Can you imagine going on vacation without checking out attractions, lodging and restaurants first? Or shopping for a new TV without reading reviews or comparing products and prices from competing stores? Online tools make it convenient for consumers to check everything from cars to real estate. But research shows that online discovery isn't restricted to consumers. Nearly 90 percent of B2B buyers use the Web to research the products they buy for their business.
Not that long ago, the direct sales rep was the source of information for buyers. Companies provided thought leadership with in-person meetings, presentations, brochures and catalogs. Today, it's hard to get a buyer you know to return a call, let alone connect with one you don't know.
The buyers of yesteryear were experienced. They knew their stuff. They valued the knowledge a good sales rep could provide. But with downsizing and outsourcing came a change in target audience. Veteran buyers were replaced with young, intelligent millennials. They often lacked product expertise but were online savvy, comfortable with technology and adept at finding out about things they didn't know. Three-martini business lunches transformed into 140-character conversations.
With the dramatic shift in purchasing behavior, how can any business forgo developing an effective web strategy?
B2B Purchasing Starts with Search
More than 70 percent of enterprise buyers start their purchasing process through research conducted online. And, according to a recent report from Fleishman-Hillard, 89 percent of consumers turn to Google, Bing or another search engine to find information on products, services or businesses prior to making purchases.
And that search activity is skewed toward millennials. Although all age groups use search when investigating a product purchase, millennials now account for nearly half of all B2B Web searches. The millennial generation, born after 1980, has never known a world without the modern-day Internet. They are digital natives. They look and expect to find viable information online.
In addition, while the executive level still signs off on purchases more than two-thirds of the time, so do almost 24 percent of non-executive professionals. Another 81 percent have a say in the decision. A high number of influencers are millennials.
On average, B2B researchers do 12 searches prior to engaging on a specific company's site. If your Web strategy doesn't include optimizing for search, you are missing out on opportunities.
Buyers Judge You by Your Website
Many organizations have developed and grown based on great customer relationships. But will that strategy, without an effective website, sustain you in the future? Forty-six percent of people consider the website as the most important criterion in determining company credibility. What do they look at?
Design: Outdated fonts, flash content and a site that doesn't open uniformly on unique devices screams "outdated." An outdated site doesn't encourage your audience to learn more about you.
Organization: The most important factor in website design is making it easy for users to find what they need. That starts with navigation. Too many menu options decreases the ability for a user to find what they need. Words and phrases used in the menu need to be consistent with how the audience thinks of your products and services. Cute or confusing terminology causes users to drop off the site.
Content: Ultimately, users visit a website to obtain useful information. A site containing generic information or content with little substance will turn away the audience. A content-rich experience that answers questions buyers have as they make their journey through the purchasing process will encourage the reader to return.
The Consumer Determines When and How to Interact with a Seller
In today’s online world, 57 percent of a purchase decision is made before a buyer even contacts a seller. Early in the purchasing process, buyers choose websites, videos, blogs and social media as the preferred method of interaction to assist them in their decision making.
Buyers look for information that coincides with where they are in the purchasing process. Educational information, solution guides, vendor comparisons and implementation plans were provided in the past by an account team. Today, the prospect looks for that content online.
Even buyers who know you find out more about you online. How often do you present a new capability to a buyer but for a variety of reasons it doesn’t resonate at that moment? Do they remember you when they do have a need? Does your website elevate your business? If not, you are missing out on opportunities.
Whether you need a complete makeover or a few improvements to ensure maximum impact, here are steps that will help you get to the next level.
Define Your Goals: A website is a vital part of your business, but just like any other investment, you need to determine what works for you and your audience. Do you want to generate leads or just provide information? What type of content will benefit your audience? If you provide stock items, does an e-commerce tool make sense?
Make a Commitment: Have you ever assigned a person to work on your site only to pull them away to deal with an urgent project? The starts and stops often result in no real progress. Plus, the competition, changes in customer needs, technological advancements and numerous other challenges mean that what works well today often doesn’t work well tomorrow. It's only through a commitment to ongoing improvement that your website will connect with your audience and drive revenue.
Research First: Using generic navigation headings like "products" or "capabilities" is easy. Site visitors can figure out what each heading means, yet your audience doesn't search for those words. They search for the specific things you do. Determining the best words and phrases requires research. Brainstorm the words and phrases that you believe connect with your customers. Review the competition and learn what they use. Query your employees, especially on the customer-facing side, to get their opinions. Conducting research upfront benefits top-level navigation selection, optimal product category names and words to use in content.
Gut the Kitchen: Update your site with a compelling layout including balanced color, graphics and multimedia.
Reduce the Menu: A huge restaurant menu makes choosing a meal difficult and increases food costs. A website with too many menu options has a similar effect. Your audience, and search engines, can't find what they want, which ultimately decreases traffic and your revenue. Human short-term memory peaks at seven items. Keep navigation at no more than seven, but even less is more.
Keep it Fresh: Fresh content helps you to attract a broader audience and keeps visitors interested and more likely to come back for repeat visits. Broken links, inactive pages and outdated/inaccurate information turns them away. They also penalize you with search engines. Avoid these problems by developing a plan to regularly update and add content. An editorial calendar defining the what, when and where of your content will keep you on track. Websites are dynamic. Ongoing updates and improvements including page optimization, content, analytics and competitor analysis are a necessity. Figure out the best way to execute these steps and your overall website development. If you don't have the subject-matter expertise internally, then consider freelance sources or a digital marketing company.
Consider Social: Writing a blog, developing social media channels and leveraging other inbound marketing tactics will help achieve your online goals. Consistency is crucial. Starting and stopping is worse than not starting at all. Determine which tactics you have the time and resources to execute, then start down that path.
Stay Involved: You don't need to execute the day-to-day Web development, but stay involved to ensure you are getting the results you deserve. Your company and customer knowledge will improve the value of your site and lead to a better outcome.
It's predicted that by 2020, more than 85 percent of a buyer's interaction with a company will take place without human interaction. Will your site engage your audience and drive revenue, or are you banking on a return of the three-martini lunch?
John Edmundson is the principal of InterEdge Marketing.