The Shortest Distance from B to C

The BtoB NetMarketing breakfasts are proving to be among the most reliable sources for column ideas, if only to remind me, every time that they're in my city, that it's time to write about business-to-business trends again.

Of the event's speakers, Vonage's chief marketing officer, Dean Harris, was the audience favorite. He shared a story that the crowd was eager to hear: a company experiencing awesome growth, a customer acquisition land-grab, an ad budget mostly spent online and measured meticulously, and a tightly integrated online-offline campaign. As a bonus, his PowerPoints had the most pictures.

Heidi Cohen, a sharp marketer and ClickZ columnist, was sitting next to me, and she noted after Harris's speech, "He's B2C. Why is he here?"

This got to me, so I asked the first person I could find, BtoB Account Executive David Spindler, and BtoB Editor-in-Chief Ellis Booker soon joined the conversation.

Booker noted that he asked Harris a similar question before the presentation, presumably to encourage Harris to focus on the B2B angle. Harris said his marketing strategy for B2B and B2C are basically the same, and Booker commented this is part of a trend that's gaining ground.



How true is this for search engine marketing? Is there any difference between a 'B' and a 'C'? Are businesses and consumers one and the same?

The "yes and no" answer is the least sexy, but it's also the most honest.

First, the "yes" - businesses and consumers share much in common. Business purchasers are people too; emotion plays a role. Booker mentioned he recently bought a Dell computer for his home via its small business site, and he's now classified as a business purchaser. Is there a difference to Dell? Probably not.

A quick digression: I started writing the "no" part, describing how consumers and businesses should be treated differently through search engine marketing, and then I was dealt a swift and stifling blow of writer's block. On the way home that night, I figured out why. Every time I started writing something that seemed particularly true for B2B, I could think of countless B2C examples where the point would apply.

Below are several factors that are especially important for B2B search engine marketing, though you'll see how this applies to B2C as well.

Latency How many business purchases have you ever made on the spot? Even when knowing what you want, you often need to conduct price comparisons and explore alternative options, and then there's the approval process. Now consider it from the marketing angle. Accepting that the purchase isn't happening on the spot, you can introduce the purchaser to your business through search, as it's where business purchasers often will be looking. But you can't judge the success of the campaign from the immediate online conversion.

In December, comScore released a landmark study sponsored by Overture measuring trends in consumer purchases for electronics and computers. comScore reports, "... Only 15 percent of online purchases following a CE/C [consumer electronics/computers] search occurred in the same user session as the search itself, with 85 percent of conversions occurring in a latent (or non-search) session." In that CE/C purchases often entail periods of research and comparison (and possibly a review process by a significant other), some parallels can be made to B2B purchases.

Online-Offline Mapping The comScore CE/C study reports, "comScore estimated that 92 percent of all buying activity following a CE/C search occurred offline." Generally, return on investment (ROI) metrics only take into account immediate online conversions. For CE/C purchases, according to comScore, that would mean 98.8 percent of the ROI isn't even being considered. Stated another way, that means the actual ROI is 100 times higher.

The parallels to B2B purchases are close enough. The vast majority of them occur offline and must be tracked. As a marketer, you need to make that introduction, and make it memorable. Offer easy information request forms and/or newsletter sign-ups. List a dedicated toll-free number for search campaigns, or educate the call center staff about the campaign. Make it as easy as possible for a site visitor coming through search to call or e-mail someone, visit a store, download a freebie, join a list or group, tell a friend, learn more, and connect with your business and brand.

How does this relate to B2B specifically? Well, umm, hmm. Maybe that's why Dean Harris from Vonage spoke at the event and was the subject of half of BtoB reporter Carol Krol's wrap-up. Maybe it's why Krol's interview with JupiterResearch Analyst Niki Scevak on search marketing last week could apply equally well to B2B and B2C marketers.

In Krol's NetMarketing event coverage, she writes, "All of the panelists cited search as a popular medium. Harris said Vonage has dramatically increased its number of keyword buys. But any one tactic won't do the job, the panelists agreed, saying integration is crucial."

Again, words of wisdom for everyone. Isn't it great we can all learn from each other?

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