According to Forrester, U.S. business-to-business (B2B) ecommerce transactions are expected to reach $1.8 trillion by 2023. This would account for 17% of all B2B sales in the country.
Despite being slow to adopt ecommerce, B2B brands are increasingly looking to digital means to boost sales — a move driven by the success of Amazon Business and the changing B2B buyer demographic.
In 2015, Google found that close to half of B2B buyers are millennials, nearly double the number from 2012.
As the “typical” B2B buyer changes, a business’ sales process should too.
Where a Gen X buyer may prefer the handheld experience that a sales rep can provide, millennials expect that same personalized experience through streamlined, digital channels.
That leaves merchants to decipher the modern B2B buyer’s needs, without much available guidance.
Prior to 2020, the B2B audience was made up of baby boomers and members of Generation X. Baby boomers preferred getting their information from data sheets, sales literature and product trials. On the other hand, Gen X sought information from trade shows, conferences and print ads.
Today, 73% of millennials are involved in the B2B buying process. This generation has puzzled many, but they hold some distinguishing characteristics that explain how and why they operate. Millennials grew up alongside technology and as many as 38% of them admit to buying the latest gadgets.
More millennials have college degrees than any other prior generation. While this is impressive, it has affected the way they've shaped their careers. Student loan debt is also a big reason why this generation is protective with spending and why they seek transparency from brands.
All of this lends itself to how this group of B2B customers views marketing efforts.
In the years leading up to 2010, traditional marketing included cold calling, collateral and trade shows. Experts knew that these physical marketing efforts were being phased out and digital efforts, such as ebooks and social media, were on the rise.
Today's B2B buyer conducts approximately 12 online searches before making a purchase from a specific brand. In response, 55% of B2B marketing budgets are directed toward digital efforts that help provide a more personalized buying experience.
Many businesses are also looking at AI to gain a competitive advantage through chatbots and search marketing. Augmented reality (AR) is also becoming part of the picture. By 2022, it's expected that 25% of enterprises will launch AR and another 70% will experiment with it.
Only about 23% of B2B retailers with an ecommerce channel still accept fax orders.
That number is much lower in comparison to the three most popular payment arenas:
On the rise are mobile apps and marketplaces like Amazon — a clear sign B2B retailers are moving quickly from nascent ecommerce channel experimentation to full omni-channel sales approaches.
Credit cards still reign supreme for the online channel (94%), though checks, terms, and purchase orders remain vital for B2B buyers (51%, 53%, 50%, respectively).
On the rise are mobile wallets like Amazon Pay and Apple Pay (26%).
In the “other” category, third-party financing and ACH were the most commonly cited.
In all, B2B retailers are not as new to online sales as the ecommerce industry makes them out to be.
Most B2B retailers (78%) have been selling online for at least 2-5 years, or longer.
Those brands that are not yet selling through a dedicated website are overwhelmingly planning to in the next 24 months.
Let's take a look at the numbers backing today's top B2B trends.
As many as 50% of B2B companies prefer blogging as a marketing strategy, while 40% look to sending email newsletters and creating social media content. Digital methods of content marketing have replaced print ads and brochures, and B2B audiences are finding brands across many different channels.
More than 30% of content demand comes from audiences in IT, followed by executives, HR, marketing and education. This is a 3% increase from last year, but should come as no surprise given that technology continues to grow and is an area of interest for many businesses.
B2B buyers expect various digital efforts from vendors, including:
According to a survey conducted by Isoline in 2019, 53% of B2B decision makers said video was the most useful form of content, followed closely by case studies. Video was also the top choice for the type of content most shared.
While the sales funnel was once very straightforward, now 90% of B2B buyers enter, exit and reenter the funnel at various points.
As much as 80% of B2B buying decisions are based on a buyer’s direct or indirect customer experience, and only 20% is based on the price or the actual offering.
B2Bs have their work cut out for them this year. We've listed the top B2B ecommerce trends to master in order to see business success.
In the past, online selling for B2B merchants wasn’t a core part of their B2B business and sales strategy.
Instead, sites were simply “portals” that were intended to replace customer service reps with online technology, or they served solely as catalogs (if the brands had sites at all).
Previously, any version of a B2B ecommerce site only served existing customers, allowing them to place reorders by using an established term account.
Now, B2B players want to acquire new customers and their ecommerce site is a great place for that. Online search tools enable new customers to research, find and place an order easier than ever before.
In fact, 74% of B2B buyers report researching at least half of their work purchases online.
With more B2B buyers going online to research and buy products, merchants must be where their customers are. Bringing in these new customers becomes a focal point of B2B online selling and the purpose of an ecommerce site.
Let’s look at a few examples.
For some B2B brands, earning net new customers means taking a part of their business directly to consumers.
This is what is known as “going direct.”
It opens a new revenue stream for your business, selling the same products at individual prices rather than in bulk to B2B buyers.
This is how Knobs Co has done it. The company created a B2C-focused site that allows B2B buyers to sign in and get additional benefits like price discounts, white glove service and more.
