Many are familiar with the digital darlings that market directly to consumers—Warby Parker, Away, Allbirds, etc. But the B2B ecommerce market is growing exponentially, estimated to reach $1.2 trillion in transactions by 2021.
Ecommerce sales are growing for traditional B2B businesses as well as direct-to-consumer brands, which are opening wholesale sides to get a slice of the growing B2B ecommerce pie.
If you’re a B2B ecommerce shop that sells…
- inexpensive products;
- in small quantities;
- exclusively to B2B buyers;
The best B2C ecommerce sites are equally good examples for your B2B ecommerce site.
But if your B2B ecommerce site differs on any of those elements—high prices, large quantities, or a need to serve B2C and B2B buyers—things change.
So what changes? And what works best?
B2B ecommerce: 2 key differences of B2B buyers
What works with the average B2C consumer won’t always work with B2B ecommerce buyers. B2B buyers have two key differences that impact marketing and website design choices:
- A more complex sales cycle;
- Niche targeting.
1. A more complex sales cycle
B2B sales cycles can last for months, even more than a year. That makes some B2C marketing tactics less useful. For example, a B2C ecommerce brand may use scarcity tactics to create a sense of urgency and encourage impulse purchases.
In the example below, Walmart uses scarcity to suggest that a laptop is in high demand and may not be available later:
That’s unlikely to work when a decision takes months to get approval. B2B decisions often involve multiple stakeholders, too—an average of 6.8 during the buying process, according to one report.
The length and complexity of the buying cycle mean that B2B buyers are less impulsive. It’s a mistake, however, to assume that they aren’t emotional.
The fear of making a mistake with an unproven vendor can be a powerful motivator, even if the post-purchase rationalization ignores the impact of that emotion.
2. Niche targeting
B2B customers usually go after small market segments. B2C has its micro-markets, too, but most B2B companies have a smaller universe of potential buyers (hence why account-based marketing is so attractive to companies that target a few dozen or hundred prospects.)
The direct-to-consumer side of Nike’s footwear business targets, well, anyone with feet. Nike’s B2B arm, on the other hand, partners with select brick-and-mortar apparel retailers, including high-end boutiques for its limited edition sneakers and chains like Foot Locker for its popular Jordan line.
For Nike and others, they need to market the same product in two ways:
- to the retailer, highlighting the product as a source of solid, profitable sales;
- to the end user, highlighting style, status, performance, or another value.
The need for independent messaging, as we’ll explore later, often justifies the creation of dedicated landing pages or portals for B2B buyers. Separate site sections enable separate messaging.
For example, home retailer FLOS maintains an ungated website for retail consumers and a very different (gated) web experience for B2B customers:
Further, niche targeting usually means fewer buyers making larger purchases. B2B buyers spend an average of $491 per order, compared to $147 for B2C customers.
As Eduardo Esparza notes in his post on B2B site optimization,
the higher the value of what you are selling, the higher the inherent friction, therefore the more questions you will need to answer throughout your site.
Ultimately, complexity for B2C comes from “thousands, if not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of SKUs,” notes Bill Leake. Leake continues:
In B2B, you’re often dealing with fewer products, but you not only need to take into account the persona of the person coming to your website, but where they are in the customer journey.
The impact of the changing B2B ecommerce landscape
The makeup of B2B buyers has shifted. By 2014, almost half of B2B buyers were millennials, nearly double the number from 2012. That number isn’t getting smaller.
Why do millennials matter? Well, they have different expectations. B2B buyers from Gen X expected phone calls and handholding.
Millennials expect the same level of service without requiring dozens of lengthy discussions. Most have grown up around a technology (the Internet) that empowers them to research new topics more confidently.
That shift is the basis for modern demand generation. Information previously delivered by sales teams now reaches customers through (mostly digital) marketing materials. The online experience, as a result, is even more vital.
B2B ecommerce shoppers expect a comprehensive, efficient online buying experience. That means, sitewide, that your ecommerce buying experience rivals that of B2C brands:
- Site navigation and search are clear;
- Complete product catalogs are available online;
- Informational content allows customers to self-educate.
