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B2B ecommerce will reach $1.2 trillion and account for 13.1% of all B2B sales in the U.S. by 2021.
Just by the end of 2017, Forrester expects B2B ecommerce to reach $889 billion and represent 11% of total B2B sales in the U.S.
That’s a monumental shift from outbound sales to inbound strategies for B2B businesses.
And no B2B seller can afford to ignore the reality that if they do not have an ecommerce arm, they will 100% miss out on sales and long-term deals.
But how can B2B businesses suddenly shift to an inbound model, or an outbound/inbound hybrid model where they need to:
- ensure their backend operations flow seamlessly
- customers get the same level of quality and service
All the while, they will need their ecommerce site to function amidst the complexities of:
- bulk orders and order minimums
- LTL shipping
- personalized customer pricing
- antiquated ERPs and accounting systems
- contractual term (POs, Quotes, etc.) and recurring bulk shipments
It sounds complicated –– and in theory it is –– but the technology enabling B2B businesses to get online fast, streamline backend operations and free up employee time to further grow the business is changing the hearts and minds of diehard outbound B2B sellers.
This is about growth. This is about the future. This is also about saving money and time, growing your business and continuing the B2B tradition for generations to come.
To help you navigate these changes, here are some of the latest B2B ecommerce trends we'll cover in this piece:
- Focus on New Customer Acquisition
- Upgrade Your B2B Ecommerce Software
- Rethink Your Product Information + Its Format
- Learn from Amazon (They do a lot of things very well!)
- Integrate Your Systems for Multi-Channel Selling
- Stay Ahead of the Competition by Keeping Your Ears on the Ground
- Avoid the Doom Loop and Go Mobile Already!
Let's dive in.
The New B2B Ecommerce Strategy
Like B2C, B2B businesses know the importance of offering a multi-channel experience to drive sales. But historically, that multi-channel experience for B2B buyers meant only having access to an online catalog.
Or they didn’t have a site at all –– choosing to send employees to potential new customer locations to win them over face-to-face.
Both of those strategies have long worked –– and will likely continue to –– but the B2B brands capitalizing on the new B2B buyer shopping habits (as more and more millennials age into Director, VP and C-Suite positions) are using their ecommerce channel to grow revenue and customer acquisition.
The most successful B2B sellers now use consumer-based technology to provide B2C-like shopping experiences to their B2B customers.
More are turning to the web to differentiate from competition, expand their reach and achieve higher growth rates.
Let’s look at a few examples of successful B2B ecommerce strategies.
Clarion Safety underwent an 18 month-long project to migrate from a custom-built platform to a SaaS-operated one, connecting their SAP ERP to streamline backend operations (a table stake), but also integrating with advanced search tools to improve the on-site experience for B2B buyers accustomed to B2C sites.
“Once we switched to BigCommerce, we were able to change up a lot of the navigation within our website thanks to the SearchSpring integration. We replaced the original category structure we had so that customers could easily navigate to fully qualified products,” says Angela Lambert, Director of Sales, Marketing and Standards Compliance, Clarion Safety Systems.
“This was important for us, as we have more than 9,000 SKUs and 75% of our revenue comes through internal site search. Increased functionality on this aspect of our ecommerce operation was a big priority for us, and we’ve been able to achieve that.”
Freund Container’s B2B ecommerce strategy taps into the power of customer data to better serve their existing B2B customers and gain net new. To do so, the company needed to move to a platform that could integrate with their ERP across a variety of touchpoints and a massive, complex catalog.
The result has been streamlined backend operations, better customer data visibility across all channels and improved conversions to boot.
“We use a proprietary ERP that sits on top of an IBM I-Series I-Mainframe, and we were able to get an integration built so that we can better leverage our data across systems. One way we do this is in regard to customer service,” says Chris Hiller, General Manager, Freund Container.
“We can pass cart details over to our ERP, and if a customer calls our customer service line and references their PO number, we can locate the record right away. Being able to push things from our ERP into our BigCommerce store also allows us to help customers see things like their credit limits, balances and past-due balances. It’s empowering to our customers to have that data.”
