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PPC & the B2B Buyer Journey: A Primer

Learn how paid search fits with each step of the B2B buyer journey and the best practices to set up your PPC campaigns for success.

PPC & the B2B Buyer Journey- A Primer

PPC is often thought of as a lower-funnel channel, used to “close the sale” after a prospect has been warmed up with content elsewhere.

But PPC can fit anywhere in the buyer journey, especially with B2B customers.

How B2B Differs From B2C

First, and maybe most obvious, B2B products and services are rarely bought online.

Users don’t put a six-figure software solution into an online shopping cart and pay for it with a credit card.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any B2B purchases made online – there are.

But more often than not, B2B is focused on lead generation – users filling out a form asking for more information, or to download an asset such as a white paper.

That’s why content is so important. We’ll talk more about content later in the article.

B2B also has longer sales cycles than many B2C purchases. The B2C purchase cycle often looks something like this:

  • Hey, my running shoes are worn out.
  • I need new ones.
  • Let me jump over to Zappos or Amazon and grab a new pair.

That’s it – and the cycle may only take a few minutes.

In B2B, sales cycles of 12-18 months or even longer are common. Prospects are doing extensive research.

There are many steps along the journey. Almost nothing is bought on the first visit to the website.

Leads must be nurtured, with multiple touchpoints along the way.

And I’m not just talking about retargeting with a few “Hey, come buy what’s in your cart” messages. Much effort is put into the messaging that should be used at each point in the buyer journey.

Multiple decision-makers are often involved. Frequently, someone other than the decision-maker is doing the searching.

For example, the person who will ultimately use the product might kick off the search, and share the information with their boss, who makes the final purchase decision.

When you’re talking about high-dollar purchases, entire committees can get involved.

It’s complex.

All that said, at the heart of it, there are many similarities between the B2B and B2C buyer journey.

Searchers still have to cut through the clutter, whether it’s competing offers, irrelevant ads, or just other tasks competing for their attention.

At the heart of it, people are the ones doing the searches.

We’re all people.

We have interests, likes, and dislikes.

In many ways, what works for B2C also works for B2B.

The key is to meet users where they are.

As an example, I often hear clients say they don’t want to use Facebook ads, because, in their mind, Facebook is a B2C platform.

But there’s really no such thing as a “B2C platform.”

Who uses Facebook? People do!

Now, some platforms are better suited to B2B than others, but it’s certainly possible to effectively target B2B prospects on Facebook.

How PPC & Content Work Together

By now, you probably have the idea that it won’t work to keep showing the same ad to a prospect over the course of a 12-18 month buyer journey.

Talk about stale content!

To make your digital marketing program successful, you’ll need to understand your buyer journey and identify available content.

For example, you might have an informational video, a couple whitepapers, an ebook, and a free trial.

Generally, a video falls near the top of the funnel, in the research stage.

Ebooks and whitepapers are in the middle of the funnel.

A free trial is most effective for users who are near a purchase decision.

Look at all your available content and align it to the buyer journey stage.

It’s important to make sure you have landing pages and actions you can measure, even if they’re micro-conversions like video views and whitepaper downloads.

These actions may or may not “count” as conversions in your CRM, but they absolutely count in PPC.

Give yourself something to measure user engagement, so you can set up remarketing later.

Aligning to the Buyer Journey

Now, it’s time to align your keywords to the content and buyer journey stage.

Think about which keywords people might use when first thinking about your product.

Searchers will probably use broader keywords in the early stages of the process.

For example, let’s say you’re selling accounting software to businesses.

Users might search for “accounting software,” “payroll software,” or even “accounting solutions.”

Mid-funnel keywords in this example could include “best accounting software,” “accounting software reviews,” “how to use accounting software,” etc.

Finally, intent-based keywords come at the bottom of the funnel: brand terms, along with “buy,” “try” and “demo” keywords.

Best practices for PPC still apply here.

Be sure to match the keywords to the content.

Identify any gaps in your content and work with your content team to help fill them with additional assets.

