(Not Even) Six Degrees of Interconnected Buyers and Sellers
- Global interconnectedness has grown immensely, and the pace of interconnectedness is accelerating
- In B2B, interconnectedness means that buyers and sellers send and receive signals continuously, exchanging information about needs and solutions in real time
- To survive and thrive, demand marketing systems, processes and organizations must adapt to this level of interconnectedness
In the 1990s, an award-winning play by John Guare and its subsequent film adaptation popularized the concept of six degrees of separation first espoused by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in the late 1920s. The concept holds that all people are separated from each other by six or fewer other interconnected individuals. So, for example, I must know someone (1) who knows someone (2) who knows someone else (3) who knows someone else in turn (4) who knows yet another person (5) who finally knows someone else (6) who has first-hand knowledge of how Bono is feeling today, or maybe what Mookie Betts is having for lunch. Cool!
This concept, though, was thoroughly unproven until Facebook started examining it in the company’s early years. And, as it turns out, for social media users it’s not even six degrees. In 2008, the degrees of separation between all Facebook users was measured at 5.28. Not surprisingly, the mere existence of social networks has rapidly cut into even that surprising number. In 2011, the degrees of separation had dropped to 4.74, and by 2016, it was still dropping as it hit 4.57. And though not everyone has a Facebook account, 20 percent of the world’s population does – a staggering level of interconnectedness. A recent study found that Twitter users – who are less likely than Facebook users to require a real-world personal relationship to connect with someone – were separated by just 3.45 degrees on average. Certainly, if one were to merge the data sets of major social media platforms, including those that serve primarily China and India, even more interconnections would be revealed, producing an ever lower degree of separation.
For B2B organizations, the level of interconnectedness can be understood most readily in the growth of web-based marketing. Think of a B2B organization’s website as an always-on signaling beacon, broadcasting solution signals to the buying world about what the organization offers. Buyers are never more than a hyperlink away from a rich library of information about every possible supplier, and can access and respond to those seller signals anytime from anywhere. In recent years, intent data has allowed B2B sellers to detect buying signals nearly anywhere they occur across the vast digital landscape, even when buyers themselves are unaware they are emitting signals (e.g. when visiting an industry association website). Marketing automation platforms (MAPs) allow sellers to respond to these signals in real time. When dissatisfied customers post negative feedback on social media or a website devoted to product reviews, any interested party across the world has instant access to these signals as well.
One natural outcome of this always-on signal-and-response system is increased alignment of signals and responses – not only in time, but also in content. When a seller could only understand buyer needs from occasional customer conversations and buyer needs research, the offerings and the communications about them were subject to a mismatch with ever-changing buyer needs. Today, real-time website traffic and content consumption analytics can immediately show when messaging is or isn’t working, allowing sellers to quickly pivot messaging and sometimes even solutions to match buyer needs more closely.
However, another level of connectivity in the B2B buyer-seller ecosystem has yet to be fully understood and exploited. The systems we use today to receive and respond to buyer signals (MAPs, sales force automation systems) don’t do a good job of detecting the interconnectedness between the individuals who visit our websites and consume our content. Our systems generally don’t notice that the three people who were chewing on all my blog posts about artificial intelligence on siriusdecisions.com this morning are from the same company and on the same team. Even when our web visitor form fillers tell us they are coming from the same place and interested in the same thing, our systems for receiving that information don’t look for those connections – and therefore don’t see them. As a result, we don’t perceive those individuals as making up a group. When we realize that most B2B buying teams consist of three to 10 individuals, the urgency around seeing and being able to respond appropriately to those groups becomes apparent.
As the Facebook and Twitter studies illustrate, this massive interconnectedness is not just starting, it’s accelerating. To be ready, B2B organizations must prepare their systems and processes for a world in which signaling and responding must be finely tuned and always on, delivering atomized content and communicating messages that are tightly aligned to buyer needs. When buyers can exchange information with each other (e.g. on review sites), sellers’ messages must be verifiable and authentic. The winners over the next five years will be those organizations that take meaningful steps today toward this future.
We’ll be exploring this topic in detail at SiriusDecisions 2019 Summit in Austin in May. We’ll work through how this interconnectedness should shape your organization’s demand marketing strategy over the next five years and describe steps you can take now to prepare for the future.