Mastering B2B Ecommerce: A Comprehensive Guide

March 11, 2024
18 min read
Featured Image

Simply put, B2B ecommerce involves selling products to - and building strong relationships with - customers which happen to be businesses. Simply put, but not so simply done. 

Although ultimately, and as long as humans are the only beings engaging in commerce (whether online or otherwise), all ecommerce will always be about and between people, “business to human”, or “business to people” if you will,  there are some specifics that apply to the particular people who are engaging in transactions on behalf of a business.

For example, the audience differs. It’s much broader in B2C, and more focused in B2B. Also, in B2B, the cycles are longer and the stakes are higher. For example, loss aversion is much stronger in B2B because, while making a bad purchase decision in B2C leaves you with a bad product at home, in B2B it could mean losing your job.

In B2B marketing, there are emotional and irrational factors that influence decision-making. David Ogilvy believed that people primarily buy things emotionally rather than for rational reasons. However, he also recognized the need for an excuse or post-rationalization to justify their decisions. This implies that while emotions play a significant role in B2B decision-making, individuals still feel the need to provide logical justifications for their choices. 

Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman at Ogilvy UK

By focusing on experiences and solutions tailored to their specific needs, e-commerce managers can effectively attract (and retain) B2B customers. 

From COVID and onwards, B2B has been consistently adopting many of the best practices that had long been standard in the DTC landscape, or B2C. This comprehensive 2024 B2B ecommerce guide will cover the basics of all you need to know, whether you run a business that is trying to catch up, or one that is ready to take the plunge and dive into the B2B or Hybrid space. 

Understanding some key B2B marketing principles

The 95-5 Rule

In a time when websites are no longer browsing tools but shopping tools, ecommerce sites are mainly transactional, they must be. But that in itself is not enough. While the primary goal of an ecommerce site is to facilitate transactions, it's equally important to be informational and provide rich, interesting content. 

It’s a principle, a challenge and an opportunity: to convey lifestyle and branding content for customers, catering to the ROPO (research online, purchase offline) behavior, whereby customers seek to educate themselves and engage with the brand's style and values before making a purchase decision. Way before. Mental availability takes time to build. 

You know the funnel? OK. Let’s flip it. 

95% of potential buyers aren’t ready to buy today. Today, they are “out-market”.  but will be “in-market” sometime in the future.  

The way advertising ‘works’ isn’t by stimulating us to buy. How can it, if most people who see an ad aren’t going to buy the product for perhaps a year or more. Therefore, the way it works must principally be by building a memory link for the brand in buyers’ minds. And this memory link will be activated when the buyer does come into the market. Advertising impressions, accumulated over time, affect our memories. So, your advertising must be designed to create distinct impressions about your brand in people’s minds - to be activated later.

John Dawes, 2021

The 95-5 principle implies advertising mostly to buyers who are not likely to buy from you today.  In this case, it implies providing relevant content that will help your brand be more easily remembered by your potential buyers. 

How much content, you may ask. According to the 2023 Content Preferences Survey Report from Demand Gen  71% of buyers download and consume multiple assets to help with the decision-making process and 46% increased the amount of content they consumed recently.

And what kind of content? Well, the report states that the most appealing format is “short-form content, such as infographics and blog posts (65%), closely followed by webinars and digital events (52%). About half of the respondents also said they favor long form, foundational content, such as white papers and E-books (50%), and other interactive multimedia content and case studies or user generated content (42%)”.

Performance Marketing vs. Performance Branding

You’ve probably heard of performance marketing, a highly targeted, data-driven approach that involves paying for specific actions, such as clicks, conversions, or sales, rather than potential exposure, allowing businesses to measure the impact of their marketing efforts in real-time and make adjustments as needed to optimize return on investment (ROI). 

The essence of performance marketing lies in its accountability, with every dollar spent expected to produce a measurable return. The focus is to generate immediate, quantifiable results, primarily sales leads, through tactics that are easy to measure and optimize for short-term gains. This approach is about capturing existing demand within the market.

