As someone who’s been handling the tools for 18 years, I have noticed big changes in the technology that supports the buying and selling of products. These technologies have made life easier for both sellers and buyers, but I’ve deliberately skewed them because the more they’re used, the more they end up benefiting one side more than the other.

 

Innovations benefiting the buyer’s side

Probably the biggest boon for those who need to do their research before buying is the corporate website. Unlike the days of calling an 800 number and getting a brochure or catalogue in the mail (and several follow-up calls!), people can obtain rich detail on a product before identifying themselves. Thanks to XML, price-shopping sites allow them to compare competing products. Sellers aren’t fond of these developments, because they have to divulge a lot of information, but market forces give them no choice.

As email became the dominant communications mode for B2B interaction, it began to be accompanied by a terrific tool: the spam filter. This innovation, more than legislative restrictions, has put people in control of their inboxes. They are liked by marketers who use opt-in techniques and very feared by spam artists. Sure, there’s room for sellers to send a one-time-only inquiry, but in the end, you can choose who to maintain relations with on email.

Social media is on the rise as a buyers’ tool. Its chief use here is to connect with others to share information on products without even consulting the product’s makers. There were earlier iterations of this like TripAdvisor and Epinions, but the newer crop: Twitter, Facebook, Techcrunch and the blogosphere have put the web’s usefulness as a third-party opinion tool into overdrive.

 

Innovations benefiting the seller’s side

I think CRMs have had the largest impact in recent years. Whether local or in the cloud, private or open-sourced like Sugar, they are great for letting everybody in a company toss what they know about the customer into one bucket. The resulting profile gives a picture of prospects that is much more accurate than ever before. Here’s one example of how CRMs and direct marketing techniques have helped: You used to receive new product promotions in proportion to the product’s revenue forecast. If you weren’t part of the audience it was meant for, tough! Now, you are (usually) receiving promos for items geared for you. The fact that you receive more of these messages is owing to the mushrooming number of products on the market; it’s not marketing’s fault. 

The beta deserves mention. No, not the VCR format that duked it out with VHS in the ’80s. Few technologies today are launched ‘cold,’ most are pre-released to power-users. Everything about a product can be crowd-sourced today…and it’s a good thing. The vehicles for leaking info (and code) on new products have also exploded in use. Webex, appexchange, sourceforge and Amazon’s EC2  have all dramatically reduced the cost of sharing work-in-progress with potential buyers. This ultimately lowers risk for the seller; no one wants to have another ‘New Coke’ fiasco on their hands.

Creating documents in Adobe format has been a great development in marketing. As the P in PDF indicates, it’s made print-quality collateral extremely ‘portable.’ This has not only removed printing and mailing costs, it has enabled instant gratification and reaction from buyers on the content of those documents. If buyers don’t react well to the collateral, marketers can re-write and re-publish them in no time.

Finally, I’ll mention the umbrella category of Business Intelligence tools, that includes web analytics, email measurements, social media monitoring. These are all means for marketers to understand what works – this data was nigh unto impossible to have in pre-internet days. Automation point-solutions, as well as suite-providers like Silverpop, Marketo and Eloqua are now giving unprecedented visibility into the sales funnel. This holds the promise of tightening sales forecasts and informing executives of specifically how their tactics are working.

To conclude, these tools have been fantastic as they’ve forced buyers and sellers to rethink how they do business. Together, these have all helped buyers and sellers reach out to each other. I think they’ve supplanted old, crude, disruptive marketing methods. They provide a great indication of how far we can go in the future, although knowing exactly where innovation will happen next is anyone’s guess.


image credit: Flickr: k_unit