FlexFire LEDs relies heavily on SEO for net-new customer acquisition. Focusing on this has enabled this B2B brand to attract the business of Disney, Apple, Ford and more. They do it by providing extensive educational material on their products and proving to Google and future customers that they are a subject matter expert.
You don’t need a blog to do this. You just need evergreen, smart information, ideally using graphics and video in addition to text to explain your product, who it is right for, how to use it, etc.
Check out the image below to see how FlexFire LEDs does this on their learning pages.
In 2018, online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, Alibaba.com, Etsy and Catch dominated the retail B2C industry, accounting for more than 50% of global online retail sales.
On the other hand, B2B ecommerce sales through websites and online marketplaces are accelerating and growth is at an all-time high. Only 6% of B2B buyers do not currently use online marketplaces and 75% of B2B procurement spending is projected to happen via an online marketplace within the next five years.
According to Gartner, the enterprise marketplace is a new business model that creates wider ecosystems, has new capabilities, and allows brands to generate new sources of revenue. Marketplaces are more efficient in time and cost, as they serve as a one-stop-shop for B2B buyers.
One of the best advantages of B2B marketplaces is their ability to attract new, engaged audiences. Not only can this mean more sales, but it's also an opportunity to reach global markets and test new products.
What does this data suggest?
That beyond getting your B2B business online, it needs to be mobile-friendly first.
Let’s talk more about that. BCG visualizes Doom Loop thinking like this:
Overall, this type of thinking has kept many B2B brands from launching online to begin with.
It comes down to this:
You don’t want to be in that boat. After all, BCG’s research also found that brands who are quick to adopt mobile see increased revenue through the channel in comparison to those who wait to catch up.
This might be the last B2B ecommerce trend on our list, but it is arguably the most important.
Some brands, like Atlanta Lightbulbs, have even gone so far to create an app for their B2B buyers.
This allows those buyers to log in and see their specific pricing and checkout using a vaulted credit card — all in a matter of minutes. This is how you embrace B2B mobile commerce.
And they aren’t the only ones.
About 15% of B2B retailers reported having and using an existing app for their customers.
Why? Because a mobile app enables faster-recurring orders based on the business account. Additionally, the app can connect with your sales team for on-the-go sales that sync with your systems.
Research has found that 50% of B2B buyers identified improved personalization as a key feature when searching for online suppliers with whom to build relationships, with consumers spending 48% more when their experience is personalized.
The customer experience management market is expected to double, reaching $14.9 billion by 2025. B2B customers want the same impressive experience that B2C shoppers are getting — and brands can't deny it.
To fully personalize B2B buying experiences, brands must take advantage of customer data, AI and machine learning.
For many B2Bs, their employee experience might be a good starting point to create a unique experience. Many employees are working remotely now, and creating an online experience for them will empower and encourage them to provide better customer service.
Customer loyalty programs are usually seen exclusively in the B2C space, but just like customer experiences, B2B buyers are expecting more from vendors. Plus, loyalty programs can increase brand awareness, new customer acquisition, and opportunities to cross-sell and upsell.
B2B customer loyalty programs usually fall into these three categories:
This type of loyalty program is similar to what's in the B2C landscape. In this model, the customer is offered an immediate, exclusive discount for joining the loyalty program. This is a way to encourage customers to join the program.
A referral-based loyalty program is one of the most popular models. In this type of program, a customer earns a bonus every time they refer that business to new customers. In most cases, the new customer also gets a reward or a discount on their first purchase.
Some B2Bs might use a tiered rewards or a threshold rewards program. In a tiered program, customers earn points every time they make a purchase. The more points earned, the higher tier they're pushed into with new offers for rewards. This type of program works well for businesses that see frequent purchases.
With a threshold rewards program, customers advance through levels of rewards, but it's based on limited time frames. This model works well for businesses that see frequent purchases from the same customers.
While the B2B ecommerce sector is growing, sellers have a relatively small market to choose their technology from.
B2B requirements are tough to meet and not every platform does it well enough.
B2B sellers can purchase large, expensive ecommerce platforms that require expensive customizations and a whole team to run the site. Others will turn to multiple vendors to get the job done.
Some B2B sellers are choosing third-party applications to work alongside their ecommerce platforms in order to manage order fulfillment, inventory synchronization, or financial transactions.
However, when going down this path, an integration provider is needed to tie those multiple systems together to efficiently manage your business.
Integration providers like nChannel focus on providing pre-built connectors to sync data and automate critical processes between ecommerce platforms and back-end systems like an ERP/Accounting, POS, or 3PL to increase operational efficiency and eliminate costly data processing errors.
Fifty-seven percent of B2B executives stated that ecommerce integration was another top technology need. They defined ecommerce integration as integrating backend technology for managing operations like inventory and customer orders with their ecommerce platform.
B2B site examples used earlier in this article have used integrator agencies like Americaneagle and Jasper to solve for complex ERP and back-office needs.
Folding Chairs and Tables sells — you guessed it — chairs and tables to B2B businesses. In the fall of 2016, when BigCommerce launched the ability for brands to push items over to Amazon, the team decided to give it a try.
