departments of academic institutions
  • Trade associations
  • General, business and trade press
  • Social and search tools

Each source helps with specific objectives:

secondary research

How do you find B2B research participants?

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 a study.

To make the process easier, cast the net as wide as possible. It’s not a problem if you find contacts who are not relevant to the research. It is better to screen out irrelevant people than to miss relevant people.

There are 12 potential routes for finding relevant business decision-makers:

  • Purchasing a list (or research panelists). Buying a list can be an effective but expensive way to acquire potential contacts. Panels and sampling marketplaces are even more costly, but unlike lists, they 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
  • Leveraging internal data or knowledge. A critical resource for B2B market research recruitment is a company’s database or CRM. This database is likely to contain customers that might be worth interviewing. There are also likely to be individuals in client-facing roles (e.g., sales) who can point you in the direction of prospects
  • LinkedIn. LinkedIn is an excellent starting point for any project in which you need to recruit B2B decision-makers, especially 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 up-to-date database for finding potential research participants
  • 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, the Lists and Followers/Following functions can help you to find potential interviewees
  • Industry events/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. But industry events can even be helpful 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
  • 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
  • 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)
  • 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. You can pay to place a banner ad on a trade website/magazine/newsletter. In other situations, for example, if you are looking for thought leaders, lists of magazine contributors can be a great source of potential contact
  • 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, which can be valuable if you are trying to gather competitive intelligence
  • 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
  • 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, and it biases the responses towards site visitors. Therefore, you should combine it with other techniques
  • Past research. At the end of research interviews, we tend to ask participants if they’d be open to taking part in future studies. Not everyone is open to the idea, but many consent as long as the request is reasonable. 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

12 routes

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 do you best 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
  • Use multiple methodologies (e.g., LinkedIn, phone call, email)
  • Avoid peak business times
  • Be patient – businesspeople are not always available when you engage them – and allocate more time for recruitment than you might for a consumer study
  • Be open to revealing the research sponsor if necessary
  • 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. For more information on the optimal approach for incentivization, click here

How do you 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
  • Focus on job responsibilities, not job titles
  • Check that they can speak knowledgeably and be articulate
  • Keep it short. As a general rule, we suggest a maximum of 10 screening questions

How do you conduct B2B research projects to ensure they lead to action?

We have three guiding principles to ensure that insight always leads to action:

  • Involve internal stakeholders – engage those who will approve or execute business decisions coming out of the research
  • Go beyond the interviews/survey – use publicly available information, as well as information that is proprietary to the client, to give a more rounded view of the issue
  • Tell a story – use story-telling and visualization techniques to make presentations memorable and easier to digest

 

Chris Wells
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