June 01, 2021

Rethinking Your Channel Strategy for the Digital Buyer’s Journey

Businessperson with channel partners around the globe

Buyer behavior changed dramatically during the 2010s. When we entered the decade, people were just starting to get comfortable with search-driven eCommerce, social media, cloud computing and mobile. By the latter 2010s, many products and services were being researched and purchased following a digitally driven buyer’s journey.

At the start of the 2010s, prospects would speak with sales professionals early in their research and decision-making process. By the end of the decade, the power yielded by mainstream adoption of search, social, cloud and mobile had shifted power away from companies and their sales teams—and squarely into the hands of the buyers.

So, this digital buyer’s journey means that your prospects will be very far along with their research and decision-making by the time they first meet someone from your channel partners’ sales team. This behavior change profoundly impacts how traditional IT channel partners—VARs, integrators and managed service providers, for example—market, sell and deliver products and services. And as a result, nearly all channel and product teams need to rethink their channel strategy to adapt to this digital buyer’s journey.

A little while back, CGS hosted a webinar (Planning for a New Normal in Channel - 12 Predictions to Transform the Playbook) with Doug Stephen, President, Learning & Channel Enablement at CGS, and Jay McBain, Principal Analyst – Channels, Partnerships & Alliances at Forrester Research.

In this article, you’ll learn about some key highlights from that webinar, including the consumerization of the buyer’s journey, how you can attract invisible buyers during their technology evaluation, the five influencers driving the most dramatic channel shift in 39 years and the new channel competencies you’ll need to compete and win.

Consumerization of the Buyer’s Journey

Most working in the IT channel have adapted to the consumerization of IT, where business units within enterprises drive technology adoption even more so than centralized IT departments. However, shifts in buyer behavior set in motion during the 2010s were amplified and accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. With social distancing requirements and millions of people working from home, consumers and businesses innovated in ways that may have been incrementally incomprehensible before the most severe public health crisis in 100 years.

And all the online behaviors to which consumers have become accustomed—buying groceries, “visiting” the doctor, attending weddings and other life events and even buying cars and homes, sometimes sight-unseen—impact how these same people research and make purchasing decisions.

“The future business buyer is going to look a lot like a consumer,” Forrester’s McBain explained. “Buying software or buying infrastructure or buying cloud is going to look a lot like buying a car, where there’s going to be a strong digital journey upfront.”

All of this has major implications for the IT channel's long-standing status quo: suddenly, you have major IT purchases and vendor selections happening without prospects ever filling out a form on a website or speaking with a salesperson.

Attracting Invisible Buyers During Their Technology Evaluation

“57 percent of decisions are made before . . . you actually hear about it,” Stephen said.

So, how do you know who the right buyers are when they begin their buyer’s journey? Stephen described how CGS uses intent marketing signals from multiple third-party sources to identify the invisible prospects who are researching a specific vendor’s particular products. With this data, you can reach out to prospects while they’re in their evaluation process—before those prospects have made their purchase decision.

Because of this, channel partners are less likely to have a significant impact on technology evaluation cycles by relying on old-school playbooks centered on “smile and dial” cold-calling campaigns.

The Most Dramatic Channel Shift in 39 Years

Next, McBain illustrated how it isn’t just the buyer behaviors and the digital buyer’s journey that’s causing the biggest channel shift in nearly four decades.

In modern purchases, five (or more) different channel partners can be involved at the early stages of the buyer’s journey. That’s five or more influencers. And most of these channel partners don’t look anything like the traditional, transactional channel partners of the early 2000s and 2010s. These channel partners instead are non-transacting, meaning “they’re not going to end up being the ones who collect the money when the customer gets to vendor selection.”

It’s quite common to see customers thinking of a cloud, SaaS or infrastructure initiative as a multilayer decision. What does that mean to your partners and overall channel strategy? Today many purchases now involve seven different layers and seven different channel partners.

New Channel Competencies to Compete With—and Win

To compete and win these deals, it’s no longer about who has the best golf tournaments or trade show booth swag. “In the next decade, who wins that early digital journey, who wins on the front page of a marketplace, search engine optimization and getting on the first page of a marketplace wins in terms of influencing these influencers. It's going to be a critical piece of who wins the future,” McBain advised.

And just as important to your channel strategy for a digital buyer’s journey, you’ll need to rapidly gain competency to partner with both traditional transacting partners and non-transacting partners.

In a world where most purchases will now be primarily influenced by those channel partners not involved in making a margin from the sale of the product or service, you’ll need to adapt to these new channel competencies required to compete and win.

Reaching influencers and buyers has already changed a lot in the 21st century, and many target markets are moving targets. Behaviors, needs and technologies will change. And disruptions also will bring change—as we've seen over the past year-plus. The question becomes, how are you rethinking your channel strategy to adapt to new kinds of partners involved in new digital buyers’ journeys?

And if you’re serious about preparing a new channel strategy, be sure to watch the full recording of “Planning for a New Normal in Channel – 12 Predictions to Transform the Playbook.”


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