After testing a host of websites that offer complicated products and services to business customers, I have two general conclusions:
- Being B2B doesn't free the site from attending to the conventional best practices of e-commerce design. The entire distinction between B2B and B2C is rather artificial. The same person who's a "B" during working hours is a "C" in the evening, and leading sites like Amazon.com set business users' expectations for the user experience.
- B2B sites must go beyond B2C and support the special characteristics of the buying process in businesses.
It might seem unfair that sites must provide both B2C's quality of service and simple user interface and B2B's depth of specialization and complex workflow support. And typically, such sites must do all this with fewer resources than Amazon because the site isn't seen as closing the order. You don't click "add to shopping cart" when you want a deepwater cementing system for your North Sea oil platforms.
Even without a shopping cart, B2B sites can contribute substantially to sales, but only if they recognize the multi-step nature of the B2B buying process. Your sales people know how to handle long sales cycles; your website should as well.
B2B Website Goals
Process specifics vary by industry, and I recommend that you perform a field study with a few customers to discover how your site can best support their internal processes. But in general, almost all B2B sites have three big goals:
- Survive the screening process in a company's initial research phase and make it to the shortlist. This is where search engine visibility, homepage usability, and content usability are essential. When the people researching possible vendors begin their search, you want to be found. And once found, you don't want to be rejected because your homepage is filled with superficial blather; point visitors to specific pages that answer common questions. Also, include prices or you'll lose the many users doing quick research to get ballpark numbers for potential projects.
- Support your advocates when they argue for your product in internal meetings, memos, presentations to management, and so on. As I describe below, there are several concrete things your site can offer to help them make a strong case.
- Build a reputation for being easy to do business with and for standing by your products with great service. This is where the Web shines: you can provide excellent post-sales support online at a fraction of the cost of older methods. Unfortunately, most of the support sites we've tested fail the challenge, probably because online support is mistakenly seen as a cost center rather than the Web's main brand-building opportunity.
The Advocacy Kit
Big-ticket B2B purchase decisions are not made by one person. Even if some Big Boss theoretically has the final say, there are typically several layers of staff involved in the decision-making process. Domain experts conduct the initial research, then offer their shortlist and recommendations in memos and presentations to committees of middle managers, who then go to the Big Boss with a shorter list and a shorter presentation.
If your product is any good, some of these experts and managers will prefer it to the competition's. One of your main goals is to help your advocates convince their peers and later their bosses that your product is the best.
Sometimes, the decision is actually made by a respected nerd whom everybody, even the biggest of bosses, knows is the only person in the company to really understand what would be the best solution to buy for some specialized problem. If these respected nerds believe in your product's superiority, you've almost won the order. You can assure yourself a place in their hearts by making it easier for them to substantiate their recommendations to the bosses; deep experts hate nothing more than politicking.
Ensure that your website helps your fans help you. Give them the tools to build their internal sales argument, write their memos, and develop their presentations. Key components of an advocacy kit include:
- Downloadable product photos, preferably ones that go beyond standard beauty shots to show the product in use.
- White papers that demonstrate ROI. Make these short, and don't use PDF; standard Web pages make it easier for advocates to cut and paste text and images into their memos and presentations.
- Links to external press coverage that demonstrate that independent sources have covered you positively. (More on how to use your website for PR.)
- Downloadable tables showing your product's main specifications and benefits, along with competitive comparisons. Tables in Microsoft Word format are easier to import when writing memos.
- Downloadable slide shows, preferably in PowerPoint format. Design your slides with a neutral background so that they can either be used directly (without looking like a sales presentation) or be easily imported into the presenter's own corporate template.
- Product demos.
- Ongoing updates through an e-mail newsletter, which can offer advocates hints about tidbits to feed their bosses.
If you sell Linux products or otherwise cater to Microsoft-hating communities, you should obviously provide downloads in formats other than those that come standard with Office.
Advocacy kits are rare on current B2B sites, but they're a great way to leverage the Internet's one-to-one ability to reach directly inside a customer company and connect with people who are eager to help you close the deal.