The idea of implementing a B2B eCommerce site may seem exciting to some, stressful to others and even inconceivable to a few. After all, launching an online storefront is a huge undertaking. But, if you do your research, ask the right questions, and build a solid strategy, you’ll realize an eCommerce site is well worth the time and investment.
Digital commerce platforms have evolved considerably over the last 10 years to offer advanced technology and functionality to meet the unique needs of the wholesale marketplace. However, not all B2B commerce platforms are built alike or offer the same functionality, so it’s important to know your organization’s requirements as well as your customers’ needs before leaping into the digital world.
This guide provides key steps to take, questions to ask and tools to consider during your eCommerce journey – from pre-implementation and planning to post-launch.
US B2B eCommerce Will Hit $1.8 Trillion By 2023.
(Landscape: The B2B eCommerce Playbook, Forrester, 2019)
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already determined your organization has a need for a website that allows buyers to purchase your products online. Now, as you enter the pre-implementation stage, it’s time to define the specific functionality, opportunities, and measurable success you want from the site.
- Understand your customer needs – now and in the future – The main purpose of a website is to serve your customers, therefore it’s critical to know what they want and expect from your site. Reach out to some of your long-standing customers and ask them how your future site can help make their job easier. Do they want access to their custom catalog and pricing online? Do they wish to transact through their procurement system instead of with a purchase order? Do they need the ability to shop and order from their mobile device? Be sure to listen to your customers’ suggestions because, ultimately, these buyers will be the impetus for your site’s success.
- Know your system integration requirements – An eCommerce platform is not a stand-alone system. For it to work properly, it must integrate with your existing ERP and backend systems. It’s important that the eCommerce vendor you select be able to demonstrate that they’ve successfully integrated their platform with your ERP for similar customers in your market. You’ll also want to know if the eCommerce platform can integrate with other third-party applications like Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Business Intelligence (BI) solutions. Meet with your IT department to understand the requirements and restrictions you may have and determine which components the commerce software must include to communicate with your internal systems. An effective eCommerce platform must also be flexible so that it can transition with your organization’s future technology upgrades and changes. An open API environment is critical to your future success.
- Build a strong business case for the platform – Put together an internal team to create a business case for your new system which outlines the goals, benefits, and expected return on investment (ROI) for the site. It should provide both short- and long-term goals, and include projections such as increases in customer usage, conversion rates, as well as predicted cost savings. For example, is it more important that your company shift its current customers to buying online in an effort to decrease cost per transaction, or is it necessary to generate incremental revenue from new customers in a broader geography or market? Once you’ve presented your business case to gain executive buy-in, you can then use it to prioritize next steps and measure the effectiveness of your plan based on your KPIs.
- Put dedicated resources in place – It takes a team effort to implement and manage an eCommerce site, so start by enlisting people from key departments to serve as core leads and subject matter experts during the implementation process. Remember, your eCommerce initiative is not a “lone wolf” project relegated to your IT team, though they’ll certainly be involved. You’ll need to consider hiring dedicated people to manage day-to-day site management duties such as making product updates, developing new content, and troubleshooting technical issues. Without constant attention and maintenance by committed staff, your site will become stale and lose relevance with buyers.
- Don’t neglect change management – eCommerce isn’t just about technology. It’s also about the people and processes that drive your strategy forward. Justin King, owner of B2X Partners, sums it up perfectly: “All successful B2B eCommerce businesses have one thing in common: they’ve implemented an organizational change management process. B2B organizations have legacy systems, processes, and people that keep the typical organization from being able to innovate digitally. Change management is the only way an organization can effectively move the needle.”
“I can say with confidence that one vital role for us has been that of a data analyst. He has completely changed the game by introducing new ways to work with data, automate it, and ensure that we have the right data processes in place for a scalable and sustainable eCommerce program.”
eCommerce and Marketing Manager
Turner Supply Company
UNDERSTAND THE B2B eCOMMERCE ESSENTIALS
The foundation for a successful distributor site is built with critical functionality that ensures optimal usability and a positive customer experience. Before you begin searching for an eCommerce platform, understand what these features are and why they’re important. Additional capabilities can always be incorporated after your site is live, but every B2B site must first start with the following essential components:
- PIM: This product information management solution acts as the central hub for all the important product information and content for your selling channels. It’s here data is sourced, standardized, and exported to different channels and partners. A PIM ensures clean, accurate product information is delivered consistently and effectively to provide a true omnichannel experience. It also maintains your taxonomies for your entire catalog (read more below).
