E-commerce is increasingly finding a place among b2b companies' go-to-market strategies as they seek to leverage every possible touch point, according to a new study by BtoB.
BtoB's “The Emerging Role of B-to-B E-commerce” found that 31% of b2b marketers are “strong” or “complete” adopters of e-commerce, compared with 25% who said they were “strong” or “complete” adopters in 2012. By 2014, 40% of b2b marketers expect to be as committed to e-commerce as a means of marketing and selling.
Only 15% of marketers are avoiding e-commerce entirely, according to the study, which was sponsored by SAP's Ariba Inc. and based on an online survey in March and April of 222 b2b marketers.
“E-commerce definitely is taking hold,” said Andy Hoar, senior analyst-b2b e-commerce and business strategy at Forrester Research. E-commerce platforms that offer low-price products, such as office supply outlets, are most entrenched, he said, but e-commerce inroads are even being made with high-price products.
“While people aren't buying very expensive products online yet, they are buying replenishment and replacement parts via e-commerce,” Hoar said. “Nobody is buying a backhoe online right now, but it's increasingly likely it will happen.”
Hoar estimated b2b e-commerce transactions in the U.S. now total $559 billion annually, dwarfing the $220 billion generated by online consumer transactions.
Rob Mihalko, VP-seller marketing at Ariba Discovery, an Ariba service that matches online buyers with suppliers, said the growth of b2b e-commerce can be attributed to its expansion beyond the typical consumer model. “E-commerce definitely is broadening beyond the transactional,” he said.
Even the definition of e-commerce is undergoing change, he said. “From the buyers' perspective, e-commerce can define how they look at their spend; how they want to enable their departments to buy things; the selection process itself; and things like requests for quotes, bidding, orders and payments,” he said. “[B2b] e-commerce technology is improving. It's offering more consumerlike experiences, and it's becoming just as easy.”
According to BtoB's study, constraints on marketing department resources is the No. 1 driver of e-commerce adoption, cited by 47% of respondents. Companies may be embracing e-commerce because they have little choice, said Robert E. Barr, senior VP at digital agency Acquity Group, Dallas, which builds and runs e-commerce platforms for clients.
“For manufacturers, their distribution channels are contracting because of sites like AmazonSupply.com or Google Shopping for Suppliers, and thus their control of pricing is going away,” Barr said. “Among the plays they can make are going online with e-commerce to protect their relationships with customers.”
Other factors driving the adoption of e-commerce methods, according to BtoB's study, include (in order): the imperative to reach new buyers; to generate new leads and general awareness; to find buyers ready to buy; and to differentiate products and services from the competition's.
B2b marketers use a variety of e-commerce methods. The most common is making products available through a company's own website or portal, cited by 23% of respondents. Other approaches include selling through social media networks (19%), b2b networks (14%), industry directories such as Dun & Bradstreet or ThomasNet (11%) or e-marketplaces such as Ariba Discovery or BuyerZone (8%).
E-marketplaces—portals that cater to buyers and sellers, and offer such functions as requests for quotes, bidding and ordering—are coming on strong. When asked which e-commerce approach they'd most likely use by the end of the year, 72% of survey respondents cited e-marketplaces, followed by customer portals (43%), electronic data interchanges (41%) and electronic invoicing portals (40%).
E-commerce technology is giving marketers an increasing edge on the competition, according to respondents to BtoB's survey. Among the more significant benefits are the signal it offers that a company is a forward-thinking digital enterprise; that it provides differentiation in a marketing landscape where only a minority to date are using it fully; and that it lowers costs, respondents said.
Nigel Hickey is infrastructure administrator at National Specialty Alloys, a provider of stainless steel and nickel alloy to manufacturers. As a purchaser of IT equipment, Hickey spends a lot of time sourcing products, requesting quotes and ordering products.
“For the smaller, transactional stuff like monitors, memory, mice or keyboards, we might use New-egg.com or Amazon-Supply.com,” Hickey said. “For bigger stuff, we've used Spiceworks to access CDW and other vendors. We've also used Cisco Systems' portal Cisco Insight.”