The Probability of Buyer Intent

Sep 27, 2019 | Author John McTigue

You may not realize it, but everything we do, everything we experience, is governed by some form of probability. Consider the price you pay for everything you buy or the time you spend waiting for a street light to change. Controllers of those things (people and machines) take in an enormous amount of data, process it, and make decisions based on statistics and rules. When you read a number like a product review grade (5 stars!) or a lead score, you’re looking at something fluid, an average or median value based on a variety of factors and subject to change at a moment’s notice.

Your decisions are based on consideration of the data and its representations (average, median, statistical uncertainty, etc), plus your emotions before, during, and after consideration. Probability is the guiding mathematical principle that affects our perception of reality. We can’t possibly comprehend every input or sensation, so we simplify things to enable us to understand them and take action. Hence, when we talk about “buyer intent”, we’re really talking about probability. Let’s consider that abstract concept we call the “buyer journey”.

The Probability of Intent

As marketers, we think of the buyer journey as a series of steps from awareness of a problem or need, to consideration of possible solutions, to decision and purchase of a “winning” solution and beyond (the “customer journey”). It’s a simple enough model, but does our buyer journey adequately represent reality? As in most simple models, the answer is most assuredly “no”.

What exactly is “awareness”? There are many definitions, but let’s apply it to sales and marketing. Awareness implies some level of consciousness - an idea, object, or fact that occupies some amount of our conscious thought. For our purposes, let’s give it a dimension, how much thought or interest you devote to that idea, object, or fact. If you’re a big fan of Golden Retrievers, you have a higher awareness of Golden Retrievers than the average person. When you encounter one of these fluffy rascals in a park or at work, your awareness goes way up.

The concept of awareness has a wide variety of influences and steps. It’s a process that starts with no awareness at all and only ends with forgetting or erasing those influences.

Let’s say you’re an accountant with a nice, steady practice and plenty of loyal clients. Unbeknownst to you, Congress (or your local government) is working on a possible change to the tax code that would seriously impact your clients. It’s important to you, even though you don’t know about it yet. Let’s say you spend an average of an hour each morning reading the papers and online news to stay current with changes in the tax code, so there’s a finite probability that you will discover that breaking news you need to know about. Then, there’s the probability that the news you read will be accurate and sufficient to allow you to start planning for your clients.

Your awareness of the problem is increasing over time, but your end game, “your solution”, is still out of your control. Even though you’re not ready to commit to a plan of action, you’re in discovery mode, and the purveyors of news, as well as the tax regulators themselves, have a good chance of influencing your discovery as well as your decision to act.

This is how nearly all purchasing decisions are started. There’s a “fuzzy” process of awareness and discovery, in which stakeholders, friends, and talking heads have an opportunity to influence your opinion and guide your search for answers. So, it’s more appropriate to think of awareness as a probability function, a curve that shows the likelihood that we will become more aware of a problem over time based on internal and external factors.

The Buyer’s Journey

Similarly, the consideration and decision stages of the buyer’s journey should also be considered as probability functions or “fuzzy” processes.

Having said that, we should probably stop thinking of buyer intent as a snapshot in time, an attitude showing a propensity to purchase, and start thinking of it as a process governed by probability and the buyer's journey.

How does this change our strategy for influencing the buyer/customer journey in our favor? Here’s a short video explaining how.

As you can see, the idea of targeting the right buyer with the right information at the right time takes on a new meaning when you consider the probability of different interest levels and activities during the buyer journey. Ideally, we want to become a trusted influencer, or advisor, to the buyer and the entire buying team, which means we need to both analyze and anticipate. We need to be waiting patiently along each buyer’s awareness curve with just the right message and resources to help them take the next step. In particular we should arm ourselves with:

Early Awareness Stages:

  • Publish content that enables buyers to recognize a problem and desire more information
  • Become thought leaders in the problem space through events and speaking
  • Third party intent data that shows us who is broadly interested and may have a problem
  • Specific events and conversation topics that we should participate in

Consideration Stages:

  • Make sure that buyers can find us through SEO, SEM and paid media
  • Make sure that our online properties offer easy-to-find, relevant resources and guides
  • Offer highly effective conversion channels, including chat, to enable conversations
  • Third party intent data that shows a buyer’s interest level and qualifications

Decision Stages:

  • Early engagement to further qualify and identify the complex buying team and identify where they are in the buyer's journey
  • Develop specific engagement content and messaging for each buying team member
  • Anticipate decision timing through intent data urgency signals
  • Deploy account executives armed with a complete set of profile data and intent signals

Customer Delight Stages:

  • Engage early and often to continuously elevate customer happiness
  • Measure and report utilization, NPS, and CS ticket - notify immediately
  • Consistently educate and inform customers on new products, use cases and tips
  • Leverage intent data to identify churn candidates and deploy intervention strategies
  • Identify and exploit up-sell, cross-sell opportunities by monitoring customer behavior

B2B third party intent data is highly useful across the entire buyer journey as long as it is collected consistently, merged and analyzed with first party data, and treated as important signals that indicate changes in direction or speed of the individual and team buyer journey. In many cases, the journey is highly complex, and it can differ from person to person both in timing and trajectory. That is why aggregate data, such as account-based intent data, can be misleading, since it lumps the probability curves of the individuals on the buying team. We recommend a combination of first party intent data with account level and contact-level third party intent data to give you a more accurate picture of where buyers are in their journey and deploy the best sales and marketing resources for each stage.


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