Millennial Buying Habits: What B2B Marketers Need to Know [Study]


Unlike any generation that has gone before them, Millennials have been exposed from birth to a digital revolution that has shaped the way that they think and act. The tech-savvy, socially connected buyers that have resulted have driven many changes to the way that we do things, not least in the world of consumer marketing. But as they are now moving into decision-making roles in work, how are their views influencing their buying choices and how should B2B marketers react? Those are questions on Millennial B2B buying habits that the team at IBM set out answer, and which revealed some surprising results. Let’s take a look.

Millennials and the B2B Buying Process

“To Buy or Not to Buy? How Millennials are Reshaping B2B” questioned more than 700 employees, across 12 countries and 6 industries. The research focused on individuals in all company sizes, who made B2B purchasing decisions at a value of $10,000 or more. The data was then analyzed to compare the responses from Millennials (born 1980 to 1993), Gen X (1965 to 1979) and Boomers (1954 to 1964). The results revealed that the newest generation’s buying behavior differs from their predecessors, but that while their consumer practices do have an influence, in some areas that’s not always the case.

The research revealed some interesting aspects of Millennial attitudes during four stages of the B2B buying process.

Initial research. Millennials prefer direct contact with vendors when researching B2B products and services. They rated contact with the vendor’s representatives as their top source with third-party sources rated only seventh out of nine factors. By contrast, Gen X buyers rated the third-party sources most highly, with vendor’s reps coming way down the list. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Boomer generation still highly value trade shows and conferences, along with trade and industry publications.

Engaging with the vendor. The majority of Millennials (69 percent) say that they most often meet with vendors face-to-face as they engage with them in the sales cycles, though this may be due to their organization’s established practices rather than by choice. The same proportion says that their preferred option is to communicate remotely by email or phone at this stage. Once they have all the information they need, they like contact to be quick and easy and profess an interest in using social media, live chats, and even instant messaging to keep in touch as they make their decisions.

The buying decision. This is where it gets really interesting. When asked what influences their B2B buying decisions Boomers (44 percent) and Gen X (42 percent) both cited their own personal experiences and impressions as the major influence. By contrast, Millennial respondents put “recommendations from family and friends outside my organization” jointly at the top with data analysis, both at 36 percent and just ahead of personal views at 34 percent.

The analytical approach shouldn’t come as any surprise, but seeking validation from others outside of their organization is a change from what we are generally accustomed to and important for sales and marketing teams to note. Think for a minute how many social media or online community forum posts you see asking for thoughts or opinions on a vendor or product, that’s an example of seeking validation from others outside the organization—and clearly an important part of the vetting process for a Millennial buyer.

Sharing and reviewing. The Millennial attitude to sharing their buying experiences also revealed something of a surprise result. As a whole, Millennials have shown themselves more than ready to post both positive and negative reviews of goods and services across their social platforms. But with their B2B hats on, it seems that they are much more reluctant to share a negative experience. From the study:

  • More than two-thirds (69 percent) say that they will post a compliment on the vendor’s website, but just one in ten will share a complaint.
  • The same proportions apply in favor of positive comments on social media.
  • A third say that they will post positive comments about their experiences on a third-party website but just three percent would post a negative review.

Why so shy to give opinions that are work-related? I agree with the report’s authors that it might be due to reluctance to risk any consequences from going public about business related issues, in particular negative ones.

How Marketers Need to Adapt to the New B2B Buyer

This report provides further evidence of the dynamic ways that the Millennial generation is changing the way that we work. If your business is in the B2B sector, you need to make sure you are adapting in several key areas to be able to attract, engage with, and sell to this new breed of buyer.

  • A mobile user experience for corporate websites and a mobile focus on email marketing are both critical, as Millennial buyers are likely accessing information on their devices, on the run.
  • Omnichannel. An omnichannel approach is extremely important as part of the integrated marketing buyer experience you provide, because not only are these buyers on the run, they’re also all over different channels all day long. Don’t assume their preferences are all the same, and don’t assume they like what you like. For more on that, read my recently published post: Omnichannel: Understanding the New Customer Journey that breaks down some ITSMA research that you will find valuable.
  • Visual Content. Your marketing tactics must include visual content, like infographics and charts that can be used for comparison purposes. Video content is vital—not necessarily something that’s slick and which looks like advertising, but instead, video content that can be viewed as an honest extension of the brand and that answers questions these prospective buyers have.
  • Blog as Resource. A corporate blog can provide value, both to marketers as a lead gen tool, but more importantly, to a buyer seeking information. Make sure your blog isn’t a glorified ad slick constantly pushing brand messaging. Instead, make it a valuable resource filled with information and resources designed to assist your prospective customers every step of the way along their path to purchase. A blog is also an important tool for helping to establish a legitimate social media presence, and the two work hand-in-hand.
  • Speaking of social, an active social media profile is vital, as this is where Millennial buyers tend to look for information and seek out the viewpoints of their peers, friends, and family. A social media presence is as important after a sale as it is before, because a Millennial buyer will no doubt expect to receive customer service via social media channels just as capably as via any other channel. Not having a presence in the social media space tells a Millennial buyer that you just don’t get it.

In summary, none of this is rocket science. Millennial buyers like contact with people. Making sure your sales and business development teams act like people—online and off, is important. This is where robust, humanized LinkedIn profiles and other social media platforms can play a big role. In addition, adopting communication methods like video conferencing, social interaction, chat, instant messaging, and text messaging is easy to do and is how this generation of buyer likes to communicate. Understanding the importance mobility plays in user experience is key, and producing content, visual and otherwise, that serves these prospective buyers’ needs and interests them are all no-brainers. For today’s savvy, connected buyers, these things are table stakes. Are they a part of your sales and marketing tactics?

You can find out more about the IBM report by visiting To Buy or Not to Buy? How Millennials are Reshaping B2B or view an infographic that highlights the main findings.

Additional Resources:

Google Says Millennial Influence on the Rise in B2B Buying
Millennials Leading the Way For The New Buyer’s Journey
B2B Buying: Millennials vs. Gen X and Baby Boomers

photo credit: Ui, das waren Paletten via photopin (license)


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