- Site search: A sophisticated search tool uses algorithms that allow vendors to dictate the results that display on their site during a user search. Advanced search capabilities such as auto-complete suggestions, configurable search, and a navigation bar with faceted attributes provide more targeted, relevant search results for buyers, which lead to a quicker and easier path to purchase. Site search speed has a direct impact on adoption of any eCommerce site.
- Shopping cart: With a comprehensive shopping cart in place, buyers have a flexible and secure way to shop and transact online. In addition to providing live product pricing and availability, shopping cart tools should meet the different needs of your buyers by offering shared carts, shipping options, and multiple payment methods, including credit cards and purchase orders.
- Content management system: A robust CMS allows for easy updates to web pages and content, but it also enables administrators to build SEO for better site visibility and create personalization options like product recommendations for customers. Your marketing team will leverage the CMS to build promotional pages and add content to support campaigns.
- Mobile: With more buyers using their mobile devices to research and shop for products, an eCommerce site must be mobile-friendly. A responsive web design adapts a website’s layout to ensure that the content and structure of the site remain consistent across all buyer devices, creating a seamless user experience. Be sure to understand the difference between a “mobile responsive website” and “native mobile app” and the benefits of each.
- Taxonomy: This classification methodology categorizes products in a way that makes sense to buyers and leads them to products in as few clicks as possible. A proper taxonomy defines the hierarchy, attributes, and categories within a product catalog to create a better framework and boost a site’s search and browsing capabilities.
- Event management: Many B2B companies – especially wholesale distributors – offer training classes, new product demonstrations, customer appreciation days, and other events that help them connect with their customers and educate buyers on the products they carry. An Event Management module allows companies to build an ongoing calendar of events and manage online registrations with ease.
- Punchout: Many B2B customers – especially those in government, higher education, and larger buying groups – will require that you provide punchout capability. These online orders are sent direct from the customer’s procurement system (Ariba, SAP, Oracle, etc.) into your website. You will need a way to easily configure punchout for each customer’s system.
You can save a lot of time and money and avoid unnecessary complexity if you can get all these components from a single vendor. The cost to integrate disparate systems and train your staff on multiple user interfaces and product capabilities can be prohibitive. Many B2B companies opt for the “one throat to choke” model when it comes to the vendors in their eCommerce ecosystem.
IT’S A FACT!
Digital interactions already influence 92% of all B2B purchasing activity.
DON’T NEGLECT PRODUCT CONTENT
Product content that features detailed descriptions, specifications, images, videos, and supporting documents is more searchable and desirable for online buyers. This unique, optimized content attracts search engines, drives traffic, and gives buyers the power to make more informed purchasing decisions.
One B2B company, Marks Supply, has seen great success with their eCommerce initiative, thanks to great product content. “Many distributors I speak with focus 95% or more of their eCommerce efforts on the site itself and give little thought to the product content,” says Grant Movold, Manager of Systems & IT at Marks Supply. “We think that’s wrong. In our estimation, content is equally important. That’s how we provide true value to our customers and fend off the big-box competition. In short: better content drives more customers to your site, which translates into higher revenues and greater profits.”
You don’t need to enrich data for every SKU right away. Here are three simple ways to prioritize your product data enrichment efforts so you can get moving with improving the online experience for your customers:
- The 80/20 rule – The adage states that 80% of your sales comes from only 20% of your inventory. By focusing on the items that turn most often, you can ensure the item detail pages that are most critical to your business success are also the ones that receive the most attention. It’s much easier to start with a subset of 10,000 items and then deal with the other 50,000 SKUs down the road.
- Customer focus – Many distributors choose to launch their new eCommerce website to only a select group of strategic customer accounts. In this case, you may want to enrich the subset of items that are most applicable to those customers. By focusing on the items that those accounts are most likely to purchase, you’ll instantly increase the value of your eCommerce site and improve your chance of customer adoption. Conversely, you may want to focus on a subset of smaller accounts that you want to push toward online ordering because you don’t want your sales reps spending much time on these lower volume customer orders.
- Defend your turf – If you have product that is easier to pick, pack, and ship than other items, there’s a good chance you have higher competition from other online businesses. Do you have items that people are more likely to search for on Google than your eCommerce site? By enriching product content for those specific items, you increase the chances that searchers will land on your site. Take a hard look at your inventory and decide if there are items that are more conducive to online purchasing, like lower margin items or product that is small enough to ship at low cost. Target content enrichment for those high competition items before you address your larger catalog of SKUs.
“Great product content is critical, so I’d say Unilog’s content services are a must. We needed to build better product content in our ERP, but it was something we knew we would never be able to do on our own and, even if we tried, it would probably take ten times as long. Unilog built robust content for our products which really helps us compete in the age of Amazon.”
