How to do B2B marcomms research

How to do B2B marcomms research

Why does B2B marcomms research matter?

The different types of B2B marcomms research

Best practices for marcomms research in B2B



Why does B2B marcomms research matter?

Buyers’ wants, needs, and demands all change over time. Marketing communications research, a.k.a. marcomms research, helps your messages and channel strategy keep up with and capitalize on these changes.

These changes may evolve gradually – or they can occur overnight, as we saw right at the start of this decade with COVID-19. 

In response, nearly half (47%) of B2B marketers said they’ve completely changed their marketing channel mix since the pandemic, according to Salesforce’s 7th State of Marketing report. A further 43% have made a change of some sort to their channel mix in that time.

To assume that B2B customers’ purchase habits will stay consistent long-term, or that the same marcomms tools should keep working every time, is a risky strategy. Maintaining the status quo could result in missed opportunities, customer churn, and lost revenue. 

However, marketing budgets are usually tight. Most shrunk during the pandemic – even Google’s – so although marcomms research provides valuable insights about what to do next, it’s sometimes overlooked as a luxury expense that can’t be justified. 

A marketing communication plan that doesn’t tap into what customers are truly looking for, runs the risk of wasting the budget and failing to deliver as expected. Companies seeing less than a 10:1 cost ratio – of revenue generated from marketing spend – should find out why.

Marcomms research matters because it provides insights that can shape your overarching marketing communication strategy. 

It also lets you check that your messages and channel mix are the right ones before going live. Additionally, post-launch it can evaluate whether your marketing communication objectives have been met – and if not, how to hit them next time. 

In short, B2B marcomms research can help you throughout your overall marketing communication strategy:

  • Deciding which channels to use and which unmet needs to target in messaging
  • Assessing and refining channel choice and materials
  • Analyzing their impact

The different types of B2B marcomms research

For an integrated marketing strategy, identify the best ways to get your message seen by your target audiences. The more it’s seen, the more it’s likely to stick, albeit with diminishing returns over time. The more attention paid to a message, the stronger the hold it takes. 

The level of attention paid by target audiences to an example of marketing communication is influenced by several aspects. These include their mental state, the surrounding noise, the message’s relevance, and the ‘grabbing’ power of its execution.

To inform your overall marketing communication strategy, there are different stages where research can feed in and provide useful insights. Many companies only think about getting customer feedback at the testing stage, just before the campaign goes live. 

In some cases, that may work out well but in others, it can backfire – because if the verdict from this stage is the messages aren’t resonating, then either:

  • It’s back to the drawing board to come up with a new idea, delaying the campaign
  • Or it’s too late to make fundamental changes and the campaign must launch anyway, likely with limited success

Similarly, sometimes there may be no obvious need for research measuring the campaign impact, particularly if it hits its KPIs or analytics provide clear answers. 

Other times, without customer feedback you may miss out on insight explaining why the materials landed well, or badly, so you won’t have the reasons to inform your next campaign.

Here’s how to carry out B2B research to inform your marketing communication strategy and achieve your objectives:

#1 Identifying the optimum marketing channels and messages

There are three main routes to exposure worth exploring: being present in their ecosystem e.g. via trade events or media; being present when they’re actively seeking information e.g. via SEO; direct communications e.g. via email marketing.

You may already know which channel(s) to use, based on prior campaigns or previous research studies you’ve conducted. 

If you haven’t checked this recently though, it’s a wise idea, to spot any evolving habits or nascent channel trends. Also, while analytics may reveal how customers are reaching you, it may not show other channels where they don’t see you. 

To identify the optimum channels and messages, qualitative research can help and a great option is to run a media diary with some customers – potentially, prospects too. 

Aside from capturing text answers, you can also ask respondents to take pictures and even videos, providing ethnographic insight. 

The longitudinal format of a media diary – they typically run for a week – can provide a reliable long-term view of customers’ engagement with marketing communications. In contrast, in a one-off session, they may struggle to accurately recall what they’ve seen or heard recently. 

By incentivizing them to log relevant activities daily, media diaries can help you to:

  • Review how your customers interact with your messages – and those of competitors
  • Learn more about their cross-channel customer journeys (both online and offline)
  • Map out typical journeys using a more ethnographic, longitudinal methodology
  • Understand what drives their needs – the different Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) which messages should target 
  • Build personas

One reason why marketing can be more complex in B2B than in B2C is the varied target audience. You may need to cater to the end-user, the buyer (often not the same person), and perhaps a support team. 

