BallWe don’t normally write about issues of B2B vending. We are, after all, a website dedicated to the world of recruiting.

But IBM has an impressive track record when it comes to studies on everyone’s favorite hot topic, the millennial, and the company’s latest effort, “To Buy or Not to Buy: How Millennials Are Reshaping B2B Marketing,” is no different.

But more than just being thorough and well-researched study, “To Buy or Not to Buy” is important for recruiting audiences for two reasons:

  1. Recruiting and marketing have a lot in common (which is not, of course, an original observation). It stands to reason, then, that recruiters who work with millennial talent can learn from the B2B marketers who also work with millennials.
  2. As millennials become the single largest generation in the workforce, vendors of recruiting technology and software will certainly find themselves selling to millennial clients. These vendors will be far more successful in selling their products if they know how millennials shop and what they’re looking for in sales interactions.

And so, without further ado, onto what I feel are some of the key insights from IBM’s study. As always, I encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself: I can summarize to the best of my abilities, but it’s always better to head straight to the source once you have your bearings.

(One final note: for those who have neither the time nor the inclination to read this whole post, there’s a neat-ish wrap-up of some of the key takeaways at the very end. You can skip straight to it if you’d prefer not to listen to me drone on. But I promise you, my droning is interesting!)

Go Beyond Digital to Really Differentiate Your Brand

When I ask Carolyn Baird, global research leader at the IBM Institute for Business Value and the author of “To Buy or Not to Buy,” what findings from the study she sees as particularly noteworthy, she points to the fact that, when millennials are researching B2B products and services, their preferred route is direct contact with vendors.

“People think about the millennials as all digital, and our results show that’s simply not the case,” Baird says. “If you think about it, digital is kind of table stakes for millennials. They’re so comfortable getting the information they need very quickly online with that device that’s in their pocket.”

When millennials contact vendors, they’re not looking for sales pitches: they’re looking for amazing client experiences. They’re looking for insight into what it’s like to work with a particular vendor. When it comes to B2B marketing, then, a brand’s key differentiator needs to be their ability to offer clients an authentic experience.

How to Give Millennials ‘Authentic Experiences’

During the research phase, millennials are deciding which vendors they may want to work with. To that end, they’re looking for vendors who will build authentic relationships with them.

“Providing relevant experiences, both virtually and in person, will go a long way with [m]illennials,” the study says.

According to Baird, companies need to “do their homework” if they want to give millennials relevant, authentic experiences.

“Do your research. Find out what this client is like, what they’re interested in,” Baird says.

Aside from searching for information about a potential millennial client in the obvious places, Baird says companies need to utilize “really good social analytics” in order to get to know what a potential millennial client “is all about.”

“Then, [you can] tailor the conversation to be very much about what that client is mostly interested in,” Baird says. “It takes a little extra work, and maybe some creativity, but I think it’s definitely worth it. People can see through a sales pitch. What they want is something a lot more personal.”

How’s Your Social? 

Whereas direct interactions with vendors are the name of the game during the research process, when it comes to the sales cycle, millennials are looking for quick, convenient ways to contact vendors. To that end, a large portion of millennials — 41 percent — use social media to connect with vendors.

“If you’re out there marketing B2B products, you definitely need to have a social presence,” Baird says.

And that social presence needs to be engaging and responsive. Millennials don’t want to work with vendors who use social media solely to send out brand messaging. They want vendors to really listen to them.

“You need to make sure that you have an engaging presence, and you’re available, and out there, and using it,” Baird says. “You’re [not just] blasting information out, but you’re listening, and you’re able to respond [to clients].”

Baird also notes that, when it comes to social strategies, companies should definitely look toward content marketing as a way to tell “brand-authentic” stories. Companies may also want to incorporate client references into their content marketing strategies.

“That’s a great way to … provide a little more context and information,” Baird says.

Let Your Happy Customers Do Some Legwork

Speaking of client references, IBM’s study notes that “satisfied clients — especially [m]illennials — are eager to share their experience with others. And their endorsement can make a big difference.”

That is to say that authentically positive client references can play an important role in landing millennial clients. Therefore, Baird says, companies should prioritize gathering and sharing authentically positive client references. To quote the study, “You should make it ridiculously easy for clients to tell their success stories and become brand evangelists for you.”

“[Companies] know who their happy clients are,” Baird says. “I think proactively reaching out to them to see if they would be willing to go on record endorsing that particular product, service, or brand [is one way to make it easy for clients to be brand evangelists].”

Which brings us back to content marketing. Baird suggests that companies think about interviewing satisfied clients or asking those clients to write and share their stories about positive experiences with the company. Companies can then share these stories via content marketing channels, creating more authentic experiences for potential millennial clients.

When Millennials Make Decisions, They’re Looking for Outside Input

But they’re not looking for input from vendors. Instead, they’re looking for input from people on whom vendors may have little influence — that is, family and friends. In fact, “recommendations from family or friends outside [the] organization” ranks as one of the top influences on millennial B2B purchasing decisions, according to IBM’s study. Thirty-six percent of millennials say they turn to family and friends when making these purchasing decisions. To put that into context, an equal percentage of millennials name their organization’s data analysis as a top influence.

This isn’t exactly great news for vendors, as a potential client’s friends and family members may be well outside of a vendor’s sphere of influence. That being said, Baird believes companies can take a few steps to “reach out to the influencers who are influencing the influencers.”

“It goes back to [knowing] what that client is about,” Baird explains. “If you do the social listening and you do the analytics based on the social listening and you come away with a sense of what that client’s ecosystem looks like, I think there’s a way to consider your strategies so that you can try and make sure that your brand has some exposure even beyond what your normal trade circles might be.”

For example, Baird says that IBM participates in a lot of sports sponsorships, which helps the company expose a broad range of people to their brand. This raises IBM’s profile in the public eye, which means that a potential client’s friends and family members will be more likely to know IBM’s brand and see it in a positive light.

“Other companies can do similar kinds of things,” Baird says.

As Promised: a Neat-ish Wrap-Up of Some Key Takeaways for Recruiters and Vendors

Because IBM’s study is exclusively concerned with B2B marketing, it’s not possible to perfectly align the study’s findings with the goals and strategies of recruiters. That being said, I do truly believe that recruiters can take some inspiration from the study and apply some of its conclusions to their own practices in modified ways. Vendors of recruiting technology and software, of course, engage in B2B marketing regularly, so IBM’s findings are more immediately applicable to them.

That being said, here are the key points that I think recruiters and vendors should walk away from this study knowing:

  • Digital is “table stakes” for millennials. The real the differentiator for any brand is its ability to offer authentic experiences.

  • People can see through a sales pitch. Do your research and focus more on giving people authentic, personalized interactions.

  • When millennials engage with brands on social, they want to see that their presences are engaging and responsive. You should be listening to your followers, not just blasting out content.

  • Millennials will often turn to friends and family – people who are outside your influence – when making decisions. Find ways to expose your brand to people beyond your normal circles.

  • Millennials can be valuable evangelists of your (employer) brand — if you give them a good experience, that is. You should know who your happy customers are, and you should give them very easy ways to share their experiences with others.

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