Buyers want to make informed purchases, so they research products, compare prices, and create what they hope will be long-lasting relationships with trustworthy suppliers. Increasingly, the activity occurs on digital channels. A recent Digital Commerce 360 survey of distributors found 41.5% of distributors and wholesalers believe improving the quality of their websites will be the biggest challenge in the year ahead. As online B2C experiences raise the bar for business buyers, B2B sellers must respond.
Unfortunately, many distributors rely on outdated marketing practices that don’t produce the results or require too much effort. Others purchase expensive marketing tools or continue to waste money on poorly-performing ads.
A digital marketing strategy for B2B distributors requires a deep understanding of your audience and the competition. With that foundation, you can focus marketing efforts on activities that yield the best results. Follow these steps to help you attract the right prospects, retain existing customers, and grow your brand’s competitive advantage.
Making Sense of Digital Marketing for Distributors
Traditionally, distributors relied on the telephone, print media, and trade shows. They relied on physical brochures and catalogs to capture leads, communicate with customers, and expand their business into new markets. Today these activities and materials have all moved online.
Gartner finds B2B buyers spend 45% of their time performing independent research and only 17% interacting with potential vendors. Your brand’s online presence is crucial for new customers to find you.
Marketing budgets soared in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While marketing spend as a percentage of revenue slipped in 2021, the CMO Survey of 282 top U.S. marketers revealed that digital marketing is now 58% of their marketing budgets, an increase of 15.8%, and is projected to grow by 14.7% more in the next year.
Businesses are also experiencing increased ROI from their digital marketing activities. According to SmartInsights, email marketing has the highest return on investment, followed by SEO and content marketing. By comparison, the ROI of display advertising is the lowest.
But what is digital marketing? It’s any activity that drives traffic to your digital presence. A great digital presence takes more than a website with a contact page. To attract and convert customers, you must offer them the right information when they need it. It’s like just in-time inventory, but for marketing material delivery. An effective digital presence uses search engine optimization (SEO) for visibility, leverages content to position your brand as a thought leader, and increases brand awareness through email marketing.
Distributors moving online must create a comprehensive digital presence. Determining how to target customers, what content to provide them with, and how to use technology to optimize your efforts is what online marketing for distributors is all about.
Recommended reading: Digital Marketing in the Chemical Industry
Creating a Data-Driven Digital Marketing Strategy
According to US Census data, the number of distributors increases every year. Companies must compete with incumbents, new entrants, and now B2B marketplaces.
The sheer diversity and number of wholesalers and distributors creates intense competition for customer attention online. To better serve customer needs, you must understand who your customers are, how they see the competition, and how you can differentiate your brand.
Before marketing comes data collection so you know your audience and competitive environment. Otherwise you’ll just waste time and money for unsatisfactory results.
Know Your Customer
To craft effective messages, you must know your customer. Start by defining their characteristics and then grouping them accordingly.
Define your audience
You can’t cater to your audience unless you can identify and understand them. For example, if you sell food service and hospitality supplies, do you market to hotels and restaurants, to restaurants only, hotels only or only to other resellers? Depending on how many distinct markets you serve, you may create one or more customer profiles. Ask questions such as:
- Who do you currently sell to? Are they your ideal customers?
- What are their interests and pain points?
- How do they find your website?
- Where and when do they buy?
- How often do they buy?
- How do they make their purchases?
Developing customer profiles help you use the marketing methods and messages that resonate with this customer.
Segment your customers
Once you create your customer profiles, you can group them by common characteristics. This is called creating customer segments. Segmenting helps you craft messages that provide customers with the greatest value. For example, sticking with the food service and hospitality example, you might segment restaurants by take-out or dine-in only, you could segment hotels by their star rating or the amenities they offer.
If your customer segments contain wholesalers or retailers, your website content, blog posts, guides, emails, and ads should be geared to their needs. If you sell primarily to manufacturers, your digital marketing should showcase your knowledge of their industry and how the supply chain crisis is affecting them. Messages that include case studies provide the information this segment wants.
B2B purchases often involve multiple people in different roles. These customers can be segmented by their role. Narrowing down the characteristics of each role lets you create segments by decision-maker. For example:
- End product users may value product delivery and service after the sale.
- Engineering is most concerned with product specifications, testing, and compliance.
- Purchasing agents will value competitive pricing, product availability, and eCommerce PCI compliance.
- Business managers will value long-term partnerships.
While segmenting based on the role in the purchase process is possible, remember these people still have their own biases and interpret and retain information based on past experience and future expectations.
How do top midmarket brands use technology?
Forrester shares real-life case studies from leading business sellers.
Focus your efforts
Now that you know your customers, where should your marketing efforts start? That’s not always an easy question to answer.
You’ve probably heard that 80% of profits come from 20% of customers. The Pareto distribution principle suggests that the majority of successful outcomes are the result of a minority of inputs. Some B2B organizations prioritize their biggest customers as the potential source of the most profit. However, needs vary from one customer to the next, and crafting, managing, and evaluating the effectiveness of multiple marketing processes is challenging.