Performance Marketing is a powerful approach, but nothing is perfect. It does have its limitations. Performance Marketing is great for short term goals. For your overarching business goals, it is not the best approach. It is not the best thing for more general goals. Or goals that cannot be tracked because their success depends on multiple factors. Or those that will inevitably take a long time.

Read here

Also, as we’ve just seen, the approach operates under the limitation of only engaging the 5% of buyers actively seeking products or services, thus neglecting the vast majority who are not yet ready to make a purchase. There are more strategic approaches, like for instance, Performance Branding.

Enter Performance Branding

Performance branding aims to establish a brand's presence in the minds of future customers. It doesn't capture demand, but builds it, by reaching out to the 95% of potential buyers who are not immediately looking to purchase but will be in the future. By investing in creating a memorable brand, companies ensure that when potential buyers become ready to purchase, their brand is at the forefront of customers' minds. 

It’s a powerful marketing tool that emphasizes the importance of reaching beyond the immediate, transactional engagements of performance marketing and seeking to build a lasting relationship with the vast majority of potential buyers who are currently out-market. 

The distinction between performance branding and performance marketing is pivotal in the B2B sector. This long-term strategy emphasizes creating a consistent, compelling brand narrative that resonates with the target audience, ultimately influencing their purchasing decisions. Understanding the importance of performance branding is crucial for modern B2B businesses aiming to establish a strong market presence and foster lasting customer relationships.

The separation between brand and performance marketing is increasingly blurry. Marketers are rethinking their approaches, and the era of treating brand and performance as isolated entities might be coming to an end. Performance branding isn't just a buzzword; it's a strategic approach that intertwines brand awareness with conversion rates.


The Value of UX in modern B2B ecommerce

In every scenario, but especially in B2B, where decision-making involves greater complexity and longer cycles, UX is central to ecommerce strategy. It's not only about looks but creating an easy, direct route to your offerings. An exceptional UX design is what sparks the business relationship on a positive note.

B2B buyers are on a quest, not for products, but for solutions. They navigate a labyrinth of options, and of course, value clarity and trust. A well-crafted UX turns complex into comprehensible. Understanding the unique challenges B2B buyers face – from evaluating product specs to securing buy-in from multiple stakeholders – and offering a digital experience that feels less like a transaction and more like a partnership is paramount.

According to BigCommerce’s Global B2B buyer behavior report, B2B buyers value UX features such as accurate product and shipping information, quick-loading websites, and quality customer support. They also prioritize displaying complete and accurate pricing information during the checkout process.

The benefits of investing in UX are tangible: increased trust, loyalty, and satisfaction that encourage lasting connections. A well-designed UX not only facilitates smoother transactions but also significantly enhances customer satisfaction and loyalty.

There are more differences, of course, but for now, we’ll focus on ecommerce tools and strategies in the light of the above principles.

Why implementing B2B Ecommerce is a good idea

Because everyone else is doing it.

OK, not everyone. But quite many. In 2021, 53% of B2B companies offered e-commerce capabilities. It went up to 65 % in 2022. *

Currently, B2B merchants are more likely to offer e-commerce channels than in-person selling. It was a necessity during the pandemic, but turned into a preference afterwards.

*McKinsey & Company Global B2B Pulse Jan 2019-Nov 2021

Because they say time is money, and it’s true. 

Implementing ecommerce solutions streamlines operations and boosts efficiency. It automates many of the cumbersome manual processes that traditionally bog down sales cycles. From instant order processing to real-time inventory management, ecommerce platforms can dramatically reduce the time it takes to move from inquiry to fulfillment.

It also reduces manual errors, improves customer experience and frees up valuable resources, allowing teams to focus on strategic tasks rather than operational chores. How many wins is that?

Because it allows companies to grow in space and time

OK, time first. One of the standout advantages of B2B ecommerce is its ability to scale operations effectively. As businesses grow, ecommerce platforms can accommodate an increasing volume of transactions and customer accounts, ensuring that scaling up doesn't mean scaling out of the current systems. This scalability is vital for businesses aiming to expand their reach and capabilities without compromising on efficiency or customer experience.

Now space. B2B ecommerce allows businesses to enter new markets easily without the need for a physical presence. A manufacturer in one territory can effortlessly supply a retailer in another one. This global reach is essential for companies looking to capitalize on emerging markets and global trends minimizing efforts and risks.

