How emotions affect B2B buying behavior

How emotions affect B2B buying behavior

Why it’s vital to consider buyer emotions in B2B

How emotions affect B2B buying behavior

Best practices for analyzing buyer emotions in B2B research



Why it’s vital to consider buyer emotions in B2B

B2B marketing and sales approaches often position products and services as the best rational choice for customers.

After all, if you can prove your offering is high quality, fast, reliable, or provides strong value for money – then why not do it? Hopefully, you’ll influence buyers’ decision-making process when they’re measuring you against their key criteria.

B2B purchase decisions are very carefully and logically considered. Compared to B2C, sales are more infrequent and tend to cost more. So, for B2B buyers, it’s very important to weigh up criteria to find the right product or service before buying it for their business.

However, a very important part of influencing the B2B buyer journey is also understanding – and knowing how to target – your customers’ emotions.

If you thought that’s more appropriate in B2C, think again. There’s long-standing evidence that emotions influence buyers’ decisions more in B2B than in B2C. 

For example, research from Google found that B2B purchasers are nearly 50% more likely to buy when seeing some personal gain or value in their choice. Also, when they perceive personal value in a product or service, they’re eight times more likely to pay more.

In terms of benefits to your B2B offering – what does that mean if you’re evenly matched to other brands, but have a greater emotional connection to your audience? 

It means not only are customers more likely to choose you, but they may pay more for you too.

In How Customers Think, Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman claimed that 95% of purchase decision-making takes place subconsciously. In B2B, the subconscious impact is arguably greater than in B2C where usually, only one consumer makes the decision. In B2B, there tend to be larger decision-making units.

Each person in that unit brings their subconscious decision-making process and emotions to the table. They could also be negotiating with an account manager, who perhaps has a supporting team, with each person potentially impacting the process. 

Higher costs and risks behind the decisions – a bad purchase won’t just affect the buyer, but their colleagues and company too – further explain why emotions play a significant role in B2B decision-making.

From a B2B research point of view, the challenge is this – often, people can’t accurately describe why they make their decisions if you ask them directly.

There are hidden, or unspoken, dynamics that they’re unaware of. They’re unlikely to articulate the impact of their emotions correctly. They don’t know how their subconscious decision-making works.

That’s why any B2B research into how human emotion influences buying behavior must be designed to anticipate and capture different sentiments or cognitive biases. 

Benefits of successfully researching how emotions affect buying behavior in B2B include:

  • Understanding underlying drivers of purchase decision-making
  • Validating which ones have the greatest impact on product or service uptake
  • Identifying how to target these drivers in marketing and sales strategies]

If you wish to know more about b2b market research, then see more about Adience b2b market research agency here.

How emotions affect B2B buying behavior

There’s a widely accepted theory, introduced by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, that we have two systems for making decisions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow he explains how System 2 works at a conscious level, using logic and reason. However, the harder-to-read System 1 works at a subconscious level – using intuition, instinct, and beliefs.

Traditional research has tended to focus on System 2 when analyzing respondents’ decision-making processes. When asked direct questions, respondents are more aware of how their System 2 thinking works, so that’s what they describe in their answers.

And that’s still useful. There’s a lot of logic and reason involved in any B2B purchase decision – this more rational thinking needs to be thoroughly analyzed too. 

However, even when System 2 seems to be leading a decision-making process, System 1 is contributing – providing intuition, instinct, and beliefs about what the best choice is.

In B2B buyer research, it’s crucial to understand the different cognitive biases caused by System 1 thinking that influence the purchase process. 

Common cognitive biases include:

  • Cognitive framing
  • Recency bias
  • Anchoring bias
  • In-group bias
  • Distinctive encoding
  • Endowment effect and loss aversion
  • Inertia
  • Exposure effect
  • Hyperbolic discounting
  • Sunk-cost effect

In addition to cognitive biases, several emotional factors often play a key role in B2B purchase decisions. While rational factors also play a major role, emotional factors are capable of swaying the final say. These include:

  1. Apprehension
  2. Frustration
  3. Confusion
  4. Apathy
  5. Excitement
  6. Trust
  7. Affinity
  8. Pride

These will vary depending on your industry, product type, or service type – the research needs to tease out which ones have the greatest impact. Then, you can evaluate how to target these in your marketing or sales strategies, to make them work in your favor.

In terms of cognitive biases, here’s how they affect B2B buyer behavior:

A) Cognitive framing

It’s not always what you say, it’s the way you say it. The same information, presented differently, can change the way buyers weigh up their decision.

Example: Buyers engage better with an offer for $500 off rather than 15% off, or vice versa, even if the result is the same.

B) Recency bias

Also known as the peak-end rule, this is when customers’ perceptions are disproportionately impacted by their most recent experience or touchpoint with a brand.

