Marketing Strategies in B2B Commerce: What Works & What Doesn’t in the 2020s
The B2B eCommerce Podcast
Doing marketing online has been one of the key shifts in marketing over the last decade. The global pandemic only further accelerated the change. However, B2B companies are only starting to open up to new digital marketing strategies.
With the digital side of marketing becoming more prevalent, B2B brands need to focus not just on the channels they want to be present at, they must seriously consider the experience they create on these channels. Personalization is going to be the make-or-break factor determining the success of company's marketing efforts.
With tectonic shifts to digital, change management should always start from the top. The leadership backing and buy-in ensure new initiatives are adopted company-wide.
B2B is often juxtaposed to B2C. From a pure marketing efforts standpoint, there's nothing in B2C that just completely doesn't work in B2B. But You just have to be very intentional with what your goal is from the activity if you want to apply it to your business.
Marketing Strategies in B2B Commerce: What Works & What Doesn’t in the 2020s
Jary Carter: Welcome to the B2B Commerce UnCut Podcast. I’m joined today by two very special guests: Joshua Williams, who’s the director of digital and eCommerce marketing at Petra, and Kurt Hoffman, who’s the Director of Strategic Accounts at Americaneagle.com Thank you both for being here with us. Josh, I’m going to start with you. As we just jump in here, tell us your story of how you arrived at Petra. A little bit about how the company grew and evolved and what was the marketing role in success?
Joshua Williams: Sure, thank you, Jerry. And thanks for the invitation to the podcast. I joined Petra about 12 years ago as a PHP developer. So at the time, Petra had just launched a new eCommerce storefront built on Magento, then, and I was brought on to help, you know, do the programming for that add-on features, do the maintenance as well as some of our other web properties. So my background is a lot more on the technical marketing side.
But through that, as digital became a kind of a bigger and bigger deal at Petra, we were doing more and more sales through our website, marketing was going more and more online, I kind of continued to sort of move up in the marketing department, take on more responsibilities, kind of running more of all those processes.
Now, 12 years ago, when I joined, our primary marketing vehicle was a 1200 page catalogs that we put out twice a year, and were sending out to thousands of different addresses across the country. And that was an enormous expense and was becoming an older and older marketing tactic.
So over time, we have transitioned away from that. Today, we are not sending out any of those catalogs. We do all of our marketing through online channels, we do it through our website, social, email, and Google AdWords. So our entire marketing spent at this point has transitioned into digital and online efforts. And that was definitely a big change for us that has worked out well over the years.
But there was some bumpy times along the road. And I think we’ve done a good job since then, of doing that transition that we also moved on to Oro a few years ago. And Oro has been powering our website for four years now. And that was also a really big deal for us, because it gave us a lot more ability to control the experience.I think we’ll talk a little bit more about that down the road. So I’ll turn it back over you.
Jary Carter: Thank you so much. Kurt, give me a little bit of your background. So I want to give you the opportunity to introduce yourself as well.
Kurt Hoffman: Yeah, thanks. So basically, last 15-16 years, I’ve worked in the digital marketing space, both on the B2B side as well as the B2B2C side. Our company has primarily been a big producer and builder of complex websites. So what we do a lot is once we have those tools for our clients, our team markets them and uses them to their fullest extent. So my background basically is in all of the digital marketing aspects, both B2B and B2C side.
Jary Carter: Very good. Well, I want to jump in. I want to look at the last three to five years, because I think a lot of people there’s been a lot of shifts happening over the last, let’s say three years. And maybe I’ll start with you in this Kurt how has marketing changed in wholesale and B2B commerce over the last three years from your perspective?
Kurt Hoffman: That’s a good question. We’ve seen a huge acceleration into digital and less than, like the traditional print that’s been happening for quite some time. What we’ve seen in the last three to five years is the elephant in the room was, you know, COVID, right, a global pandemic and we had this massive shift of people being able to see each other in person and travel and being able to go to trade shows and being able to do a lot of that kind of offline selling. And it migrated in the B2B space into digital interactions, whether that’s web conferences, or whether that’s customizing tools and your web experience and your marketing experience to be all online.
