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The business of business–to–business websites

The business of business–to–business websites

I enjoyed the responses from my recent blog post regarding B2B software, with many respondents writing from inside the belly of the beast.  The feedback was part reflection, part therapy and part instruction however a common theme was the challenge of dealing with the overwhelming complexity of use cases, business rules and authentication layers that is part and parcel of life in an enterprise.

It’s not just internal business processes which are particularly complex in enterprise organisations and B2B environments.  The typical B2B sales and marketing cycle tends to be more extensive and involved than the B2C one and web teams do well to invest time and energy designing for its specific challenges. There are some key characteristics of the B2B sales process which need to directly influence how B2B organisations plan for and design their websites.

Content must support a broad range of purchasing questions

While a customer doesn’t consciously consider what phase of a sales cycle they are in when buying a product or service, their decision–making process typically takes them through phases of awareness, consideration, decision–making, conversion and advocacy (if they like the product or service).  In B2C contexts, it’s not uncommon for a customer to move through all of these phases almost instantaneously, for example someone sees a chocolate bar beside the till when checking out at the supermarket, buys it, eats it and tells their friend how good it was afterwards.  Sales phases are much longer in the world of B2B and crucially, prospects usually ask different questions at different phases of the journey.

Typically, questions at the start of the cycle focus on the big picture and as the prospect moves along the process questions get increasingly specific and detailed, as the user becomes serious about potentially getting in touch.  Additionally, there are commonly a set of sales objections which become pertinent around the decision–making and conversion phases, which must be answered and dealt with if the business is to generate that coveted lead.

B2B website owners therefore need to have a clear understanding of their sales cycle, typical questions they get asked during each phase, and the content which is required for that phase, to move the user to the following phase.  This needs to be baked into their website’s information architecture and content strategy.

Sell the sizzle and the steak

Sales guru Elmer Wheeler coined this phrase in the 1920s to reinforce the importance of selling the benefits of a product rather than the product itself, and value–led selling has been front and centre of sales and marketing theory ever since.  However, regularly B2B websites have to simultaneously sell based on value and sell based on the product, depending on which phase of the sales cycle the user is in.  A user might initially become interested in a company’s proposition because of how it has established value, however before buying they will want to know in practical terms what it is like to do business with the company, who they might be dealing with, how rigorous their processes are and if they have regulatory compatibility.

On B2B websites this balance is expressed by not just declaring value (with smart value–led content and positioning) but also proving value (with testimonials, case studies, key objections dealt with).

Speak more than one language

Not only do B2B sales cycles include more steps, they also involve more decision–makers and decision–influencers.  Particularly for large purchases, it is common for the process to include a procurement team, one or more subject matter experts, the CFO, COO and CEO.  Each of these people have their own particular perspective and set of priorities.  It is unrealistic and undesirable to seek to answer all of their questions on a website but the content should speak to each of them.

B2B websites achieve this by assuring the different players in a purchasing process that their priorities have been considered.  For instance, content might address return on investment for a CFO, competitive advantage for a CEO, processes and implementation for a COO, technical considerations for a CTO and so on.  Led by research, the site shouldn’t necessarily go in to huge depth in each area, but by addressing each area it can speak a language which each individual can relate to.

Some businesses only operate within a certain sector or only do business with organisations of a certain scale.  Such businesses have the luxury of being able to reflect this sole focus in the imagery, case studies and other content on their website.  However, many businesses have a more complex matrix of customer sizes and industry sectors.

Notwithstanding the need to be clear on priority customer types, B2B websites need to be careful not to inadvertently only speak to one type of customer or one scale of business.  The depth and breadth of sectors and scales of businesses they wish to court should be reflected in the depth and breadth of case studies, testimonials and other site content.

Connect products and services to real–life scenarios

Customers don’t buy what you do, they buy what you cause.  Help them understand the impact of what you do by working hard with case studies, playing out customer problems, your approach, what you did and its impact.  Where possible, talk about budget and people involved. 

B2B website owners need to make the complexity of what they do simpler through story–telling, focused on building a bridge between what the business does and what the business causes.

Putting it all together

The first step is a step away – from the pixels.  The interface comes later.

Ahead of that, there is a body of work required involving extensive customer journey planning, information architecture development, content planning and navigation, designing flow and calls to action.

This in turn sits on a foundation of an established sales process, with clarity on sales activities, questions that prospects ask at each stage, sales objections and clearly understood differentiators.

Make it easy for your prospects to self–serve the content they need throughout the sales process and there is every chance they will walk themselves to the top of your lead generation funnel.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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