Unveiling the Mechanics of B2B Buying Triggers


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A recent LinkedIn post by Dale W. Harrison ignited a lively debate about whether marketing can “create demand.” The post has received nearly 500 comments, and there are thoughtful views on both sides of the issue.

Harrison observed that there’s an “almost universal” belief that marketers can create demand “out of thin air.” This belief, he wrote, is based on the assumption that everyone is always “in-market” and will buy if persuaded “hard enough.”

Harrison forcefully argued that this belief and its underlying assumption are flat-out wrong. He contended that people in B2B buy something when changes in their organization surface an “urgent, high-value, and widely recognized need” that didn’t previously exist.

The reality, Harrison wrote, is that most prospective customers “. . . are NOT in-market and represent future buyers who will only bring THEMSELVES in-market once a need emerges.” Therefore, he concluded, marketers simply can’t create demand.

Reframing the Issue

Whether marketing alone can or can’t create demand is an important, but usually underappreciated, issue. It should affect the shape of marketing strategy, the allocation of marketing resources, and the substance of marketing messages and other content.

Unfortunately, how you resolve this issue depends on how you define “create” and “demand.” And, because those terms can be defined in several ways, conversations about the issue can easily become unproductive.

There’s a way to frame the issue that’s more useful for B2B marketers. The practical question is:  Can marketing activities alone cause a business decision-maker* to begin considering options that may involve a purchase, i.e. a buying process.

With rare exceptions, the answer to this question is “No.” In almost all cases, a “trigger” is required to ignite a serious buying process.

What Is a Buying Trigger?

In B2B, a buying trigger is an event that causes a business decision-maker to perceive a need or desire to change something in order to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity.

A trigger can be a single event, or it can result from the cumulative impact of several events, and triggers can arise from events inside or outside of the decision-maker’s organization.

Trigger events can take many forms, but there’s little research about what specific kinds of events most frequently act as buying triggers. One study that directly addressed this issue was a 2021 survey of business decision-makers by WSJ Intelligence and B2B International.

This survey asked participants what kinds of events triggered their decision to search for a new supplier. The following table shows the percentage of respondents who selected each of twelve trigger events.

These survey results show that events involving the consumption of marketing/sales/news content (shown in red in the table) were ranked near the bottom of the list. This indicates that marketing content alone won’t be sufficient to trigger a buying process in most cases.

The Psychology of B2B Buying Triggers

For an event to act as a trigger, it must produce a particular psychological impact. This impact results from the interplay of three factors – rewards, goals, and motivation.

Humans are programmed to seek rewards. Neuroscience research has shown that the human brain has a “reward center” that is activated when our brain processes information that signals a reward we value. So, for an event to function as a trigger, the decision-maker must perceive that satisfying the need or desire evoked by the event will produce a reward.

If the potential reward is valuable enough, the decision-maker will make satisfying the need or desire a goal, and he or she will be motivated to achieve the goal. 

Recent advances in decision science have established that motivation is the primary driving force behind all human behavior, including buying behavior. 

The American Psychological Association defines motivation as, “a person’s willingness to exert physical or mental effort in pursuit of a goal or outcome.” The existence of motivation is what causes a decision-maker to begin a process that may result in a purchase. So, what ultimately transforms an event into a buying trigger is its ability to evoke motivation in the mind of the potential buyer.

Implications for B2B Marketers

So, what does this mean for B2B marketers? The key lesson here is that you need to use different marketing messaging with potential buyers who have yet to experience a triggering event.

If you were using messaging to prompt a buying process, you should focus on the “pain” created by the buyer’s issue or challenge and emphasize the need for change. Your objective would be to cause potential buyers to feel the pain of their current state sufficiently to provoke a willingness to consider change.

However, since marketing messaging alone isn’t sufficient to provoke a buying process in most cases, the better strategy with potential buyers who haven’t experienced a triggering event is to use messaging that emphasizes how an issue or challenge can be successfully addressed and describes the benefits such a change will produce for the buyer’s organization and for the individual buyer.

This type of messaging will make it more likely potential buyers will remember your company when they experience a triggering event.

*I’m using the term “decision-maker” to mean anyone who is involved in making or can influence a business purchase decision.

Top image courtesy of Thomas Quine via Flickr.com (CC).

Republished with author's permission from original post.

David Dodd
David Dodd is a B2B business and marketing strategist, author, and marketing content developer. He works with companies to develop and implement marketing strategies and programs that use compelling content to convert prospects into buyers.


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