The long tail business strategy puts a focus on low demand customers and products. Singularly, they don’t account for many sales or profit, but when combined they rival more mainstream counterparts. When this strategy is applied to marketing for distributors, you may craft a blanket message for your less profitable customers to reduce your marketing spend and yield better results. It’s also good to test new strategies on smaller customers before rolling them out to the big ones.
Know Your Competitors
Unless you are the only company that provides your product or service, you are probably competing with other distributors. To create your own effective digital strategy, you must know what the competition is doing in the marketing arena.
Identify the competition
One advantage of digital marketing is that it’s pretty easy to discover your competitor’s marketing tactics and respond as necessary. Research the competition to determine what medium and messaging they are using to reach your market. You can improve on their efforts and give attention to segments they are neglecting.
For example, if you distribute medical supplies and the competition is focused on large hospitals, you may be able to exploit their neglect of smaller clinics. Maybe they can’t meet the needs of smaller customers or don’t want to be bothered with small volume. If that’s the case you have discovered an unserved market.
Analyze their digital presence
In the online realm, website traffic is an essential metric. But traffic by itself is not enough. Luckily, you can visualize your competitors’ positions in the market with a simple Excel spreadsheet. List all your competitors in Column A and their monthly site visits in Column B. In Column C, you can list metrics such as:
- Total social media followers
- Audience segment
- Marketing channel
- Monthly revenue
- Monthly orders
- Monthly engagement
- Monthly advertising spend
You can perform competitive analysis in many other ways. A popular one is the SWOT analysis, which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It’s a quadrant that highlights what the company does best and what could be holding it back. Another framework is Porter’s Five Forces Model, which analyzes five distinct forces influencing your competitive landscape. Alternatively, you can use the Semrush competitor analysis tool to help with the analysis.
Determine your competitive advantage
Now that you understand your competitors, how do you compare? Here, a simple perceptual mapping analysis does the job. A perceptual map is a simple quadrant graph that compares one attribute to another. You can compare:
- Catalog size
Including your competitors in the quadrant will give you a better idea of your position in the market and help determine what sets you apart. If you notice a pattern, you can address it with SEO improvements, website tweaks, or your content strategy.
Digital Marketing for Manufacturers and Distributors
Assess your business, develop a strategy, identify tools, and avoid pitfalls.
Best Marketing Strategies for Distributors (With Examples)
Customers discover distributors online in different ways and they take multiple factors into account when researching, evaluating, and deciding on suppliers. Your digital marketing strategy should cover the ways potential customers find and use your website. In order of importance, this includes:
Around 93% of customers start with a Google search. You must be in these search results. Do your homework and perform keyword research around your niche.
You must optimize product pages and product category pages for your chosen keywords and phrases for the best ranking in the results. Tools like Ahrefs, Semrush, and KWFinder will help you identify keywords by:
- Search volume, or how many people are searching for the keyword,
- Keyword difficulty, or how competitive this keyword is,
- Related searches that help you find phrases and long-tail keywords.
Long-tail keywords are longer, specific search queries that are as descriptive as possible. These keywords are valuable since they signify an intent to purchase and are often used in voice search. Target long-tail keywords to boost your website’s visibility and attract valuable traffic.
B2B eCommerce software with digital marketing tools should assign the important SEO components such as H1 headings, SEO titles, descriptions, and image alt tags to your product pages. Avoid keyword stuffing. Use short but unique page descriptions that differ from your meta description. Since most people will not read this text, make it collapsible to free up space on mobile devices. Here are some basic SEO guidelines:
- Include H1 headings on your page
- Include at least 500 words of content on the page
- Provide breadcrumbs (a row of links) to help users navigate
- SEO titles should be 60 characters long
- SEO descriptions should explain why someone should click
- URLs should be easy to remember
- Use structured data for product pages
When building backlinks, focus on destination sites – that is – publications or directories within your industry. Over 68% of industrial buyers start their search on destination sites. These portals tend to be industry and information-focused and keep an engaged audience.
2. Website UX
It’s not enough to get traffic to your website for distributors. Visitors must stick around. If you don’t offer visitors the information they need, they will move on – probably to a competing site.
Today’s business buyers grew up around intuitive desktop and mobile web applications. They’re familiar with B2B eCommerce giants Amazon Business and Grainger, so they expect to browse products, specifications, and prices with minimal friction. And this applies to everything from buying complex industrial products to reordering supplies.
B2B buyers may have B2C expectations, but they don’t behave like B2C customers. B2C purchases are emotionally-driven where B2B purchases are rational, take longer, and involve more people in the process.
B2C brands may use captivating product imagery and time-sensitive offers, but these tactics don’t work when selling to resellers and retailers. Distributors should focus on content that allows customers to learn at their pace and provide information about the products, pricing, and payment and delivery options. They must enable customers to share shopping carts with team members for review and approval.
Your customers gravitate to guides, whitepapers, and webinars that educate them and help them make informed decisions.
Putting some of that content behind a lead generation form allows you to collect information that can be used for email marketing. If you have content of value, people will give up their data to read it. However, don’t be intrusive. Don’t ask for more than email, name and company name. When you start asking for additional information, you may turn the visitor off and they will leave without completing the form.
