Selling to a business? To be on the short list, you first have to be on the long list – here’s how

Selling to a business? To be on the short list, you first have to be on the long list – here’s how

Since the dawn of B2B marketing, there seems to have been a raging debate about whether B2B buyers act more rationally than consumers.

Classicists argue that the business procurement process is designed to eliminate irrationality and engender accountability across the entire purchase process.

The involvement of multiple B2B stakeholders in that process helps ensure that the final purchase decision can never be based on the emotional whim of a single stakeholder.

But this only tells half of the story: different types of decision making occur at different stages in the procurement process, even when the same people are involved.

In order to maximise their ROI, B2B marketers need to understand which process occurs at what stage of the buying process, and plan their marketing accordingly.

The B2B purchase process isn’t as thorough as you think it is

I recently conducted 24 qualitative interviews for a B2B client who wanted to understand how software purchasers across a range of verticals have been procuring in the wake of the pandemic.

What the interviewees confirmed straight off the bat is that even the most professional business buyers are incredibly time-poor and often horribly under-resourced.

So when an internal issue comes up that requires an external vendor to provide a solution, buyers simply do not have the time or resource to hold a whole-of-market review – even for the most significant purchases.

What frequently happens is that when a business challenge emerges, the drawing up of the long list of potential solution providers is done far less thoroughly and arrived at far more quickly than the final purchase decision itself.

The research showed that long list compilation discussions extend little further than “Who do we know of who might have a decent solution?”; “Has anyone experience of working with a vendor who could solve this?”, and even “Have a look on Google and see who’s out there”.

Furthermore, the interviewees suggested that once that quick-and-dirty long list process gets to five or six potential vendors – often fewer – the long list search stops altogether.

That’s because the buyer group tend to believe that once they’ve got a list of half a dozen potential solution providers, the likelihood that they are going to unearth a significantly better provider by extending that long list to vendor #7 or vendor #8 is vanishingly small.

So they don’t look any further.

In other words – yes – the process of deciding on the final provider is often structured: a formal review of pros & cons based on a variety of predictable criteria: cost & time to implement, efficacy of solution, ease of integration, projected cost savings etc. Multiple stakeholders are involved in the decision, often including personas from IT, Finance, Operations – all the usual suspects.

But what is nowhere near as thorough is how the long list – from which the short list of candidates gets selected – is actually drawn up, and by whom.

Put yourself in the B2B buyer’s shoes for a moment

It’s a little like buying a new car. When you decide you want one, although there are thousands of make and model options, you’ll probably quickly arrive at a long list of half a dozen makes / models you’d actually consider. You might take three of them for a test drive, and buy one of those three after a haggle with the preferred seller.

You certainly don’t test drive every make and model of car on the market: that would take months.

And so whilst the car purchase is a high involvement decision akin to a business appointing a new software provider, you’ll generally trust your own instincts – what Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman (1) calls System 1 thinking – to short-cut the candidate make/model list to the top half dozen, maximum.

How you draw up that short list will have been conditioned by months – probably years – of drip drip exposure to a variety of automotive brands: memories which you will subconsciously mine to arrive at the list of brands you’d actually consider when you are finally ready to buy.

Time-pressured, resource-poor B2B purchasers drawing up a new supplier long list think the same way, of necessity.

They use “short-hand thinking” to draw up their long list of potential candidates, and only subsequently use what I term “long-hand thinking” to decide who wins the actual tender.

Building brand saliency

So here’s the crux for B2B marketers: in order to make it to a formally-reviewed short list, you first have to get on the informally-constructed long list.

As we’ve seen above, the criteria for getting on the long list are rarely more involved than “who have we heard of that might be able to help us?”.

So if they haven’t heard of you, they are unlikely to consider buying from you.

It’s only at the final stage of the purchase process that the questions such as “Now: which of these providers offers us best value?” typically get addressed.

In B2B as well as in the world of the consumer, how vendors get on the long list is therefore often down to the salience of their brand – i.e. how likely their brand is to spring to the top of a buyer’s mind for offering a solution to a particular problem – rather than the detail of how they solve for it, and at what price, with what levels of support and service guarantees etc.

Your B2B brand therefore needs to be very close to top of mind for anyone drawing up a potential vendor long list, otherwise you’ll never make their short list.

This is why the B2B Institute, citing the work of Binet & Field, advocate B2B marketers investing around 50% of their marketing spend on long term brand building.

Focussing marketing effort solely on sales activation is putting the cart before the horse. Indeed, it’s focussing solely on the cart.

Why this matters

Brand building pents up long-term demand. Sales activation releases it.

If you focus all your B2B marketing budget trying to release pent-up demand with short-term activity, at some point there’ll be no long-term pent-up demand to release – and either your sales will dry up, or you’ll have to discount even more loudly to achieve consideration.

As Peter Weinberg and Jon Lombardo of the B2B Institute claim (2):

“Brand building excels at driving long term growth: it usually works on an emotional level to create long-term memories and associations long after the advertising runs. This is a bigger task than sales activation, requiring much broader reach and repeated exposure”

As I hope I have shown above, because B2B purchasers are time-poor, construction of their long list is largely done through short-hand thinking – with brand saliency the primary driver. And so your brand building plans need to acknowledge this.

To make the long list, your brand needs to be one of the most salient brands for having a relevant solution to a current business problem. To achieve brand saliency, you need to make a continued investment in your brand, as the B2B Institute advocates.

As I debated at a recent Business Marketing Club meet up, in order to be truly salient your B2B brand proposition needs to be single-minded, relevant, distinctive and rooted in a product truth.

Because if your brand is not top of mind with a buyer, chances are you won’t make their long list to start with.

And if you’re not on the long list, you’ll never make the short list – let alone close the sale.


B2B buyers use different decision-making processes at different parts of the purchase process.

The initial solution vendor review process tends to be via “short-hand thinking”, often drawing on brand saliency (“Who have we heard of that might be able to solve this?”) to draw up their long list.

It’s only at the final purchase decision stage that much more “long-hand thinking” is applied to choose the winning vendor.

To win more business, you therefore have to invest as much in brand building (to get onto more long lists) as you do sales activation (to push the purchaser down the sales funnel to the short list, and finally close the sale).

If you ever need help researching the decision-making process your own prospects go through, and what messages will achieve the highest saliency for your own products, please get in touch.

Simon Hayhurst

1           Thinking Fast and Slow / Daniel Kahneman

2           The 5 Principles of Growth in B2B Marketing / The B2B Institute

Photo credit Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

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