B-to-B Marketers Should Take Another Look at E-commerce

E-commerce opportunity is evolving fast, but only 25 percent of B-to-B marketers are taking advantage of it, according to a 2012 Oracle study. Time for another look. The typical B-to-B companies selling online are classic catalogers like Edmund Optics and Seton, which were fast to supplement their print catalogs with e-commerce. But with the new functionality now available, just about any business marketer can find ways to reduce selling expense and attract new customers by integrating e-commerce into their go-to-market strategies.

E-commerce opportunity is evolving fast, but only 25 percent of B-to-B marketers are taking advantage of it, according to a 2012 Oracle study. Time for another look. The typical B-to-B companies selling online are classic catalogers like Edmund Optics and Seton, which were fast to supplement their print catalogs with e-commerce. But with the new functionality now available, just about any business marketer can find ways to reduce selling expense and attract new customers by integrating e-commerce into their go-to-market strategies.

A worthy example is Dow Corning, which found itself under huge price pressure as the silicone category grew commoditized. To meet the market demand for lower prices, Dow Corning launched an entirely new brand in 2002, called Xiameter, where customers could buy trailer-loads of certain products at a 10 percent to 15 percent discount through a newly built e-commerce engine. Xiameter sales grew so successfully that in 2009, Dow Corning moved as much as 2500 of its 7000 products to the site. Today, Xiameter represents 40% of Dow Corning’s $6 billion in sales.

Another example is Symantec, which created an online store specifically to serve its small-to-medium business customers in North America. Today, 100 percent of Symantec’s $300 million SMB sales run through this channel, which is operated for them by the SaaS outsourcing supplier Rainmaker Systems. Symantec is enjoying not only lower selling expense, but also admirable revenue growth, with sales up 25 percent and trial-to-conversion rates up 33 percent in the first year.

Why are these online ventures working so well? It’s thanks to new technology combined with changes in buyer behavior. The growth of consumer e-tailing has clearly been a contributing factor. Business buyers are people, too. So, their increasing comfort with e-commerce in their personal lives spills over to their jobs.

But business buyers also expect consumer-like functionality in e-commerce. And a seamless experience. This is where the new technologies come in. Platform suppliers like Rainmaker are building systems specifically designed to support B-to-B buying processes, with consumer-like features and ease of use.

So what are the e-commerce success factors for business marketers as they look to take advantage of these opportunities? Here are some tips:

  • Review your customer segments and product lines for e-commerce potential. Small and medium business customers may be a perfect fit. Same for high-volume, repetitive-sales product categories, like replacement parts or warranty renewals.
  • Examine your sales and marketing process for elements that can be automated with e-commerce technology. Look at quote management, contract pricing, channel partner support, purchase order processing, order approvals, cross sell and upsell, licensing, renewals, reactivation, winback-there are more than you may think.
  • Select software that was built specifically for the complexity of business markets. Companies that buy consumer solutions and try adding B-to-B capabilities will quickly be frustrated.
  • Select software that provides consumer-like e-commerce functionality. Ease of use is the competitive watchword today, according to Forrester’s recent study “Thrive by Adopting Proven B2C Principles.”
  • Make sure you connect your e-commerce with your existing accounting, manufacturing and other systems. Xiameter customers, for example, get their order confirmation, shipping notices and invoices out of Dow Corning’s SAP, which also communicates with the manufacturing plants to get the order produced.
  • Consider using cloud-based suppliers, where you can get up and running in less than a month, and leave the technology to someone else. Rainmaker Systems offers not only dedicated “sales assist” from its call center, they will even deal with their clients on a revenue-share basis.
  • Remember that e-commerce is global by definition. So look for technology that offers multiple languages and currencies, and supports tax and customer compliance.

How are you integrating e-commerce into your sales and marketing?

A version of this post appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Email Marketing Redefined: Service With a Side of Sales

The multichannel marketplace has blurred the line between service and sales. People expect to get answers to their questions while they are shopping and on-demand after an order is placed. Redirecting them to another channel or platform for pre-sale and post-order information has a negative effect on the buying experience and long-term loyalty

The multichannel marketplace has blurred the line between service and sales. People expect to get answers to their questions while they are shopping and on-demand after an order is placed. Redirecting them to another channel or platform for pre-sale and post-order information has a negative effect on the buying experience and long-term loyalty.

Unfortunately, technology has changed faster than the corporate organizational chart has adapted. Marketing and operational departments aren’t integrated enough to provide the seamless shopping and service experience that people want. It’s time to make the shift to integrated messaging across all channels, platforms and departments. The email program is the best place to start, because changes are quick and easy.

Transactional emails tend to be matter of fact announcements of order receipt, shipment and issues. They serve the operational side of the business well but do little to directly improve sales. Branding is minimal and the messages are rarely in the same voice used for promotional information. Failure to include marketing service messages is a lost opportunity.

Marketing is a service when it solves people’s problems. Transactional emails are one to one communication. The right combination of marketing and service messages benefit customers by helping them maximize the return from their investments. The key to successful execution is having the correct processes, careful planning, and good application of business rules. When done well, they keep customers informed and motivate them to buy more.

For example, the order confirmation email should thank the customer for the business, provide specific purchase information, and suggest other items that complement the original products.

An email for an order of earrings could offer a matching necklace or an order for a vacuum cleaner might suggest bags and filters. If the operational process allows combining the orders at the same shipping rate, the suggestion to do so creates a sense of urgency. The only catch is that business rules have to be accurate with personal messaging to optimize the return.

