While methodologies and approaches abound for understanding where customers or prospects are in the social channel and how they use it, we’ve found no better guide than our buying cycle. I’ll use this post to cover our buying cycle concept and the roles within it, while a future post will discuss how these notions should play a key role in your social strategy and execution.

If an organization doesn’t understand — even at a basic level — the way prospects buy what it sells, it will never be able to use social media outlets and marketing to facilitate these decisions. This is due to the fact that as prospects move toward a purchase, the tone, message, offer and even communicator for a specific marketing effort should be altered.

Buyers don’t go through a straight-line process of getting information through the Web or social outlets, weighing one solution against another and finally making a decision. Instead, a typical B2B buying process comprises a series of smaller decisions involving a variety of audiences that move into and out of the buying process.

As you are identifying the distinct activity phases within a buying cycle, you should also be uncovering who the key “actors” are in each phase and the specific roles they play. Typical actors include champions, CXOs, influencers (can be external or internal to the company), users and ratifiers (usually purchasing, procurement or negotiations). It is common for groups to enter and leave regularly, and to play multiple — and very different — roles depending on the type of product or service being sold. While a CTO might play a significant role during the Exploring Possible Solutions stage in one case, he or she will wait for the Justifying the Decision stage in another. Users may be brought in early or late, while other executive groups play no role whatsoever.

An understanding of actors and roles by stage is a tremendous advantage to your sales and marketing teams; not only will they know whom to target (and who to ignore) and what channels (social or otherwise) to use, but messaging, programs and specific content can be developed and delivered at the right time. You also will avoid common mistakes such as targeting the CXO level with Loosening of the Status Quo and Committing to Change messages and demand creation efforts when these executives do not play any role at the beginning of the buying process.