Upping your B2B commerce game with product content
It’s so cliché that it’s hard to say the words, so let’s just say content is really, really important. As a digital leader, decision maker or another commerce stakeholder in your manufacturing or distribution organization, you’re concerned about presenting your products in the best way possible so that your customers can make purchasing decisions using your digital channels.
You’re also concerned about the time, cost and talent required not only to transition your print catalog to an online format (if you haven’t yet) but to provide all the extra information about your products in the modern, consumable formats your customers expect and may already see on your competitors’ websites.
You’re well aware that selling B2B products online is considerably more complex than B2C products. The buyer of a B2B product has a longer consideration timescale for the purchase, and there can be a lot of complexity in the product features and configurations that need to be clearly presented online. And presented in formats that your well-versed online customers know are available and expect, such as high-quality images from multiple angles, zoom, high definition video, 3D animations, illustrations, thorough and interesting descriptions, detailed specs and support documentation. The more complex the product, the longer the list of content possibilities.
If the specter of providing all of this product content to your customers seems daunting at first, keep reminding yourself that it’s really one of your best business opportunities today.
Why Improving B2B Product Content is a Big Opportunity
Like home landline holdouts (just in case of an emergency), most B2B buyers still have printed product catalogs somewhere in their offices, perhaps stacked under their desks or serving as a plant pedestal, that could still be used just in case the online buying experience doesn’t meet their needs. Once a year these catalogs may still arrive at the office and last year’s recycled, probably without ever being opened. This perhaps nostalgic attachment to the printed catalog is only temporary. If you haven’t noticed, your B2B customers have changed.
B2B buyers shop online for consumer products like the rest of us do, and they want their B2B buying experience to more closely emulate a B2C buying experience. Some of the B2B vendors they do business with are digitally transformed, others are not. And they’re watching as the gap between the digital haves and have-nots becomes more apparent to them.
In the meantime, modern product information management (PIM) systems are becoming more sophisticated and allow for a large variety of digital content formats, ideal for the deep product content required in order to make complex B2B purchasing decisions.
B2B Buyers Depend on Online Product Content
Research shows that 47% of online buyers rely on product content. The type of information they use includes retailer and distributor specs, manufacturer specs, data about availability, data about where the product was manufactured, the source of the components, video demos, buying guides, quick reference guides, tutorials and so on. And B2B buyers are demanding more sophisticated tools, such as advanced interactive visualization capabilities.
Additionally, 24% say they’re looking for authentic information that is supplied by the manufacturer. How likely are your B2B customers to make a purchasing decision if they don’t find what they’re looking for about your products?
Ecommerce Tools Depend on High-Quality Product Content
High-quality product information isn’t only important because it helps buyers know exactly what they’re buying. It’s also important for the proper functionality of the product discovery tools you’ve invested in as part of your ecommerce platform.
Intuitive search, faster navigation, guided selling tools and buying tips are all tools that depend on high-quality product information. You can have the best search engine in the world with great faceting capabilities, but if you don’t have good metadata feeding those systems the tools won’t work.
In B2B ecommerce, search and navigation tools are some of the more critical tools on the website. Thirty percent of buyers use these refinement tools when buying online.³ Considering that the tools are only as good as the information you feed into them, you can see how important good quality data, as well as accurate, consistent attribute and metadata, are in ensuring these tools work properly on your website.
The Manufacturer’s Website: Trusted System of Record
There’s a perception in B2B that manufacturers are lagging behind in online product content; that manufacturers’ websites are aging and don’t provide the experience the buyer is looking for. If you are a manufacturer and you haven’t addressed this issue yet, it’s time to up your game and make investments in product content.
Although reliance on a manufacturer’s website may be low at the beginning of the B2B buyer journey, it becomes more important as buyers move further into the research life cycle. Forty percent of buyers visit the manufacturer’s website for product research 4 even though the buyer may not buy directly from them.
Why do buyers go to the manufacturer’s website? It’s more than just to get product information such as specs, compatibility information or model comparisons. When buyers plan to buy from a distributor or through another channel, research shows they visit the manufacturer’s website for the validation of product information obtained from other sources.5 This indicates that a lot of distributors aren’t providing something that is essential to the buyer’s ability to make a purchasing decision.
The manufacturer is the trusted system of record when it comes to product information. If there’s any ambiguity during the buyer journey, such as part compatibility or accuracy of specs, the manufacturer is the trusted source of that information B2B buyers rely on.
Top Priority: Improve the Product Detail Page
When taking on the initiative to invest in better product information, you’ll have an exhaustive list of possibilities for improvements. What should you focus on first? A good starting point is to focus on making improvements to the content you present on your product detail pages.
High-quality images, alternative images, interactive and animated CAD drawings, and videos that allow the buyer to visualize all aspects of your products is the first area to focus on when improving your product pages. Because of the complexity of B2B products, offering advanced visualization tools on your product pages go a long way in helping your customers understand the context of the product.