The primary purpose of a B2B site may have once been to get site visitors to pick up the phone or fill out a form. Now, the start-to-finish sales process may take place entirely online.
For many B2B companies, the transition in buying habits has outpaced website changes. Even for major retailers, like uniform supplier Cintas, their online buying portal is a dated, non-mobile-friendly microsite on a separate domain (www6.cintasvip.com):
A seamless mobile experience is essential, even if purchases take place on desktop. According to a Google report, 42% of B2B customers use mobile devices during the purchasing process. Other research suggests that 60% will switch brands if a current vendor doesn’t have an easy-to-use mobile experience.
That means B2B brands need an optimized mobile experience that delivers a consistent experience whether customers are browsing on a desktop or smartphone.
A great example is Curbell Plastics, which gives B2B customers a consistent experience to research and browse their product catalog on desktop or mobile:
The increase in expectations are part of a longer process of change. That process has played out over the last two decades for B2B companies that sell physical products:
- From no website to some website to prove that “they’re legitimate;”
- From a basic website to one that generates calls or form leads;
- From a lead generation site to a basic ecommerce site;
- From a basic ecommerce site to one that rivals the B2C experience.
Most B2B companies are now working on moving from stage three to four. Three tactics are critical to that final transition.
3 keys to a great B2B ecommerce experience
1. Educate buyers on your product—and your brand
B2B buyers (usually) prefer to self-educate. It’s a main reason that live chat and chatbots have exploded. Live chat delivers real-time answers from a blend of customer service and sales personnel (and bots) to nudge self-educating prospects down the funnel.
Sales reps still have a role, but some of their knowledge—especially during early consideration phases—should make its way into marketing materials on your ecommerce site.
Many companies have yet to do that. American Hotel Register meets many functional requirements of a good ecommerce site—they include a comprehensive category listing and feature a search bar prominently.
But the site does nothing to communicate why a user should shop there:
Compare that to the Traffic Safety Store, which highlights its large inventory and rapid delivery:
The need for educational content about the brand is as essential as educational content about products and options. That may include:
- Communicating your unique value proposition;
- Highlighting testimonials and/or success stories.
Why the shortcoming? Many B2B brands are used to acquiring customers and nurturing leads with sales reps. The first ecommerce functionality served mainly existing customers—those who just wanted an efficient way to reorder.
Now, however, more new business flows through search and other channels. B2B ecommerce is about first impressions and differentiation, not just utilitarian design and minimal clicks.
When it comes to educational content about products, many B2B sites, the one above included, face another challenge: Educational content on their sites is gated.
That limits search-based acquisition, but it also creates friction for new users. American Hotel Register places “Order Guides” prominently in the top navigation—something that may be useful for new buyers—but then requires a login to view the content:
Traffic Safety Store blends educational content with products on their B2B ecommerce site, a clear effort to acquire, inform, and persuade new users through search:
While a content hub is one way to serve B2B buyers, educational videos are another high-impact way to deliver helpful info.
A Think with Google survey found that 70% of B2B buyers and researchers are watching videos throughout their buying journey, and branded video content views increased 99% on YouTube and 258% on Facebook between 2016 and 2017.
Cintas has published professional videos that showcase the construction of new product lines:
Unlike some of their B2B ordering portals, the video is modern with an aesthetic not dissimilar from B2C clothing companies (while highlighting the practical benefits of their product).
For B2B ecommerce, case studies can help convert leads or empower them to make the case to superiors.
Case studies can address potential objections from all decision-makers in the B2B buying process. Company Folders, a B2B custom printer, uses case studies to target pain points—like finding the official brand shade:
The purchaser may not be someone who’s deeply invested in a perfect color match, but their boss (or their boss’s boss) almost certainly is. Case studies are an opportunity for B2B ecommerce companies to empathize with a purchaser’s need to satisfy others within their company.
