Can thought leadership help buyers make better decisions? Q&A with Brent Adamson, expert in customer buying behaviour

Emily Taylor Gregory

For our latest webinar we spoke to Brent Adamson, co-author of The Challenger Sale and frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review. Here, we find out from him how buyers’ behaviour is changing and how thought leadership affects their decision to purchase.

Thought leadership is more than just saying smart things. It’s saying really smart things that either capture or break the mental model – Brent Adamson

How important is thought leadership as part of the B2B buying process?

Most brands and marketers today see thought leadership as a powerful source of differentiation. Over the years, we’ve tried to differentiate on products and solutions. Now, we’re trying to differentiate by saying smart things.

As a result, we’re producing vast amounts of high-quality content at scale. And that has left our customers more confused than ever.

Research from Gartner shows that 89% of senior executives believe the information and content they encounter from brands is generally of high quality.

That should be music to our ears. But half the customers we surveyed told us that the amount of trustworthy information they have access to is overwhelming. So it’s believable; it’s relevant; it’s backed by data. But there’s just so much of it.

This could suggest that the window of opportunity for differentiating with thought leadership is shrinking. But it can still be an effective way to support the buying process — if the quality of insights is high.

That’s where the opportunity for differentiation is now. Thought leadership is more than just saying smart things. It’s saying really smart things that either capture or break the mental model — and by that I mean how individuals process and apply information — in a way that resonates with them and their needs and challenges.

What does this change mean for marketers? Should they rethink their approach?

For marketers, there’s an interesting opportunity to move from ‘frame-breaking’ — showing our customers that we’re smart — to what I call ‘frame-making’. This is where we ask ourselves, “How can we use content and information to provide our customers with a framework for decision-making that boosts their confidence in their ability to make complex decisions on behalf of their company?”

This poses crucial questions for marketers. Where do customers feel overwhelmed? Where do customers struggle with the confidence they need, as individuals and as a buying group, to make big decisions on behalf of their company? What kind of content can we give them so they feel more confident? And that’s not having confidence in you and your company — it’s about confidence in their ability to make those decisions.

Getting access to your customers early on in the process is important. How can marketers help brands to do this better?

I often recall a statistic from my days at Gartner, which still surprises people today, which is the percentage of B2B buyers who say they would prefer to buy a complex solution without ever talking to a sales rep at all — regardless of format.

That number has increased dramatically in the past four years. In May, Gartner reported that 70% of B2B buyers claimed that they didn’t want to talk to a sales rep — ever! That’s not actually what customers are doing, but it’s what customers tell us they would prefer to be doing.

To add to this, as your own research shows, buying groups are getting bigger. And it’s not just that these buying groups are large — they tend to be very diverse, too.

Ultimately, the decision to purchase is a collective one, rather than a series of individual ones. So it’s not just about doing a better job of connecting individual stakeholders to your brand, but about doing a better job of connecting those individual stakeholders to each other.

So build a strategy through content and sales interactions so that you can personalise information and value in a way that allows the customer to make higher-quality connections to others who are otherwise very different, and have them coalesce around a bigger idea.

How important is trust in all this? 

All buying decisions boil down to trust. As a consumer, if I don’t trust your brand then you’re not even in the consideration set.

But these days trust is table stakes. If you don’t have your consumer’s trust, you’re in big trouble. – Brent Adamson

This means brands need to focus their efforts on building up their customer trust and confidence in themselves — not just in your brand as their ideal partner.

In Robert Cialdini’s book Influence he talks about a value exchange, which means that a consumer will repay your brand with their business because you made them feel better about themselves. Much of what Cialdini advocates brings everything back to human behaviour. In my view, that’s a really powerful perspective — one that we in the B2B world should try to keep in focus.

Find out what else we learnt from our webinar by watching it on demand here. And discover new ways to think about the customer’s journey with our latest research findings. Explore all the insights and download the report here.

Brent Adamson is a world-renowned researcher, author, presenter, trainer, and advisor to B2B commercial executives around the world. 
Known as having the “biggest crystal ball in B2B sales,” Brent is the co-author of the best-selling, industry changing The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer.  He is also a frequent contributor to well-known business publications, including the Harvard Business Review, featuring his recent articles, “Sensemaking for Sales” and “Traditional B2B Sales and Marketing Are Becoming Obsolete.”

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About the author: Emily Taylor Gregory

Emily is our marketing director, responsible for the brand, marketing and communications strategies for FT Longitude and the Thought Leadership Network. Emily leads our content and events programmes, our digital marketing channels, as well as our speaking engagements and PR activity, working closely with our editorial and research teams to develop and promote insight and best practice at the cutting edge of thought leadership.

Before joining FT Longitude, Emily spent 14 years working in various marketing roles in the publishing and technology sectors.

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