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, and I was brought on to help 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 continued to move up in the marketing department, take on more responsibilities, running more of all those processes.
12 years ago, when I joined, our primary marketing vehicle was a 1200-page catalog 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: website, social, email, and Google AdWords. So our entire marketing spending 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 were some bumpy times along the road. And I think we’ve done a good job since then. Moving on to Oro a few years ago was also instrumental in this success. Oro has been powering our website for four years now. Switching to Oro 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 to you.
Jary Carter: Thank you so much. Kurt, I want to give you the opportunity to introduce yourself as well.
Kurt Hoffman: For the 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 is basically in all of the digital marketing aspects, both B2B and B2C side.
Jary Carter: Very good. Looking at the last three to five years, how has marketing changed in wholesale and B2B commerce from your perspective?
Kurt Hoffman: That’s a good question. We’ve seen a huge acceleration into digital. Due to the elephant in the room, meaning COVID, 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 do a lot of that offline selling. It all migrated into digital interactions, whether that’s web conferences or whether that’s customizing 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 online. 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? 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, as 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 perspective, 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 great websites built on platforms like Oro, that give you a nice customer experience. So you have to be very mindful today of what the experience is like on your website. 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, 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?
Josh Williams: I think for anybody to be successful, it really has to start from the top down. 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 are so many different players involved in your company; you 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 by leadership to embrace these changes because it’s always easy to get stuck into what you’ve been doing for the past several years.
Even if you see the value of some digital initiative, you might not embrace that because you just you have what’s worked for you in the past. 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 with leadership, making sure they’re on the same page. Then going from there, it’s helpful to have a point person in the company who is doing all the day-to-day, like figuring out the strategy and tactics and making sure that everybody is following the same game plan. That all the different departments involved are coordinated.
If you’re putting out a new initiative, it may be touching a part of the company that you’re not aware of. It can be easy to come up with an idea that impacts finance or sales or in some way that you just did not anticipate. So having a person who’s coordinating all that is critical.
Jary Carter: Yes, it makes a lot of sense; this mix of executive alignment, executive buy-in, and somebody actually executing the work to be fully coordinated across the organization.
Anything to add to that, Kurt, from your perspective?
Kurt Hoffman: We have an interesting perspective because we’re not internal within an organization, and we get to see and work with a variety of different companies. We see these big projects and implementations. Very much to Josh’s point, people in companies try to educate their salespeople, to train them properly, get the backing into the initiative, have them see it as a resource and a tool, and evaluate.
Those are the people that tend to have the most success and the best trajectory as far as the large investment or the large product push forward in the company.
So we get to see companies that have this visceral reaction to moving forward into the change. Companies that adapt and adopt it. And those are the companies that seem to be the most successful.
Josh Williams: Building off what you were talking about the sales team, especially if this is a new initiative within a company like launching your eCommerce platform for the first time, it’s really important to make sure that the sales team and their incentives are aligned.
The last thing you want is for them to see the website as a competition. You need to make sure that part is lined out ahead of time as well.
Jary Carter: Great insight. I think a lot of companies really struggle with alignment. I always say that 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 more tactical things about marketing activities. 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 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. 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, which don’t work as well. A popular thing on a B2C side might be customers who bought this, and also bought that. We have found in our experience that they don’t work as well for us. Our customers tend to be filling their inventory with dozen of different kinds of products. So these algorithms don’t make sense of that.
Then social channels are important as well. 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 wholesale distributor company specifically to be as successful on social as it is for a B2C company. But there are 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. 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. 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: That makes sense. Anything you’d add to that, Kurt?
Kurt Hoffman: We’re huge fans of the omnichannel approach, as far as being able to be found in multiple different places. It’s just very important to be in front of the potential customer no matter when and where.
So taking an omnichannel approach, backing that up with data, track results off of it, and shift focus because trend shifts is paramount. You must be aligned from a data perspective to be able to be found everywhere.
The follow-up to that is you have to have great service. You can’t get rid of the fact that if someone is engaging from a digital perspective, you have to line that with Amazon-like user experience and service. On the back end, that makes a big difference.
Jary Carter: IJosh, 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 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.
Let’s take Twitter, for example. 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 going to put your pricing out there anywhere because you might have contract pricing for your customers, etc.
To sum up, you just have to be very 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 highlighting is B2B customers have a lot of loyalty to your brand. Most of the B2B companies that are going digital may already have $100 million dollar business with a well-established customer base. And they try to create a better service channel for them.
Kurt Hoffman: It’s not necessarily the channels that behave differently from a B2B and B2C standpoint, I think. Marketing-wise, you can take a much more emotional approach to it in B2C. You can be creative. You can be whimsical.
The one person that you’re going after in B2B just behaves totally differently. 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. You just have to take very different approaches to the channels. Emotion doesn’t really work in the B2B space.
Jary Carter: What trends are you all seeing in 2022 and beyond?
Josh Williams: Can I jump back to our recommendations for just a second? I do think that personalization around recommendations is important for B2B. You just need to be a lot more intentional about it.
In some cases, you can build a different version of the homepage for a different customer segment that is showing them different products. If they’re a certain kind of retail store, we can build a page around products that they are 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 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. There are companies that have huge catalogs, but certain customers only purchase a segment of your catalog. So it makes it so much more approachable to the customer to be able to only see the products that would be relevant to them.
Indeed, recommendations may be perfect for the right use case.
Josh Williams: 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. People are growing up now with web presences that are on the B2C side that are very easy to use, very convenient, and very sophisticated. And they’re now becoming B2B business owners and B2B buyers now, so they have a high level of expectation from their B2B purchase experience.
I think that’s just going to become more and more important over the next few years. You’ll need to make it very easy for them to transact, removing any kind of roadblocks.
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 going to 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 B2B marketers need focus on in the next couple of years.
Jary Carter: It’s really helpful. Kurt, what would you add?
Kurt Hoffman: 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 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 personalized with those tools, and then backing up with awesome customer service and awesome experience.
Jary Carter: I think we have time for one question. How do you handle multiple decision-makers and multiple purchasers in your business?
Josh Williams: 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: how do we make that experience a little bit smoother for them? This goes back to 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 their district manager hasn’t yet approved the order. A a seller, we need to make sure that they can see where that’s at and then give the district manager or whoever the approver is an easy insight into the whole process.
But communication and visibility are 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. We’re 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: 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. Thank you for spending some time with us here. We hope everyone has a great day. Thanks for joining.