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Insight

B2B in the Digital Age

Recognize the empowered B2B digital buyer

For decades, B2B brands redirected buyers and procurement managers to their partners, even while customers argued for one-stop shopping. And, like their B2C counterparts, B2B buyers continue to seek product information wherever they can find it. Moreover, nearly 9 out of 10 buyers expect to continue on to purchase, once they research a product on a brand’s website.

For example, in a recent Forrester study, more than half of B2B buyers prefer to research and purchase products from the manufacturer (whom they cite as “the most credible source of product details and information”).

B2B buyers also expect a friction-free, “Amazon-like” experience that includes free shipping. Moreover, 78 percent of customers said that they would buy a product on Amazon if it wasn’t available via their preferred brand’s website. This has turned Amazon into a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Amazon aggressively recruits partners to quickly build its marketplace categories, then later competes with these same partners. With Amazon’s broad, wide audience of users, brands cannot ignore it as a way to reach qualified customers that are ready to buy. 

Author

Jon Reily

Vice President, Commerce Strategy

"More than half of B2B buyers prefer to research and purchase products from the manufacturer (whom they cite as “the most credible source of product details and information”)."

Up your strategic game

A new model of digital commerce has eliminated the brick walls that formerly existed between channels. Hence, B2B brands must have a strategy that allows them to drive transactions across all customer touchpoints: offline, online and in some cases even omni-channel. Most B2B brands already have strong relationships with their customers in a traditional fashion, or with purchasing agents who have bought from them via catalogs. However, many of these relationships are based on personal connections that may not exist in the digital age. In response, B2B companies are rethinking their footprint to capture a new segment of customers who expect different things, for example: on to purchase, once they research a product on a brand’s website.

B2B traditional buyers value convenience  

These “traditional” B2B buyers, who now expect consumer-like experiences, have shifted much of their offline purchasing to the websites of partners and resellers, solely for the convenience of buying online. In order to attract these migrating customers, B2B brands need to provide partner guidance on pricing, transparency of inventory and marketing. 

Brand loyalists will pay a premium  

Many B2B buyers will pay a premium to do business with brands where they have an existing relationship, given the value they receive from the brand’s website or entity (either directly or in some cases via firstparty marketplaces where the distributor provides the fulfillment, e.g., Amazon). B2B brands can retain these direct buyers and generate more revenue from their digital properties by offering sites and customer experiences that are competitive with digital pureplays such as Amazon.

"To acquire and retain customers, brands must offer consumer-like experiences, for example: dynamically updated price and inventory displays, combined with the type of merchandising and promotions B2C buyers have come to expect."

Digital business buyers expect consumer experiences

Buyers who express a preference for consumer experiences are comfortable purchasing from sites that offer digital-only options, particularly those designed to satisfy specific B2B verticals or horizontals. To acquire and retain these customers, brands must offer consumer-like experiences, for example: dynamically updated price and inventory displays, combined with the type of merchandising and promotions B2C buyers have come to expect. 

Amazon customers will continue to evolve 

Customers that prefer to shop on Amazon for all of their B2C and B2B purchases expect the same experience standard for all of their purchases regardless of channel (including wide selection, clear pricing and easy purchasing). B2B brands will successfully reach Amazon customers by offering competitive prices and by optimizing their products to be easily discoverable using Amazon’s search engine, for Amazon.com, Amazon Marketplace and the Amazon Business Marketplace.

Compete with a value framework designed for the digital age

As buyers move fluidly between their consumer and business worlds, B2B organizations have little choice but to adapt. While new avenues are emerging for B2B brands to market their products, many don’t have the digital commerce skills for direct selling and fulfillment. Therefore, many B2B companies will seek outside help as they reinvent themselves to remain valuable in the digital age, for example: 

Build a modern team of expert marketers and merchandisers 

B2B brands will need to recruit digital business professionals skilled in managing digital partnerships and managing complex, digital marketing strategies. B2B retailers will have to adjust to 800-pound gorilla style distributors that possess the clout to call the shots, e.g., Amazon. Navigating these waters will need the right kind of talent to steer the company to where it needs to be.

Know when and, more importantly, when not to discount 

Managing price will require B2B retailers to be the last word on the topic. Hence, successful brands will have to establish, and ruthlessly enforce, minimum advertised pricing (MAP) and pricing policies that apply to all their distribution channels. Channel pricing strategies will differ (and not all customers should receive the same price). Hence, brands should use their merchandising professionals to adjust pricing to be competitive in different channels using tools such as bundles, discounts and even rebates. 

Millennials (who will form 44 percent of the workforce by 2025) are involved in 75 percent of B2B purchasing.

Realize that which has worked in the past is becoming extinct 

Brands must sustain a presence wherever customers choose to go. Even your own distributors and manufacturers will aggressively explore ways to bypass you. It’s important to recognize that the digital economy is forcing all companies, not just those that are sales-oriented, to re-think their traditional strategies, a process that delivers fierce competition from areas where it previously did not exist. 

