17 October 2023 |

New Survey: B2B buyers rely on search but don’t trust SaaS companies

By Tracey Wallace

We did a survey

Everyone has theories about search. People like X. People don’t like Y. It’s hard to validate or disprove these theories! I had theories and questions about how B2B buyers are influenced by—and perceive—SEO and Content. So . . . I asked them via a professional survey. 

This article is about the findings we gathered, and what it means for marketers (content and otherwise). 

A bit of background: I’m Nigel Stevens and run a growth firm called OGM. We partnered with the great John Collins, who grew the content programs at 2 of the fastest-growing startups of the past decade—Intercom and Ramp

Then we worked with a global market research firm, InciteFusion, to survey B2B buyers. We just launched our full coverage of the data here: 2023 B2B Content + SEO Survey.

Summary of findings:

  • Respondents ranked Google Search as their #1 source of information when they are in the ‘information gathering’ stage of their journey, and 80% of users are satisfied or very satisfied with Google Search. 
  • But respondents also ranked SaaS companies dead last in ‘sources of information you trust’, and 55% agree that B2B content tends to “look and feel the same”
  • People want different formats. 51% of users agree that content is too long, and 66% prefer video. But 69% of users agree that they “have the patience to dive deep into the details to get a thorough understanding.”

Conclusion #1: SEO (and content) is not dead

Over the last couple years—and particularly since ChatGPT launched and shook up the world—I’ve been thinking about search a little differently. In a previous issue for this esteemed publication, I proposed (emphasis mine):

Everyone learned how effective featured snippet + content optimization was, and competitive segments of the web (like B2B SaaS) morphed into gigantic, over-optimized copycat clones of never-ending Q+A.

If incentives make everything look the same . . . do ya think people won’t notice? 

It’s hard to “prove” this conclusively, but anecdotally, I hear lots of people talking about how every website has boilerplate SEO content. And it makes sense with the psychology of pattern recognition. 

The interesting part: 

  • We validated that users are responding negatively to boilerplate SEO content (next section)
  • . . . . but they are overwhelmingly satisfied with search

I’m not gonna lie, y’all: I was expecting pretty negative feedback about search from the survey. All I hear anecdotally—from personal conversations, in places like HackerNews, etc—is people trashing search and talking about how bad it is

What we saw instead:

Not only that—they listed it Google search as their #1 source of information when they are in the first stage of their buying journey, and company websites/blogs as #2: 

What this tells me: it’s like online reviews. You often don’t hear about the positive feedback for something that people take for granted. If someone takes their clothes to a dry cleaner, they’re not super likely to leave a positive review and say “they gave my clothes back when they said they would, and they didn’t stretch em out.”

No, they’re more likely to leave a negative review if they have a bad experience, which means that you’re disproportionately exposed to negative customer feedback. 

I think search works like that! You hear people complaining about it—very justifiably, in my opinion (more on that below)—but there aren’t many conversations where it naturally comes up “yup, I looked up something the other day and found what I was looking for.” It’s just what people expect. 

Conclusion #2: B2B buyers don’t love corporate content

This is where my upfront hypothesis was validated. 

To be clear, even though people are satisfied with search, the conclusion is NOT that everyone should keep doing the same thing. 

Respondents confirmed that the majority have banner blindness to same-y content:

They said explicitly that they trust 3rd parties more than companies:

And not only that, they listed B2B companies dead last of sources they trust:

Content marketers need to focus on earning trust

For far too long, SEO has been about doing whatever it takes to rank for a given keyword. When your first priority is how to answer a bunch of broad questions about a topic—without considering the resulting UX—users recognize that! 

It’s hard to forge a connection with users when they can see through your thinly-veiled primary objective of ‘traffic at all costs’. 