City Plumbing & Electric Supply Company
KNOW THOSE INDUSTRY ACRONYMS
It’s a known fact that technology companies, industry analysts, consultants, and marketing organizations all love acronyms. But acronyms often confuse the layperson who doesn’t deal with these terms on a daily basis.
Below is a list of common acronyms used in the eCommerce space and their meaning:
- AI – Artificial Intelligence
- AOV – Average Order Value
- API – Application Programming Interface
- B2B – Business to Business
- B2C – Business to Consumer
- BI – Business Intelligence
- CMS – Content Management System
- CPA – Cost per Acquisition
- CPC – Cost per Click
- CPQ – Configure Price Quote
- CRM – Customer Relationship Management
- CSS – Cascading Style Sheet
- DAM – Digital Asset Management
- DQM – Data Quality Management
- ERP – Enterprise Resource Planning
- ESP – E-Mail Service Provider
- GA – Google Analytics
- IoT – Internet of Things
- ISP – Internet Service Provider
- KPI – Key Performance Indicator
- ML – Machine Learning
- PIM – Product Information Management
- POS – Point of Sale
- ROI – Return on Investment
- SaaS – Software as a Service
- SEM – Search Engine Marketing
- SEO – Search Engine Optimization
- SERP – Search Engine Results Pages
- SLA – Service Level Agreement
- TCO – Total Cost of Ownership
IT’S A FACT!
Amazon reported in September 2018 that it had “reached more than $10 billion in annualized sales” and Forrester Research has said those sales could exceed $20 billion as early as this year.
(B2B E-Commerce World, March 2019)
CHOOSE AN eCOMMERCE PARTNER
Once you’ve built a solid business case, identified your business needs and system requirements, and grasped the important components of eCommerce, it’s time to find a digital commerce provider. Successful companies do their research and planning before talking to any vendors.
Because the B2B industry has different needs from those of consumer retailers, look for a company whose focus is the wholesale distribution marketplace. Their platform should be easy to manage, yet robust enough to house hundreds of thousands of products and handle the unique order processes and payment terms of B2B customers. Be sure to ask the vendor what percentage of their customer base is B2B.
As you interview different eCommerce providers, here are additional questions you can ask to determine if they’re the right fit for your business:
- Does your platform integrate with our ERP? This may be one of the most important factors to Ask for a reference list of customers on your ERP. You should be comfortable that the vendor has the knowledge and technical capability (via an open API) to integrate with your business system or any other business applications you run.
- Do you have an all-in-one or modular platform? This is important to understand as it will impact the investment you need to make and the level of complexity with implementing the solution. Providers of modular platforms will often charge additional fees for every module, so make them be clear up front about your total cost of ownership.
- Does your eCommerce solution include a PIM? A Product Information Management (PIM) module is critical to managing the product data you sell on your website or on other online marketplaces. A PIM is not the same as the product files in your ERP, which have many drawbacks. If the vendor’s eCommerce solution does not include a PIM, you will most likely end up investing in one from another PIM provider.
- Is your platform a cloud-based or on-premises system? There are clear advantages to a cloud-based platform, including lower cost to maintain, better security, improved availability/redundancy, SaaS-based pricing, and more.
- How many products can your system house and manage? B2B eCommerce platforms should have no problem handling complex transactions across catalogs that contain hundreds of thousands of SKUs.
- Do you also offer product content services? Some companies provide services that help you enrich the product descriptions, specs, attributes, and related content (images, videos, manuals, etc.) for the items you sell. Better quality content attracts buyers to your site and helps conversion rates.
- How long does it typically take to build and launch a site? Industry research shows that most eCommerce implementations run more than six months, with 31% taking more than a Look for a vendor that has a proven process for getting you online as quickly as possible. You don’t want to get stalled in your strategy.
- Do you have business relationships with the industry organizations I’m a part of? Check to see if the vendor knows the buying groups, marketing organizations, tradeshows, and other affiliations that are prominent in your industry. Their vision should not revolve solely around technology. It should also include an understanding of the relationships and people in your industry.
A credible provider should be able to provide reasonable answers to these, or any other questions you may have, because the more transparent they are, the less surprises you’ll encounter down the road.
If the vendor asks, be open about your digital commerce strategy. If you don’t have a strong strategy, share that as well. The vendor should be able to guide you regarding industry best practices and implementation advice.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible to stay apprised, focused, and capable of making the best decisions for your organization.
Google has found that about 50% of B2B queries today are made on smartphones. BCG expects that figure to grow to 70% by 2020.
