Editor's note: Tonya Parsons is senior vice president at Mindwave Research, Austin, Texas. She can be reached at 512-617-4939 or at tparsons@mindwaveresearch.com. Adam Sowers is specialty panel manager at uSamp, an Encino, Calif., research company. Sowers is located in Trumbull, Conn., and can be reached at 818-524-1218 ext. 243 or at adam@usamp.com. This article appeared in the April 22, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.   


The research industry has a long-standing history of addressing the challenging B2B market and successful practices along the way have resulted in higher demand for richer insights from B2B customers. In the past, we saw research clients embrace new B2B attitudinal and behavioral profiling and tracking data and then quickly transition to a focus on understanding needs, preferences and triggers that drive purchase decisions. Now we're witnessing research clients wanting to anticipate what B2B customers are thinking and planning; personify and target one decision-making job function versus another; consider the implications of customers' businesses expanding globally; and gain an up-close view of the work environment as it relates to products and services offered to B2B customers.


As the drive to get deeper inside the minds of business professionals grows, so do the challenges faced by marketing researchers. To successfully meet this increase in demand for B2B insights, we, as an industry, must recognize the pain points that our clients, research agencies and sample providers face and improve our solutions to ensure that the B2B well does not run dry.


Diving below the descriptive


It's generally no surprise that even the highest level of marketing research expertise will only carry you so far if not backed by a functional knowledge of your clients' business and customers. This means diving below the descriptive (e.g., industry, number of employees, revenues, job function, etc.) and into a virtual day-in-the-life view of the B2B decision-making customer. We have the tools and methodologies to design and deliver on clients' objectives but the information you capture can make or break what you get out of B2B research. 


Below are a few examples of insights sought from B2B customers:

  • What are their pain points?
  • How are they using products/services today and what needs are they addressing?
  • How are their needs changing over time and what is driving that shift?
  • What are their business priorities?
  • What are their purchasing priorities and how are they tied to business goals?
  • What industry regulations, if any, impact their buying decisions?
  • How are they getting information about brands they're considering?
  • What information is most useful in shaping the final brand purchase decision?
  • Who else in the company influences the decisions?
  • What are the perceptions about various brands' abilities to meet business goals or address pain points?

Just one indicator


There was a time when job titles and corresponding roles were clearly defined and rarely overlapped, rendering B2B customer profiling a fairly straightforward task. Except for defining relative level within a company (e.g., executives vs. managers vs. individual contributors), job titles may have little correlation with the scope of a person's true decision-making responsibilities. The new (and sometimes unique) variations on C-level titles is just one indicator of how businesses are thinking about their evolving operational needs and how best to manage them.


As such, research clients seek greater understanding across multiple functional roles to paint a cohesive picture of where, how and why purchase decisions are being made. For example, with the advent of cloud services, other functional areas, such as marketing and finance, are just as critical to technology purchase decisions as the traditional IT functions.


Does not fit all


It's easy to understand why one size does not fit all when thinking about B2B customers from a company-size perspective - this is also often the case with industry differences. Product and service purchase and usage behavior can vary significantly from one industry to the next, prompted by factors such as regulatory/compliance, mandatory bidding process and privacy. These differences are sometimes critical elements that help research clients determine how to most accurately target key segments of their B2B customers.


Another aspect to consider is the global reach that some B2B research clients seek to expand. This extends to emerging as well as developed markets. It's clear that India is not the same as the U.K. and the U.K. is not the same as the U.S., despite the fact that you can somewhat comfortably speak and understand English in all three countries. While there is generally a universal goal among B2Bs to be successful, cultural, economic and technological, differences greatly affect how businesses approach or even define that success. Research clients fully rely on the marketing research community to understand and design research that accounts for these geographical nuances.


For example, testing messaging, creative or positioning requires careful management of translations to ensure that the meaning is relevant to each country's use of their language. In the U.S., it is not unusual to see "best," "fastest" and "can do all things" in messaging but the U.K. tends to be more conservative and may react negatively to such messaging. Some countries do not allow that kind of comparative advertising without backing evidence. Often the greatest learning of a country's culture or value system comes from having your own feet on the ground, eating and shopping as B2B customers do and conducting ethnographic site visits at their places of business.


Limited reliable means


Despite the growing interest in more meaningful B2B knowledge, there still remains a finite population of companies to target. Add to this the limited reliable means for accessing B2B customers for research and this complexity becomes more evident. We generally know that busy, productive people are inundated with requests for their time 24 hours a day by mail, phone, e-mail, IM, voicemail and mobile (including text) and they react to it by ignoring the ones that they don't believe will improve their lives or the world, which in their minds includes most research. "Do not survey/do not participate in research" policies in companies further complicate access to B2B customers.


This puts the onus on the research community to manage costs related to quality recruiting and incentives; frequency of surveying a small pool of respondents; scale or number of available qualified respondents; length, completeness and comprehensiveness of survey; and quality across all data collection metrics - all relative to filling an ever-increasing need for better B2B insights.


Presents a few challenges


The way in which sample providers source, reward and maintain the loyalty of B2B members today presents a few challenges to the health of the future panel and relates back to the aforementioned pain point that the population is finite. Currently, a majority of B2B panel members are recruited via partnerships with premier loyalty programs; members are rewarded in airline miles, hotel points, magazine subscriptions or charitable donations - to name a few. However, using these platforms as the sole source of recruitment assumes that most business professionals are actually enrolled in these programs. This poses an important question: How do we source the non-rewards-member groups such as small business owners and IT decision makers who are just as important as the rest?


To keep the sample fresh and the insights of top quality, sample providers need to consider broadening their sources from exclusive rewards programs to encapsulate harder-to-reach demographics; get smarter about incentivizing members; and rethink reengagement campaigns by transforming them into modern loyalty campaigns.


The recruitment challenge


One way to address the recruitment challenge is to leverage partnerships with massive job platforms such as Monster.com that have databases complete with viable professionals. Another option is sourcing from social media networks like LinkedIn. Once this highly selective audience has signed up for a study, the focus then turns to engagement and retention. Reward exemplary members with status-wielding titles and grant them access to a complete rewards catalog and the freedom to allocate these rewards as they see fit. By incorporating these engagement pieces in a loyalty structure, sample providers can provide their panelists with the sense of status, autonomy and the overall ability to call the shots - crucial components that empower business professionals to share their valued thoughts and opinions.


Research agencies and clients can also own part of this solution and give back to the B2B respondent community, for example, by offering industry white papers and/or key survey data points that are relevant to their business decisions and goals. Treating this as a partnership where researchers collaborate with B2B customers to obtain and share information has the potential of gaining more valuable participation and insights from this limited audience.


Get more creative


Product marketers, strategic planners and sales and support teams continue to have an ever-present need to gain informative and actionable information from their B2B customers. This requires the marketing research community to get more creative about how we learn from and manage our engagement with B2B customers. Perhaps our greatest challenge will be ensuring that we respect our B2B respondent community - through our sampling practices and survey design processes - to gain the greatest value of information they have to offer.