Net new customer acquisition was one of the most important aspects to a B2B ecommerce platform migration and new launch online for Avery Dennison. Competition even in the B2B space is fierce, and winning in organic search is inexpensive and powerful –– it makes you look like the most recommended on the web.
To do it, product pages and site search hierarchy needed to be implemented across the board. Site maps were used, as were a complete overhaul of how the brand organized its products. Today, organic search traffic is way up –– as is the channel’s overall revenue contribution to the larger brand.
“We have a catalog that has traditionally been our marketing vehicle and how we've reached our customers in the past. We still do send out that catalog, but we are noticing incremental revenue from just having an ecommerce website,” says Roxanna Holley, Ecommerce Merchandise Manager, Printer Solutions, Avery Dennison. “Customers are now finding us on Google. We’ve seen a fair amount of revenue increase just from organic traffic alone. That’s revenue we might not have captured if we didn’t have this site.”
These are only some of the innovations and updates B2B brands are making to earn new customers, make old customers happy and save their employees time so they can focus on inbound marketing tactics.
How can your B2B brand take advantage of modern technology and trends to win increased buyer mindshare and grow overall revenue?
Here are the top 6 lessons and B2B trends taken from multi-million dollar B2B businesses now using ecommerce to drive net new customer acquisition, decrease manual backoff input and work, retain happier customers than ever before and ultimately grow their business for the next wave in their business’s lifecycle.
Focus on New Customer Acquisition
Online selling for B2B merchants didn’t use to be a core part of B2B business and sales strategy.
Instead, sites were simply “portals” that were intended to replace customer service reps with online technology –– or, they served solely as catalogs (if the brands had sites at all). Any version of a B2B ecommerce site historically has served only existing customers, allowing them to place reorders by using an established term account.
Now, B2B players want to acquire new customers and their ecommerce site is a great place for that. Because of online search tools, new customers can research, find and place an order easier than ever online.
Today, 74% of B2B buyers report researching at least half of their work purchases online.
With more B2B buyers going online to research and buy products, merchants must be where their customers are. Bringing in these new customers becomes a focal point of B2B online selling and the purpose of an ecommerce site.
Let’s look at a few examples.
For some B2B brands, earning net new customers means taking a part of their business directly to consumers. This is what is known as “going direct.” It opens a new revenue stream for your business, selling the same products at individual prices rather than bulk to B2B buyers.
This is how Knobs Co has done it –– setting up a B2C focused site that allows B2B buyers to sign in, and get additional benefits like price discounts, white glove service and more.
For FlexFire LEDs, the name of the net new customer acquisition game is SEO. That stands for search engine optimization –– and focusing on this has helped this B2B brand nab the business of Disney, Apple, Ford and more.
How? By providing extensive educational material on their products and proving to Google and thus future customers that they are a subject matter expert.
You don’t need a blog to do this. You just need evergreen, smart information, ideally using graphics and video in addition to text to explain your product, who it is right for, how to use it, etc.
Check out the image below to see how FlexFire LEDs does this on their learning pages.
Upgrade B2B Ecommerce Software
To accommodate a new online strategy, B2B sellers are looking to upgrade their ecommerce software for these online-savvy buyers.
Forrestor expects the number of B2B buyers who will complete at least half of their work purchases online to increase from 32% in 2014 to 53% by 2017.
In the past, B2B buyers often used a 3rd-party plug-in to their ERP to enable online selling. Now, B2B sellers are turning to consumer-based technology.
57% of B2B executives said their top technology need for investment was an ecommerce platform, making it the highest reported need.
To provide a better experience, business-to-business sellers need updated B2B ecommerce software centered around their specific customer requirements like price levels and term accounts.
They’re also looking for their online sites to allow customers to manage their own account to perform tasks like applying for a credit account, making payments and reviewing order history.
It’s expected for B2B sellers to dedicate more of their technology budget to ecommerce-related investments.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
John McCann, the founder of Spectrum Audio, migrated his site from Magento to BigCommerce years ago –– and then set out to build the one functionality he thought was missing: a quoting tool.
This would allow high-volume customers to get an immediate quote from the business for their bulk orders –– helping to speed up the process from prospect (self identified) to customer.