(Mobile Marketing and the New B2B Buyer, BCG, Sept. 2017)
READY, SET, GO-LIVE
With the prep work done and an eCommerce partner in place, the actual site implementation can begin. Expect detailed production schedules, expansive workflows, and weekly meetings with the commerce provider as they help build and launch your site. Communication is key with a project of this magnitude, and everyone must stay on task to meet deliverables.
When your site is ready to go live, try a soft launch with employees as well as a few of your trusted customers. You’ll receive worthwhile feedback to help improve the site, work out any bugs and, in the process, increase your chances of people using the platform when they realize the value it provides.
Once the full site launch has occurred, begin measuring its success with the help of analytic tools. Find out how many people are visiting the site, which pages they visit most, and how many of them are transacting online. Analytics provide a wealth of information about your targeted buyer’s intent and interest, which you can then use to improve their online user experience and create more opportunities to drive sales.
Here are some key performance metrics you will want to track to measure the success of your site:
- Unique visitors – how many unique people come to your site over time. The goal is to get this trending You can also correlate events – such as a sales promotion, marketing campaign, or media coverage – with spikes in traffic.
- Pages per session – the average number of pages people look at during a single session on your site. Ideally, more page views equate to better engagement.
- Time on site – similar to pages per session, time on site can be used to measure buyer engagement.
- Conversion rate – the number of orders placed on your site as a percentage of total visitors. This will reveal how effective your site is at converting browsers into buyers.
- Average order value – the average of all orders placed via your eCommerce site. This is a key metric to watch over time. Increases in order value indicate increased trust with placing large orders online and demonstrate your ability to up-sell related items on your site. You can compare this to orders placed offline and look for ways to improve.
- Percent of sales online – your total online sales divided by total company sales. As you increase this metric, your cost to serve should go down while revenues and customer loyalty increase.
- New repeat buyers – the number of first-time buyers on your site versus those who purchase more than once. Are you simply shifting your current customers to your online channel or are you effectively gaining market share by attracting new buyers who have not previously bought from you?
- Abandoned carts – how often buyers place items in their shopping cart, but don’t follow through with the online purchase. Providing this information to sales can enable them to reach out to specific customers to see if they can close the business.
- Top page exits – the website pages from which visitors most often leave your site after a session. There may be a problem with these pages, either technical or with the content.
“Consider spiffing your sales or customer service reps if they get your customers signed up on your website. We did this, and 25% of the customers our reps spoke with signed up and many converted to online ordering. We saved an estimated 2,000 hours per year by getting customers to order online.”
Hill & Markes
AVOID IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS
The harsh reality is that many eCommerce implementations do not achieve the desired level of success. This may be due to any number of factors, including people, process, or technical challenges. Here is a short list of the most common pitfalls you should look to avoid:
- Making too big a jump – Some companies want to go from a static marketing website to an advanced digital branch with all the bells and whistles – hyper-personalized landing pages, integrations with multiple online marketplaces, advanced eCommerce analytics, chatbots, and more. In other words, they want to race from 0 to 60 mph in less than a second. You must walk before you run. Don’t try to make too big a jump on the eCommerce maturity curve. Look to get on par with the industry before you try to outmaneuver them. It’s easier to pass the leader from the middle of the pack than from the back of the race.
- Scope creep – In the middle of an eCommerce implementation, companies will often see something that a competitor is doing and decide they want to add that to their site in time for the initial launch. Remember, your eCommerce site is a journey, not a “big bang” event. You will have time later to evolve your site. Don’t let scope creep derail you from getting the critical capabilities live.
- No executive sponsor or cross-functional support – This will wreck any project. If your eCommerce initiative is being driven by your Marketing or IT team and isn’t a part of your executive strategy, it will ultimately fail. Likewise, if you don’t have support across your entire organization – especially from the sales team – your site will not drive the business impact you expect. Make sure sales understands how your new site will make their job easier and put more money in their pockets.
- Lack of focus on customer and employee onboarding – Some B2B companies build and launch their eCommerce site and expect buyers to simply show up once it’s live. You must spend the time and resources to train your staff and customers on the benefits of purchasing online. Conduct webinars, in-person training sessions, and more to ensure you see proper adoption of your digital branch.
- Ill-defined swim lanes – If you employ one company to provide the design of your site and a different company to provide the platform, be sure to clearly define swim lanes ahead of time. Lack of coordination and confusion about responsibility can drastically slow down an implementation. This also applies to your internal team. Make sure everyone knows who has what responsibility and who ultimately makes the decision throughout the process.
