Overcoming Specific Challenges of B2B Web Shops

Sally Curran

Updated · Sep 05, 2007

The Internet is the world's marketplace. Nearly anything you could ever imagine, want, or need is available with a quick click of the mouse, and there are merchants ready and eager to sell you their wares. These merchants, however, face a multitude of challenges that vary based on their target audience. Marketing a computer to a student and an IT manager are two completely different ballgames. We talked to two people who run business-to-business sites about the specific challenges they face while establishing, marketing and running their sites.

B2B Basics
Before we delve into our B2B entrepreneurs' experiences, though, let's identify some hallmarks of a successful B2B site. Larry Harris, vice president and manager of EasyAsk, technology that helps optimize users' online experiences, says that although B2B sites have specific audiences, they must be designed with all users in mind. He says that there are three key ways to accomplish this. One, because consumers search for products in many different ways, synchronized search and navigation are vital to quick results. Two, make products available to consumers at the right time: Many B2B storefronts allow Web masters to control how, where and when various promotions are available. Three, analytics are vital to identifying trends and sales.

Show and Tell to Sell: Martor USA
Mel Freedman, president and CEO of Martor USA, a B2B that sells industrial knives, said that he feels the biggest challenge of setting up, marketing, and running an online B2B is “trying to figure out a way to get in front of the consumer without getting in their way.”

For his business to flourish, Freedman has to be able to make the buyer understand how his products work-and are superior to the competition. Martor USA's site accomplishes this via two means: video clips and free samples. Freedman explained that the video clips walk users through product use so they can see exactly how the merchandise works, thereby “imparting knowledge to them.” A picture is good, he said, but seeing a knife in action answers usability questions.

Likewise, Freedman said that Martor offers free samples so decision makers can try the product and see how it works for themselves. In fact, he said that Martor uses the free-sample process as a way to prequalify customers.

Another tip: skip the fancy stuff. Freedman said that Martor's site lacks the extraneous information (think Google ads), distractions or flash motion B2C sites often display. The users visiting Martor's site are usually there because they have a job to do, and not necessarily to be wowed by eye-candy. The information is easy-to-find and training-focused, so people can select a product and get on with their day.

For fellow entrepreneurs thinking of launching a B2B site, Freedman had the following suggestions. He said it's important to think about how you'd make the sales pitch in person and convey that as closely as possible on the Web. Have all the answers to questions that come up during trade shows and so on available somewhere on the site, whether that be in FAQs, pictures or video clips.

He also said to consider what a potential consumer would look at in person before buying and have pictures that illustrate that experience. For example, if the product were a plasma TV, you'd want to have pictures of the back and the various ports. Another example is real-estate sites that have 360-degree views of rooms so home buyers can see whether the house is worth the trip.

Custom Sites, Access Tips: SpaEquip
Ed Johnson is president of SpaEquip, a B2B that sells specialized equipment to the commercial health spa industry (day spas, destination spas, hotels and resorts). He said that for his company, there are several similarities to B2C sites because SpaEquip has the same need to get leads from shoppers searching online.

In terms of generating leads, B2B site owners cans host Webinars, offer “white papers” on industry topics and feature product tours, but some of the best leads, Johnson explained, are from individuals just starting to research how to open a spa and who are looking for guidance. He said his company employs extensive search engine optimization, although he explained that many B2Bs forgo this in favor of restricting their site to registered users.

Because of SpaEquip's decision to steer clear of this, Johnson has had the challenge of keeping the general public away — in other words, there is a need to keep a lot of people out without preventing good leads from finding their way to the site. The company does this through various statements and by requiring customers to provide their occupation before processing the order.

Johnson said that another big challenge is meeting the special requests that SpaEquip's big corporate customers have. The company has dedicated Web stores for several large hotel chains, which display only the goods (and specially negotiated prices and discount levels) with which the chains deal. The spa properties belonging to these chains purchase products directly from these sites.

This sort of customization is made possible by B2B-specific storefronts designed by NetSuite (which Martor USA also uses). Johnson said that the B2B storefronts are especially helpful in privacy and exclusivity matters: SpaEquip's clients don't want their dedicated Web stores showing up in Google searches.

Johnson would recommend that anyone looking to start an online B2B site do significant testing and get feedback about the site itself from a multitude of users. Be sure to ask about the site's layout, interface and whether it accomplishes what it needs to in the real world.

Sally Marek Curran is a regular contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com.

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