B2B buyers are people too. Colin Gray, Managing Partner Strategy & B2B at McCann, explains how behavioural insights can supercharge B2B marketing.

Behavioural science is the study of behaviour. It’s a vast and complex field, which draws on insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology and neuroscience. Despite the complexity, it has a lot to offer marketers – helping us to understand why people do what they do. By appreciating the context behind decision making, we can create more effective campaigns which resonate with our audience.

For a variety of reasons, I’d argue behavioural science is especially important in B2B. As is the case in B2C, decision making isn’t solely rational. In B2C, you have a fear of regret but, in B2B, you also have a fear of blame. Far more people will be exposed to a poor choice.

The ambiguity effect is a cognitive bias that describes how we tend to avoid options that are ambiguous or uncertain. Therefore, we’re more inclined to select an option where the probability of achieving a favourable outcome is known. When faced with a tough decision, we'll generally go for the ‘safer’, less risky option.

This behaviour might not even be conscious, with the risk of blame being mitigated by post-rationalising the preferred option. For example, if you choose a Big 4 accounting firm and something goes wrong, the blame clearly sits with them rather than with the decision maker.

In behavioural science, this is known as loss aversion. We’re hard-wired to react to losses more strongly than gains and we will try to prevent them more than we’ll try to make gains. This behavioural bias is well-understood in B2C. A tried and tested method in retail is to add flashes to campaign assets with “Limited-time offer”, “Hurry! Ends soon” and “Everything must go!”. Online retailers send abandoned-cart emails which highlight the number of an item that’s left in stock. In film launch campaigns, emphasising the potential for loss makes a proposition more motivating – including an ‘ending soon’ phase can boost ticket sales by around 36%.

Bringing things back to B2B, the risk averse nature of human decision making means brands have an opportunity to build a stronger connection with prospective buyers. Research suggests that B2B decision makers are more likely to consider a brand and are even willing pay a premium when a perceived connection exists (source: Google & Gartner’s ‘From Promotion to Emotion: connecting B2B customers to brands’).

Another cognitive bias to be aware of is what’s known as “status quo bias”. People generally perceive change as risky. In contrast, the familiar feels safer and more certain. Unless a B2B buyer has a compelling reason to act and proceed with someone new, they’ll potentially stick with the comfort of the status quo. Depending on which source you believe, as many as 50% of incumbent suppliers are re-appointed following public sector tender processes.

Hospitals, for example, often hesitate to upgrade their existing medical imaging equipment even when newer models offer significantly advanced technology, image quality, etc. Medical imaging equipment manufacturer, GE Healthcare, identified this. They recognised that hospitals are more likely to focus on the potential downsides of upgrading equipment, rather than the potential benefits (i.e. more focused on the cost than improved patient outcomes or increased efficiency). They also have a tendency to stick with what they know even if it's not the most optimal solution – in other words, a combination of loss aversion and status quo bias.

GE Healthcare grew both sales and market share by focusing on the positive outcomes of upgrading, such as improved patient satisfaction and faster diagnosis times. The numbers outlining long-term cost savings were visualised to appeal to the diagnostic nature of hospital staff. Case studies of successful upgrades and testimonials from other hospitals leveraged the power of social proof and reduced perceived risk. They offered attractive trade-in terms and financing options to address upfront costs as a focal point.

So, what’s the takeaway for B2B marketers? Remember that your buyers are people, not decision-making robots. Emotions play a crucial role in their decisions. You need to invest in understanding the relevant emotions of your buyers and their relationship with your brand or product. What need do you solve? To win them over, your campaigns will need to tap into those emotions and you’ll need to show them why your offering fulfils their needs.