“We learned that pricing has to be right in the ERP because customers can see that price when they go on our site. If a sales rep quotes customers at a lower price, you can say goodbye to your website because they won’t trust your site as the place for the most up-to-date information.”
FOLLOW INDUSTRY INFLUENCERS
Below is a list of 22 people (alphabetical, by last name) who are influential in the B2B eCommerce space. They speak at industry shows, post blogs, produce podcasts and videos, and conduct industry research on a regular basis. Many of them have led successful eCommerce initiatives for B2B companies. Keeping tabs on them will keep you informed of industry advancements. Listen for ideas that you can incorporate into your digital commerce strategy.
EVP, Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer, MSC Industrial Supply
eCommerce Expert, Author, and Advisor
Managing Partner, Real Results Marketing
Senior Analyst, Forrester Research
President, The Collier Company, Inc.
Global eCommerce Director, Unilever
Editor, B2B eCommerce World
Founder & CEO, From the Future
Research Vice President, Gartner
Chief Commerce Strategy Officer, Publicis
VP Digital Marketing, RepairClinic.com
CEO, Paradigm B2B
Research Manager, Digital Commerce, IDC
Owner, B2X Partners
VP of E-Commerce, US Electrical Services
Senior Advisor, McKinsey & Company
Vice President Brand and Digital, Robert Bosch Tools
VP & GM, Arrow Cloud Digital
Executive Director, American Blockchain Council
Partner, Buy Box Experts
Chief Strategy Officer, Amplience
CEO, Get Spiffy
Ask the Expert: How will digital commerce be most different three years from now?
“I believe that system to system commerce will become a primary way of doing business – from small business to big business. EDI will change from the current archaic standards to incorporate AI and Machine Learning algorithms that create a more transactional channel that can be used by any systems. This data exchange will also include standards for transmitting product content and information.”
Owner, B2X Partners
Ask the Expert: What’s one thing that distributors should stop doing immediately when it comes to eCommerce?
“Distributors need to stop requiring that customers jump through hoops to know prices. It’s fine to ask a customer to login to know a final price, after you’ve given them an effective price range pre-login. But to withhold prices as an incentive to get customers to register or login is no longer effective. Too many sites don’t require logins to show prices now that it’s an unrealistic (and anti-competitive) request.”
CEO, Paradigm B2B
Ask the Expert: What one thing separates the really successful B2B eCommerce businesses from the average ones?
“I consistently find one factor: for those that are successful, top leadership is 100% bought in and driving digital transformation. Without C-suite urgency and drive, the customer loses a seat at the table, traditional selling channels such as the sales force will view eCommerce as the enemy and fight against it, seasoned eCommerce management cannot be hired, and budgets don’t exist to invest in the technology needed to support a successful implementation. When the eCommerce laggards lose ground to competitors or fail altogether, they will only have their leadership to point to.”
eCommerce Expert, Author, and Advisor
EMPLOY WINNING STRATEGIES
Remember, an eCommerce site is never finished. It must always evolve to keep up with changing trends, technology, and expectations. Always look for ways to drive costs out of customer transactions and increase loyalty with your buyers.
The most mature B2B companies don’t think of their eCommerce sites as a stand-alone channel. The site should be part of a greater strategy that blends physical commerce with digital capabilities. It should not matter if a customer begins their journey online and completes it offline or vice versa. Develop strategies that bring the physical and digital experiences closer together.
PARTNER WITH UNILOG
Unilog is the authority when it comes to B2B eCommerce. They’ve helped build profitable digital branches for hundreds of customers with their all-in-one software platform, CIMM2, and comprehensive product content services. Complete with an advanced shopping cart, powerful search tools, built-in PIM, and user-friendly CMS, CIMM2 provides the framework and functionality needed to compete in the marketplace.
Speak to a Unilog expert today to learn more about their software and services, get answers to your implementation questions, and schedule a product demo. As your eCommerce partner, Unilog will be with you every step of the way – from pre-implementation to post-launch – to make sure your business achieves eCommerce success.
“After a few short years on the Unilog platform, our eCommerce revenue has gone from less than 5% to more than 35% of our total annual sales.”
COO, Bay Fastening Systems
Unilog is a global technology company that delivers powerful, affordable eCommerce solutions for the B2B marketplace. Our cloud-based eCommerce platform and product data enrichment services help distributors, manufacturers, and wholesalers increase online sales, reduce cost to serve, and enhance their digital channel. Unilog is an ISO 9001:2008- and ISO 8000-certified company with North American headquarters outside of Philadelphia, PA and international headquarters in Bangalore, India. For more information, visit www.unilogcorp.com.