The company bundled a popular set together and pushed just that one item over to Amazon. Within hours, they were selling by the hundreds, and within days, they had to pull the listing down and focus on restocking.
Today, the brand sells both on their own online channel and Amazon, which has transformed their business 3x in the span of a single year.
That’s multi-channel efficiency.
As more and more B2B companies cross the digital threshold, the need for fast and efficient fulfillment processes has become increasingly urgent. In a post-Amazon world, millennials are driving this demand. They expect B2B companies to provide fast shipping options on par with those of B2C merchants.
Customer expectations are growing, and this is another way B2Bs can appeal to the buyer. B2Bs can streamline fulfillment processes by using order management software. This type of software can help a B2B manage orders across different sales platforms, centralize information, and reduce supply chain complexity.
B2Bs can also turn to third-party fulfillment to get things moving. Third-party fulfillment, commonly referred to as 3PL, is using software like ShipStation or ShipBob to manage fulfillment. This is a great option if your business is scaling fast, your current fulfillment costs are on the rise, or you are spending too much time on inventory management.
Not every trend is worth jumping on, but which one deserves your time and effort? While some will provide a huge value-add, others might be out of touch with your particular audience or might be too costly to implement for your business to maintain a reasonable ROI.
Knowing what trends will be a good fit for you will often come down to knowing your own customers, vertical, and competitors backwards and forwards. There's several things you can do to evaluate industry trends and make the right move for your B2B.
Every industry changes at some point or another, and staying up to date via reports and data can show you where things are headed. The numbers in these reports often come from original research you can trust, instead of just following the popular word-on-the-street. Plus, when you're regularly aware of what's happening in your industry, you'll get a sense of which trends are worth the effort and which ones can wait.
Use customer data to evaluate if a trend is right for you. What do the numbers show? Many trends might work for other businesses, but you know your customers best. Consider utilizing more than one data gathering tool, so you can see customer trends from different sources. Use these numbers to evaluate the overall trends in your business. Would adopting a new trend interrupt your customers’ behavior?
Don't be afraid to ask current customers what they need. Getting feedback from current customers can give you insight into trends, and you can create more specific plans for the future. You never know, a customer might even suggest an idea you hadn't thought of yet.
Take a look at your competitors. Did they jump on a specific trend? If so, how did it work for them? Of course, you don't have to do everything your competition is doing, but being aware is another way to measure a trend.
Overall, global retail ecommerce sales are expected to reach $4.9 trillion in 2021, which is a 265% increase from 2014.
Payment options and site UX remain the two most important factors for conversion on a B2B site, and reputation in the market remains important both in the awareness and the consideration phase.
Some B2B online stores are using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). One way B2Bs are utilizing this technology is to show customers new products in a virtual environment. It gives customers a "try before you buy" experience. VR and AR can also provide B2B customers with the personalized shopping experience they crave.
Yes, many B2Bs are adopting video marketing. According to a survey conducted by Isoline in 2019, 53% of B2B decision makers said video was the most useful form of content, followed closely by case studies. Video was also the top choice for the type of content most shared.
Yes, B2B merchants can deliver an omnichannel experience. In fact, B2B customers are expecting a seamless buying experience on any sales channel they use.
Yes, B2B ecommerce vendors create content. Ecommerce B2Bs often use content as part of their digital marketing strategy and create blog posts, video content, white papers, reports, and social media content to attract customers.
There are some barriers to ecommerce, including outdated legacy platforms and communication gaps in the supply chain. Utilizing a modern B2B platform can help a business resolve many of the ecommerce barriers, including efficient workflows and creating a personalized customer experience.
The time it takes to create a B2B ecommerce store depends on many factors, including what B2B ecommerce platform you use, how well you know how to use the platform, and how big your ecommerce store will be. For some, building a B2B ecommerce store might take a few hours or a day, and for others, it could take weeks or months.
Yes, many B2B merchants are expanding internationally. When B2Bs have an online presence, it's easier to reach the global market than it would be if they just had a brick-and-mortar shop.
Customer service is becoming a B2B ecommerce priority. Today, 73% of millennials are involved in the B2B buying process. This generation values its relationships with brands, including top-notch customer service. Because of this, B2Bs are doubling down on their efforts to create personalized buying experiences, including customer service.
Yes, some B2B ecommerce businesses are using voice search in different ways. For many customers, voice search improves the buying experience and as a result, increases conversions and revenue for B2Bs.
There might be some remaining B2B ecommerce merchants that enjoy the traditional shopping experience. However, research shows that nearly 73% of millennials are involved in the B2B buying process, and millennials are looking for that fast, customized buying experience.
It would be impossible for a B2B ecommerce store to try all of the new trends in an efficient manner. Instead, evaluate the trends as they come and see if they're right for your business. Make an effort to stay up to date with industry reports and data to help evaluate new trends. Assess your customers’ behavior and decide if an upcoming trend would align with what the numbers show. Don't be afraid to ask for feedback from your B2B customers — they may give you a new idea. Finally, take a look at what your competition is doing and how it's working for them.