Inserting product images with a brief description will bump sales a bit, but it doesn’t have the same effect as: “Thank you for your order of the super suction vacuum cleaner. It will ship tomorrow. Please remember that the filter needs to be changed every month. Add one on to your order by clicking this link before midnight tonight and there will not be an extra shipping charge.” Of course your copy team will do a better job than me, but you get the idea.

Almost every transactional email sent to customers should include a marketing message. The exceptions to this rule are issue-related emails. Following “your item is out of stock until next month” with “buy this to go with your item” won’t win customer loyalty.

To get started with integrated marketing and service emails:

  1. Review your transactional emails. When are they sent? What information do they include? Is there a follow-up after the sale to encourage people to provide feedback? Do you ask people if they like their purchases? Document all of the transactional emails so you will have a starting point.
  2. Identify opportunities for marketing messages. Add-on sales are good for order confirmation emails. “New items just arrived” works well on shipment confirmation messages. Be creative when thinking about how to combine service and sales, it will provide more testing options.
  3. Select the emails and messages to test. Start small and learn quickly. Testing provides the best information for rolling out your program. Use simple business rules and build from that foundation. Complicated processes are recipes for disaster when you are starting an integrated program.
  4. Verify that the offers are deliverable. Promising your customers that you will combine orders when it is operationally impossible creates mistrust with customers and colleagues. Always under promise and over deliver. It surprises customers and minimizes dissatisfaction.
  5. Measure everything. What effect does the new messaging have on sales? Opens? Clicks? Lifetime value? Lifespan? The more you know the better you can create targeted emails that deliver sales and satisfaction.
  6. Revise as needed. Transactional emails are easy to set and forget. They continue to go out day after day without any maintenance required. This tends to make them a low priority. Scheduling regular updates to rework the emails keep them fresh and informative for customers. It optimizes the return.

Email Marketing is the Sticky Stuff of Digital Conversations

Email marketing is no longer one size fits all. It’s part broadcast, part transaction-driver, and part loyalty and engagement aid. In fact, because of this diversity of roles, email has become the glue by which marketers start and nurture conversations with subscribers and customers.

Email marketing is no longer one size fits all. It’s part broadcast, part transaction-driver, and part loyalty and engagement aid. In fact, because of this diversity of roles, email has become the glue by which marketers start and nurture conversations with subscribers and customers.

Glue? Is that good? I think so. Because email marketing communicates with your eCRM database and connects marketing campaigns with data at the individual subscriber level, it’s become a powerful way for marketers to connect across customer touchpoints, even other channels. It’s become “conversational glue.”

Consider this glue to be a series of messages that nurture and engage consumers over time. Marketers already aim to do this. They create content and messaging that reaches customers and prospects over time, with a purpose that’s meaningful to customers. Most likely, the conversation component (i.e., each individual message) drives an action or interaction with the customer. While not every email needs to drive a click to be effective, if you’re engaging in conversation it must be a two-way dialog. This means the timing of the messaging and the content encourage higher response.

There are many ways that marketers collect data in order to customize experiences. Consider what you have at your disposal: past response data, online forms, surveys, sales teams, competitive analysis, social communities (including comments on your blog) and web analytics. Understanding the key drivers of response will help you focus on the things that matter most. For example:

1. Post-purchase triggered messages, like those from Amazon and Williams-Sonoma, encourage suggested follow-up items. That alone isn’t a conversation, so turn that post-purchase request into a conversation by offering testimonials from others who have purchased the follow-up product. Provide helpful tips from your product experts or merchandisers, or even invite the customer to join a product-owner community.

You can still suggest related products, it’s just not the sole purpose of the communication. A colleague received a “personal” follow-up from a sales associate she met during her purchase at Neiman Marcus. Now that’s a conversation starter!

2. Sign up for a B-to-B event and what do you get? An invitation the following week for the same event — sometimes at a better deal. An order confirmation or download receipt isn’t a conversation. This period of anticipation — post sign-up and pre-event — are actually great times for conversations. Engage participants with experts by sending provocative insights to be shared at the event, and collect feedback in advance that you can use during the event to tailor the experience. While you do that, offer help for hotels, travel, networking, etc. Wrap the conversation around those helpful informational messages.

How do you do this? It starts with data. If you don’t have a campaign management tool integrated with your database, you need to prioritize the data elements that will power the most relevant conversations and import that data to your email marketing tool. That data isn’t as timely or rich, but it will get you on your way. Perhaps it could even help you make a business case for better segmentation and campaign management tools. Create the content up front so that you know the whole conversation. But if subscribers aren’t engaging, don’t keep talking. Allow those who aren’t interested to drop out of the series.

Test everything — content, images, offers, presence of navigation and secondary offers, cadence, timing, and message length. Even subject line testing will help you improve results and guide your segmentation going forward as you learn more about your audience.

Successful conversations require a deep commitment to subscriber interest. Let’s be honest: Self-interest and business pressure often result in low relevancy for subscribers, the very people you’re trying to engage in conversation. Often there’s a disconnect between a marketer’s desire to have conversation and a subscriber’s willingness to converse. Select your opportunities carefully. Marketer must become advocates for their subscribers, and not just for altruistic reasons. Relevancy improves response and revenue.

Don’t forget to include your landing pages in the conversation. Continue to offer ways to respond, interact and provide feedback. Social elements can help here as well. Think of landing pages as a continuation of the conversation.

What are you doing to start and nurture conversations? Let me know how you’ve successfully improved engagement and response by posting a comment below.