Example: A brand has provided poor service for many years. The buyer calls to cancel the contract. Then, the relationship is saved, because customer service is responsive and provides several quick fixes – the buyer is now content and continues to make purchases.

C) Anchoring bias

Using an easily-understood reference point to describe a product’s strength is another way to present the same information, but in a way that biases how much notice buyers will take. 

Example: Claiming your product is twice as fast as the closest competitor may impact buyers’ decision-making more than saying your product takes 10 seconds to do something.

D) In-group bias

Also known as in-group favoritism, this is where some buyers tend to prefer dealing with someone they see as ‘one of them’.

Example: More buyers choose Supplier A over Supplier B – their service seems identical, but Supplier A has been more active in the buyers’ industry so far and built up more rapport. 

E) Distinctive encoding

Also known as the Von Restorff effect, a product or its messaging that stands out from the crowd in a unique, but ultimately purely cosmetic or superficial way could improve recall.

Example: Product A is more popular than Product B – because it has a very unusual or novel marketing message, but has no other noticeable advantage.

F) Endowment effect and loss aversion

These describe the bias of preferring to stick to what you know, even if it seems overpriced – rather than choosing a similar yet cheaper alternative, because switching has drawbacks. 

Example: An incumbent, expensive supplier has been resting on its laurels for a long time. However, it still commands a premium, because most of its users see too much risk in changing to cheaper competitors in case these new providers make mistakes.

G) Inertia

Also known as status quo bias. This is when users are reluctant to switch brands, even if there’s little risk involved, perhaps because it seems like too much hassle or they’re not aware of better alternatives out there.

Example: A new brand is well-placed to disrupt a market by meeting users’ needs better than the traditional bigger players. However, the latter still retain their market share, because not enough users are interested in taking the time to do due diligence and switch.

H) Exposure effect

Similar to the endowment effect, for some buyers familiarity with a brand or product triumphs over many other decision-making criteria.

Example: Two different brands’ new products are very similar, but Brand A is ubiquitous in the prospects’ world through marketing communications and gains greater market share.

I) Hyperbolic discounting

Also known as present bias, this is when buyers prefer the smaller but more immediate rewards advertised, instead of the larger but later ones.

Example: A subscription service offers a 5% discount by paying monthly, a 10% discount if paying twice a year, and a 15% discount by paying annually. Despite this, more buyers choose to pay less now, rather than more later – so they select the monthly option.

J) Sunk-cost effect

This is when the emotions behind not giving up and admitting defeat outweigh the logic of cutting your losses.

Example: A company has invested money, effort, and six months into a two-year partnership that has underperformed, showing little sign of improvement. Regardless, the company continues with the arrangement, hoping to see a return on its investment. 

* * *

Now we move on to the key emotions that can play a part in B2B decision-making. 

There’s an argument that there are more, but bear in mind that some emotions not in this list are very similar, or subsets of the ones below. For example, emotions like dissonance or anger have a similar role in decision-making to #2 – Frustration.

#1 Apprehension

Fear of the unknown can cause anxiety during a purchase decision, running the risk that the buyer gets cold feet. Apprehension is often at the heart of loss aversion bias.

What if it’s the wrong choice? What if the new service under-delivers and has negative repercussions? 

This anxiety often results in buyers preferring to go with the devil they know over the devil they don’t.

#2 Frustration

Friction or pain points during the buying process can lose you a sale, especially if another competitor makes things easier.

In particular, slow and unresponsive service may open a window of opportunity to a rival offering a less frustrating, less complicated, and shorter sign-up process.

Similarly, the frustration experienced during usage of the product or service could dissuade buyers from making repeat purchases – so they’ll seek out alternatives for next time.

#3 Confusion

For complex purchase decisions, buyers need good information and a clear understanding of what they’re getting.

Confusion arises from a lack of information during their research, poorly explained service offerings, and insufficient support during the purchase process.

Too much confusion risks putting them off for good.

#4 Apathy

If a product type is a low priority in a buyer’s hierarchy of purchases, or of limited interest generally, they won’t invest much time or effort to move away from the incumbent.

Apathy is often behind inertia or status quo bias.

#5 Excitement

Rather than apathy, the emotion you want prospects to feel when considering switching is optimism or excitement for your brand.

For a new potential customer, the idea that a new solution will make them look better, or make their working life easier, can be a powerful emotional purchase driver.

#6 Trust

Trust – either from positive previous experiences, general popularity in the market, or both – alleviates buyers’ concerns and improves their confidence.

When consumers make a bad purchase decision, their mistake usually only affects them. In B2B, making bad purchase decisions tends to have negative repercussions for colleagues too, so a feeling of trust goes a long way to reassuring buyers. 