At the heart of a successful marketing communication strategy is an understanding of your audiences’ different JTBDs. Carefully including the right contextually framed questions is a good way to map out the jobs in B2B research.

To identify and craft the optimal messaging from these jobs, you should first prioritize them in terms of factors such as importance, frequency, (dis)satisfaction, competitive landscape, and audience segments. 

Quantitative research is best for this when there are a large number of jobs. Alternatively, internal workshops may get you the results too, particularly if there are relatively few jobs.

Other studies that could help you work out which channels to use for the campaign include:

  • Segmentation: For an understanding of which channels to be present in when your different customer segments are looking to make a purchase
  • Brand tracking: For an analysis of where your customers are hearing about you
  • Competitor research: For insight into how they use channels and whether there are any new marketing communication trends they’re leveraging that you should too

Messaging which can credibly present a solution to the key unmet needs or pain points is the holy grail here. Once you’ve identified the main one or two, they should be at the heart of an integrated marketing communication strategy across your key channels.  


#2. Testing marketing communications and advertising materials

When your channel strategy is ready and your materials have been drafted, you can use research at this stage to assess and refine the approach before launch.

For this exercise, a more prompted media diary, or a carefully structured online community, is a valuable tool. You can learn more about the customer’s world where they would engage with your channels and messaging. It will shed light on their purchasing context, what their needs and attitudes are, and what frame of mind they are in when they see your materials.

Respondents are typically required to sign an NDA. For an example of a marketing communication testing online community, a five-day study could look something like this:

  • Day 1: Learn about their world, their unmet needs, and purchase attitudes
  • Day 2: Understand the setting where customers use channels and see messages (both online and offline)
  • Day 3: Find out their view on best-in-class marketing communications
  • Day 4: Prompt with the materials you want to test – to discover what they like/dislike in terms of your messages or channel approach
  • Day 5: Opportunity for iteration – taking on board the feedback from Day 4 (maybe after a ‘rest day’ or two if needing more time), make changes to the materials then test the updated version on Day 5

Another advantage of this type of study is that it can save time and money on recruitment and incentives, by working in the iteration time into the same research phase, as shown above. The alternative is to run a follow-up study after revising the materials – that takes longer and is more expensive.

To have the desired effect, audiences must not only see and digest the message, but it also needs to be understood. Furthermore, what they take from the message should match what you wanted them to take from it. 

Unless the desire is simply to convey information, the message needs to appeal to the recipient as the more it appeals, the more it’s likely to influence them. However, unless it’s also unique, its power is diminished because the message becomes harder to ‘own’.

If the message is not credible or fails to effectively counter any cynicism, it will be rejected and could create a negative sentiment.

Overall, if the feedback isn’t favorable or what was expected, then it’ll give you the insights you need to make adjustments before the campaign goes live.

Usually, 12-15 customers or prospects are enough to rigorously test the materials, but you may need more if testing with different markets or segments.

Another option is to use moderated in-depth interviews to show draft messaging to your customers or prospects. This way, you can assess message preferences, comprehension, credibility, brand fit, uniqueness, appeal, CTA recall, and so on.

For companies needing statistical evidence to make go or no-go decisions on materials, an online survey lets you validate a choice on which message to go with. Just note that in terms of robustness, sign-off decisions will usually be based on smaller sample sizes compared to B2C. Decision-makers in B2B are time-poor and much harder to reach than consumers.

#3. Measuring impact

Once the campaign is live, there are several ways you can measure its effectiveness with research, in addition to tracking KPIs using your analytics (for online campaigns). 

One method is to just run an online survey a few weeks after the campaign has begun. After profile screening, start the survey by asking customers and prospects about: 

  • Brand or product awareness: asking unprompted questions to name brand or product names in your category, then repeating this exercise as prompted questions
  • Brand favorability and perceptions: asking them to rate a brand or product on a ‘hero’ metric – not necessarily NPS, which is not suitable for many B2B studies – and also, to choose the most representative brand characteristics from a list

Halfway through the survey, ask respondents if they have seen any recent marketing and if so, what they saw, unprompted. Then, prompt respondents, by presenting them with an example of the marketing communication you used. After asking for their impressions of the campaign itself, ask respondents again about brand favorability and perceptions.

In the results, filter the responses to separate a) those who said they had seen the campaIgn before – unprompted, or if the base size is low, then prompted – and b) those who hadn’t.

Out of those who hadn’t seen it before, compare their answers before they were prompted with the campaign and after, to measure the impact on brand favorability and perceptions.

