How to optimize your B2B ecommerce strategy using market research

How to optimize your B2B ecommerce strategy using market research

Key takeaways: Business-to-business (B2B) companies’ use of ecommerce channels has grown in recent years. There are several different ecommerce models in B2B, including B2B2C and online marketplaces. Market research provides insights on ecommerce market assessment, the buying process, and customer expectations.  

B2B companies are now more likely to offer ecommerce than in-person selling, with many traditionally offline businesses letting their customers complete transactions online.

Nearly two thirds – 65% – provide a B2B ecommerce offering, according to McKinsey, compared to just over half before COVID-19. Six in ten offer in-person selling, down from close to two thirds pre-pandemic.

But if you’re assuming that the value of these purchases is relatively low, think again – 35% are willing to spend $500,000 plus on one sole ecommerce transaction.

This doesn’t mean that B2B offline sales are becoming obsolete though, as different customers have different preferences.

The data suggests customers spend a similar amount of time using traditional B2B channels (in-person meetings), remote (video calls), and digital self-service (ecommerce). So in 2021, the majority – 60% – of B2B companies increased the size of their hybrid sales teams.

From start-up B2B companies looking to estimate their customers’ demand to buy online, to established ecommerce players, there are a variety of ways to inform the path to growth.

Contents

Types of B2B ecommerce models

Assessing the market for your ecommerce offering

Researching B2B customers’ ecommerce buying process

Exploring customer expectations for B2B ecommerce

Best practices for ecommerce strategy research in B2B

 

 

Types of B2B ecommerce models

Some ecommerce models are better suited to specific B2B industries than others. For example, selling directly to another business is relatively straightforward for a B2B SaaS company, but more complicated in transport and logistics.

There’s a wide variety of established B2B ecommerce models including:

  • Direct-to-Business
  • Online fulfillment
  • Online wholesalers/resellers
  • B2B2C
  • Online marketplace

Here are the differences:

#1 Direct-to-Business

The direct-to-business (D2B) ecommerce model cuts out any brokers, intermediaries, or go-betweens. Businesses sell products online directly to other companies using a proprietary ecommerce platform.

This model gives businesses more control over not only the customer experience but also over marketing – branding, for example.

For a company that’s well set up to sell directly, the profit margins from proprietary ecommerce platform sales tend to be higher, with no other businesses requiring a share. But for some businesses, it’s too cost or resource-intensive to fulfill orders themselves.

#2 Online fulfillment

For those businesses, B2B fulfillment is the closest alternative to D2B online selling but it relies on a bigger supply chain.

Fulfillment can handle storing, packing, and shipping orders, as well as handling returns and exchanges.

Alongside many B2B-only fulfillment suppliers, some well-known providers in this space include Fulfillment by Amazon and IBM Sterling Order Management.

#3 Online wholesalers/resellers

Online wholesalers or resellers sell B2B products via ecommerce platforms at a cost that is close to the manufacturer’s price, but usually a little higher to make a profit.

In a sense, wholesale ecommerce players act as affiliate marketers, also supporting the manufacturers by raising awareness of products among potential buyers.

Aside from handling distribution, they may repackage products or combine items to make more sales.

#4 B2B2C

In the B2B2C model, one company sells to another company, which then resells to consumers online.

The first business acts as a supplier to the second one, which then incorporates the product into its own B2C offering.

Examples include OpenTable, Instacart, and car manufacturers.

#5 Online marketplace

An online marketplace in B2B brings together many different sellers onto a single ecommerce platform, similar to Amazon for a B2C audience. They also have a dedicated B2B online marketplace – Amazon Business.

However, there are many industry-specific B2B marketplaces and ecommerce platforms too – for example:

  • Financial services: iCapital, Simply Business
  • Travel: Webjet Limited, TravelPerk
  • Industrial: Moglix, Xometry, Hectool

B2B online marketplaces offer a vast product selection across various categories, allowing buyers to compare providers efficiently across the ecommerce platform. Sellers can list products, set prices, and manage inventory through the platform.

The marketplace itself facilitates online transactions, handles secure payments, and can also offer additional services such as logistics or financing.

On the one hand, some sellers could reach a wider audience, reduce their marketing costs, and streamline order processing through an online marketplace. On the other hand, there is more competition in an online marketplace – making it easier for a competitor with a bigger brand reputation or lower prices to win your customers.

Assessing the market for your ecommerce offering

If you need to justify a business case for moving into B2B ecommerce, market assessment research can help you estimate customer demand and the size of your opportunity.