#7 Affinity

In a competitive market, brands with similar products can differentiate by creating positive sentiment.

By showing buyers they have similar values or a favorable brand personality, they can emotionally influence the purchase decision.

This affinity can encourage in-group bias or favoritism. By fostering positive sentiment in buyers’ environment or industry in general, they build up a rapport.

#8 Pride

Similar to affinity, many buyers like to partner with high-profile brands.

It could be for their expertise, but it’s often because they want to associate themselves with the best – perceived or otherwise.

Best practices for analyzing buyer emotions in B2B research

#1 Explore buyers’ subconscious with smart techniques and tools

In B2B research, to understand respondents’ true thoughts and feelings about something, you need to explore the conscious and subconscious – which they’ll struggle to articulate.

That’s why you need smart research tools and methods at your disposal – to get to the truth. 

Only asking respondents direct questions won’t reveal the full picture of how emotions affect their buying decisions.

Whether you’re running qualitative research or quantitative research, there are different ways to go deeper and gain a truer understanding of how decisions are made. 

Let’s look at some of the techniques:

#2 Probe emotions qualitatively with indirect, projective questions

Asking respondents directly how their emotions affect their buying decisions won’t work well. Instead, you need a carefully-designed discussion guide and an experienced moderator to find the answers.

You can use projective questions to ask respondents to describe what matters most to them in an indirect way. Examples include asking them to imagine future or ideal scenarios or make associations between different words and images.

Respondents may not see why the interviewer is asking them to do this. Meanwhile, by giving candid, raw answers they are unwittingly giving analysts insight into their true motivations, bias, and emotions.

Another question type is laddering, which is layering follow-up questions on top of an initial question. Some are set out in advance, while some rely on the interviewer to evaluate on-the-spot the most relevant probe to ask next.

This helps respondents to articulate a complicated process, eventually digging down into the impact on their emotions – perhaps thinking about the journey more than ever had previously.

#3 Use observational research techniques to go beyond claimed behavior

Rather than asking respondents to reveal insights into their emotions, using the right research fieldwork lets analysts see the effects for themselves.

By studying buyer behavior, you’re not relying solely on what they claim they’re doing – you can see what they’re doing, then draw your conclusions.

Mobile ethnography, often used as part of a media diary exercise, is a very useful behavioral research tool. 

By asking buyers to take videos and photos, you can put yourself in their shoes. Other popular behavioral research techniques include eye-tracking, for example, to see which parts of a marketing message grab their attention first.

#4 Work out your product or service’s Jobs-to-be-Done

Qualitative and ethnographic techniques are also the best way to map out the different emotional and functional ‘jobs’ that buyers want products or services to fulfill.

The Jobs-to-be-Done framework is a way of gaining a truer understanding of your buyers’ needs and encouraging innovation.

Once you have worked out the different jobs and the underlying emotional needs, you can identify the best opportunity via quantitative research.

That way, you’ll validate both the emotional and functional jobs that matter most to your target audience, then see how they’re under-served by existing solutions.

#5 Overcome over-rationalized responses with regression analysis and trade-off techniques

Similar to qualitative research, there are occasions where respondents may over-think their answers in quantitative research too.

They may overstate the importance of some decision-making criteria in their purchase decision, or underplay others.

Regression analysis is an advanced statistical technique you can run on a data set to analyze the connections between answers to different questions.

Along with other forms of conjoint analysis and MaxDiff, it’s designed to calculate the derived importance of criteria – evaluating the emotional and functional trade-offs buyers would make in a real purchase scenario.

Crucially, it provides reliable and robust data based on subconscious thinking, not claimed thinking. 



Why it’s vital to consider buyer emotions in B2B

By analyzing B2B buyer emotions, you can: understand underlying drivers of purchase decision-making; validate which ones have the greatest impact on product or service uptake; identify how to target these drivers in marketing and sales strategies.

How emotions affect B2B buying behavior

These are common cognitive biases in B2B: cognitive framing; recency bias; anchoring bias; in-group bias; distinctive encoding; endowment effect and loss aversion; inertia; exposure effect; hyperbolic discounting; sunk-cost effect.

In addition to cognitive biases, emotional factors also play a part in B2B purchase decisions: apprehension; frustration; confusion; apathy; excitement; trust; affinity; pride.

Best practices for analyzing buyer emotions in B2B research

When researching how emotions affect B2B buying behavior, we recommend that you: explore buyers’ subconscious with smart techniques and tools; probe emotions qualitatively with indirect, projective questions; use observational research techniques to go beyond claimed behavior; work out your product or service’s Jobs-to-be-Done; overcome over-rationalized responses with regression analysis and trade-off techniques.

Chris Wells

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