Sunday, February 26, 2017

Early Indications February 2017: B2B Websites a year later

A year ago this month I published the results of a survey of 100 business-to-business websites. (You can review those findings here.) I recently repeated the exercise, staying with the 100-company sample rather than expanding to 250 as I had planned. While there were no shocking surprises, year-over-year trend data suggests some unexpected 
macro directions.

I. What stayed the same

The companies that used video well (Corning, Haas machine tools, Bobcat) are still relatively lonely as front-runners. Given the complexity of many B2B applications, training and troubleshooting videos were relatively rare despite many potential use cases. (Schneider Electric has more than 200 vendor-neutral training videos and certifications in their “Energy University.”) While many companies post corporate overview videos, these were generally of little concrete help and long on a “Successories”-inspired aesthetic in both aural and visual look and feel.

Many good site architectures were the same — there’s no compelling reason why something that works well would need to be overhauled on an annual basis. Leaders here included Cisco, GE, Caterpillar, NXP semiconductors, and Rockwell Automation.

Very few websites included live chat, something I see as essential if a company is dealing with a) millennials or b) loud shop floor customer service scenarios. There was a modest rise in adoption over the year, but it’s still a tiny minority.

Customer value propositions were striking in their rarity. This bothered me more last year: in many cases this time around, the website is addressing so many constituencies (including investors, retirees, and recruits) that a customer focus may legitimately be more appropriate deeper in the site. I’ll say more about this later.

Many sites still presume a desktop user who can print long PDF product catalogs, rather than support mobile-first product data functionality. 

Most sites were organized by corporate org charts (industries, geographies, functional areas) rather than by customer questions. Similarly, many questions were answered by “call your sales representative or local dealer.” There are times when this process makes sense, but there are also instances in which the past default is carried forward solely by institutional inertia rather than using new technologies and behaviors to reinvent customer service from the outside looking in.

II. What changed?

Operational execution has improved. Many sites I had compiled into a list of “Don’ts”  were relaunched in 2016, while others got facelifts. Genuine howler-class errors were hard to find (minor chuckle: one paper company wished everyone a happy Chinese New Year in the year of the “roaster.”) Some sites haven’t been updated in nearly 15 years (hello Nutrasweet), but generally, content was relatively fresh, social media posts were rarely stale, and overall execution was solid, albeit from a Web-centric perspective. Only a small minority of sites (7%) were not mobile-friendly, down from a third last year, and of those 7, at least one (DHL) is in the midst of a site re-launch that addresses the mobile user quite well.

Apart from that, little changed dramatically in terms of site features, customer access, or integration with other marketing functions, particularly trade shows. The change that most interested me was more qualitative, a gradual migration of the online presence from being a storefront to being a broader window into the company. To oversimplify, I see a shift in many B2B sites from online commerce to digital business more broadly conceived. 

Part of this transition is a subtle shift in emphasis: plenty of companies have had “jobs” buttons or  tabs on their websites since day 1. Stock prices are not new additions to many front pages. Fedex has provided package tracking since the early days of their site. I do feel, however, that the best B2B websites I saw provided a richer representation of what the company _is_ (rather than “sells”) than in my past experience; your mileage may vary. One data point I’m watching: hardcore engineering-driven companies including GE and Parker Hannifin linked to Pinterest for the first time that I’ve seen.

This more holistic representation might be a function of the need to attract millennial recruits. In B2B especially, selling microprocessors, ball bearings, or industrial lubricants is not intrinsically appealing to people who typically lack familiarity with the industries and scenarios in which those products are used. Then to compound the difficulty of recruiting college students, many B2B websites were, to be charitable, limited in their digital adeptness. Thus students were being asked to help market products they didn’t use, understand, or relate to, using trade shows, newsletters, paper catalogs, and 50-something sales reps. Thus, my hypothesis goes, some of the increased use of social media, online video, and smartphone apps by B2B marketers is driven by a) younger staff and/or b) the recognition of the need to attract younger staff.

It’s no surprise that web presences appeal to investors: CEOs get paid not for selling widgets but for selling the stock. In chemicals in particular (Air Liquide, Dow, BASF, Henkel), I saw significant attention paid to investors, far more (at the top level of site organization) than to customers. In many more cases, the front page was a mixture of missions. Carried out well, such a heterogeneous approach gave a holistic sense of a company. Carried out poorly, it was design-by-committee without a central organizing design theme, organizational logic, or navigational rubric. 

An example of the former can be found at DB Schenker, a German logistics provider. News items related to the logistics industry, a corporate acquisition, and environmental impact all appear, alongside a conference invitation. The rotating photos “above the fold” relate to a new facility on the US-Mexico border, a smartphone app, careers, cargo insurance, and an outdated piece from November on holiday shipping and the retail sector. Thus multiple functions (public relations, investor relations, HR/recruiting, marketing, and sales) are represented, along with database connections to operations for shipment initiation and tracking.

In many ways, we are heading “back to the future,” to the e-business days of 20 years ago. Looking at B2B sites from 1996 in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine reminded me that much like today’s millennials, some companies were “born digital” while others migrated to this way of doing business. Thus Cisco’s embedding of business processes in digital backbones represents a different ethos, investment landscape, and demographic than does most B2B companies’ migration. As more paper/analog-based executives retire, as digital content platforms improve, as interactive agencies understand the uniqueness and complexity of B2B, and as mobility forces a re-architecting of many companies’ online presence, I believe the survey results in 2020 will look significantly different.

For all this conventional talk about a gradual evolution, however, there is major change afoot: many industries are embracing and/or struggling with the notion of embedded, networked sensors and actuators populating massive data stores of machine-to-machine traffic, the so-called “Internet of Things.” This new emphasis is probably the biggest change I saw between 2016 and 2017. It isn’t literally true that every company I surveyed had IoT on the front page, but it was WAY more common than just a year ago. Most accounting and consulting firms are highlighting it, as are industrial controls companies like Rockwell, infrastructure providers including Belden (which has an IoT phone conference scheduler on the front page) and power systems companies, hardware companies such as Cisco and Intel, and analytics software providers led by SAS and SAP. Thus market trends (along with the aforementioned demographics) will drive “digital nativism” deeper into the corporate hierarchy of many companies, demanding cross-functional collaboration, intelligent risk awareness and mitigation, new privacy policies and processes, and operational integration in something close to real time. Given the ever-expanding IoT market size estimates for 2020 (now in the hundreds of billions of dollars), I know what I’ll be watching for doing the next web census in 2018.