Tuesday 2¢ – Buyer Boss

A quick thought on buyer control and some behavioural science around the power of giving autonomy: Is it something we can do as marketers?

B2B marketers and sellers are often considered to be driving demand. We have a legacy of old-school techniques for creating pain, cold calling, and a reputation for having some sort of Jedi mind trick that can induce buying behaviour.

I’m oversimplifying for brevity, but the truth, of course, is that, especially now with the amount of market education at a buyer’s fingertips, the buyer is in control.

On the Rockstar CMO podcast, we’ve recently referred to several studies that indicate buyers are deep into the decision-making process before a vendor is contacted or marketing are able to detect the vibrations of a buyer entering their lead funnel web.

Yes, B2B marketing can stimulate demand, educate, be considered before the buyer comes to market and shape opinion and the definition of the category.

But… the buyer is always in control.

And, as I am discovering as I dig a bit into the behavioural psychology of marketing, with the work of folks like Richard Shotton and the rather splendid Nudge podcast, there is also something going on that’s a bit deeper than just the internet enabling the buyer to chose their own adventure and manage the research phase of their journey.

And it’s the buyer’s need for autonomy.

According to the Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, autonomy denotes “the experience of volition and self-direction in thought, feeling, and action”. I have also read (in Marketing Week) it described as “our human need to find a way to live that is authentic and uncoerced”.

So… consider these interruptions:

Your phone rings, and it’s a cold call.

You can’t see your friend’s updates for crass “personalised” suggestions on Facebook.

You check your phone, and it pings. You have an email from a rep for a company you have no interest in, who thinks “you’ve been kidnapped as you’ve ignored their 5 previous emails.”

And to that last point; this feeling of being classified and corralled into an automated nurture program. Really? We know what’s going on here.

Do you have any feelings of autonomy in any of these interactions?


We feel mildly violated, coerced, and definitely lacking self-direction in thought. We are hijacked, maybe for a fleeting second or two that distracts from our flow, a moment as we deal with an email (even if it is to decide to ignore it), or however long it takes to shake off a cold call.

It’s not just being interupted, but the infringement on our autonomy that pisses us off, we now have to do something we didn’t need to to a moment ago.

On the other hand, we marketers are all here to get business done, we do need to interrupt a bit, and get in the way a smidge, but I want to explore how we do this while maintaining the feel good autonomy of the buyer.

An example used in the Marketing Week article is florist Bloom & Wild, which emailed all its customers to give them a chance to opt out of Mother’s Day marketing messages in case it was a sensitive topic. The brand was overwhelmed with positive feedback from this simple act.

I need to find a B2B example, but there’s a thing about encouraging people to unsubscribe to make it clear it’s their choice—and I have seen some interesting discussion on LinkedIn about that—that we shouldn’t sweat an unsubscribe.

I wonder if this isn’t necessarily just about taking overt actions of offering autonomy, as behavioural science would suggest; it’s entering the design of a campaign with the view of who’s the boss.

Rather than designing nurture campaigns that run our audience on rails, thinking we are marching someone in a specific direction, restricting options, and driving toward a meeting or demo, we should keep an open mind about maintaining the buyer’s autonomy. We could maybe get more comfortable with an unsubscribe or un-actioned call to action.

Perhaps think of it as leading the horses to our water, not making them drink; perhaps that should have been the witty analogy for this post 🙂

It’s not a fully formed thought yet, but it’s something to consider this week. The buyer is the boss, and they’ll appreciate us giving them autonomy.

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