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The Top 5 Digital Marketing Trends from B2B Online Chicago

TMG had the pleasure of sponsoring B2B Online Chicago last week, where more than 500 manufacturers and distributors came together to talk about digital transformation and discuss with peers their most pressing questions and options for future digital enablement.

What struck me was the openness and candor of the attendees my team and I talked with; the intimacy of the conference – in terms of attendee size and the organization of sessions – enabled us to more easily discuss the presentations we’d seen. Leaders and managers were ready to solicit ideas from their peers and talk frankly about the problems they have or the limits of their current systems or structure.

It’s the sticking points we’re most interested, aren’t we? There were a few themes that emerged from sessions and conversations that I see as the areas where manufacturers and distributors will focus their time, money, and energy for the next 12 months. As a digital consultancy, there are many things on this proverbial to-do list that we are skilled experts at, champing at the bit for organizations to surface these desires and allow us to begin planning and strategizing for. Other topics opened our eyes to new ways we can provide value to our customers outside of traditional project scope.

It all begins with data

All roads to digital maturity flow from data. Without knowing your baseline activity, average cart size, customer churn rate, largest exit pages, etc., it is impossible to know how to move the needle in a positive direction. To make data-driven decisions to move your business forward, it’s necessary to take stock of your data stack and understand: 1) how data is being collected, assimilated, and reported out, 2) what KPIs are being reported on – are they the right ones? 3) how you will collect data from a new initiative, and 4) are there gaps in our current and proposed structure? You might not have all the answers, but at least you are starting to ask the right questions. As one presenter told the audience, “Get comfortable not knowing everything at the outset.”

Getting right with data can seem like a gargantuan task if it hasn’t been consistently managed. The key to understanding your company and customer data lies in cross-collaboration. Business teams should be aware of the goals other groups are working toward and how they relate to their own. Data analysts (if you have them) should work with teams to understand the underlying ‘why’ behind the reporting of a metric, or dig deeper into an unexpected result. This process can be internal, or assisted with by your digital agency.  The main takeaway – dive into your data and collaborate on it. In order to reach new heights, data needs to be the driving force behind every business decision.

When to personalize

If I added a sixth trend to this list, it would be Personalization. However, personalization can only be accomplished when you have enough data to segment out your users. Personalization can be along demographic lines, firmographics, geographics, buying patterns, or whatever is most useful for your company. Only when you’ve identified divergent paths off your main customer journey (backed by data) can you begin to optimize toward personalized customer experiences.

One customer journey

Panelists and presenters also pushed the message that the customer journey is not divided into ‘online’ and ‘offline’ – it’s all one customer journey. Translated internally, this means that ecommerce and the digital experience should not be siloed off from the rest of the business, left to exist alone, whose digital projects have little influence on the operations of the rest of the company. Online orders affect the shipping department, they affect customer service, they affect the accounting department, and so on. Creating siloed customer experience can also result in duplicated efforts, a waste of time and energy solving one problem, twice. To shift this thinking, to open up the online experience to be valued and included in all parts of the business highlights a major breakthrough for manufacturers – especially ones who do not align themselves with the tip of the spear, technologically.

From the other side of the coin, experienced leaders urged manufacturers and distributors to find ways to bring offline experiences into the digital fold, as well. For example, turning frequent customer service requests into guided buying on the website, or into FAQ sections for specific products. More than one presenter suggested crediting sales teams with online sales, freeing them up to do higher-order work to grow the company, instead of seeing digital advancement as an encroaching threat.

A lot of analog problems have digital solutions. Businesses don’t have offline or online buyers, they have one customer that they need to cater to across time, space, and channels for a total customer experience.

Serve yourself

Tying into the previous topic of one customer journey is the maturation of self-service. Millennials made up 60% of B2B buyers in 2021, according to Forrester, a number that will only continue to grow.  These buyers prefer self service over traditional sales methods, often coming into the customer journey having done more research into products and pricing than any previous buying generation. Armed with a shortened buying process and equipped with extensive knowledge, Millennial buyers are not only more keen to self-serve, they are more critical of the digital experience. One presenter shared a startling statistic – 90% of buyers are willing to find another supplier if you can’t fulfill their digital needs. Manufacturers and distributors aren’t contending with stagnant business if they don’t improve their online experience – they stand to lose market share to competition providing what digital-native buyers want.

To lean into this self-service trend, companies should invest in User Experience (UX) data and design to produce the most seamless customer experience across their website, create a mobile-optimized site for buyers on the go, and provide exceptional search capabilities, content, support, and scheduling/delivery. Don’t fight your audience -instead – uncover the ways self-service can free up your sales, customer service, shipping, or other teams to drive value for the business.

B2B is starting to look like B2C

I hope by now you’ve discovered the larger theme that ran through B2B Online Chicago last week, and how these smaller themes all lead back to B2B companies further aligning with B2C experience practices. To be fair, they’re hard to ignore, as most of us spend ample time online outside of business hours. We sign up for park district classes online. We pay bills, shop, listen to music, access our homes through digital interfaces that connect us to the world.

Imagine the abrupt disruption of stepping back in time when having to make a business purchase. Today’s buyers want the same ease of experience, the same always-on availability of the apps and digital services we’re accustomed to. As the explosion of working from home has blurred the line between what is personal and what is business, so too, has the explosion of technology. By evolving B2B customer experiences to more closely replicate that of B2C, you’re meeting the customer where they are, with how they expect to interact, personally and professionally.

The (internal) struggle is real

Something I didn’t expect to hear so much about was the struggle for cross-functional buy-in for ecommerce projects. Digital commerce directors/managers/leads, I understand your pain. I heard you explain grappling with not only standing up successful, fully-functional ecommerce sites, but devoting hours to persuading internal stakeholders of its importance to the business, pushing for briefing other teams on the benefits, and highlighting how it plays into the execution and achieving of overarching business goals.

I also realized that we, as digital transformation partners, can help in this critical aspect. We want you to be successful beyond larger average cart size, thriving marketplaces, and frictionless PIM. A company adapting to digital maturity needs every department on the same page, understanding the benefit and the what’s-in-it-for-me angle of ecommerce.

  • For Accounting, a subscription model could mean less time chasing down late payments.
  • For Shipping, self-service delivery options could mean less incorrect addresses or failed delivery attempts.
  • For Sales, customizable quotes online could mean more time to go after larger contracts.

Every area of business should be shown – with data – how an effective ecommerce platform makes their jobs and their performance better. A trusted digital partner should aim to make that important pitch for you to internal stakeholders upfront before a project begins, and enable you to supply that point-proving data once ecommerce or new features are live.

Next Steps

A great way to come away from B2B Online is to synthesize every session and note taken, discover what’s mission-critical for your business, and make moves to share those goals internally. Start making a plan. Opt for small, iterative changes – don’t try to boil the ocean in one go. Decide what you can take on internally and find a team who understands your industry and your goals to assist you with the rest. Do your due diligence with data and set yourself up to collect more. Ask why, ask why not. Share your excitement and success! Let your organization know how this rising tide is raising all boats. Take a breath, and then look for the next way to improve your customer experience.

TMG is a digital transformation partner with decades of experience guiding strategy, design, and technical execution for manufacturers and distributors. Learn more about our approach to digital maturity and ecommerce solutions by contacting us.

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Jenn Daugherty
Jenn Daugherty
May 9, 20238 minute read
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