In addition, by asking those who had previously seen the campaign if they were aware of the brand or product beforehand, you can estimate the impact on brand or product awareness.

For a performance marketing campaign, you can also ask if they have since followed up on the CTA. If it was an online campaign, you’ll likely have statistics already around increases in website traffic, online search volumes, click-through rates, etc.

Another option is to once again use a longitudinal media diary study, to measure campaign impact over a longer period. Hosting this while the campaign is live gives you the answers to questions such as:

  • How are customers – or prospects – engaging with our campaign?
  • Are they engaging with it as expected or intended?
  • How are different channels performing (both online and offline?)

In particular, if you’ve already run one to help inform the messaging in the first place, running another one allows you to make consistent pre and post-campaign comparisons.

Best practices for marcomms research in B2B

#1. Brief respondents in detail so they’re aligned with your expectations 

For example, if you’re going to run a media diary, this type of study will (initially) feel less familiar than, say, being interviewed about something one-to-one. 

Without specifying your expectations for participation, they won’t know what exactly you’re looking for, or how to give it to you efficiently, which risks wasting their time and yours.

It’s more useful to get your respondents’ in-the-moment reactions, or recollections that are as fresh as possible, during a media diary study. If they don’t understand the importance of logging contributions regularly, they won’t do it by default. 

When they do ultimately capture their views, their recall will have worsened over time and the insights will be diluted. As a result, you won’t build up a clear, long-form picture of their engagement with marketing communications that you need to identify the right channel and message approach.

#2. Ensure ‘other’ questions help you put answers in context 

Your respondents need to be eased into the study – their answers will be brief if you start asking questions about marketing communications immediately. 

Rather than making lots of small-talk, use time wisely by exploring context – your customers’ and prospects’ world, in which they may see your message or look to buy products.

Asking the right ‘other’ questions helps you find the underlying reasons behind their thoughts on marketing communication messages and channels. 

These questions don’t have to all be at the start of the study either – the best approach is to find the most relevant section where they’ll fit in with the overall flow and their train of thought.

#3. Identify subconscious factors via indirect questioning

Only using direct questioning yields more limited insight from B2B decision-makers, who do not always know or cannot always articulate their preferences and thought processes. 

A variety of projective techniques help you to dig deeper and understand more clearly the real reasons behind your customers’ decisions on marketing communications, including:

  • Hypothetical scenarios
  • Analogies and personification
  • Image sorting
  • Inversion e.g. what would a bad example look like?

You may also be able to use neuroscientific techniques to explore customers’ subconscious reasoning about marketing communications e.g. facial expression analysis, or eye-tracking.

#4. Make sure respondents can share their insights in a variety of ways 

The most insightful, detailed feedback around channel and message strategy will likely be as ethnographic as possible in style. To put yourself in your customers’ shoes, you need to try seeing what they see.

If you’re planning a media diary study, you could ask for their responses in these ways:

  • Text responses
  • Voice memos
  • Taking photos or screenshots
  • Video logs (use these sparingly though)
  • Stimulus mark-up e.g. highlighting likes in green and dislikes in red

If it’s important to get their feedback in a certain way, stipulate this. Otherwise, give some flexibility over how they can share their views, to get their insights as naturally as possible.

#5. Use follow-up interviews to understand their reactions in more detail 

The analysis phase of a B2B marcomms research project often reveals very interesting unexpected nuggets or new hypotheses that are well worth exploring further.

There isn’t always time to identify and interrogate these during the original fieldwork phase, but leaving them unexplored – or trying to second guess the underlying reasons why – could be a missed opportunity.

Instead, running a few post-fieldwork follow-up interviews is a quick and inexpensive way to understand your customers’ reactions in more detail. 

You don’t need to invite all the original respondents to take part again, just a few – for example, only those whose answers suggest they will do a great job of elaborating further.

To find out more about B2B marcomms research, please contact us.


Why does B2B marcomms research matter?

B2B marcomms research helps inform your overall marketing communication strategy: deciding which channels to use and which unmet needs to target in messaging; assessing and refining channel choice and materials; analyzing their impact.

The different types of B2B marcomms research

Projects can support you with any of the following objectives: identifying the optimum marketing channels and messages; testing marketing communications and advertising materials; measuring impact.

Best practices for marcomms research in B2B

When doing B2B marcomms research we recommend that you: brief respondents in detail so they’re aligned with your expectations; ensure ‘other’ questions help you put answers in context; identify subconscious factors via indirect questioning; make sure respondents can share their insights in a variety of ways; use follow-up interviews to understand their reactions in more detail.

Chris Wells

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