The B2B Awareness-Action Gap: Why So Many Industrial Marketers Get Paid Search Keywords Wrong

Paid search can be a powerful lead-generation tactic for manufacturers and other industrial B2B organizations. Over the last decade-plus, we’ve seen properly executed paid search programs deliver over 1000X return on ad spend and generate millions of dollars in pipeline value.

We’ve also seen a lot of industrial marketers get it wrong. And usually, that’s because they’re taking the wrong approach to keyword targeting.

A combination of outdated funnel thinking and conventional B2B marketing “wisdom” geared toward SaaS companies has led industrial marketers down the wrong path in managing successful paid search programs. Too many get lost in the B2B Awareness-Action Gap, wasting significant chunks of budget on low- or no-intent keywords in Google Ads and trying to move prospects through 3+ stages of awareness with a single click.

Keywords are the Keystone for B2B Paid Search Programs

Keywords are the foundation of your Google Ads strategy. The keywords you choose to target will determine your account structure, your budget, what ads you’ll run, the destinations you need, how you will compete, and even how you’ll report on, monitor, and optimize your paid search program. 

This isn’t unique to manufacturing—keywords are the keystone across all industries and business types. What is unique to manufacturing and other industrial B2B segments is how awareness keywords ought to be selected, used, and reported on given the wide gap between awareness and action in a complex buying journey.

Marketers across the entire spectrum of paid search expertise often throw ad dollars into the B2B Awareness-Action Gap without understanding how that investment may—or may not—be returned.

Understanding how to avoid budget-wasting, low-intent keywords with your B2B manufacturing paid search strategy starts with understanding all the buying phases between early awareness and action in the typical B2B buying cycle. 

In the next two sections, I’ll cover this topic in detail. After that, I’ll share the top 5 B2B keyword selection mistakes we’ve seen over and over again, all of which can be traced back to a lack of understanding about the B2B Awareness-Action Gap.

Intro to the B2B Awareness-Action Gap

The core differences between ideal paid search keyword strategies for B2C and short-cycle B2B (think small-to-mid-scale SaaS purchases) and industrial/manufacturing businesses all boil down to sales cycle length and complexity. Specifically, these differences can be attributed to the delta between buyer awareness and action.

B2C and (Some) B2B: Awareness Creates Action

B2C buying journeys tend to be short and simple. Even larger B2C purchases, like a family vehicle, usually have a sales cycle that can be measured in weeks and a buying committee of two people or fewer. Most consumer products can be sold in minutes. It’s less of a buying journey and more of a buying teleportation experience.

SaaS companies make up a significant portion of B2B advertisers, and while they don’t tend to sell software subscriptions in mere minutes, they’re well-positioned to drive their prospects to take action (i.e. convert) before a purchase decision is made. Enterprise software solutions like ERPs sometimes fall into this category—even Oracle and SAP offer limited free trials—but smaller-scale software vendors almost universally lean heavily on trial offers that pull prospects into their own marketing and sales ecosystems to be nurtured toward a paid product. Their average deal size and customer lifetime value tend to be lower, buying committees tend to be smaller, and the average SaaS sales cycle is less than three months. These are the kinds of companies that most B2B paid search how-to guides are made for. 

For both B2C and some B2B organizations, awareness can directly lead to action within weeks, days, or even minutes.

Industrial B2B: Awareness Creates More Awareness

The manufacturing clients we work with have sales cycles that typically last anywhere from six to 18 months when a buyer is actually in-market. Most are selling into a relatively small prospect pool with niche requirements, and buying cycles may only be initiated every three to five years. On the outside, moving a prospect from awareness to purchase decision could take longer than the average tenure of a CMO.

To make things more complicated, it’s never just one prospect that has to be nurtured from awareness to decision. We’re almost always dealing with buying committees that can reach double-digits, meaning different people within a single organization can be at different stages of awareness, gathering information and conducting research to clearly define their problem and all of the possible solutions. Not only do we need to generate awareness of our specific solution category, products, and brand, we need to ensure this message reaches different people at the right time.

This complex, months- or years-long buying journey just doesn’t square with the traditional three-stage funnel. Designing a paid search strategy that strictly aligns with a three-step awareness, consideration/evaluation, and decision framework doesn’t work for any other tactic in niche B2B marketing, and it doesn’t work here.

The 12 Phases of the B2B Buying Journey

This is the model we use as a starting point for mapping out B2B customer journeys for paid search and virtually all other marketing initiatives. It has four distinct phases and two distinct segments dedicated exclusively to awareness.

In the Early Awareness segment, the prospect may be completely unaware that they have a problem (or, more likely, aren’t able to fully define and understand the problem). As they move into Core Awareness, they gain a holistic understanding of their problem and its implications.