Because it helps businesses give their B2B customers the experience they need

Today's B2B buyers expect a consumer-like shopping experience - easy, intuitive, and accessible - not 9 to 5 but 24/7. Ecommerce platforms deliver on these expectations by offering detailed product information, customer reviews, and personalized shopping experiences. This not only improves customer satisfaction but also fosters loyalty and repeat business.

Having longer cycles means a relationship that is more long-term. In such a scenario, personalization can make a significant difference. Ecommerce platforms enable businesses to offer personalized experiences at scale, from customized product recommendations to tailored pricing models. B2B This level of personal attention not only fosters stronger relationships but also increases the likelihood of repeat business, as customers feel understood and valued.

Because the customer is always right

Ecommerce is what B2B buyers prefer. BigCommerce’s Global B2B Buyer Behavior Report  highlights that, just like everyone else, B2B buyers are increasingly relying on online channels to conduct research, compare products, and make purchases.  Ecommerce has surpassed in-person as the one most effective sales channel. Over 60% of B2B buyers prefer to engage remotely or digitally at every stage of the purchasing journey*. 

*McKinsey & Company Global B2B Pulse Jan 2019-Nov 2021

What makes B2B ecommerce grow? The people who use it. B2B buyers want the best of every possible world. What do we mean?

Well, old school stuff still works, and a B2B buyer will appreciate a call from a sales rep just like the next guy, but they also value an online experience like the one they have in their non-business related shopping experiences.  

BigCommerce’s report states the top pain points experienced by B2B buyers when shopping online include inaccurate pricing and shipping information, slow website loading times, and poor customer support. Oh, and of course, the checkout. Always the checkout.

What you should look for when shopping for a B2B Ecommerce Platform

OK, now that you’re sold

As Lewis Carroll (and George Harrison) say, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there”. Choosing the right B2B ecommerce platform becomes easier, and more successful, if you know what to look for. 

One of the first and most important factors to consider before choosing an eCommerce platform is what kind of B2B business you have, as this will determine your specific needs. For example, B2B2C companies (business to business to consumer) need a platform that can put businesses in direct contact with consumers, no middle man, whereas a Wholesale eCommerce model is better suited for companies that sell bulk and discounted products to other companies. 

Another key factor is your team’s technical knowledge. Platforms have different interfaces and require different levels of technical expertise. The best platform is the one your team can make the most of.

Read here

Having said that, irrespective of industry, location, or size, online merchants need to build shopping experiences that increase engagement, attract modern shoppers where they are -that means multiple channels- and make them become loyal, repeat buyers. And whichever the solution, it must allow businesses to strategically expand to grow market share and revenue streams, all while streamlining operations and lowering costs and risk. Here are things to consider to achieve these imperative goals.

Flexibility and scalability to be able to move

Flexibility and scalability are buzzwords, and for good reason. 

One size fits all does not apply to eCommerce platforms, or to B2B companies, or to anyone anymore. On one hand, customers want personalized experiences and eCommerce solutions must be customizable and flexible enough to deal with that. On the other hand, companies that prepare for and seek growth need solutions that can grow along. Key word: scalability. Businesses all over the world have caught on and offer tailored, functional solutions that won’t break the bank. B2B is no exception.

Read here

Your list of non-negotiables must include choosing a B2B ecommerce platform that grows with you without hitches or glitches. That’s non-negotiable.

And a million little things

Power-up your setup on a budget: Ecommerce integrations

Choosing a platform that can integrate with your essential business software is crucial. You probably are using –or considering using – PIMs, ERPs, CRMs, etc. You don't want to invest time and money only to end up stuck with an eCommerce platform that can't connect to the systems you rely on for smooth operations. That's why it's important to find a platform that seamlessly integrates with all your software without holding you back.

Choosing the right platform and the right partners is tough without help. Check out our pros and cons of hiring a B2B ecommerce expert agency.

Creative freedom to improve engagement: Ecommerce design

Look for a solution that allows you to tailor your site’s look, feel, and function to mirror your brand’s personality. There are quite many fish in the ecommerce sea, so being able to stand out requires an ecommerce site as unique as your business proposition.

