There are major differences between the two fundamental types of research, including:
- Respondent differences;
- Sample and sample size differences;
- Content differences;
As was stated in the definition, B2B market research involves those who, in their capacity as owners or employees, are involved in decision making or operations on behalf of their company and are interviewed in their business, not their personal, capacity. This contrasts with B2C research, which involves end consumers. Are there any differences between the two? The answer is yes.
Those in business are often a more rare species. The right people to speak with may be harder to identify. And sometimes there are gatekeepers such as personal assistants or secretaries intervening between them and the researcher. The demands of their work. And indeed requests from other research companies, meaning they can be difficult to get hold of and are less tolerant of long interviews (or are already over surveyed). In all, as a general rule, getting hold of someone in the business and completing an interview can be more of a challenge than finding a quota of nationally representative people to undertake B2C research. Respondents can be quite geographically dispersed. And while this is no longer quite as much of a problem as it used to be now that the internet and online research have opened up, the fact remains that access to ‘difficult to get hold of’ business respondents is still an issue.
Sample and sample size differences:
In many markets such as countries in Europe, the ‘universe’ in B2B research is restricted – samples tend to be smaller and more specialized. Where this occurs it has implications, in that the normal sampling rules do not necessarily apply, as even a small sample can have important results. If we wish to talk to people in business who are interested in virtual private networks, or to companies wishing to invest in satellite phones, then finding them may be a real issue. In these cases, even a small sample can provide meaningful strategic information for the client.
By contrast, in other markets like the United States, the size of the country and the business base mean we are sometimes less restricted in terms of the universe. There is a considerable amount of B2B research conducted in sectors where there is a relatively large universe (for example, the business market for telecommunications, paper, printers, personal computers and the like). Here, the limiting factor on project size is more often cost. Of course, all business universes are small when compared with general population figures.
Another key difference from consumer research is that in B2B work, a researcher might need to speak to more than one person in an organization in order to meet the research objectives. Commonly, there are several different people (often at different layers in the organization) from whom views need to be sought. For example, the purchase of a piece of equipment may involve the product design department, manufacturing, quality control, possibly even sales and marketing, and the purchasing department – a long chain, and people in all of these areas can materially affect the outcome for any new product being introduced. So a mix may be needed in the research process, and this may involve the purchasing director and the quality assurance manager or the HR manager in addition to the CEO. In practical and sampling terms, this means multiple contacts rather than just one.
Both ‘who’ we need to speak to and ‘how many’ can be different in B2B research from B2C. Where smaller samples and often restricted budgets are an issue, large-scale (large N) quantitative research using complex research models (as is commonly used in consumer work) is not practicable. Unless (for example) they can tap into syndicated, industry-wide studies, some clients in some markets do not have the luxury (or nowadays the time, even if they had the budget) to repeat studies very frequently. However, as noted earlier, in markets like the United States where there is a larger business universe in so many market sectors (due to the size of the country and depth of the business base), large-scale studies, complex models and repeat (and tracking) studies can be conducted successfully.
Even so, much of the work that a B2B researcher undertakes has considerable variety, with different markets and new subjects – new concepts, new products, new services, new frontiers, new applications, and new market conditions.
Frequently, B2B research needs to employ ‘one to one’ personal interviewing techniques, as getting hold of the individuals who are relevant for samples is not easy, and such interviews recognize the contribution they can make. Findings from just one interview can be hugely important. Or a few key interviews can materially add to the data – noting the Pareto principle that 20 percent of a client’s customers can make up 80 percent of the business and if the views of those 20 percent are included, then these results are key to the overall resultant strategy.
Often the ‘what’ of the research is also different in the B2B context. Sector knowledge and familiarity with technical terms are particularly important, as B2B research enquires into complex aspects of (for example) technology, markets, and the design and features of products. Hence, both the researcher and those contacting respondents must be fluent in the specialized language required to undertake the research.
On the other hand, in consumer research, while many complexities may be covered in the research, it is often unnecessary and even undesirable for the talk to be at a specialist level. Often B2B research requires as much awareness of the intricacies of the business (or industry) itself as it does of research processes and techniques, owing to the complexity of the sector and the product area, plus sometimes complex decision making and purchasing procedures.
In many ways, more demands are made of the B2B researcher. B2B market research tends to rely a great deal on spontaneity and creativity – there is less of a straitjacket in terms of acceptable or unacceptable research techniques, and there are fewer ‘off the shelf’ solutions. So, the drudgery of repeating monadic consumer market research tests and undertaking frequently repeated continuous research studies is not for us. Oddly, B2B research can appeal to the ‘dilettante’ in the researcher: the variety and sheer scope of much of what is researched in the most esoteric sorts of business can favor the researcher who likes a bit of change in life. I started my career looking at anthelmintics (wormers, for the uninitiated) in cats and dogs, and at coccidiosis (a form of the disease) in chickens. This is not what I felt I had done a degree in French and Spanish for – but my, was I happy to be out in the open, rattling along country lanes, to interview farmers in far-flung locations! I had to get used to the overpowering smell of chicken houses, but for sheer variety, yes, every time.
In summary, some major differences between B2B and B2C research include:
- Restricted samples (fewer and more specialized ‘business’ respondents).
- The need to speak to several in a company, not just one, due to complex decision-making processes.
- Sector and product knowledge an important backdrop to any research.
- Very varied research often involving innovative new developments at an early stage.