As prospects move through Core Awareness, they begin to understand the various categories of solutions available to help solve their problem. Solution Awareness does not correlate with awareness of specific solutions—that happens in the Product Aware phase. 

Finally, once the prospect is aware of the extent of their problem, the various categories of solutions that are available, and the specific offerings within one or more categories of solutions, they begin to evaluate their options in the Buy segment of the journey. This is where the awareness phases officially end (and at this point, we’re not even halfway through the journey).

This model works for mapping out virtually any customer journey, whether B2B or B2C.

Simple Problems, Simple Solutions

In a typical B2C buying journey, a customer can move through all 12 phases in a matter of days, hours, or even minutes. Many B2C buying journeys are so short because many B2C products solve simple problems. Prospects tend to speed through Early Awareness when the problem is simple because a simple problem makes the solution obvious quickly.

Familiar Problems, Familiar Solutions

If your problem is that you don’t have a good pair of running shoes, the answer is both simple and familiar. You know what to do in order to solve it. Most shoe shoppers are already solution-aware and product-aware. There are subcategories in which you can grow solution and product awareness—for example, running shoes for beginners, running shoes for people with specific physical differences or injuries, running shoes for different types of terrain—but the core offering is familiar and accessible to its potential customer base.

That Was Easy: Simple-Solution Awareness Keywords

When the solution to a problem is familiar, B2C marketers can find ample paid search opportunity in the Core Awareness segment; prospects are already looking for a solution like theirs using common language. If you sell trail running shoes and your paid search program is bleeding budget for the exact-match keyword “trail running shoes”, then chances are your problem isn’t with keyword selection.

But This is Hard: Bridging the Awareness-Action Gap

Before I shift gears, let me make one thing clear: I’m not proposing that B2C paid search strategy is easy. It’s not. Rather, I’m suggesting that bridging the gap from awareness to action is simpler and faster for the majority of B2C offerings. This means that when marketers put money into targeting awareness-level keywords in paid search, they’re going to see results (whether positive or negative) and be able to understand that tactic’s impact on revenue generation a lot faster than the average industrial B2B marketer.

When B2C marketers put money into targeting awareness-level keywords in paid search, they’re going to be able to understand that tactic’s impact on revenue generation a lot faster than the average industrial B2B marketer.

The Top 5 B2B Keyword Selection Mistakes Caused by the Awareness-Action Gap

The B2B Awareness-Action Gap doesn’t lend itself well to any one digital marketing attribution model. Without the right tools, technology, and industry-specific experience, it’s hard to track the impact of an awareness ad on a buying decision that could be made months or years down the road. This is why so many industrial marketers get paid search keywords wrong: due to the gap between awareness and action—often made worse by the gap between paid search spend and revenue attribution—they can’t tell whether they’re targeting the right ones.

Here are the top 5 B2B paid search keyword selection mistakes we commonly see, all of which can be traced back to a fundamental misunderstanding of the B2B Action-Awareness Gap.

1. Paying to Create Problems

In B2B, we’re not often solving new problems. In other words, creating problem awareness usually isn’t necessary. If an organization doesn’t have—and recognize—an actual need for something, it’s going to be tough to make the business case to buy it. 

However, B2B innovators often are creating new ways to solve existing problems, or ways to solve several existing problems with a single solution. Do you sell a solution that allows your customers to consolidate several vendor relationships into one? You fall into this category.

This creates what I call the “Swiss Army knife problem” around problem and solution awareness keyword selection. Imagine for a moment that your company invented the Swiss Army knife (it would probably be called something else in that case, but I digress). No one in the world has ever seen a multitool like yours before. You’re poised for earth-shattering sales success.

The problem your product solves is that it’s inconvenient to carry around a knife, a screwdriver, a bottle opener, a corkscrew, an awl, a nail file, and a tiny pair of scissors in your pocket. Certainly, somebody somewhere has previously acknowledged this as a problem. But—and let’s assume Google existed in the 1800s before the Swiss Army knife was invented—is anyone actually searching for a solution to this problem?

If no one knows a multitool exists, no one is going to be searching for a multitool. Similarly, if your solution solves a common problem in a novel way or solves multiple problems at once, it’s rather unlikely that specific search traffic for your solution already exists, and you’ll be wasting money trying to find it. Your keyword strategy needs to target the problems you solve individually, not as a group. You’ll still have a hill to climb from there—if your paid search strategy involves educating prospects toward a novel solution, there are a number of critical non-keyword considerations for success, but that’s a topic for another article.

2. Insisting on Immediate Action

As B2B account targeting and lead-gen tactics become more sophisticated, businesses may be able to capture prospective buyers in their marketing and sales ecosystem earlier in the buying journey using technologies like website visitor deanonymization and account-based advertising.

This means that prospects become visible on your customer journey map sooner. It does not always mean that they complete that journey faster

If you’re successful in awareness keyword targeting, you might see engagement increase during earlier stages of the buying journey. This does not mean you can make accounts teleport through buying stages. 

