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Brand Strategy B2B Marketing Ecommerce

Digital commerce has exploded – B2B businesses should be riding the wave

By David Lillington, Managing director

Reading Room


Opinion article

September 26, 2022 | 8 min read

Why are some B2B businesses still spooked by e-commerce offerings? For The Drum’s deep dive into all things e-commerce, David Lillington of Reading Room digs into how to stop worrying and love the wave.

A cresting wave

Are B2B businesses making the most of the e-commerce wave? / Silas Baisch via Unsplash

Digital has become the default for most consumers, and with the e-commerce industry booming, software-as-a-service (SaaS) brands such as Salesforce, HubSpot and Mailchimp are paving the way for B2B industries to follow suit. So, why is it that B2B organizations are still hesitant to take the digital plunge, and how can they overcome these challenges?

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The real reasons B2B businesses hesitate

Despite many B2B businesses now reaping the rewards of a digital model, a misconception still pervades: that selling traditional B2B services using e-commerce technology is a square peg into a round hole. Rather than technology limiting ambition, it’s often psychological barriers that cause inertia.

For businesses that haven’t historically seen technology as integral to their operations, keeping up with the pace of change can be daunting. The cost of updating old systems and bringing in new skillsets is often seen as prohibitive. Even with the right digital expertise, customer data may lack the level of coherence needed to evaluate and track customer behavior or provide integration across systems.

But this mindset can lead to kicking the can down the road – making things even more costly, complex and time-consuming when upgrading becomes unavoidable.

Fear of uncertainty plays a role too. A move to a digital service model can be seen as a leap into the unknown. Businesses often forget to compare the risk of failure to the opportunity cost of business-as-usual. Digital commerce doesn’t just bring opportunities for better CX, wider reach and new customer data. It also allows businesses to be resilient to the unexpected. Understand the risk of staying the same before deciding against change.

Finally, struggling for internal buy-in can be a factor. Traditional B2B organizations may require approval from multiple departments, senior management and other stakeholders who don’t live in the digital world. It can be challenging to win over someone who doesn’t understand the value of the investment, especially if you’re unable to articulate (with numbers attached) the risk of not acting.

But how can brands break this deadlock? Here are three principles to get started:

1. Unpick the challenge and the opportunities

Don’t run in solution-first. Invest time and resource into understanding the challenge. Set clear goals that can be mapped back to commercial KPIs. Review your tech stack and identify what’s needed to move to a digital commerce model. Don’t default to your existing technology partner, just because that’s the skillset you have in-house. Look at the market and how similar businesses are approaching digital commerce.

Above all, remember to consider the costs and implications of not starting your digital services journey now, as well as the cost-benefit of adopting them. For example, we work with UK Coaching, a charitable B2B organization that offers training and support to the nation’s sports coaches. Through discovery, back in 2019 we identified it could reach a much wider segment of its membership by digitizing its training offering. By starting this process early on, rather than waiting for demand to increase, it was well-placed to provide essential mental health and support services to sports coaches when the unforeseen happened – a global pandemic.

2. Center the solution on customer needs

Often, organizations invest in market insight, but don’t extend this to customer needs. Business customers are a different beast, but they’re people living in the same digital world as consumers.

Your solution should address what your customers want, not just where the market is going. It’s impossible to understand your customers’ desire for digital services without speaking to them. Conduct customer research to determine what your customers need, and let this insight define your digital commerce offering. Pitched as an initial step to senior management, it can help you build a business case for the move to digital. The insight you create will also hold value for the business beyond shaping your digital commerce experience.

3. Iterate

Embarking on a digital transformation can be an ossifying thought when viewed in its entirety. Instead, prioritize the highest-level customer needs and opportunities first. Work this around your current capabilities so you’re more likely to stay on track and on budget, but always with the long-term in mind. The end goal may be a highly-personalized digital commerce experience, but this doesn’t have to be what you launch with.

Although there are always trade-offs, a composable approach (connecting multiple technology platforms, rather than a single solution) often means less compromise on features, and more flexibility to swap out services as your digital business model matures. For example, with our client British Safety Council, there was a big emphasis on ensuring the solution was adaptable and each component was reusable. This meant the organization could adapt and expand in line with its global ambitions. They also invested heavily in technical discovery to make sure the right vendors were chosen.

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The B2B digital commerce business is booming. The technology is there to help B2B organizations digitize traditional offerings – sometimes allowing them to re-think services from the ground up. Though there are lots of reasons why a business might shy away from moving to a digital commerce model, it’s worth taking the time to explore and validate these challenges, before deciding not to act. The opportunity cost of business-as-usual may just come back to bite sooner than you think.

For the latest on B2B online selling, head over to our e-commerce deep dive hub.

Brand Strategy B2B Marketing Ecommerce

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