It also involves evaluating your competition for B2B ecommerce, identifying the most valuable segments in your customer base, and testing your go-to-market approach.

For ecommerce specifically, you could get the answers to questions including:

  • How mature is B2B ecommerce in your sector?
  • Are some customer segments more likely to buy B2B products online than others?
  • Which parts of the current offline customer journey should you digitize e.g. customer support?

If you identify a typical – or ideal – customer profile who prefers to buy products similar to yours online, consider creating one or more dedicated B2B buyer personas. Then when you start selling your products online, you can tailor your sales process or marketing activities in a more accurate and personalized way.

Factor in your competitors’ market share around ecommerce and estimate how much could be up for grabs, using competitive intelligence. Identify where your potential competitive advantage lies and how to capitalize on it in B2B ecommerce.

Competitive intelligence may also identify nascent challengers, but also some potential white space you can move into.

To inform your go-to-market strategy for B2B ecommerce, evaluate the different possible distribution channels. Find out where your buyers would expect to find your product or service and which ecommerce business model provides the best route to market.

Benefits of B2B go-to-market strategy research include identifying any risks that could affect the launch and testing your marketing strategy.

Researching B2B customers’ ecommerce buying process

If you’re already using a B2B ecommerce model to sell your products and services, but want to grow or improve your success on this channel, start by exploring the customer journey.

By building a comprehensive customer journey map for B2B ecommerce, you analyze qualitatively customers’ entire experience of interacting with your brand online. Specific ecommerce-related questions to answer include: 

  • How does the purchase journey using online channels differ from offline ones?
  • Are there any differences in buyers’ online decision-making criteria or customer behavior?
  • Are there any different people in their decision-making unit (DMU) for online purchases?

To improve a B2B customer experience for online purchases, you need to learn more about the current one. Customer journey mapping puts you in their shoes and sets out how they interact with your brand and competitors’ businesses.

It should cover everything from the moment when your customers realize they need to solve a business problem to the second where they click ‘buy’ online.

That includes all the touchpoints and milestones such as comparing the different solutions to defining their requirements for a product.

You can also use the insights to optimize your B2B sales cycle – specifically, the part of the sales process between customers shortlisting your product and then justifying the decision.

As part of your research, explore how customers and prospects come across and engage with marketing. To grow your B2B ecommerce offering, you may need to adjust your marketing strategy.

Through marcomms research, identify the best messages to get across and test them. Do you need to raise awareness that you’re selling online – and where – or emphasize different aspects of your product compared to offline channels?

Exploring customer expectations for B2B ecommerce

Alternatively, if you don’t see any significant areas for improvement in how customers discover your brand on ecommerce channels, you may need some different insights.

To improve your sales performance in ecommerce compared to other channels, try to identify what it is about online purchases that means your brand is losing out to rivals.

In other words, prospects may be aware that you have a B2B ecommerce offering and where it is, but they prefer to use competitors instead for – as of yet – unclear reasons.

To understand why, consider exploring your reputation for digital commerce via B2B brand tracking research. On an ongoing basis, that would shed light on your:

  • Brand prominence – an understanding of what your company offers and your credibility in desired service areas
  • Brand associations – attributes, points of differentiation, and relevance to B2B ecommerce buyers
  • Brand performance – your ecommerce reputation and ability to deliver compared to competitors

This is particularly important when offering products in an online marketplace, where competitors’ products appear alongside yours. Get insights on the extent to which prospects would consider choosing you in the future, or whether you can justify a premium price online.

There’s another option to explore – are your current products right for B2B ecommerce or is there something slightly different you could offer that would sell better online? New product development research could lead to the creation of a better-performing online portfolio.

In short:

  • Perception tracking: Compared to competitors, are your brand metrics any different for ecommerce?
  • Product development: Are some products in your portfolio better suited to ecommerce than others?

Best practices for ecommerce strategy research in B2B

#1 Work out precisely which space you’re moving into

If you’re moving into B2B ecommerce for the first time, reevaluate your market and the competitor landscape.

This isn’t always straightforward, so:

  • Define the issue your product or service addresses
  • Define your category and the niches within it
  • Identify substitute products or services

Failing to consider this in detail could mean that you only partially identify the scale of a market opportunity.

Using the jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework early on in your research can help to do this.

Focus on the ‘job’ that business customers are hiring a product for and broadly evaluate the wider range of solutions. You may even be able to identify a new solution that you could create to address your customers’ challenges in a better or more efficient way.