Great content is a powerful lead generation tool. A single piece of quality content can generate hundreds of quality leads. Once you have a lead, then you have a means to follow up and nurture and grow the relationship.
Increasingly, video is the go-to content researchers and potential customers want to see. CISCO predicts that over 80% of traffic will be video by 2022. What’s more, YouTube is only second to Google itself, boasting more searches than Bing, Yahoo, AOL, and Ask.com combined. People consider videos to be high-quality, engaging, and informative content.
Email keeps your customers engaged through their long decision-making process. It returns one of the highest investments of any marketing activity and is an excellent way to give your content greater reach. Some common emails distributors can use are:
- Transactional emails are triggered by actions you or your customers take. They inform customers about changes to order status.
- Promotional emails guide customers through a sales journey. You can promote website content, industry events, products, and services.
- Newsletters keep you top of mind among recipients. Inform customers of industry developments and company updates, provide case studies and new product testing or certification information.
- Blog Digests keep customers engaged with your blog. Like newsletters, they drive repeated visits to your site.
- Nurturing emails appeal to leads. They are usually sequenced and include useful, personalized information.
Pay attention to email content. Personalization is powerful and makes your emails more interesting. Strong calls to action leave no question about what the reader should do. Clear communication leaves a positive impression. Email marketing platforms such as MailChimp help you to segment your audience and create targeted unique messages for each segment. You can customize your template, A/B test, and integrate with a CRM for efficiency.
Distributors use PPC to drive visitors to their sites. Since targeting high-value leads in competitive segments can get pricey, it’s best to incorporate traffic and customer profile data in your campaigns. Be sure to match the campaign to a specific landing page or website area.
Bad PPC ads can run through a budget fast. This is one area where it pays to retain an expert to get the most from your PPC budget.
6. Public relations
Distributors often need a helping hand in promoting their products, publications, or blog posts. They need to stand out among competitors in their space and gain valuable brand exposure in industry publications.
If defects cause a product to malfunction or be recalled, it can generate negative press at the local and national level. In this case, a professional online public relations firm that knows your industry will help guide your brand through the crisis and emerge stronger.
7. Social media and influencers
Distributors must be where their audience is and chances are, your audience is on social media. LinkedIn is a critical source of leads for B2B companies. YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all help brands engage with customers and grow their audience.
Influencers are also a great tool for product promotion. Those who agree will likely choose how to portray your products to maintain neutrality. The availability and feasibility of influencers will depend on your market, but influencers offer an excellent opportunity to boost brand awareness and market share.
The Digital Marketing Cycle for Distributors
Internet marketing for distributors is never a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one distributor won’t work for another, so every distributor’s marketing strategy will differ. But they all start with a solid foundation and follow the same cycle.
Set a Budget
Industrial marketing spending is accelerating. Thomas revealed that as a result of the pandemic, 60% of respondents modified their sales and marketing plans, with 21% canceling trade shows and moving toward webinars and virtual events. They also prioritized all levels of digital marketing activities, from SEO to mobile improvements and social media.
How much you allocate will depend on your company size and experience in the digital marketing space. If you’re just getting started, it’s a good idea to start small and double down on initiatives that bring results. Most industrial companies allocate anywhere from 1/3 to 1/4 of their overall marketing budget to digital marketing.
Build a Team
Whether you’re starting a marketing department from scratch or introducing digital to existing marketing efforts, you’ll need a diverse team of experts in the areas of SEO, PPC, digital content, and social media.
Weigh the pros and cons of keeping certain marketing activities in-house and outsource the rest. We recommend outsourcing highly technical yet general activities like SEO, PR, and paid campaigns. Keep company-specific functions like market research, email marketing, and content marketing in-house.
Analyze the Results
Always keep an eye on the bottom line. Analytics and B2B eCommerce marketing reports are crucial to tracking your marketing spend and the effectiveness.
We created a guide to help business leaders, marketing managers, and sales teams to make sense of the new digital marketing landscape. It covers how to create a digital strategy that generates leads, engages with customers, and promotes a distribution business to stand the test of time.
Understanding & Adapting to Modern B2B Buyer Expectations
We asked B2B buyers if their needs are being met. Here's what they said.
Questions and Answers
What is the goal of digital marketing for distributors?
A digital marketing strategy for distributors creates a strong digital presence that attracts high-quality leads, converts leads to customers, and strengthens relationships with existing customers. It contains elements that reach people searching for products and solutions to problems through websites, webinars, and social media channels just to name a few examples.
What are some good digital marketing strategies for distributors?
To market their products online, distributors can start with SEO (search engine optimization), which is the process of attracting relevant traffic from search engines. Distributors can create content within their niche and use email and social media for promotion. Distributors can also run paid advertisements, email campaigns, engage PR agencies, influencers, and more.
How can I market my distributor business online?
Start by performing adequate research on your audience, competition, and review your brand message. Then, craft your marketing goals. Assign resources such as a budget and human resources needed to turn your marketing goals into reality. Start with a website, build it with content, and build traffic to your website. Over time, you can optimize what works, and adjust what doesn’t.