Success in Content & SEO going forward will be about how to balance:

  • Demonstrating your originality and authority to earn attention, and;
  • Concisely answering the array of specific questions that comprise search intent for a group of related search queries 

Other takeaways:

  • Community & forums: As many people—such as Kyle Poyar—have talked about, Community is one of the best ways to foster organic love for your product. A practical next step is to monitor your mentions across Reddit and Quora, and then more niche communities (or launch your own). 
  • “Offsite”: in SEO, it’s referred to as “offsite SEO”. For non-SEO weirdos, it’s simply your overall reputation across the web—especially including review sites. This is often a focus for companies, but more in an affiliate, measurable conversions kind-of way. We believe that increasingly, companies will invest more time and resources in how they are perceived across the web as more of a brand signal. 
  • People trust ChatGPT / AI more than B2B companies! To be fair, that’s a bit hot-take-y. That selection was divisive: it was towards the bottom of many respondents’ lists of ‘trusted sources’ as well. But the challenge will now become: how do you overcome user skepticism when they visit your content?

Finding #3: users want different formats

As users of the internet, this should shock precisely 0 of you. Just think about your own content consumption across platforms, formats, and subjects—and compare that to the corporate content you see. 

Some quick hitters . . . 

A majority of users prefer short video to text content:

They complain that long-form content is difficult to navigate:

But, as a counterbalance to the last point, they also admit that they are willing to be patient and dig deep:

What to make of all that?

  • Give people different formats to consume your content. Some people prefer video. Some like to read. Some want a summary. Even though many people agree content is too long and difficult to navigate, not everyone agrees—and it’s surely situational.
  • Focus on capturing and retaining attention with content. ‘Formats’ account for some of this. But in addition, the navigability within your content is crucial. How do you help a user find the part that they are most interested in? Tracey has cited this Hubspot survey that most people scan content. They’re trying to find the most important part for them—why not make it easy with the way you structure your pages?!
  • Don’t overcorrect and not be thorough. An extreme reading of this data would be to turn all your content marketing efforts into 8 second videos. Our belief is that you need to be thorough to give people what they want, but do it in a way that is elegant and not stressful for the user. 

What about AI?

36% of respondents agreed with the statement that “ChatGPT has mostly replaced google search for me regarding answers to B2B software solutions”. For marketers worried about the uncertain and ominous threat of “AI”, this could seem foreboding. 

My read is a bit different. 

When you combine the stat above with “80% of users are satisfied with Google search”, what it tells me is that search is evolving. Most questions can be answered with quick summaries that AI is more adept at—and that’s ok. 

A simple fact that’s easy to forget when you’re knee-deep in a content strategy: people have lots of questions! Think about how many times you google something like “what time is it in melbourne”. 

Someone is trying to get traffic for that, and spoiler alert: it ain’t going so well anymore. 

We have to accept that for many companies, traffic numbers have always been inflated by intents that were never going to be potential customers. 

Going back to the data—for one question, we asked people to list the following sources of information in order of trustworthiness:

As noted earlier, ChatGPT / AI ranks above B2B companies for # of top 3 responses. But it also racked up a fair amount of negatives—it’s a divisive issue. 

My belief: even as someone who is bullish on AI, the whole world is not going to suddenly embrace AI answers to all their questions. Some early adopters will use it more heavily, and others will want sources they trust. 

Two main takeaways for content marketers:

  • Don’t put time into content targeting commoditized information. Ask yourself a simple yet honest question: is your planned content for a given topic really a better response than a quick AI summary? Do you have anything original to say? If all you’re doing is rewriting the top content, it’s probably not the best use of your time. 
  • Focus on specific and burning problems from your buyers. The more specific problems you’re solving, and the more painful they are, the more valuable your content will be. When problems are specific and painful, people will go to great lengths to solve them. 

In closing

Search isn’t dying, but the era of easy SEO success is already fading into the rearview. 

While it remains the premier destination to reach your buyers, search is changing. More and more answers will get swallowed by AI answers. Users are growing weary of content that looks the same. 

As Tracey says in nearly every issue of Contentment, UX and Differentiation will win in the next era of Marketing & Search. 

Regardless of what your background is, you have to make it your problem to think about how you can build experiences that a) are clearly not the same as other websites, and; b) are consumable and easy to navigate.