Another area of focus for improving the product page is providing your customers with a stronger sense of certainty through high-value tools that can compare closely-related products and parts. Often times in B2B ecommerce, there are many near-identical parts with very subtle differences from one part number to another, and so it’s a matter of helping your customer ensure compatibility with online comparison tools.
Tools that search, filter and categorize products, and tools that show top sellers, top-rated products, product reviews, and detailed shipment tracking are other important site-wide features to focus on after improvements have been made to your product pages.
Strategic Product Information Management
Many B2B companies still manage their product content in their ERP or product lifecycle management (PLM) system, or even in spreadsheets that are maintained in a SharePoint® environment. One of the key things to do when you take the leap to advance your firm’s product content is to make sure your organization has a PIM system in place and a strategy around product information management.
Using a PIM system to manage your product content provides the necessary governance around creating product content. The products themselves may start life in your ERP or PLM system, where the product codes and the supply chain data are assigned, but those systems are not designed to allow a digital marketer or product owner to then create high-quality product content. A PIM system is where products come to life for the B2B marketer.
How PIM Works
Data is input from external ERP and PLM systems to the PIM system. Then that information is processed through a data quality engine to make sure content creation workflows are followed and data input rules are enforced. Content tasks are assigned to the right people and ensure the right approvals. Data quality checks ensure adherence to the required fields and proper formats for data (not mixing metric and imperial weight and dimension measurements, for example).
Other content creation tasks are managed right inside of the PIM system, too, from videography and photography to international translations and copywriting. Sometimes data needs to be converted from internal codes to readable information that can be consumed by a buyer, and that’s all done inside the PIM system, as well. Then comes the output — PIM systems output syndicated content to your ecommerce website, print catalog, marketing websites, and even to your distributors, independent retailers and sales force configure-price-quote tools.
If your organization is serious about moving the bar on product content, you’ll need to invest in the enabling technology of a PIM system.
The Difference Between PIM and WCM
One thing that is often misunderstood is the difference between a PIM system and a web content management (WCM) platform. Most manufacturers have invested in a WCM platform to power their public-facing websites and mobile sites. WCM is typically the system of record for the website templates, the structure of the website, and all of the marketing and merchandising content on the site. Some manufacturers make the mistake of putting all of their product content and management in a WCM system.
A WCM system typically manages unstructured content and a PIM system manages structured content. Especially with B2B product content, there’s a lot of structure and integrity that needs to be enforced in the product taxonomies. For example, there may be hundreds and thousands of different categories of products that are sold on a website, and each product has a unique set of attributes. There is an inheritance between them and all of the rules need to be enforced.
With regard to an ecommerce platform, WCM and PIM systems can co-exist as part of the system architecture. There is certain content that should reside in your WCM system and other content that should reside in your PIM system, and having the right strategy is key for the exploration phase of the customer lifecycle.
An important exercise to do very soon if you haven’t started already is to compare and benchmark your product content coverage, quality, and consistency against leaders, competitors and respected peers in your industry.
Grainger is a good place for many B2B sellers to start benchmarking exercises. They are perceived as one of the leaders in providing very good product content in the B2B world. If you’re a distributor you compete with Grainger, and if you’re a manufacturer your products may be sold through Grainger.
You can either do these exercises using internal teams or you can use an outside resource. There are vendors who can perform a benchmarking of your content versus your competitor’s on an ongoing basis. They can give you a monthly scorecard that compares merchandise categories of your products against your competitors and shows where you may be falling short—where your competitors are beating you, where they have better images, better answers to questions, better specs and so forth. Having a resource that can perform benchmarking on an ongoing basis rather than a onetime task is beneficial because the industry is constantly changing.
Measure Success With Metrics That are Tied to Business Outcomes
Upping the game with your product content will likely be a significant multi-year investment, and you’ll need to prove the results with key success metrics that are tied to business outcomes.
Some of the typical metrics that digital B2B sellers use are:
- What is the quality of the hierarchical relationships inside of the product taxonomy?
- How quickly can you get new content and new products out to all of your channels and on to your website?
- Are you able to make sure products are unique with no duplicate or discontinued products in your website?
- What is the integrity of the data, e.g., the consistency, accuracy, and completeness of the data?
With these types of metrics in place, you can prove to the senior executive team that this strategy of investing in product content is paying of and that the organization is seeing improved metrics as a result.
Time is Money: Find the Right Balance
A closing piece of advice is to balance the time spent creating new content as to not risk slowing down the process of launching new products. Decide what content needs to be available, what content can be done in-house, what content makes more sense to outsource, and find a cadence that works best for your business.
It may be best to make new products live and available on your website with basic-level product content initially and make adding improved, deeper product content more of a post-release augmentation exercise.