Blurring the lines of B2B & B2C Ecommerce

June 8, 2024
 · 
7 min read
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TL;42 *

B2B and B2C eCommerce used to be two separate worlds. Not anymore. Instead of wasting time arguing over who should learn what from whom, a better, more interesting question to ask might be what B2B and B2C can learn from each other.


For the past few years, it seems clear that B2B needs to catch up and learn how to offer buyers “a B2C-like experience”, understood as a seamless, engaging, or, in other words, decent personal experience. The (valid) reasoning behind it is that, ultimately, buying is always personal, because — at least for now — all buyers are people, regardless of whom they may be buying for. This could be summarized as the “all commerce is B2P (business-to-people) or B2H (business-to-human)” approach.

Professor Mark Ritson notes that “almost every marketing concept and approach (for B2C) is still relevant to B2B”. And it’s true.

It’s also true that B2B has its specificities — audiences are more focused, sales cycles are longer, relationships are more complex, and stakes are higher, as is loss aversion, because making a bad personal purchase decision will hardly ever cost you your job, as Rory Sutherland aptly explains:

“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

And the plot thickens, because the lines between B2C and B2B eCommerce are increasingly blurring.

After 2020, there was a major change in the way B2B companies behave in the digital realm. Figures, like hips, don’t lie:

  • Ecommerce penetration in the US went from 16 to 34% in just 8 weeks during the pandemic, which equals a 10 year leap forward. (McKinsey)
  • 87% of B2B clients prefer a supplier with the best Ecommerce portal and customer experience even if it means paying more. (BigCommerce)
  • 35% of B2B businesses have listed investing in Ecommerce platform technology as their top priority this year. (BigCommerce)

What B2B can learn from B2C

“One-to-one” can be “brand-to-brand”

B2C brands have always tried to connect on a one on one relationship, offering online experiences that made things easier and more enjoyable, dealing with support and return requests effectively, and focusing on innovative marketing tactics. B2B had not needed that, until now. We relied on offline relationships and online transactions, and now we have to catch up with the intersection: Online ABM is more important than ever.

B2B companies can emulate B2C by investing in UX design that simplifies complex transactions and enhances satisfaction. With more B2B buyers using mobile to research and purchase, a responsive design that ensures the platform is accessible and functional across all devices is no longer optional.

The story actually matters

DTC brands are pioneers in influencer marketing and storytelling, creating engaging narratives that resonate and build trust. And yes, there’s perhaps too much fuzz about storytelling as if it was the Holy Grail of Marketing, when it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

One that can elevate B2B companies’ positioning and differentiation to a truly competitive level, helping them communicate value propositions more effectively and create a more personable, engaging, brand image.

Everyone loves lifestyle content when Apple does it, but we often neglect it in B2B, limiting the content to simply transactional, spec-driven requirements. A convincing, authentic, beautiful story can help you beat the competition.

Selling goal is to sell as much as we can

DTC brands master the art of omnichannel marketing, using every possible digital channel to reach their audience. B2B companies should adopt similar strategies, leveraging email, social media, SMS, and subscription models to engage customers and drive sales.

It's no longer just about stock, pricing, and custom deals. It's about creating all these things to control and convey the narrative through your digital channels and find new customers, and for those customers to be able to distribute your product efficiently to the end customer.

Key elements to work harder at:

  • Experimenting with syndication, data feed, marketplaces and other ways to find new wholesale buyers.
  • Daring to question the model and explore whether selling directly to consumers (perhaps outside your current market) is a good idea.
  • Empowering your distributors or wholesalers with top-notch marketing materials so they, in turn, can explore omnichannel under one global brand strategy.

Make it personal

Personalization is not easy to get right when dealing with companies. B2C learned how to pull this off ages ago. The technology offering around personalization is huge, and ubiquitous across all platforms.Gathering good data and using it to mold your offering in a relevant, ethical and positive way for your customers is reasonably simple, affordable and cost-efficient.

As a B2B brand you’re not only dealing with a customer’s procurement department. You’re dealing with people that will appreciate shortcuts, personalized suggestions, targeted content and tailored opportunities that will make their lives easier.

Complement that with a platform that can help you integrate your ERP and deliver special pricing whenever you need it - percentage based, credit based, or a simply a well integrated price list. Well executed, this helps you make the most out of every agreement, while making every client feel appreciated and cared for.

Make it agile

Experimenting is key to continuous improvement of both customer satisfaction and sales. Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO), a fancy way to say “experiment until it improves”, is a widespread practice for B2C brands. Who says you can’t run split testing on a wholesale portal? Or that you can’t analyze the custom pricing difference between customers and gain insights?

Come up with a gameplan, create the questions you want answers for, put them in a calendar, gather data, improve, and iterate.

Think digital first

95% of the sales cycle on B2B happens digitally. It’s the final, human powered, 5% that closes and makes it happen, but the more you can optimize the big 95% cycle, the better your chances at closing the deal.

A personalized, smart cycle, with a sensible use of AI powered features can drive your gross order values up and your churn rates down, and remind your customers to refill, reorder or in other ways, return, making the relationship stronger.

And what can B2C learn from B2B?

A few things we can think of:

Positioning

Positioning is often neglected. April Dunford explains it through this wonderful quote:

“Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.”

Dolly Parton

B2C brands can be so focused on metrics and sales figures that they forget about actual brand positioning. Working sales and experience alone can deliver results in the short term, but reality will catch up if your positioning is weak.

Loyalty

Arguably the biggest challenge in the most competitive market scenario in history. B2B knows the game. It’s about people, relationships, and anticipating needs. Through careful personalization and smart CRM features, this can be replicated on B2C’s one to one relationships.

Influencer relationships

With the exception of very public verticals like fashion and luxury, influencer marketing is not as common as it should be on B2C. B2B, on the other hand, because of its more “corporate-y” nature, has a better handle on success stories, case studies, and public endorsements from experts in their field. Take this one with a pinch of salt, though: A lot of wholesale companies are way behind with their homework when it comes to selling the story of success delivered by their brand.

What about DNVBs?

Oh my, we sure love a good acronym.

Digitally Native Vertical Brands excel at a number of things. Particularly:

  • Controlling the customer experience end to end. From product to support, the entire value chain is tailored to reflect brand values.
  • Building communities. Empowering the user to become the best possible ambassador, and sell on their behalf.
  • Smarter distribution chains. Due to their nature, these brands have a very smart control of their product’s lifecycle, from creation to distribution to support. Is your process improvable?
  • Run everything backwards. These brands reverse the traditional cycle: They’re born online, and then grow and expand to brick and mortar. The key takeaway is to always attempt to invert a problem in order to find an unexpected solution.

Here’s a handy list of outstanding DNVB brands you might find interesting.

Speaking of reversing

Here’s a classic, with a twist:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

Tolstoi. Anna Karenina.

We’d like to propose a Reverse Anna Karenina Principle.
Every marketing challenge is unique; each challenge is different in the same way, kind of.

B2B marketing challenges and B2C marketing challenges are just marketing challenges. The endgame is the same: making our customers happier, and our brands stronger.

Technology allows us to escape dogmas and apply what we like to our business, whether it’s around marketing, strategy, money, purpose, storytelling, or just plain experimentation.

When it comes to inspiration to grow your business, as the Belfast Lion would say, take it where you find it.

*We like our TL;DRs in forty two words.

Tagged: B2B · B2C · ecommerce · insights · newsletter
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