Deepen customer intimacy to offer better services 

Knowing who customers are and what they want enables you to develop and offer customer-tailored products, services and pricing strategies as well the experiences they prefer. Using existing data, brands can develop deep digital relationships (not just those that exist in the physical world), to sustain brand loyalty and turn traditional buyers into digital brand loyalists.

"Using existing data, brands can develop deep digital relationships (not just those that exist in the physical world), to sustain brand loyalty and turn traditional buyers into digital brand loyalists."

Acknowledge a new generation of buyers

Other than those that cater to Millennial customers, most B2B companies underbudget the time and money required to serve what will soon become the world’s largest B2B demographic. Brands that continue to appeal to Baby Boomers (and to a limited extent Gen X) with methods that don’t resonate with Millennial customers will lose share.

Millennials have a different world view due to life experiences not had by the generations before them. It’s important for B2B companies to consider this when rethinking digital go-to-market strategies designed for those born before 1980, for example:

Millennials are becoming the dominant segment. Research reveals that Millennials (who will form 44 percent of the workforce by 2025) are involved in 75 percent of B2B purchasing. Consequently, brands that recognize the trend are outperforming those that choose to ignore it. The days of standing in the parking lot chatting over a sandwich and a catalog have already evaporated. B2B organizations must connect with this generation on its own terms, with the right message and content at the right time. 

 

Millennials trust the brands they work with in the same vein they trust friends and associates.

Similar to how people are willing to pay a little more to do business with a friend, Millennials put a premium on their preferred brand relationships and are willing to pay more to sustain them.

Building relationships with Millennials is different

B2B businesses must also adjust to this astute generation’s preference for self-sufficiency around channel engagement choice, content consumption and relationship building. According to Jim Blackie, chief revenue officer for ON24, “Connection, engagement, and relationships matter; but how you build them has to be different. This isn’t about steak and martini lunches. It’s all about authentically connecting with the right message and content and doing that consistently and with the intent to help.  

Brand connections matter  

Millennials value all of their brand relationships. But how they form relationships is different. Nearly 90 percent of Millennials use social networks; a quarter of them spend at least 25 percent of their waking hours on social platforms. Millennials prefer communications with text messaging, chat and to a lesser extent, email. They would rather go to the dentist than pick up the phone; many will not work with companies that are ignorant of their culture. They don’t want to connect in ways their parents did, often opting to text one another while in the same room.

Transparency affects everything

Millennials trust the brands they work with in the same vein they trust friends and associates. Similar to how people are willing to pay a little more to do business with a friend, Millennials put a premium on their preferred brand relationships and are willing to pay more to sustain them. Clear pricing without gimmicks and discounts offered when appropriate are key to working with this demographic. Millennials dislike being sold, preferring to buy from places they value.

Reviews are golden 

Where Boomers and Gen Xers were skeptical of “testimonials,” Millennials consider peer reviews to be the gold standard when it comes to purchasing decisions. Millennials are ruthless in seeking out reviews, articles and brand advocates in order to make an informed purchasing decision. In Forrester’s recent Millennial survey, respondents ranked peer referrals as one of their most trustworthy sources after demos and trials. Even third-party validation is better than nothing.  

Time is precious 

Millennials are not like their parents and older siblings, known for supporting decisions with large amounts of information, specification sheets and benefits documents; rather, they prefer short bursts of information via quick videos or bulleted lists about a product. If they have questions after their interest has been piqued they will reach out via an email or a text message for more information. Gone are the days of answering the phone from a customer that is leisurely browsing a catalog.


Conclusion

A different generation, with different wants, needs and purchasing styles, is aggressively taking the helm. 

The influence of the current generation will only grow

As Millennials continue their decision-making participation and influence from middle management to executive, they will play formidable roles in product decisions, services and vendor selection. B2B organizations who do not embrace this generation’s cultural norms will lose share to those that do. As the current generation migrates from midlevel management to executive positions at their firms, they will play even more powerful roles, not only in choosing products and services, but also in identifying which vendors deserve strategic partner status.  

Millenial buyers possess different preferences and styles

Sellers will quickly lose Millennial buyers if they fail to respect time and ease of use in both their purchasing and relationship-building styles. Ensure your information is tailored to a demographic that values brevity, self-direction and frictionless purchasing. Convey your message on the social platforms Millennials call home. No longer can B2B companies ignore the “Facebook era” as their customers now expect to see all of the brands they interact with, regardless of channel, where they live and breathe, namely social media. 

Current strategies need to be quickly overhauled

Most importantly, B2B companies must aggressively adjust their methods, tools and techniques to take them into the 21st century. Much as you would not attempt to operate a spacecraft with a horse and buggy manual, the tried and true strategies and tactics of yesterday will not work on today’s digital savvy buyers. Companies that embrace this change will continue to be successful; those that do not will become irrelevant—and even fade from existence. 

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