#2 Reframe your online competitor set

Your biggest competitor offering a B2B ecommerce service isn’t necessarily another company that sells similar products or services online.

The most disruptive players could come from outside your sector, bringing a different solution from their industry to solve an unmet need in yours. 

B2B ecommerce brings a greater democratization of products and services that are just a Google search or URL away. So, look beyond your current competitors and reframe the threats – again, the JTBD framework is useful here.

#3 Prepare to pivot or adjust your ecommerce strategy

If your ecommerce strategy is set in stone before you start planning your go-to-market approach, you’ll struggle to benefit from any improvements identified before going live.

Before then, you might learn that you should change your pricing strategy, or that your positioning needs tailoring for online buyers, and so on.

From a market research perspective, try to start your project as soon as possible, before stakeholders fully form their plans. 

Any research you run will have a greater impact if there is still scope to inform your ecommerce launch and can contribute to the approach.

#4 Track your ecommerce customer experience over time

After making any major changes to your B2B ecommerce strategy, measure the change in results – not just in terms of improved sales performance, but also the customer experience.

Some popular metrics for this in B2B include:

Unlike many B2C brands that send customers quarterly or even monthly surveys, B2B requires a different approach. B2B customer pools are typically smaller, making frequent surveys impractical and decision-makers less likely to participate.

Additionally, since B2B sales cycles are longer, perception shifts and internal improvements take time to register in the customer data. By allowing more space – 12 to 18 months – between studies, you’re more likely to see the impact of your efforts reflected in the results.

#5 Choose the right respondents to survey or interview

Broadly speaking, the four different types of audiences to consider including in any ecommerce research are: 

  • New customers
  • Established customers
  • Lapsed customers
  • Prospects

Each audience type will provide unique insights into the different touchpoints or pain points around your ecommerce offering.

For qualitative research – usually in-depth interviews in B2B – use a short screening call first before the subsequent 15-60 minute detailed interview. That ensures respondents are who they claim to be and have the relevant expertise to participate.

For quantitative research, there are often challenges to using B2B market research panels – a key difference with B2C studies – but we can advise on the other viable options.

#6 Measure the impact of your marcomms

Aside from tracking your brand’s performance in ecommerce, it’s worth measuring the impact of your marcomms campaign too.

For example, test your brand and product awareness among B2B buyers who mainly use online channels when purchasing – unprompted and then prompted.

Find out from customers if your marketing strategy is supporting your ecommerce approach and test for their CTA recall too – do they know where to go to find you?

 

Summary

From start-up B2B companies looking to estimate their customers’ demand to buy online, to established ecommerce players, there are several ways to inform your path to growth.

Types of B2B ecommerce models

B2B ecommerce models include Direct-to-Business (D2B), online fulfillment, online wholesalers/resellers, B2B2C, and online marketplaces.

Assessing the market for your ecommerce offering

If you need to justify a business case for moving into B2B ecommerce, market assessment research helps estimate customer demand and the size of your opportunity.

Factor in your competitors’ market share around ecommerce and estimate how much could be up for grabs, using competitive intelligence.

Find out how mature is ecommerce in your sector – and are some customer segments more likely to buy B2B products online than others?

Benefits of B2B go-to-market strategy research include identifying any risks that could affect the launch and testing your marketing strategy.

Researching B2B customers’ ecommerce buying process

By building a comprehensive customer journey map for B2B ecommerce, you analyze qualitatively customers’ entire experience of interacting with your brand online.

How does the purchase journey using online channels differ from offline ones? Are there any differences in buyers’ online decision-making criteria or customer behavior? Are there any different people in their decision-making unit (DMU) for online purchases?

Through marcomms research, identify the best messages to get across and test them. Do you need to raise awareness that you’re selling online – and where – or emphasize different aspects of your product compared to offline channels?

Exploring customer expectations for B2B ecommerce

To improve your sales performance in ecommerce compared to other channels, try to identify what it is about online purchases that means your brand is losing out to rivals.

Consider exploring your reputation for online purchases via B2B brand tracking research. On an ongoing basis, that would shed light on your brand prominence, associations, and performance. And in terms of product development research, are some products in your portfolio better suited to ecommerce than others?

Best practices for ecommerce strategy research in B2B

We recommend that you: work out precisely which space you’re moving into; reframe your online competitor set; prepare to pivot or adjust your ecommerce strategy; track your ecommerce customer experience over time; choose the right respondents to survey or interview; measure the impact of your marcomms.

Chris Wells
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