Why age matters in B2B and how to take it into account when doing B2B research

Why age matters in B2B and how to take it into account when doing B2B research
Contents

Why age matters in B2B

Exploring generational decision-making preferences in B2B

Best practices for researching different generations in B2B

 

 

Why age matters in B2B

They say age is just a number, but it pays to understand the generational differences among your B2B buyers.

Yet often, getting insights around age is merely an afterthought in B2B research, whereas it’s standard practice in B2C research

In B2B, firmographic factors such as company sector and size are usually more likely to tell you why buyers make their purchase decisions. You’re more likely to research the age of a company than the age of a B2B decision-maker.

However, it never hurts to have more detail about your customers. To grow your audience, you need to know your audience, as Lenovo chief marketing officer Emily Ketchen explored recently. 

A strong B2B segmentation provides value here. Once you’ve identified your audience in terms of details like demographics, needs, and behaviors, you can target them more effectively. 

Age is only one of many factors – but right now, arguably, it’s a key one to explore. That’s because Millennials recently became the leading generation in the workforce, replacing Generation X. And today, there are five generations you can sell to in B2B, so it’s worth having some hypotheses about their potential different approaches to decision-making.

Of course, the concept of labeling people as being from one generation or another has its limitations. It’s not a perfect approach – in some circumstances, it’s an overly simplistic way of thinking about different age groups. 

Often, people fall into a trap of making broad, sweeping generalizations about how different generations behave. These are unhelpful – but in contrast, generational insights are reliable when they’re backed up by robust data from research.

According to an analysis based on US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, this is the proportion of generations in the workforce:

  • 5% Generation Z: born after 2001
  • 35% Millennials: born 1981-2000
  • 33% Generation X: born 1965-1980
  • 25% Baby Boomers: born 1946-1964
  • 2% Silent Generation: born 1925-1945

Naturally, not all Millennials are in the C-suite at companies, so some will have much more decision-making responsibility than others. 

However, it doesn’t ring true that all your buyers are C-level executives either. Google has reported that 81% of staff outside the C-suite are involved in B2B purchase decisions.

Therefore, your B2B sales and marketing strategies need to work well for all generations, to take maximum advantage of your opportunities.

Research so far suggests that there are plenty of nuances between generations in terms of their decision-making process. In the next section, we’ll look at some research covering generational differences in terms of communication preference, use of technology, information-gathering style, and more.

Ultimately, there will be more specific generational nuances in your space. These could vary by market, sector, and product usage, for example.

Understanding these differences will impact how you market and sell your products.

Some will look at the statistics above and think that because Gen Z only makes up 5% of the US workforce, you can overlook this generation in favor of, say, targeting the 33% of Gen X.

That’s not what other B2B brands are doing though. For example, Sage recently ran a marketing campaign on TikTok, where nearly half of users are aged under 30.

In a sign of how it pays to understand generational differences, Sage secured 8.8bn video views and 1m entries from SMBs for its #Bossit2021 campaign.

Once again – to grow your audience, you need to know your audience. There are great opportunities out there for businesses that target the five different generations of B2B buyers and users effectively. Benefits of getting generational insights in B2B include:

  • More accurately targeting customers and prospects
  • Identifying the best channels to engage with buyers and users
  • Understanding the messaging and content that will resonate best
  • Informing the development of solutions that solve business challenges

Exploring generational decision-making preferences in B2B

Arguably, the most value in understanding generational differences in B2B comes from seeing how these impact sales.

There are several ways to think about the buying process in B2B and again, the specific journey will vary depending on factors such as market, sector, and product type. 

One simple way to visualize the buyer journey, in terms of your audience’s touch points with your brand, is to separate it into these stages:

  • Awareness of a need to fulfill or a problem to solve
  • Consideration of the options
  • Making a final decision
  • Aftersales e.g. product usage training

Secondary research provides some hypotheses for how different generations of B2B buyers and product users are most likely to behave during this customer journey. Again, these are very broad theories – more tailored, specific, and robust validation is required before using generational insights in your marketing or sales strategy.

For this simple exercise, we can divide the hypotheses from some brief secondary research into the following broad categories:

Now we’ll explore these for each of the five generations:

#1 Gen Z

  • Approach to researching products/services: Want all information to be available via online and social media channels, but also like to research together in groups
  • Communication preferences: Digitally via video or instant messaging
  • Use of and fluency with technology: Frequent and fluent – they are digital natives
  • Preferred training style: Online training sessions that include opportunities for collaborative group discussions

Several research studies so far have hypothesized that Gen Z may be the most skeptical generation so far, meaning they’re less willing to take brands’ marketing or PR statements at face value. Therefore, we wouldn’t recommend an overly ‘salesy’ or pushy approach for Gen Z decision-makers.