At our company, we saw a lot of tried and true traditional companies coming to us and saying “We really need to step up our presence here, budget shifted, idea shifted, interaction shifted.”
I think the ability to be comfortable making purchases in the B2B space online instead of through a vendor has accelerated in the last three to five years. So now you have these sophisticated tools, and you have these sophisticated abilities to market.
Jary Carter: Interesting. How does that resonate with your experience, Josh, like what have you seen over the last few years?
Josh Williams: Yeah, I would definitely agree with all that. The digital side has picked up in a big way. For us I mentioned earlier, all of our marketing efforts at this point are going through various digital channels. And then I think just from a buying online experience, you have to pay a lot more attention to the customer experience on your site now than maybe you did 10 years ago.
Ten years ago, if you had an online storefront set up that your customers could purchase from you were probably ahead of 90% of your competition back then. Today, it’s not really that way. The industry is much more sophisticated.
Most of your competition is going to have really great websites built on platforms like Oro, that give you a really nice customer experience. So you really have to be very mindful today of what the experience is like on your website, you know, what is your product information up to date? Are you letting your customers know everything about the product that they need to know, in order to make a purchasing decision? Can they get through your website quickly and easily? They tend to be very busy people who are trying to get on and off your website and make a purchase as quickly as possible.
I think those kinds of things were probably the biggest mindset shift we’ve had is really having to focus on that and make sure that the experience is as good as it can be. And that you’re not taking that for granted. Because it’s much more competitive. It’s much more difficult today than it was 10 years ago.
Jary Carter: Interesting. How have you managed internal change, as you’ve gone through that? You know, because there’s this external world shifting, how have you managed the internal shifts and the change management that’s come with these tectonic shifts in your business? Start with you, Josh. And then Kurt, if you have some examples, or some things you’ve seen, I’d love to hear that.
Josh Williams: I think for anybody to be successful, it really has to start from the top down. So our CEO and founder Bill Stewart has driven that change here. And if you don’t have the buy-in from the highest levels of leadership in your company to start with, then you’re not going to be successful.
There’s so many different players involved in your company, you really need to make sure that everybody is on the same page that everybody has the same goals in mind, and that they’re all being driven from leadership to embrace these changes, because it’s always really easy to kind of get stuck into what you’ve been doing for the past several years.
And even if you see the value of some sort of digital initiative, you might not embrace that because you just you have what’s worked for you in the past. And if you’re not being incentivized by leadership in order to pursue those new initiatives, then it’s easy to just let them sit aside.
So I think it does start there when it starts with leadership, making sure they’re on the same page and then going from there, it’s really helpful to have a point person in the company who is doing all the day to day, like figuring out what is our strategy was our tactics, making sure that everybody is following the same game plan and that all the different departments involved are coordinated on the same page.
Because another thing if you’re putting out a new, some sort of an initiative, and maybe it touches a part of the company that you’re not aware of. It can be really easy to come up with an idea that impacts finance or sales or it in some way that you just did not anticipate. And so having the person who’s coordinating all that is really important. And also, again, come back to leadership, making sure that leadership is backing that and making it a priority for the company as well.
Jary Carter: So I’m hearing which makes a lot of sense. It’s like logical, right? It’s like this mix of like executive alignment, executive buy-in, somebody actually executing the work that is going to run it to ground and be fully coordinated across the organization like it.
Anything to add to that, Kurt, from your perspective?
Kurt Hoffman: yeah, so we have an interesting perspective, because we’re not internal within an organization and only working for one company, we get to see and work with a variety of different companies. And we see these big projects and these big implementations. And it seems like the people in this are very much to Josh’s point, the people in companies that seem to educate their salespeople train them properly, get backing into the initiative, have them see it as a resource and a tool, and evaluate.
