What's Working in BTB Internet Marketing

The Internet shakeout rolls on, leaving an ever-growing number of corpses in its wake. In business-to-business, the chief casualty is the “exchanges,” the supply-chain consortia where the Internet was supposed to make markets more efficient and allow purchasing power to be leveraged across large numbers of buyers.

Contrary to expectations, the forces of competition — and perhaps a bit of good old human nature — got in the way. The major players were uncomfortable cooperating with their enemies, no matter how attractive the potential savings of exchanges might be. In other cases, businesses were reluctant to cut third parties in on a piece of the action. By now, most of the exchange start-ups are “dot-toast.”

If BTB exchanges failed to develop, there remain numerous successful Internet applications in business-to-business.

Let's review what has caught on, what is really working:

Extranets. A number of vendors, notably IBM and Dell, are developing dedicated extranet sites for each of their largest customers. Password-protected, behind the customers' fire wall and containing the specific purchasing terms pre-negotiated between buyer and seller, these extranets allow customers to log on anytime and buy easily from the list of preapproved product lines. Purchasing departments appreciate the reporting provided, which allows them a high level of detail into who is buying what around a far-flung corporation. These sites are relatively inexpensive to build and maintain, and they rapidly are becoming a standard service level for large accounts.

E-commerce. Business-to-business mail-order companies, like Quill and Hello Direct, were quick to add e-commerce to their channel strategies. Today, e-commerce is everywhere. Rather than replacing catalogs or phone ordering, e-commerce found its place as a supplement, allowing deeper inventory, real-time price updates and powerful search capabilities. Even in more complex business buying situations, e-commerce has emerged as a useful tool. Salespeople let their customers submit purchase order paperwork online or buy aftermarket products at the Web site instead of face to face.

E-fulfillment. The Internet is a godsend to collateral fulfillment. No more dated printed material gathering dust in a warehouse. Online, inquirers can request the content they need and even customize it to their situations. They fill in the forms themselves, allowing greater speed and accuracy than ever before. Marketers keep the pricing and product specifications updated on the fly. Best of all, the content arrives instantly, improving customer satisfaction and shortening the buying process.

Response/lead management. E-mail is so far superior to the telephone in response management, it is a wonder anyone uses the phone these days. Businesspeople are never at their desks anymore, but they do tend to answer — or at least handle — their e-mail. Marketers are finding that they can double, or even quadruple, the number of qualifiable inquiries by switching to e-mail. And e-mail is the perfect vehicle for delivering leads to sales representatives and tracking them to closure. So long, fax!

E-mail. E-mail is truly the Web's killer app. Business buyers want to hear from their suppliers. They want information quickly. They want to do business with ease. E-mail immediately proved itself as an excellent medium for staying in close touch with customers and serving their needs. And, as business e-mail lists continue to come on the market, it increasingly is used for successful prospecting.

Banner advertisements. Banners have disappointed consumer marketers, but in BTB, they are thriving. The secret is targeting. A site that attracts widget buyers is also going to be able to sell advertising to widget sellers — at consistently high prices per thousand. Why? Because they work. Most business audiences are small, focused and extremely profitable for anyone who can deliver them.

Webinars. Never mind hiring conference rooms and asking customers to show up for half a day. The seminar scene has gone online. Customers and prospects can log on from their desks, whether in real time or after the event.

The technology allows for complex demos, plenty of interaction with the speakers and a fraction of the cost of flying around the country doing presentations in dark hotel rooms.

Affiliate programs. The Web has revolutionized referral marketing. Known in the Internet world as affiliate marketing, it allows partners to share access to customers easily and to be compensated for it. Most of the leading affiliate companies offer BTB services. In some tight marketplaces, the marketers themselves are setting up private online referral deals.

Lights-out campaigning. One of the neatest new Internet applications is variously known as lights-out campaigning, or event-driven, or triggered, marketing. The marketer establishes predefined rules for each customer, or customer segment, and the rules drive outbound messages according to what is going on in the account. A thank-you note, for example, upon receipt of an order. Or a reminder when a product warranty is about to expire. Web-based software makes lights-out marketing inexpensive and very effective.

So never mind the shakeout. With all these Internet applications to choose from, business marketers are making great use of the Web to cut costs and better serve their customers.

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