How Audiences Factor In

No discussion of PPC would be complete without talking about audiences.

If you’ve aligned your content correctly, PPC can give great insight into audiences you can use for future retargeting, as well as in other channels such as paid social.

So how do you decide on audiences?

One obvious way is to create retargeting audiences based on page visits.

Users who visited your upper-funnel content can be retargeted with mid- and lower-funnel content to try to encourage them to convert.

There’s almost no reason not to build audiences based on page visitors.

If you’ve gone to the effort to align your content to the buyer journey, you should be retargeting to them – period.

Take advantage of what you know about them by serving content that maps to where they are in their journey.

Use audiences from other channels for retargeting, too!

If someone came to your site from content on Facebook, for example, set up an RLSA audience in search to keep them moving down the funnel.

Paid social audiences are a great way to identify who users are.

If you targeted accountants in a Facebook ads campaign, you’ll know that that audience consists of your exact target audience when they perform a search.

Bid on broad keywords for this audience!

Terms like “accounting” that would normally be cost-prohibitive can perform well when used with a known audience.

I love to add audiences for observation, as well.

Look through the in-market and other audiences in Google and Microsoft Ads. If they’re relevant, add them for observation.

There’s no reason not to gather performance data that you can act on later, either with bid adjustments or with a targeting campaign.

If your company has first-party audiences, so much the better. Upload them and target them!

One caveat with first-party audiences is audience size.

Match rates are fairly low in the search engines – about 50% at best – so make sure you have at least 20,000 users on your list, or you’ll find little to no volume for them in your search campaigns.

Remember that users need to both be on your list and search for one of your keywords for the ad to show.

Measuring Success

Now that you’ve spent time and effort on matching content to the buyer journey, identifying the right keywords, and creating audiences, it’s time to measure success.

Hopefully, you already have good conversion tracking in place, but if you don’t, do that now.

Make sure to include micro-conversions – actions such as video views or clicks on an action button that may not be counted as leads but indicate that users are engaging with your content.

Micro conversions are especially important for upper-funnel content that doesn’t generate form fills.

Resist the temptation to gate 100% of your assets.

People in the early stages of research won’t want to fill out a form just to watch an overview video, but you still want to know how many people watched it.

Once you’ve set up micro-conversions, take it a step further.

It’s important to know how individual content is performing.

That’s straightforward – just create a separate landing page for each asset, and track performance by page.

But you’ll also want to measure performance along each stage of the buyer journey.

For instance, how well is your awareness content performing compared with decision content?

One way to do this is to create a content ID system.

Assign each piece of content an ID that parses out:

  • The title of the asset.
  • The stage of the buyer journey.
  • The type of content.

This way, you can easily roll up the data at multiple levels.

Don’t skip this step. It’s critical to come up with a plan for tracking the performance of your content across different channels.

While there are assets that will fare well in specific channels and poorly in others, some will rise to the top as strong performers overall.

Focus on promoting that content heavily and try to replicate it.

Also, consider which asset types your audience responds to.

Do they prefer videos?

Do they like to download white papers to read and share?

Thinking about this at the outset will allow you to set up a tracking system where you can pull the data and insights you need to make decisions.

You might also find that some content has been misclassified in the buyer journey.

Maybe you assigned a whitepaper to the top of the funnel, but it’s driving a lot of hand-raisers and might perform better against mid-funnel keywords or as a retargeting piece.

The key is, make sure you’re able to collect data at its most granular level.

You can always roll up, but it’s impossible to parse out if you haven’t set up tracking to do so.

Understanding the buyer journey and aligning your PPC campaigns to it is going to be critical for success in 2020 and beyond.

With forethought, you can maximize leads and sales from B2B PPC by aligning to your buyer journey.

More Resources:

Category PPC
VIP CONTRIBUTOR Melissa Mackey Associate Director of Paid Search at MerkleB2B

Melissa Mackey is currently Associate Director of Paid Search at MerkleB2B. A PPC professional since 2002, Mackey specializes in B2B ...

PPC & the B2B Buyer Journey: A Primer

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