The B2B Miss: Ecommerce Excellence

B2B ecommerce is an interesting conundrum. It has the ability to both cut expenses and drive up sales, however it rarely gets the funding or attention needed to succeed. There are exceptions of course, like Staples, that understand the massive value capture that can be made with a solid ecommerce presence. However the development of a B2B ecommerce site usually falls not under marketing, but under a sales executive, who has no experience in driving ecommerce in a way that really gets to the value available.

On the buyer side, B2B ecommerce is in high demand. Business buyers shop online in their personal lives and are very comfortable with it. In fact, research here and here (as examples) show that B2B buyers are digitally moving through the sales funnel without assistance from salespeople more and more. Sales is focusing on closing (as they should) but if your digital isn’t doing the work, you’re missing out on long-term growth opportunities. Add to that the ability for digital to personalize, which translates to upselling and cross-selling to your buyers. This drives real value that is difficult to get through a salesperson in 2015.

The world is moving and many, many businesses are missing the boat.

What is the problem? As I mentioned above, a lot of times the problem is in the structure of the company. B2B sales is under a sales team and lead by an executive who doesn’t really understand why marketing matters. But ecommerce strength comes from marketing, not sales, and requires an experienced marketer to do well. In order to excel, a business needs to bring in the skill set from outside and give them the support they need. Which takes us to the second problem: money.

It takes investment. In a time where we’re cutting costs left and right, investing in a strong ecommerce platform seems expensive. Isn’t it just exchanging one channel for another? In my experience, a good ecommerce and digital marketing arm can give you a significant lift in sales from your current customer base in addition to cutting costs over time (typically you can reduce customer service and sales team members with a good ecommerce presence). The initial bump is seen from your smaller or less important customers, because they aren’t getting the sales attention they need now. But even the bigger guys will respond as well.

Finally, the single biggest problem is that B2B executives often don’t realize the potential value of ecommerce in their business. It takes real digging to understand the costs of taking an order today versus taking one online. And it takes experience to realize how digital marketing can lift sales; e.g. why the investment should be made. This is a cultural shift in the company and a political problem over and above the first two issues. It’s more likely to change due to competitive shifts or threats than it is due to a lightbulb going off in someone’s head. Unfortunately, that means a lot of businesses are going to be eaten alive in the new digital world. That’s already happening now (taxis, department stores, even cigarettes are being eaten by digital) and will continue to happen. Is your industry next?

My recommendation is to bring in talent and invest in the plans. Early on focus on email and paid search to start supporting your sales them. Then add ecommerce and make it world-class instead of focusing on reducing the investment. Long-term it has a massive payoff for most companies. It won’t save a company with poor products, but it absolutely can drive good product to the next level. Your customers are shopping online just as they do at home. You should be there to meet them.

 

Digital Marketing for B2B: Where to Start?

Trends tend to move from consumer to B2B over time and digital is no exception. B2B customers are, after all, consumers at home and now enjoy the luxury of knowing or ordering or managing anything, anytime, anywhere. And, as Kevin Hillstrom points out, digital hates inefficiency. So B2B marketing is seeing inefficiencies in sales generation driven out using digital techniques.

These changes have been weaving their way into the B2B world. First, B2B buyers began doing a lot of research before they ever called a sales guy. Who wants an hour long conversation if the tool won’t work anyway? So more and more content was added to B2B websites – including pricing information – that was not contemplated just five years ago. And once the buyer informed themselves before ever contacting a sales rep, sales became all about closing the deal. Sales salaries moved over to website content and marketing funding. You started seeing more power in the marketing departments, particularly in digital marketing, alongside a slippage of power in the B2B Sales departments. And I think that trend is increasing.

Along those lines, B2C marketers have had more opportunities to grow into B2B arenas over the past two years especially. But where to start in a B2B environment? Is it much different than B2C marketing? The answer is yes and no. Yes, it’s definitely different and some things just won’t work. But it is getting more and more similar to B2C than it was years ago. Here are the tactics that work:

Content. B2B requires even more content than B2C marketing. White papers, conference sessions, webex, etc. A lot of this is taking what works in B2B sales and making digital versions of it. A webex after all is simply a sales call that reaches hundreds of potential candidates rather than one at a time. One benefit to B2B content is that it typically lives a lot longer than content on the B2C side. This helps to justify the expense and makes it easier to tie back sales over a cycle.

Lead gen. B2B marketing is not about closing the sale. It’s about generating leads and pushing those leads down a funnel that ends with a sales call. Lead gen fills the top of that funnel and generally starts with paid search followed by sponsorships on other websites or email programs. Organic traffic is key to keeping your costs down and also helps justify the content expense. But paid search is just as important in B2B as it is to B2C marketers.

Email. This is the big gorilla of B2B online marketing. Although it contains a component of batch-and-blast or seasonal marketing strategies, what really works is marketing automation through email. Something Salesforce + Pardot has done extremely well in recent years. Your site should be geared toward lead gen and once a lead is collected, it should be segmented and fed a continuous stream of targeted email content that moves them down the funnel. This is true online sales programming and it widens your sales funnel.

Tracking and data analysis are also just as important in B2B as B2C. And, in my experience, B2B marketers don’t yet have all their leads tied back as cleanly as they do in B2C, so there’s an opportunity to be better than the competition here.

In terms of online marketing, here’s what doesn’t work (and the exceptions to the rule):

Banner ads (not including retargeting). Banner ads continue to get a bad rap for good reasons. Sales practices around them are questionable and their efficacy is as well. It takes a huge marketing budget to really use these effectively and they are hard to justify in a true B2B sales environment. The one exception is retargeting ads, which are focused on known prospects. Note that this does not include sponsored ads in targeted emails, which can work well for B2B marketers. This is specifically around doing large banner buys through an agency targeted at a specific demographic group.

Social media (except LinkedIn). When folks interact with social media, they typically do it as a consumer. It’s about interacting with friends, not shopping for brands. Unless you are targeting a very young demographic, it’s difficult to find value in paid social advertising. The one exception is LinkedIn because it’s unique status as a professional forum. I have seen good, effective advertising that is very, very targeted here. Don’t do this without someone who knows what they are doing.

Affiliate. Affiliate is always attractive to sales folks because of the nature of the offering: you only pay when you get a sale. It really doesn’t work well for B2B (and I would argue that it’s questionable for B2C as well). Don’t spend time here.

That’s my high level list of what works and what doesn’t. If you need to start fast, start with Paid Search and email. If you need it cheap, start with email and written content, then kick on Paid Search once the funnel is working. Email tends to make all other marketing activities look more profitable and more effective, so I always recommend it early in the process. A lot of B2B strategy is figuring out how to lead a prospect through the sales cycle without a sales person. And then keeping them informed into the future.

Good luck!