And they learned how to actually use the new technology, and get the marketing campaigns that are happening. Those are the people that tend to have the most success that tend to have the best kind of trajectory as far as the large investment or the large product push forward in the company. And sometimes what it takes is it takes some success happening from that, and then that being shared across the company.
So we get to see companies that have this visceral reaction to moving forward into the change. And then we see these companies that really adapt and adopt it. And those are the companies that seem to be the most successful. And to Josh’s point that takes a leader that takes initiative that takes someone to push that initiative forward. And those are the ones that are most successful.
Josh Williams: Building off what you were talking about on the sales team, especially if this is a new initiative within a company like you’re launching your eCommerce platform for the first time, it’s really important to make sure that sales team and their incentives are aligned.
The last thing you want is for them to see the website as competition. You need to make sure that part is lined out ahead of time as well.
Jary Carter: I hear you. Really helpful. Great insight. I think a lot of companies really struggle with alignment. I think that’s just a big challenge. I always say these kinds of like technology changes within an organization are 10% Technology and 90% business process and getting an alignment.
I do think it’s important for folks to recognize how critical this piece of technology change is within an organization. I want to shift over to some of the maybe the more tactical things about market marketing activities. Josh, you’re the head of digital and eCommerce marketing, what are some of the activities that are popular in B2C that you find also work in B2B? What should B2B companies be doing more of or be doing in their business?
Josh Williams: I think probably the most important thing that B2B companies can learn from B2C companies goes back to my thought earlier. And that’s just the experience on the website. Really making sure that you’re learning the best practices from B2C, as far as how to transition your customers to the website, how to present products and information to them.
But also, there are things at least in our experience that don’t work as well. So you know, a popular thing on a B2C side might be customers who bought this, also bought that. And those can work well there. Like we have found in our experience that they don’t work as well for us. Our customers tend to be filling their inventory, and they have their stocking dozen different kinds of products. And so these algorithms are often not able to make sense of that.
But it’s more of like, well, what you can learn, though, I think, that the customer experience is key. And then social channels are important as well. They I mean, I think you have to take maybe a little bit of a different tactic with them on B2B than B2C. I don’t think it’s as easy for a B2B like wholesale distributor company specifically to be as successful on social as it is for a B2C company. But there’s still important things you can do there to get in front of new customers to make sure that you’re visible in the market.
I think it’s a good prospecting tool, maybe a little bit less of a direct sales tool than it is for a B2C company, but certainly for prospecting, and then if you can get the right audience, like if you’re on Facebook, and you have a group of customers who have a Facebook group, which in some cases we do, those can be really great avenues to market to, like you can get invited into some of those groups and put your information in there. Those can be really effective. But I think prospecting is probably the biggest thing for us at least on the social channel for work, as opposed to B2C where they might be doing more direct selling.
Jary Carter: Yeah, that makes sense. Anything you’d add to that, Kurt?
Kurt Hoffman: We’re huge fans of omnichannel approach, you know, similar to what Josh was talking about, as far as being able to be found in multiple different places. It’s just very important to be able to be in front of the potential no matter when, no matter where.
So taking an omnichannel approach, and then and then backing that up with data, what’s working and what’s not working, being able to kind of track results off of it and shift focus because trend shifts, businesses shift, competition shifts, so you really kind of got to be aligned from a data perspective and be able to be found everywhere. And then the follow-up to that is you really have to have great service, right? You can’t get rid of the fact that if someone is engaging from a digital perspective, with the business and filling orders or filling things, being able to fill inventory, you have to line that with Amazon kind of user experience and service. On the back end, that makes a big difference.
Jary Carter: I’m hearing thematically between the two of you this idea that customer experience, the use case, of knowing why people are coming to your website.
Josh, what are some things that won’t categorically work in B2B that work in B2C? Not to put you on the spot, but I’d love both of your feedback.