Today, John now also runs Quote Ninja, a BigCommerce-specific technology app used by hundreds of B2B brands to win new customers, grow sales and solve for a B2B quirk not often found or needed in the B2C ecommerce world.
Check out the GIF below to see how it works.
Vypin’s products help truck and freight companies understand the temperature of the items they are carrying across the country. This is vitally important for their own business –– as it is for their customers, who require regulated temperatures for the transport of certain products.
Vypin allows these companies to rent the device –– using a recurring order system much like that used by B2C brands BirchBox or StitchFix to enable on-going recurring monthly revenue, and keep their B2B customers updated and hassle-free the whole time.
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Rethink Product Information
It wasn’t too long ago that most B2B buyers still researched and bought from B2B companies via paper catalogs, fax machines, and landline phones. However, online selling has completely changed that.
Back in 2013, 69% of B2B sellers said they expect to stop printing a catalog within five years. Today, we can see that change in how B2B executives manage their catalogs. Print catalogs will not go away entirely, but they will get smaller.
B2B buyers are turning to more interactive online tools to share and distribute their catalogs. This makes it easier for them to expand their relationships and work directly with more retailers and suppliers.
Let’s look at some examples.
Want a catalog? Great –– Restaurantware will send you one. But, want to shop right now in the same way you would on a B2C site –– but getting exactly what you need for your business? Well, that’s just as easy (and more beautiful!).
Restaurantware sells goods to restaurants around the world, meaning they have a massive catalog as well as customization options for their online buyers. This complicates a selling cycle online –– where large amounts of SKUs can be difficult to manage and customizations hard to track.
That’s why they sought out a platform that would enable both –– and integrate to backend systems to make sure everything happened seamlessly.
Now, their online store is no mere catalog. It is interactive. It is organized. It allows for a customer-chosen product discovery journey. And it works –– no matter what you want.
Dupont has set their site up a bit more traditionally for the B2B segment than Restaurantware, but the same challenges of product organization and discovery are being solved.
Using a side navigation product bar (also known as faceted search), Dupont allows visitors to dive deeper into their resources and offerings. They keep the homepage set up for marketing and promotion –– to introduce the brand and all the good ongoing work.
Learn from Amazon
Just like B2C, Amazon has set the standard for the online B2B customer experience. Many B2B buyers rate their experience against Amazon as a benchmark.
However, 63% of B2B e-business professionals say that their experience is worse than Amazon’s.
Many believe that what’s holding them back from a better “Amazon-like” experience is their current B2B ecommerce technology. B2B sellers will look to SaaS-based B2B ecommerce platforms like BigCommerce to deliver an omnichannel experience across every customer touchpoint.
Gartner predicts that by 2018, 70% of ecommerce will move from B2C and B2B models to models that focus on the individual customer experience.
B2B buyers have specific needs and sellers must meet them.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Bulk Bookstore is a version of what Amazon once was –– an online bookstore. But, taking pages out of Amazon’s own playbook, search functionality on the site plays a huge role in product discoverability. This allows customers to jump in, know what they want and find it –– FAST.
A catalog search CTA is clearly visible above the fold as well –– to help browsers find what they may want.
But, since they are selling to a B2B audience looking for bulk orders –– it’s that dynamic search bar allowing customers to type in just about anything and get the result they want in a blink of the eye.
Nelson Education does similar work to Bulk Bookstore –– selling specifically to educators through their online site. You can see site search is still a significant CTA (using ISBN, title, author, etc.) as is providing a fun B2C-like shopping experience for teachers.
Atlas RFID doesn’t rely as heavily on search to help users find what they want. Instead, they categorize items into buckets, allowing customers to click and drill down based on their own preferences.
All buckets are visible throughout the process as you get more and more granular, allowing customers to easily see their options and toggle back and forth between them.
Customers can even choose multiple products to compare directly side-by-side. Not even Amazon does that.
Integrate Systems for Multi-Channel Selling
While the B2B ecommerce sector is growing, sellers have a relatively small market to choose their technology from.
B2B requirements are tough to meet and not every platform does it well enough.
B2B sellers can purchase large, expensive ecommerce platforms that require expensive customizations and a whole team to run the site. Others will turn to multiple vendors to get the job done.
