Walk A Mile In Your Buyer’s Shoes With B2B Buyer Ethnography

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Tony Zambito

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I love these new shoes.
I love these new shoes. (Photo credit: fuzzcat)

It began, as history can best record, as a proverb of the Native American Cherokee tribe.   Which said, “do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.”  This proverb had been rephrased, reshaped, and reworded many times as a way to communicate.  What matters though, is the truth of this proverb.  To truly know someone, you must walk a mile in his or her shoes.

Increasingly today, B2B buying decisions are heavily weighted towards perceptions about a brand’s promise and experience.  Oftentimes, gaining clues about buyer perceptions and experiences with a brand is not an easy road.  What many B2B companies are learning, albeit at a much slower pace than their B2C cousins, is conventional research means are not working.  Focus groups are basically out of focus.  Win/Loss interviewing is plagued with validity problems.  Surveys barely scratch the surface.  Elongated quantitative market research results in too many pie charts.  And, big data can be – well too big.

Technology Driving Changes In B2B Buying Behaviors

To truly get to know your buyers today, walking a mile in their shoes can be a window into their world.  This is a world impossible to know when using conventional research.  Or, when relying on more traditional sales or product management as the source of feedback, it comes up short.   The idea of walking a mile in your buyer’s shoes, for B2B, is becoming a matter of survival.  Why?  For this reason:

Technology is drastically changing every facet of B2B business operations.  Causing a ripple effect on operational and buying behaviors.  Altering how businesses are operating today as well as drastically changing individual goals and values.

It appears many of today’s CEOs agree.  In a recent PWC survey, 86% of U.S. CEOs say changes in technology are driving the most changes in business operations.

The Power Of Observation

With digital technology changing every facet of B2B business operations, it makes it hard for buyers to articulate clearly how and for sellers to understand the changing dynamics in buying behaviors.  To gain insight today, B2B organizations will need to tap into the power of observation.  Using the research discipline of ethnography to understand the situations confronting buyers today.

The power of observation allows us to use several ethnographic research techniques combined such as interviewing, field observation, and contextual research, to observe the real world situations of buyers.  Providing us a window into the challenging situations buyers’ experience.  These methods help us observe and learn how buyers are affected as well as how they are impacted emotionally.  Things you cannot learn in a survey or through win/loss phone calls.

Decoding Buyer Experience

What is becoming more evident today is buyer experience is becoming more in line with a holistic human experience.  Social media and digital technologies are also creating a cultural phenomenon in businesses today we have not witnessed before.   The way people work and interact is vastly different than just five years ago.  The power of B2B buyer ethnography is to help us understand not only how behavior has changed but to understanding the important meanings associated with changed behaviors.

For CMOs and CSOs today, to make informed strategic decisions requires knowledge of how buyers work and why they make decisions within new situations.  Needing the insights, which B2B buyer ethnography can provide, on decoding the actual real world experiences of buyers.  Taking the guessing out of planning.

The Fit With Buyer Insights Research And Buyer Personas

Since the origins of buyer personas, I have advocated the need for and the power of using the discipline of ethnography for understanding buyers.  The use of this discipline has been and always will be a core building block of the house buyer personas are built upon.  The core of buyer insights research or rather the ability to gain the deepest buyer insights rests with how an organization chooses to use the power of B2B buyer ethnography.  In cases where buyer ethnography was used in my work with organizations, the buyer insights and buyer personas were richer and more robust.  And, in some cases, game changing.

While understanding the needs of buyers today in long established terminologies related to their priorities or criteria’s is important, this approach alone does not help.  Profound buyer insights come from understanding the underlying nuances related to goals, values, emotions, feelings, attitudes, perceptions, and situations.  The very nuances needed to decode the human side of businesses today.  And, buyer personas are designed to communicate these insights and convey the human side of the buyer’s experiences.

New Framework For Understanding Buyers

Sorely needed is a new framework for understanding buyers today.  CMOs and CSOs, to make sound informed decisions, require new perspectives on buyer goals and the human side of businesses.  Gaining an important understanding of context.  Context on not only how businesses are impacted by changing technologies, but also getting new contextual understanding of how the individual buyer and human experience is changing.

B2B buyer ethnography provides such a framework.  B2B organizations will not be able to survive without tapping into this power at some point.  And, it means tapping into the required research expertise needed to get true unfiltered insights into the emotions and human side of changing buying behaviors.

To truly know buyers today, you must walk a mile in their shoes.

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4 thoughts on “Walk A Mile In Your Buyer’s Shoes With B2B Buyer Ethnography”

  1. paulhasselsmonning

    What examples do you have in mind when referring to the buyer ethnography,Tony? Deeper buyer understanding to my mind depends on the combination of deciphering and using digital bodylanguage (their actual online behavior) and neurological responses (attention and emotion as assessed thru neuromarketing). While the latter may seem daunting, expensive and new to most B2B marketeers, surveys based on EEG or fMRI bring new insights to the surface. To most B2B companies the buyer’s digital footprint as gauged thru marketing automation will be seen as the more accessible and practical route. My book Br@inbound Marketing, published Nov 2013, refers not only to your thoughts on crafting buyer personas yet combines the disciplines of inbound/digital marketing with customer psychology.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for commenting. When I speak of b2b buyer ethnography, I refer to observation and techniques in their truest sense – field ethnographic work. Nowadays it can include digital and virtual forms of ethnography as well. The key is to get an observable well rounded and holistic view of your customers. Most people who are learning about buyer personas believe a few phone calls will do – and that win/loss interviews is what is meant by buyer interviews. While I am not sure I am convinced about neuromarketing belonging in the ethnography sense, I do believe field and digital ethnography combined can be important. Thanks Paul and will look for your book. Tony

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