Are you getting a significant amount of paid search traffic to landing pages for awareness-stage keywords, are reasonably certain you’re targeting the right segments of search, and yet are still seeing low conversion rates for your contact-focused offer? Go back to the customer journey map and make sure you understand where you are intersecting with the buying process. 

Someone who has just become aware of trail-running shoes as a potential solution to their shoelessness can be nurtured toward purchase in days, hours, or minutes. This usually isn’t true for complex B2B products and solutions. If you’ve been successful in engaging buyers at the front end of the Awareness-Action Gap, don’t squander the opportunity by insisting on immediate action.

Remember that the more stages you need to move a prospect through before “buy”, the more resource-intensive the effort becomes. Good awareness keywords will not provide immediate return on ad spend—nor should they.

3. Shoehorning Intent into Unrelated Solution Searches

The purpose of paid search is to harness existing intent. You cannot create intent where intent does not exist (the best tactic for this is, in many cases, account-based advertising as part of an account-based marketing strategy). So when some B2B marketers discover through keyword research that high-intent solution-awareness search traffic for their niche solution simply doesn’t exist, they may try to target what they think is the next best thing. 

Consider a manufacturer that sells a solvent commonly used in manufacturing lithium-ion batteries. The marketer in charge of their paid search strategy finds that the actual search volume for this kind of solvent is low, so they decide to bid on more general “lithium-ion battery manufacturing” terms, which have a higher monthly search volume.

The problem here is that the folks in charge of procuring solvent aren’t searching for “lithium-ion battery manufacturing”. These searchers are much more likely to be looking for manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries, and no amount of persuasive ad copy is going to convince them that they need to buy solvent and do it themselves.

 4. Assuming Increased Industry Specificity = Increased Awareness

The assumption that increased specificity equals increased awareness often works out okay in B2C—if I’m searching for “women’s pink hightop lifting shoes” (you might actually find this in my search history), then I likely have higher and/or more immediate purchase intent than someone searching for “women’s gym shoes”. 

This sometimes works out in B2B, too, when we’re targeting very specific product search. Where we often see it fall down is when marketers try to target very specific industry-modified keywords. 

Industry-modified keyword: A keyword that describes a product or solution with industry terms appended. For example, “warehouse management software for food and beverage companies” would be an industry-modified version of the “warehouse management software” keyword phrase.

There are some cases where targeting ultra-specific industry-modified terms does pay off. I’m just suggesting that they’re outliers. In our experience, campaigns based on industry-modified keywords come with much higher costs and much lower performance than product-focused or (unmodified) solution-focused campaigns. 

When industry-modified keywords do work, they tend to include broad industry groups and not very niche markets. That’s why we target “manufacturing marketing agency” keywords in paid search and not “marketing agency for industrial solvent manufacturers”.

5. Letting Data Disappear Into the Gap

Attribution matters. Sometimes, the difference between a failed awareness keyword targeting strategy and a successful one is just in how you’re reading the results. 

One of the foundational elements of a B2B paid search strategy is determining the attribution model that will be used. We’ve audited a number of paid search programs that were using first-click or last-click attribution to measure the success of a single ad in a months-long, multi-touch sales process. This doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it quite often flies under the radar of less experienced B2B paid search strategists. 

We recently audited the paid search program of a large international manufacturer with an annual spend well into six figures. One of our first initiatives was to run a customer journey report that showed prospect interactions with ads at every stage of their sales funnel. As a result, we discovered that their ads were most successful in re-engaging leads and nurturing them toward MQL and SQL stages approximately 3x faster than leads who did not click on an ad. With that knowledge, we helped them restructure their keyword strategy around increased brand and product category focus, leading to a higher return on ad spend within 30 days. 

Using a first-click attribution model, their paid search program looked like a bust for anything short of “Buy”-phase keywords, with $0 impact on revenue. However, using an actual data-driven attribution model, it became clear that paid search had much more potential—and it’s now influencing millions in pipeline value.

We always focus our efforts on marketing initiatives that can be tied to actual revenue generation. However, staying too close to the money without taking the time to understand how awareness keyword targeting actually creates value is short-sighted. B2B marketers must create the data infrastructure to be able to track awareness plays to purchase decisions so that they can optimize their keyword strategy.

Close the Gap

The B2B buying journey is a complex and challenging process that spans several stages of awareness over an extended period of time. A single paid search ad captures just a tiny fraction of that process. Unless you have a deep understanding of how awareness keyword targeting plays into the bigger picture—and the data infrastructure in place to track it—it’s easy to get frustrated by a perceived lack of performance from your target keywords if they fall into the B2B Awareness-Action Gap.

If you need some help getting your B2B keyword targeting strategy in order, let us know.


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