Friction, or the lack thereof: Ecommerce conversion

A good B2B ecommerce platform should simplify the buying process, even when dealing with complex catalogs. Customization capabilities are key to ensure clients can navigate offerings as easily as possible.

The need for speed: Ecommerce performance

A slow platform is a losing platform. The speed of your ecommerce platform can make or break the user experience. A platform that loads pages slowly, struggles with processing orders, or experiences downtime can frustrate users and drive potential buyers away.

Speed is not just a technical feature; it's a critical component of customer satisfaction. A fast-loading site ensures that B2B buyers can find what they need without delay, enhancing their overall experience and increasing the likelihood of conversion. Again, time is indeed money. 

Time is money. Money is money too: Ecommerce cost of ownership

 When evaluating B2B ecommerce platforms, it's essential to consider not just the upfront costs but the total cost of ownership (TCO) over time. TCO encompasses all the direct and indirect costs associated with acquiring, implementing, and maintaining the platform, including software licenses, hosting fees, integration expenses, training, and support. A platform with a lower initial price might end up being more expensive in the long run if it requires significant customization, additional software purchases, or frequent upgrades.

Conversely, a solution that seems expensive upfront might offer greater value through robust features, scalability, and lower ongoing maintenance costs. Assessing TCO helps businesses make informed decisions, ensuring that the chosen ecommerce platform delivers the best return on investment while meeting their specific needs and growth objectives.

The bald kid was wrong. There’s definitely a box: B2B Ecommerce essential features

What there isn’t is a set amount of features that must come out of it, let alone a definitive list of which those should be. Again, it will depend on your specific needs. However, there are some essential out of the box features for a B2B business. 

A crucial one is customization and account management features that allow for different roles and responsibilities, requiring varied levels of access and authority. An ecommerce platform for B2B should support bulk purchasing, allowing B2B customers to buy in large quantities easily. This includes facilitating quick order placement and providing discounts.

Since B2B transactions often involve negotiated pricing and repeat orders, the platform should support custom pricing for each customer and provide reorder functionality. This flexibility is crucial for accommodating the diverse pricing strategies inherent in B2B transactions​​.

Other vital features include BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick-up In-Store), a.k.a. Click and Collect for hybrid convenience, and multiple storefronts to cater to your multi-brand strategy, if you manage more than one brand, or are considering it. 

Finally even if DTC (Direct-to-Consumer) isn’t on your radar now, who’s to say it won’t be? Choose a platform that offers hybrid capabilities, ensuring you’re not boxed in as your business model evolves.

In a way, picking a B2B ecommerce platform is not that different from choosing a business - or a life- partner: you want one that supports you, makes you better, and is in it for the long haul. It’s not about finding a platform that just meets your needs today but one that will also love you tomorrow.

Composable or not composable

So what’s the question

The term composable commerce (coined by Gartner)  is defined by the ability to decompose an entity into various modules, which then combine to form the whole. Composability is a design principle in technology and business that emphasizes the ability to select and assemble various components or services to create customized solutions.

This approach allows for flexibility, scalability, and rapid adaptation to changing needs or technologies. It is therefore vital for businesses seeking to maintain a competitive edge by leveraging modular architectures, such as microservices or APIs, to build agile and resilient systems. 

A composable architecture allows companies to build their organization from interchangeable building blocks, with four key tenets: modularity, openness, flexibility, and a business-centric approach. This structure facilitates the assembly of Packaged Business Capabilities (PBCs) like virtual shopping carts, order management, or account management to meet specific business needs. It enables businesses to select best-in-breed vendors for a robust, functional technology stack, offering customization flexibility beyond the constraints of traditional, monolithic platforms.

Moreover, this modular strategy allows businesses to select and integrate the best-of-breed solutions—ranging from content management systems to payment gateways—into a cohesive platform. 

However, the need to integrate various components and manage a modular system introduces complexity and may require specialized skills not readily available in all organization​s. 

