Hidden Sales Cycle
There’s perhaps been no influence more profound in shaping the customer journey than the social web. I say the social web because influence extends beyond social networks to really account for the wealth of information that your buyers use to become educated customers. In the words of one IBM senior marketing manager: “Buyers have gotten really good at answering their own questions.”

Welcome to the “Hidden Sales Cycle,” the potentially unseen influence of social connections and content on the buyer’s journey. The implications for marketing and sales are enormous, presenting new challenges but also new opportunities.

The Challenges of the Hidden Sales Cycle

The fact is that there’s always been a hidden sales cycle to some degree. We sought advice from friends and family, we read magazines and reviews (ok, not technically hidden, since these were advertising platforms), and consulted with analysts, colleagues and committees for large corporate purchases. But social media and search have accelerated, expanded and democratized its impact. It’s easier than ever to find disparate sources of information and expertise.

As Wikipedia has proven, knowledgeable mavens are eager to share their insight and experience at zero cost to you. Aberdeen’s 2012 B2B Social Media Marketing research found that buyers communicating on social networks was the number one pressure driving adoption of social media marketing. Companies who thought they could manage the conversation by managing information may find themselves at a loss.

  • Loss of control -- Information-based marketing may have presented the illusion of control, but that illusion has been pretty well dispelled by now. Several years ago a prominent blogger posted details about a potential security vulnerability in my company’s product (a trusted online utility for remote computer access, so this was kind of a big deal). We knew we didn't have control and didn't attempt to seize it; instead we posted a detailed explanation of the issue and how we were dealing with it.
  • Hidden in plain sight -- The moniker “Hidden Sales Cycle” is intentional devious, because many of the conversations aren't hidden at all, they’re happening on open forums and user groups, on social networks, and in the comments on blogs. Nevertheless, buyers are arriving with context; a “vision” for what they want and/or need that’s been shaped by these influencers (and not you). This vision may perfectly complement the products and services you offer -- or not, probably not.
  • Bargaining power -- Strategy devotees will recall one of Porter’s five forces that define the attractiveness of an industry as the bargaining power of buyers (high bargaining power will on balance reduce that attractiveness). There are no secrets anymore. A reasonably motivated buyer can tap into a wealth of information, right down to detailed pricing. The idea of “showrooming” in retail is well known, but B2B transactions are also susceptible to the disruption of transparency.

The Opportunities in the Hidden Sales Cycle

Unlike the old hidden sales cycle, the new hidden sales cycle is discoverable, monitor-able, and engage-able. This presents unique opportunities for brands to “be the disruption” or at least be part of the information flow.

  • Keep an ear to the crowd -- Aberdeen’s recent Social Brand Management report (registration required) found that top-performing companies are greater than 2.5-times more likely than Followers to use social listening to capture brand or customer sentiment (69% of Leaders vs. 26% of Followers). More generally we find that high-performing companies are more likely to have formalized social media monitoring programs in place.
  • Not just for marketing -- Social listening can serve as a kind of early warning system for your brand. Twitter and Facebook are the new water cooler, but they’re also the new complaint department. New tools help companies maps the social conversation to specific moments in the customer journey (using keywords and natural language processing, for example) so that social chatter become a proxy for customer experience at various moments in the journey.
  • Keep Friends Close -- The social web has democratized influence; so while it gives detractors a platform, advocates get a voice as well. The Social Brand Management report found that Leaders are more than twice as likely as followers to proactively engage with brand advocates (44% vs. 19%) using both social listening and more traditional customer sentiment metrics.
  • Content marketing -- The hidden sales cycle isn't just about tweets, likes and mentions, it’s about the content that variously informs, educates and entertains. Aberdeen’s upcoming content marketing report will show that companies using content marketing saw 118% higher website traffic from organic search vs. non-users, and required 84% less site traffic to generate a customer.

As our use of social media as a communications platform for marketing, selling and custom care evolves and matures, what’s clear is that social isn't one-dimensional. It’s a platform that delivers value in multiple, connected ways. Social is a source of intelligence, as a source of influence and relevance, a channel for broad communications as well as one for one-to-one connections.

Regardless of your particular focus, the reality of the hidden sales cycle in your particular business means you need to think strategically about managing social relationships within the broader context of your CRM initiatives.

Title image courtesy of Cienpies Design (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more from Trip, see his It Takes a System: Web Experience Management Meets Marketing Automation