Some B2B sellers are choosing 3rd-party applications to work alongside their ecommerce platforms in order to manage order fulfillment, inventory synchronization or financial transactions.
However, when going down this path, an integration provider is needed to tie those multiple systems together to efficiently manage your business.
57% of B2B executives stated that ecommerce integration was another top technology need.
They defined ecommerce integration as integrating backend technology for managing operations like inventory and customer orders with their ecommerce platform.
B2B site examples used earlier in this article have used integrator agencies like Americaneagle and Jasper to solve for complex ERP and backoffice needs.
But not every site needs an integrator partner. Let’s look at an example.
Folding Chairs and Tables sells –– you guessed it –– chairs and tables to B2B businesses. In the fall of 2016, when BigCommerce launched the ability for brands to push items over to Amazon –– the team decided to give it a try.
They’d been thinking about it for so long anyway.
So, they bundled a popular set together and pushed just that one item over to Amazon.
- Within hours they were selling by the hundreds.
- Within days, they had to pull the listing down and focus on restocking.
Today, the brand sells both on their online channel and Amazon –– transforming their business 3x in the span of a single year.
That’s multi-channel efficiency.
Stay Ahead of the Competition
The growth of B2B ecommerce is evident, and trends like these show how B2B sellers are evolving their online strategies.
Getting your B2B ecommerce strategy right requires an extraordinary amount of time, planning, and investment.
You must understand your customers, choose your systems and process strategically, and train your organization for these major changes.
Those who don’t do this risk being left behind by the competition.
What can help you to stay ahead of the competition? Keeping your ears on the ground.
Here's some recent B2B research and data from Google and BCG released September 29, 2017.
- 80% of B2B buyers are using mobile at work
- 60% of B2B buyers report that mobile played a significant role in a recent purchase.
- 70% of B2B buyers increased mobile usage significantly over the past two to three years
- 60% of B2B buyers expect to continue to increase their mobile usage
- 50% of B2B queries today are made on smartphones. BCG expects that figure to grow to 70% by 2020.
Mobile drives, or influences, an average of over 40% of revenue in leading B2B organizations.
What does this data suggest?
- You should read Google's research reports more often
- That beyond getting your B2B business online, it needs to be mobile-friendly first.
Let's talk more about that...
Embrace B2B Mobile Commerce
BCG visualizes Doom Loop thinking like this:
Overall, this type of thinking is what has kept many B2B brands from launching online to begin with. It comes down to this:
- Fear of lack of experience in a new channel or medium
- Paralyzation based on fear about a new channel or medium
- Loss of revenue due to laggard activity
You don't want to be in that boat. After all, BCG's research also found that brands quick to adopt mobile see increased revenue through the channel in comparison to those who wait to catch up.
This might be the last B2B ecommerce trend on our list, but it is arguably the most important.
Some brands, like Atlanta Lightbulbs, have even gone so far to create an app for their B2B buyers.
This allows those buyers to log in, see their specific pricing and checkout using a vaulted credit card – all in a matter of minutes. This is how you embrace B2B mobile commerce.
"We've used an app from the BigCommerce marketplace called AppMixture that enabled us to build our own shopping app," says Doug Root, CEO at Atlanta Light Bulbs. "Our customers love it!"
"We're able to give it to our commercial customers, too, set them up, put their favorite products in their phone, and then say, "Here, bam! All you've got to do is order on your phone, and you're ready to go."
"Orders just roll in on the BigCommerce platform. It all talks back and forth wonderfully."
Here are your next steps to make sure your B2B brand is increasing revenue, scaling and growing for the next generation of buyers.
6 B2B Ecommerce Trends (in 2017):
- Use of consumer-based technology to provide B2C-like shopping experiences.
- Improvements to product information and site layout (to help user experience).
- B2B mobile commerce is growing rapidly.
- Integration of backend technology for managing operations like inventory, customer orders and multi-channel selling.
- Smart personalization to improve user experience.
- B2B companies are putting extra focus on new customer acquisition.
Have any questions or concerns on how to do this? Leave them in the comments and we'll help you figure it all out.
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