January 2014

Until yesterday I had never heard of Bryan Kramer - but I think I like this guy.

He put up a post which talked about the notion that the old distinctions of B2B vs B2C have disappeared and now it is H2H. It is a brilliant analysis and he is exactly right - sort of funny how he isn't using the word inbound while truly preaching the essence of the inbound philosophy but we'll get to that later.

But hang on just one second here - as a guy who prides himself on analogy-filled clarity I am busy using TLA's - three letter acronyms - without explaining what they are or how they relate to today's story. Sorry about that - no worries, we'll get that fixed right up.

B2C stands for business to consumer - which refers to what the vast majority of companies do, they sell directly to consumers.

B2B stands for business to business - generally thought of as wholesalers and manufacturers, they sell to the stores and other outfits you buy from or maybe they provide supplies to businesses.

For a very long time B2C marketing and B2B marketing were very different - it is a bit more complex than this but pretty much B2C companies put out ads and B2B companies used lots of shoe leather while attending industry trade shows.

In the beginning of eCommerce it was pretty much all B2C. The wholesalers and manufacturers ignored the web for about a decade based on the notion that the only folks on the web were consumers so what was the point of working to sell there.

Then B2B companies got interested in efficiencies - which spawned their first eCommerce efforts. With a shopping cart website that was basically nothing more than an order taking mechanism they made big strides - it was much less expensive to take orders this way, they were much more accurate, and the buyers were happier. And all was well.

Then something sort of interesting started to happen - those B2B firms that put up order taking websites but ignored all the other web stuff started to get found by consumers - and the orders came pouring in when they decided to allow folks to "buy now".

The amazing efficiencies and automation of the web allowed B2B companies to begin doing something they couldn't do before - servicing "small" accounts and purchases directly.

Every screw manufacturer always wanted to sell all the needed parts to a group of kids building go-karts but on a practical basis they couldn't do that without distribution networks - until they had a way to take orders via the web.

For many of these B2B companies the tipping point has already occurred - they now sell more via their website than through their network of sales reps, trade shows, piles of print catalogs, and all the sort of stuff they have generally done for the last 75 years or so.

This is the same path B2C companies have taken - and many important "brands" have now been fully transformed into web businesses - LL Bean is the example many folks here in Maine use.

But let's get back to our B2B friends as that is where this whole idea of H2H - Human to Human - comes in and ties everything up in a nice little inbound bundle.

So the basic notion of early B2B websites was an efficient order taking machine, but we still need to get the people at trade shows and with sales reps and all sorts of stuff like that there. A phrase I hate - virtual catalog - was frequently used as current customers were encouraged to order through the "virtual catalog".

Then something fascinating happened - Google became a verb. Buyers of B2B goods have changed the way they encounter the world and go to the web as the primary resource all over the place in their life.

So recently my wife wanted to adjust our programmable thermostats and she went to the giant "manual pile" that most folks have in a junk drawer somewhere. She searched the massive pile and had no luck - so she then typed the model number of the thermostats into Google and whammo she had the manual in her hand.

It won't be long - probably safe to do it now - to simply discard the manuals that come with all of our household appliances, when you need it you'll just find it on the web. What are we going to do with all of the extra space in our kitchen junk drawers?

This is one small example of the web being a trans-formative reality - the way folks buy cars, travel, encounter their medical professionals - all things which are now forever changed because of the web.

But back to all of those B2B buyers who were impacted by this lifestyle and their changing habits - if they Googled for the answer to so many other things in life - they could in fact Google anything.

"Best steel type for bridges in cold weather"

"Tracking systems for fleets of trucks"

These are obvious examples but usually these B2B searches include all sorts of industry terms that are weird - and as a result those B2B sellers come right up.

So on B2B sites the volume started going up, and up and up - and then some smart marketing people began asking where all these sales came from.

Did they meet us at that trade show last summer? Nope. Did they get our catalog last year? Nope. Did the east coast sales rep Charlie go visit them? Nope.

Then how the heck did we just get a 2 million dollar order from someone we never heard of last week? That is the third time this month that has happened, what is going on here?

The answer was so simple - and so scary for traditional marketers everywhere: Our new customer found us. They have changed how they learn about things they need and now they can learn on the web and then go right ahead and buy from us directly.

There was dancing in the streets - admittedly it was the kind of very dorky dancing people wearing suits do - but it was still technically dancing.

Folks began to consider how to help buyers find them - and a massive shift in marketing strategy was required to be successful. You can't market to big demographic groups the way you could before - you had to appeal to individuals. Inbound folks call this the persona cha-cha.

You couldn't just say "here is a random fact about my product, click here to buy my crap." - you had to actually help people and be of use. The guide to rust resistant go-cart screws which Jimmy from engineering always wanted to write? It caused 1.4 million dollars in sales last year.

Here's the bottom line for Internet Entrepreneurs: We all know the web has had a trans-formative impact on the way we live our lives and buy things. How prepared are you for what is coming next? Are you ready for H2H - human to human - interactions and sales?

Ross Lasley is the Internet Educator, an experienced Internet entrepreneur providing web strategy and consulting services to businesses. Ross speaks frequently on web design, e-commerce, and Internet marketing issues and maintains a weekly newsletter, Web Enlightenment.
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