A new class of buyer is emerging on the Web that doesn't fit the classic divide between business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B). Most companies think of their market as either one or the other, but to divide the world unthinkingly into B2C and B2B ignores the reality of the Web today. We must start taking account of an emerging segment that I call business-to-individual (B2I), made up of people whose online purchasing methods are identical whether they're buying for personal or business use, and who are just as likely to be buying for business from home in their spare time as they are from the office during working hours.
In the past, the channels you'd use to reach business buyers — trade shows, specialist publications and direct selling — were distinct and separate from the mass media that touched consumers. As a result, it was natural to think of them as completely separate populations, even though many of them were the same individuals, buying B2B products in their jobs, and then leaving work to become consumers in their home and leisure time.
The Web is overturning this increasingly spurious demarcation, on both sides of the interaction. B2B and B2C sellers alike reach their buyers via the Web, because their users turn to tools like Google Search or TripAdvisor both at work and at play. Social media in particular is blurring the boundaries between business and consumer behavior, precisely because of its emphasis on the individual as a person — encompassing work, home, outside interests, feelings and daily routines.
This may come naturally to Generation-Yers, but many older business people feel uncomfortable crossing those boundaries, as John Hagel notes in a blog post today, What Does Your Facebook Profile Say About You?, in which he recommends they get used to the new paradigm: "Such reticence will soon be scarce as all of us recognize the powerful and important reasons for sharing our personal selves online."
In encouraging executives to open up in their social media personas, Hagel is pushing on an open door. The work-life boundaries were blurring already. For more than a generation, the world has been moving away from the era my parents knew, in which every school-leaver hoped to land a job with an employer that would be good until retirement age, preferably with a generous final-salary pension thrown in. Today people expect to build portfolio careers that leverage their personal networks, and which often combine stretches of full-time work with side businesses, gap years and periods of freelance contracting. In such careers, the individual takes precedence over the organization, reversing the polarity experienced by those earlier generations. And of course there are no boundaries any more between working hours and leisure time; ubiquitous broadband computing and powerful mobile devices allow us to be on call for work and in touch with our friends at all times and places.
All of this is creating a brand new segment of individuals who are influential, discriminating business buyers, but who are not recognized and valued as such. Anyone with an iPhone subscription or a Gmail account or a hosted blog is classed as a mass market consumer, with the convenient implication that their usage is a non-critical leisure pursuit — and therefore it 'doesn't matter' when the services they depend on go down. Such cavalier user support is a poor way to start building relationships with this new segment of professional users, who are not only high spenders on online services in their own right but are also the trend-setters whose lead everyone else will be following.