B2B Beat: The Role of Influencers in Today's Software Buying Process

July 3, 2016

This special B2B Beat guest post was contributed by Michael Fauscette, Chief Research Officer of G2 Crowd.

Consumer buying behavior has gone through a significant change over the past decade, mostly due to the availability of information and the ease of connecting to peers. Add in the proliferation of smart mobile devices and the result is that we have all become hyper-connected and have a new found freedom to control decision making, particularly in what, when and from whom we purchase almost anything.

What Are the Differences in Buying Behavior Now?

Some of the most obvious difference are:

  • Buyers often distrust direct seller information like websites, marketing material and sales representatives, and indirect information that can be easily linked to the seller.
  • Because of this basic distrust and the readily available information from independent online sources, buyers have learned how to self-educate and build a deeper understanding of products, particularly in complex purchasing situations like business software.
  • Education is a self-driven process that happens on the buyer’s schedule and from the buyer’s chosen and trusted sources. Because there’s a basic desire for “trusted” information, the seller is often not involved in a buying process until the late stages or after the decision is made. This limits or eliminates the ability of a seller to influence the decision, and opens the market up to competitors that are more attuned to these new information sources.
  • Buyers apply a series of trust-filters to the information they are interested in finding and use to support decision making. Trust-filters are a mental model to establish credibility and are applied subconsciously, based on perceptions of the individual, as to the level of trust to assign to any source of information.

The Changing Buying Process

The buying process does vary by individual, company and the type and complexity of the product. There is however, a basic flow that occurs naturally and appears to an observer as a linear process, although in reality it often doesn’t progress in a linear fashion. The process is in reality a set of fluid phases, within which the buyer moves at their own pace and direction toward a decision. The buying process is generally made up of four phases:

  • Awareness – buyers becomes aware of a need or a set of issues that is causing some disruption, competitive disadvantage or inefficiency.
  • Discovery – people work through the issues and needs, and determine that the solution needs to include some new software and technology.
  • Education – requirements are used as a basis for determining the best potential solution(s) and all of the information used is trust-filtered.
  • Decision – collected information are used to evaluate the different potential solutions and arrive at a purchase decision. The actual process varies and ranges from informal to a very structured review and approval approach, based on the individuals involved and the company’s IT governance and purchasing policies.

Influence and Influencers

Focusing on the education phase of the buying process, the latest evolution of influence has shifted from more traditional sources to include (and often favor) new, trusted online resources. Influential information can consist of anything that the buyer deems relevant, contextual and trustworthy as long as the buyer has access to the source. Of course the internet has opened up far more sources of information than were ever available before, and reduced the time to access that information.

Peer networks are the newest independent information source available to buyers and are generally public social networks, professional peer communities or peer review sites. Social networks and professional communities are online versions of the information sharing that naturally happens between colleagues and peers. The peer review sites are different from all the other information sources in that they are crowd-sourced across a broad population / community, and offer a unique opportunity to get a transparent view from people who actually use the software.

As influence shifts to more online sources, peer review sites have gained momentum and influence with software buyers. To make the community influential, useful and viable the site must be:

  • An online platform that supports the community by collecting and designating information in an orderly fashion.
  • A source with a structured method to get new and refreshed reviews in an ongoing basis.
  • A method for software end users with direct experience in a specific software to provide unbiased reviews of the product in a structured fashion that includes some form of rating system. A critical part of the operation must include a rigorous verification process to prevent gaming of the system, making the data trusted and credible. This verification process also must be transparent and open to all who visit the site.
  • A platform with an underlying structure that makes the information consumable and easy to find.
  • A source of additional value-add resources to help the buyer find and evaluate the software.

If these basics are covered (and not all peer review sites are created equal in that department), peer review sites are able to provide trusted information for consumption by software buyers. The verified reviews, or information provided by users, quickly pass through the buyer’s trust filters and become validate, primary sources in the education phase of the process. Because this information is provided by verified users of the product, trust and confidence in the information is established.

This doesn’t necessarily replace all the other information sources, like media, consultants and analysts, but can be a valuable supplement and speed up the decision process. By providing trust-filtered ways for buyers to educate themselves on the available solutions and vendors, the peer review community can add a lot of value to the overall software buying experience. Influencers and how they are accessed has changed due to the hyper-connectivity provided by the internet and its ubiquitous access to relevant information. It’s important for buyers to be educated on the available sources of information, the information’s credibility and how to leverage newer sources to build complete pictures of the available solutions to their needs.

For a deep dive into today's buyer journey, download the guide, "Rethink the B2B Buyer's Journey" today.