Much of Gen Z wants to detect authenticity in the brands they interact with – they want to see brands living their values. They are very wary of any ‘tick box’ activities and will scrutinize brands’ claims, in particular around CSR or DEI initiatives.

As digital natives, unsurprisingly they see through token efforts at personalization. For example, a mass generic email that only personalizes their name won’t cut it. 

#2 Millennials

  • Approach to researching products/services: Use a broad range of sources to find info, including in-person and online fact-finding
  • Communication preferences: Preference for instant messaging
  • Use of and fluency with technology: Frequent and fluent
  • Preferred training style: Both online and offline, but want to receive immediate and personalized feedback on performance either way

On the whole, Millennials are known to spend more time researching a product or service purchase than the generations that preceded them.

They’re also likely to consult multiple information sources to support their decision-making. 

For example, when making a B2B purchase of $10,000 or more, Millennials place slightly more importance on data analysis and recommendations than their personal experience or impressions of a product, according to IBM.

Therefore, B2B brands need to understand what information Millennial decision-makers are looking for and make it easily accessible throughout their journey.

#3 Gen X

  • Approach to researching products/services: Again, use a broad range of sources to find info, including in-person and online, but social media less so
  • Communication preferences: Preference for phone and email
  • Use of and fluency with technology: Regular and very knowledgeable around technology, but not as fluent as Millennials or Gen Z
  • Preferred training style: Whether online or offline, they prefer to have the freedom to train on their own schedule

Generation X is the most likely to think that analytics help them to improve decision-making processes (63%), while Baby Boomers are the least likely (45%), according to IBM.

With more and more Baby Boomers retiring, an increasing proportion of Gen X is taking the most senior leadership positions at enterprises. Therefore, many are high-profile targets for marketing – and approximately 40% of Gen X show above-average loyal behavior, according to the Phoenix Business Journal

This suggests that with Gen X, there may be extra value in understanding their drivers of loyalty in B2B via brand tracking

Bear in mind though that there are several types of loyalty in B2B, meaning that it’s often more complicated to measure than via a simple NPS score.

#4 Baby Boomers

  • Approach to researching products/services: Prefer to receive most information in person, but will gather information using a mix of online and offline sources
  • Communication preferences: Prefer face-to-face conversations
  • Use of and fluency with technology: Inconsistent, with only some advanced technological knowledge
  • Preferred training style: Offline, in a group with personally-focused training

B2B buyers who are Baby Boomers are likely to be in very senior roles too. 

While some Baby Boomers have fully embraced online technology, others will prefer to go through a customer journey or purchase decision-making process using traditional channels.

This is a warning about the risks of going too narrow with your marketing or sales approach, by overthinking where your target audience goes for information. We explore this in more detail at the end of this article.

#5 Silent Generation

  • Approach to researching products/services: Prefer more formal formats, such as conference presentations, and the most likely to use offline information sources
  • Communication preferences: Preference for face-to-face conversations
  • Use of and fluency with technology: Again, inconsistent with much more limited online skills
  • Preferred training style: Offline – want to train at own pace and only focus on information that’s relevant to their role

The most likely generation to prefer offline or traditional marketing, as well as in-person communication, is the Silent Generation. Bear in mind that personal computers only went mainstream in the 1990s, when these employees were in their late 40s or early 50s.

They’re the most likely to prefer asking questions to a real person – 98%, compared to 83% of Gen Z, according to one study. However, to bring things full circle, the Silent Generation has something in common with Gen Z – an expectation for highly personalized service. It’s just that they want this offline, from another person, rather than digitally as per Gen Z.

Best practices for researching different generations in B2B

#1 Consider including age in segmentations or buyer personas

Robust quantitative segmentations or more qualitative buyer personas help businesses to target and prioritize their customers and prospects more efficiently.

Among other things, they can inform the way you optimize a channel strategy in marketing, refine your messages, develop content, and allocate budget or resources.

There are lots of different segmentation types and for some, age is less relevant – for example, if segmenting by organization type.

However, it may be more relevant to include if you’re segmenting by decision-maker, potential, needs, attitudes, behavior, or jobs-to-be-done.