The placement of case studies matters, too. Adding case studies to product pages makes the collateral more accessible, rather than requiring someone to look for it in a separate section. They are, in effect, long-form testimonials packed with details that matter to people at multiple levels of an organization.
2. Make site navigation and search intuitive and comprehensive
B2B sites ought to emphasize usability more, not less, because they must help users accomplish more advanced tasks and research more specialized products.NNG Group
Site search is a huge component of ecommerce site usability. Almost all (98%) of B2B buyers research products online, and 62% of B2B buyers also ranked enhanced search functionality as “increasingly essential” to their online shopping experience—which means your ecommerce site search should be top-notch.
Sterlitech, a producer of membranes and filtration products, boasts an extensive product catalog online. To help customers find the best products for their needs, Sterlitech uses a pop-up to search and filter options:
Another example is ezCater, a corporate catering company. B2B customers just enter their delivery addresson the homepage, and the site serves up a range of caterers in the area complete with pricing, minimum order quantities, delivery fees, and customer reviews.
Ultimately, there’s little difference between the site search or navigation needs of a B2C versus B2B site. What has changed, however, is expectations. Many B2B ecommerce sites lag behind their B2C counterparts.
Some of those that have succeeded are applying lessons from the B2C side of their business.
3. Offer a dedicated portal or, at the very least, landing pages
To help your B2B buyers serve themselves, it often makes sense to set up a dedicated wholesale portal. Almost half (45%) of B2B buyers are looking for personalized content portals. If a separate portal isn’t possible, specific B2B landing pages, noted below, can work as a stand-in.
In a wholesale portal, B2B buyers can create orders, reorder previously purchased products, and access customized product catalogs based on their needs.
Hurraw! Has a wholesale portal that’s identical to their retail site, with the exception, of course, of product quantities:
For brands that don’t have the budget to roll out dedicated wholesale portals, landing pages can serve as a stopgap measure. At the very least, a landing page means that you can tailor messaging to the B2B buyer.
Strong landing pages for B2B ecommerce products have similarities to B2C ecommerce landing pages. But they also have unique requirements:
- Break down complex concepts. Your products or services may solve complicated problems for your customers. Break down your value into their simplest terms. If you can’t do that with copy alone, consider using images and video.
- Walk prospects through multiple stages of their journey. A B2B landing page may not get a prospective buyer from paid ad click all the way to purchase. Landing pages may serve as an entry point—a page that matches a user query but also provides options to consume additional content elsewhere (rather than going straight for the sale).
Measuring success before the sale
A long sales cycle means that B2B ecommerce sites will, at times, earn form fills or phone calls before a sale.
As a result, you’ll need to find other ways to measure the impact of marketing efforts prior to the on-site purchase. In his post, Abhi Jadhav breaks down potential pre-purchase measurements into several categories:
- Awareness. Are you earning more brand queries in search? Are you gaining traction on social media channels?
- Consideration. Are you getting more repeat visitors (assuming most visitors return before buying)? Are they coming from the geographic areas you serve? Are they visiting middle- or bottom-of-funnel pages, like product pages?
- Conversion. Are visitors turning into leads? Do people who download gated content respond to follow-up messaging or return to the site?
Over time, measurement of those micro-conversions can allow you to answer other questions:
- Where in the buyer journey is the person who downloads [X] whitepaper?
- What types of micro-conversions produce the highest lead values? To what points in the customer journey do they correspond?
Notably, in each case, the micro-conversion is valuable only if it leads to the macro-conversion (a sale). Optimizing for micro-conversions has risks.
When it comes to creating a great B2B ecommerce experience:
- Consider the unique needs of your B2B company. If you have high order values, sell large quantities, or market the same product to B2C and B2B customers, you’ll need to do more than just mimic the best B2C ecommerce sites.
- Communicate the value of your brand and your product. You need to optimize your site to persuade new visitors, not just give long-time buyers the convenience of online shopping.
- Create dedicated B2B content to support purchasers. The person browsing your site isn’t the only one you need to persuade. Case studies on product pages, for example, can give a technical practitioner the ammunition to persuade an executive.