Josh Williams: From a pure marketing efforts standpoint, I think there’s probably nothing in B2C that just completely doesn’t work in B2B. But I think you have to be very intentional with what your goal is from the activity. So it might be like that early might be a prospecting-focused marketing effort. It can be a sales-focused marketing effort, and just understanding what the channel is, what the strength of the channel is, what the strength of the channel isn’t, and then how that might apply to your own business in B2B.
So I can take Twitter, for example. And this kind of goes back to what I said before, but a B2C company is probably going to be putting a lot of sales and deals they’re ever really pushing specific campaigns on their channel. And that probably works well for them. What we would likely do is we might even tie it in with a sales campaign we’re doing, but it would have a prospecting bent to it. We’re probably not going to be talking about pricing in that channel, but we’re going to be trying to drive them over to our customer signup page, or more information about Petra. I mean pricing in general can be a touchy thing within B2B. Often you’re not gonna be able to put your pricing out there anywhere because you might have contract pricing for your customers, that sort of thing. So I don’t necessarily think any of the channels just don’t work for B2B.
But I think that you just have to be really intentional with how you’re handling it and what your expectations are for it: is it against the prospect? Is that brand awareness? Is it sales? Just understand what your goal is, and what the channel can deliver for you.
Jary Carter: I think one of the benefits that you’re kind of highlighting is this in B2B, you typically have a lot loyalty to your brand. And people are making a lot more, both repeat and highly expensive purchases, which creates a lot more opportunity to talk to your customers about what they value and how they value purchasing than if you’re actually building a B2C website from the ground up, like most of the B2B customers that are going digital, you know, you may already have $100 billion dollar business with a well-established customer base, that you’re trying to create a better service channel for them. So it just gives so much advantage to that, like really customized specific understanding of how the customer purchases currently. Kurt, what would you add to that or change from that?
Kurt Hoffman: It’s not necessarily the channels that behave differently from a B2B and B2C standpoint, I think. B2C, it’s much more like, marketing-wise, you can take a much more emotional approach to it. You can be creative, you can be whimsical.
The one person that you’re going after in B2B just behaves totally differently, right? It’s much more detailed information calculators, white papers, you really want to get specific in your approach, and you don’t really play off of emotion. So it’s not necessarily to social work, or does good content and SEO work or does paid search work? It’s you just have to take very different approaches to the channels. And that emotional doesn’t really work in the B2B space.
Jary Carter: What trends are you all seeing in 2022? And beyond? What are some interesting trends you all are seeing that you think the market should be aware of?
Josh Williams: Well, I can real quick jump back to our recommendations for just a second. Yeah, one more thought on that real quick, because I had mentioned about the people who bought this bought that that doesn’t necessarily work. But I do think that personalization around recommendations is important for B2B, you just need to have a lot more intentional about it.
In some cases, you can to build a different version of our homepage for a different customer segment that is showing them different products. So you know, if they’re a certain kind of retail store, we can build a page around products that they are buying now, or new products that they’re buying now. So it’s less algorithm-driven, at least for us, but we do quite a bit of personalization and recommendation around specific segments of customers and trying to get the right products in front of them.
Because we at Petra have a very broad base of products, and they’re definitely not applicable to every single one of our customers. And we try to be really careful about getting the right products in front of the right customers; we just take a little bit more of a manual approach to it, as opposed to some of the algorithm approaches that are really common in B2C.
Jary Carter: I really appreciate you bringing this up, because companies that have huge catalogs, but certain customers only purchase like a segment of your catalog, or it makes it so much more approachable to the customer to be able to only see the products that would be relevant to them. And I also want to be really clear that I’m not saying that recommendations don’t work in B2B eCommerce. For the right use case they may be perfect. It is very use case driven. And it’s like this idea of the opportunity that B2B companies have to create this personalized user experience because you may only be selling to a couple of thousand customers or even a few hundred versus a B2C company who’s selling to the masses.
