B2B merchants can reach new markets this year—if they keep their product information organized across their marketing and selling channels, writes Fred de Gombert, CEO of Akeneo.

Fred de Gombert_Akeneo

Fred de Gombert

As usual, consumer retail got plenty of media attention this past holiday season. But away from the spotlight, business-to-business sellers are also doing better than ever. In fact, B2B ecommerce now represents a global $12.2 trillion marketplace—six times larger than the B2C market, according to Statista.

That’s partly because B2B merchants are adopting many of the sales strategies that have served consumer retailers so well over the years and using B2C-style ecommerce strategies to boost their sales. We’ll see that trend continue in 2020, as B2B sellers expand their digital and real-world efforts and embrace new strategies that fuse enterprise-grade product information management (PIM) technology and creative, customer-focused B2C-style sales strategies.

Here are five key trends that will help B2B merchants to boost sales in the coming year:

1) The rise of B2B marketplaces

There are already plenty of B2B online marketplaces, including Amazon Business, eWorldTrade, Joor and Alibaba. Increasingly, though, some big brands are cutting out the middleman and launching their own digital marketplaces. Unilever recently began selling surplus products in bulk through its Unilever Liquidation Auctions platform, and dozens of other companies have launched similar overstock marketplaces.

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To run successful marketplaces, brands must put product information front-and-center. Honeywell’s marketplace, for example, is essentially a CarFax for airplane parts: buyers on GoDirect Trade can access detailed product information, including the quality and specs of the parts for sale, so they can confidently buy engines and other critical airplane components. Other B2B marketplace operators will need to follow Honeywell’s example, and find sophisticated PIM solutions that ensure customers can shop with complete confidence.

2) Think like a guide, not a salesperson

As web-savvy millennials increasingly make procurement decisions, B2B buying will depend on independent research rather than one-on-one conversations with sales reps. In fact, 41% of millennial workers are already making or influencing B2B purchasing decisions—and 60% say they don’t reach out to salespeople until after they’ve done their homework and figured out what they want to buy.

To shape buying decisions, B2B merchants will have to start supporting buyers with accurate, compelling product information. Think like a guide, not a salesperson: your aim isn’t just to make a sale, but to provide customers with the help they need as they progress through their journey. Shoppers might ultimately complete their purchase on third-party platforms, so your goal is to offer customized but consistent product information that continues to guide them as they navigate ads, branded websites, marketplaces, and other customer touchpoints.

3) Embrace social platforms and digital tools

Social selling now drives 39% of consumer purchasing decisions, and B2B sellers want to get in on the action. LinkedIn, which accounts for 80% of B2B social leads, is the obvious place to begin. But don’t stop there. Think about where your customers congregate online, and keep an eye out for emerging social media channels, too. Selling to farmers, for instance? You’ll want to be on Facebook and Twitter, and you should also keep an eye on niche sites like AgFuse.

Think about new technologies. Consumers love buying via Alexa, and digital assistants and voice search are also becoming increasingly important in B2B, with 50% of mid- to large-sized businesses set to use digital assistants in 2020. Digital assistants will change the procurement process, with buying teams relying on AI to surface products for their review. That makes it vital to offer product information tailored to the requirements of virtual assistants: get this wrong, and human decision-makers might never see your product listings.

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4) B2B brands are taking a stand

Today’s consumers are eager to support brands that take corporate responsibility seriously, with half of holiday shoppers saying they’d spend more to buy from a brand that supports the causes they care about. And social responsibility isn’t just for B2C sellers: enterprise buyers are also embracing purpose-driven procurement in order to burnish their brand, boost morale, and advance their CSR goals.

This new trend toward the use of socially responsible companies is creating opportunities for B2B sellers to highlight the ways in which their products are more ethical, greener, or more socially responsible than those of their rivals. If your products are made in America, use ethical manufacturing practices, or have been awarded eco-labels, then you’ll need to communicate those facts consistently across your marketplace listings, websites, catalogs and other assets. This is about more than just sharing product information: it’s about building trust, telling a story about your values, and forging an emotional connection with buyers.

5) Use experiences to bring your products to life

B2C brands use experiential marketing to get consumers excited, and B2B sellers are also starting to view the sales process as more than just a transaction. John Deere does this especially well: its “Drive Green” events let buyers experience the adrenaline rush of personally driving heavy equipment. Other B2B brands use online videos or interactive sessions at trade shows to help customers visualize themselves using their products.

Such approaches help merchants reach wider audiences, but it’s vital to tell a consistent and convincing story about your products across all the new touchpoints you create. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how creative or immersive an experience you offer for your customers—if it isn’t accompanied by clear and accurate product information, you’ll wind up confusing people instead of driving new sales.

Making the most of B2C strategies

In the coming year, we’ll see B2B merchants develop savvy sales strategies informed by the glitzier, more glamorous world of consumer marketing. That will bring big opportunities as merchants engage enterprise customers across an ever-wider range of platforms.

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But new strategies bring new risks, too. B2B sellers will need to manage ever-increasing amounts of information while marketing and selling their products across countless online platforms and in-person venues.

A clear product strategy is the glue that binds all these strategies together. Put the right PIM system in place, and you’ll be well placed to avoid the pitfalls—and to turn B2C-style marketing strategies into a powerful driver of B2B success in 2020 and beyond.

Fred de Gombert is CEO of Akeneo, a provider of product information management technology.

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