Moreover, adopting a composable approach might entail significant initial investment and pose challenges in integrating disparate systems, especially for businesses with limited technical expertise. So, while composable commerce offers B2B companies unparalleled flexibility, scalability, and future-readiness, it also demands careful consideration of its complexity, resource requirements, and integration challenges. Businesses must weigh these factors based on their specific circumstances, resources, and strategic goals.That is the question.

B2B Ecommerce Website Development

The process of building a B2B ecommerce website in the current digital age represents a significant shift from the past. Gone are the days when businesses had to invest heavily in custom, monolithic platforms that took a long time to deploy. Today, the overall cost of ownership for ecommerce platforms has significantly decreased, leading to quicker and more cost-effective development. This change has made it easier for businesses of all sizes to enter the B2B ecommerce space.

A B2B ecommerce site is not a project with a definite end point, but rather a continuous work in progress. And that’s a good thing. It allows businesses to refine their offer based on market trends, customer feedback, and data analytics, ensuring the platform remains relevant and competitive.

B2B buyers expect basic functionality from a vendor’s website, especially at checkout. They are bringing their expectations from the DTC space and expecting the same from B2B merchants, including fast load times, working links, and multiple payment methods, among others. They will both value and reward robust and accurate product information, especially as purchasing frequency decreases. Moreover, technical specifications, high-quality imagery, customer reviews, and real-time inventory are vital for ecommerce success.

Best Practices for B2B ecommerce website development

Here are a few key best practices to successfully develop a B2B ecommerce website:

  • Adopt Flexibility: The ability to quickly adjust to new business requirements is essential in B2B ecommerce. Choose platforms that provide the flexibility needed to accommodate your evolving business needs.
  • Enhance User Experience (UX): A successful B2B ecommerce site must offer an excellent user experience. This means creating a site where navigation is straightforward, information is readily available, and the purchase process is efficient.
  • Select Scalable Solutions: Your ecommerce needs will grow with your business. It's crucial to select a platform that can handle an increasing volume of transactions and customer accounts without requiring a system overhaul.
  • Use Analytics: Analytics play a crucial role in ecommerce. They offer insights into customer behavior and preferences, enabling you to make informed decisions and continuous improvements.
  • Ensure Security: B2B transactions often involve the exchange of sensitive data. It's imperative to choose a platform that offers robust security measures and complies with industry standards.
  • Integrate Seamlessly: Your ecommerce platform should integrate smoothly with the existing tools and systems in your ecosystem, such as CRM, ERP, and PIM, to ensure efficient operations.
  • Prioritize Content: Engaging, informative content is vital for attracting potential buyers. Invest in high-quality product descriptions, blog posts, and other content that educates and engages your audience.

By following these guidelines during the development of your B2B ecommerce website, you can create a platform that not only meets the immediate needs of your business and its customers but also positions you for long-term success and growth. Remember, the development of an ecommerce site is a continuous process that requires regular updates and improvements.

B2B Ecommerce Trends 

We have written about future ecommerce trends and the future of ecommerce here and here. And we specifically discuss current and future trends in B2B ecommerce in this podcast. You can also check this report on B2B ecommerce trends from The B2B Institute.

The role of headless ecommerce

There are a myriad of options for headless, with all kinds of programming languages and structure that allow merchants to update or even completely change storefronts keeping the same platform.

According to Andy Hoar and Brian Beck’s Master B2B ecommerce predictions for 2024, “the future won’t be headless, but mostly composable”.

Although headless architectures provide flexibility, they may lack key pre-composed features. On the other hand, composable commerce - which actually predates headless- goes beyond by separating all components, not just frontend from backend. So we are likely to see more companies gravitate towards a more composable approach and find a middle ground, hybrid architecture between all in one solutions and fully composable structures to strike a much needed balance between the value offered by full flexibility and the speed and ease of use that come with pre-composed functions.

Ecommerce is the NOW big thing in B2B, not a future trend. And it involves a million little things. Mastering B2B ecommerce requires a blend of understanding human behavior, leveraging cutting-edge technology, and creating memorable brand experiences. We can help. Give us a call.

Tagged: b2b business · ecommerce

Receive our insights in your inbox

Free, relevant, delivered every two weeks, with a fresh take on B2B E-Commerce, Strategy & Technology.