Josh Williams: Yeah, trend-wise, I think a lot of it is going to be doubling down on some of what we’ve talked about. Now, from a customer experience on your website point of view, I think that’s just going to continue to become more and more important, as you know, people are growing up now with web presences that are on the B2C side that are very easy to use, very convenient, very sophisticated. And they’re now becoming the B2B business owners. They’re becoming the B2B buyers now, and they have a high level of expectation from those B2C experiences for what they can expect on their B2B purchase experience.
I think that’s just going to become more and more important over the next few years, putting the right products in front of them, and then making it very easy for them to transact, removing any kind of roadblocks that can be removed to that experience.
And it doesn’t end at the purchase, either. Because they’re also tracking and making sure that they know where their orders are, when it’s shipping, and when it’s arriving. There’s a whole end-to-end experience there. B2B marketers gonna have to double down on this and become real masters of that entire customer experience from when they first land on your website to when they place an order to the fulfillment process and then reorders going forward. I think that’s probably the most important thing in my mind right now as to what needs to be focused on in the next couple of years.
Jary Carter: It’s really helpful. Kurt, what would you add?
Kurt Hoffman: Yeah, we see the exact same thing. But what’s changed so much is the sophistication of tools that you have available to you. Being able to personalize that experience, but then having the service to back that online, when you had orders coming through phone or relationship. And that was the pure-play only way. You could track that you could communicate, you could do all those things in a person-to-person mode, and now you have to be able to fulfill and do everything that’s happening digitally with great customer service.
So I completely agree with the sophistication of tools, being very very personalized with those tools, and then backing up with awesome customer service and awesome experience. That’s the trend that we’re seeing. That’s the change that we’re seeing is people are buying into that, investing in that, and then following up on it.
Jary Carter: I think we have time for one question. How do you handle multiple decision makers and multiple purchasers in your business? How do you think about that when you think about multiple touches on a purchase decision in a B2B eCommerce world?
Josh Williams: Yeah, we do a little bit of that, I’d say the majority of our customers are business owners who are simply making that decision themselves and then purchasing what they need to.
But we do have a segment of customers who have an approval chain. And that’s actually something we’re focused on right now is like, how do we make that experience a little bit smoother for them, so that once they make a purchase, they understand that really goes back to the visibility.
It’s critical that they understand where they’re at in the process. So they have placed their order. And we have the order, but you know, who their district manager, whoever might be, hasn’t yet approved the order. So making sure that they can see where that’s at and then give the district manager or whoever the approver is really easy insight into this is what the order is.
They have some sort of spinning cap, this is where they’re at. And then they can provide feedback as well to the buyer saying, Okay, well, this order is being rejected for this reason or approval may not need a reason. But the communication and the visibility, I think is key, probably the most key thing there.
That’s something that we’ve been expanding on a little bit as far as our customer base goes. And we’re really thinking a lot about that right now for some of the future upgrades to our site and how we’re going to facilitate that and make it a cleaner process. Then you have to keep going back and continuing to improve and become more sophisticated as we go.
Jary Carter: Kurt, would you add anything to that? You just see so many different projects. I’m curious, do you have any additions to that?
Kurt Hoffman: I mean, I’m not in specific to that one because we don’t look at it, marketing-wise, from the end user fulfillment from the business’s side. So it’s a little bit different from the chair that I sit in, we try to create the need and correct try to create the awareness. But the chain of command and the multiple people and multiple steps that it takes from a B2B purchase perspective is a big way to be able to make sure that everyone can see it. Everyone knows what’s going on, but we don’t see it from inside the business very often as far as marketers.
Jary Carter: All this has been incredibly valuable. I so appreciate your time and insight. I think we’ve got some great insights that have come out of this. I’ve really enjoyed the time. It’s great to talk to folks who are really sort of setting the strategy for where B2B eCommerce is going. So thank you for spending some time with us here. And with that, we hope everyone has a great day. Thanks for joining.