A more detailed understanding of the different generations of buyers and users you’re targeting will inform you how to make marketing and sales activity more effective.

#2 Use thorough screening to run research with the right age groups

In B2B, researchers don’t usually include a question about age in the screener. 

Usually, the higher priority ways to cut the final data are by criteria such as seniority, role, department, sector, company size, and so on – only relevant questions should go into the screener, otherwise, it becomes too long and engagement with your survey decreases.

To get B2B insights for different generations though, a reliable age question is crucial. So, it’s worth thinking a little about the best way to approach this. It may sound simple – to get a mix of generations in your research sample, just ask your respondents how old they are, right?

The problem is, some people lie in market research interviews. When it comes to their age, they may be defensive. 

Or, if they suspect that you’re looking for particular age groups, they could give a number that they think the research team is looking for so that they qualify for the study.

In qualitative research, it’s easier to sense-check respondents’ age, as you’ll see them if you interview via video.

In quantitative research, you won’t see your respondents, but there are several techniques you can use to spot any ‘bad actors’, thereby improving sample quality and reliability:

  • To screen on age for example, sometimes it’s quicker to analyze the results by giving the respondent a scale to tick: 18-25, 26-35, 36-45, and so on. However, scales like this may make bad actors assume that there are right answers and wrong answers for your survey. If you ask their age using an open numeric box instead, you’re more likely to get an accurate answer.
  • You can also include ‘red herrings’ or deliberate logic gaps in the survey screening section, then remove any respondents who fail your tests. For example, for age, a 20-year-old respondent is unlikely to have been working at their employer for five years or more. Similarly, they’re unlikely to be the CEO of a company, manage a team with 250 employees, and so on. Cross-reference their answers to your questions and decide if you need to screen out any respondents.

Techniques like these are good ways to catch out any bad actors who try to rush through your study as quickly as possible, without spotting the logic gaps in their answers.

Also bear in mind that often, panels aren’t the best way to find respondents in B2B, but there are lots of other ways to recruit high-quality decision-makers for B2B research.

#3 Run regular studies to keep up with channel usage behavior

Research can inform your overall marcomms strategy, based on – among many other factors – generational behavioral differences in your target audience.

It’s common to explore marketing engagement in segmentations or customer journey studies – also, brand tracking pieces or competitor research.

You can use research to identify the best mix of channels and messages you should use, based on where your customers are most likely to be actively seeking information.

For example, if TikTok – or another form of social media – is growing significantly as a B2B marketing channel among your target audience, a survey can show you how much by. Or, a media diary will help you see how people are interacting with it to find what they’re looking for.

You may already know which channels work well for your marcomms strategy, based on prior campaigns or previous research studies you’ve conducted. 

However, if you haven’t verified this in a while, it’s a good idea to check regularly, to spot any nascent channel trends or changing habits, perhaps due to a generational shift. Also, while your analytics may reveal how customers are reaching you, it may not reveal the other channels where they’re not seeing you – i.e. the missed opportunities.

#4 Take care not to over-interpret the insights

If your analysis suggests, for example, that your target audience is predominantly Millennial and they prefer to research new products via digital B2B information sources, that’s useful.

Don’t necessarily go all in on digital marketing though, unless the research reveals that offline sources are now completely irrelevant. 

Use the insights to identify potential paths to growth – areas to prioritize and those to deprioritize, but not necessarily scrap, except for when there’s a compelling case to do so.

Similarly, be careful not to assume from your data that you’re now only selling to one or two generations over all the others. 

Get relevant generational insights with a view to improving sales among the most attractive segments. However, if you use them to narrow your marketing focus too much, you risk needlessly alienating other generations of buyers who would otherwise consider a purchase

Summary

Why generational insights matter in B2B

These are some of the benefits: more accurately targeting customers and prospects; identifying the best channels to engage with buyers and users; understanding the messaging and content that will resonate best; informing the development of solutions that solve business challenges.

Exploring generational decision-making preferences in B2B

There are several initial hypotheses around the differences between different generations’ decision-making styles in B2B, based on secondary research, in terms of the following: approach to researching products/services; communication preferences; use of and fluency with technology; preferred training style.

Best practices for researching different generations in B2B

When starting a program of research to better understand generational differences in your target audience, we recommend that you: consider including age in segmentations or buyer personas; use thorough screening to run research with the right age groups; run regular studies to keep up with channel usage behavior; take care not to over-interpret the insights.

Chris Wells
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