Putting a Face on B2B Websites

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It doesn’t matter what part you play on the web design team, understanding and embracing the strategy set forth by either the client or your team is paramount to a successful website.B2B isn’t boring… at least not to everyone. As web designers (writers, information architects, graphic designers, creative directors) we are often asked to work with various unfamiliar topics like hydraulics and pneumatics components. Or commercial flooring. Or even wastewater treatment products. Whatever is the going widget of the day, you have to deal with it, make sense of products you barely understand yourself so that you can build a compelling, useful site and—most important to today’s economic climate—create a site that contributes to your client’s bottom line. At the same time, you want to be creative, free, and cutting-edge with your work.

How do you lead your business-to-business clients down the right path without sacrificing every design, usability, and information design principle you’ve ever learned? And how do you make these websites engaging for their users? There are several keys to being successful: understand your audience and the strategy, apply technology and design principles appropriately, and present your information logically.

Are you talkin’ to me?
It doesn’t matter what part you play on the web design team, understanding and embracing the strategy set forth by either the client or your team (or ideally, both your client and your team, together) is paramount to a successful website. If you’re working on a business-to-business site, remember that you’re not presenting sports scores or the weather to Joe Everyman. You’re speaking to a specific audience of professionals. Most likely, it is made up of engineers, plant managers, distributors or dealers, and maybe even end users. Whatever the case, these are members of a highly targeted community who share certain job titles, responsibilities, backgrounds, educations, or interests (think industry-related interests). They expect certain things from a website: that the information is relevant to their needs, that it’s easy to find, and that it’s useful to some part of their job function. It’s also vital that they can easily communicate with the company via the website.

And don’t forget about the competition. Jim Everhart, vice president of strategic business at Godfrey Advertising, recently shared this insight: “It goes without saying that any new feature competitors add to their site ups the ante for you. Usually, that means you have to respond in kind, or at least have a good reason why you can’t or shouldn’t do what the other guys are doing. A good example: a key competitor begins to sell products online, and you can’t, because your company continues to sell through distribution. But you’d better have an acceptable alternative… and fast.”

Hopefully, your extended team will have thought about situations like the one mentioned above in addition to other site goals. Is the goal to create awareness about the company and its products? Or is it more complex than that—say, to eliminate paper by making all of the product datasheets available online? Or is it to capture prospect data to create offline sales? Or is it to drive online sales? Whatever the goals and objectives, your job is to design the site and “architect” the information to create a user experience that supports and enhances those goals. Marketing is about making it easy for current and potential customers to do business with your client. This principle carries over to your website and all its content and functionality, despite the complexity of information you are presenting. Bottom line: the site’s design and functionality must be dictated by these business objectives.

“A great example is your corporate positioning,” says Everhart. “In the early days of the Web, we could put your positioning line on the home page, just like you do in an ad or brochure. But now, you can do so much more. You can live your positioning on the Web, by taking your core values and embodying them in a way that illustrates and even delivers your company’s sustainable competitive advantage.”

Too cool for the Web?
As designers and information architects work together, the constant challenge is the fine line between using cutting edge technologies well, and using them because a) it’s cool, b) it will be great for your portfolio and c) it’s easier than figuring out what is the right thing to do.

Take Macromedia Flash, for example. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen was quick to say that 99% of Flash is bad… and in most cases, he’s absolutely right. Many companies have tried and failed, mostly in the form of fluffy, ethereal mission statement splash screens that send users scrambling for the “skip intro” link faster than you can say, “loading…” For business-to-business applications, the real beauty of Flash lies in its ability to show, rather than tell, what a company’s products can do for their customers.

With its incredible versatility, slim file sizes, and near saturation of web users, Flash is an ideal way to present highly technical industrial information. Whether it’s illustrating how products can streamline manufacturing processes through a virtual plant tour, or animating a cutaway of hydraulic motors in action, showing how things work gives customers the inside scoop on why your products outrank the competition.

The key is to take the product differentials (again, part of the strategy) and showcase them to put competitors at a disadvantage. For example, a large hydraulics manufacturer I worked for released a new technology that combined electronic drives with hydraulics to create the fastest, most durable systems for mobile applications. When a company is the technology leader in one area, it’s the perfect time to illustrate that with Flash—showing how the hydraulics components integrate with the electronics, and illustrating the resulting operating efficiencies so that the engineers can understand why they simply must specify your client’s products. We leveraged their innovation by creating a Flash kiosk for display at their biggest tradeshow of the year. It was both “flashy” (no pun intended), and very functional, in that show attendees could interact with it as it showed which products were used in each different piece of construction equipment.

Armstrong World Industries, a commercial and residential flooring, ceiling, and cabinet manufacturer, was selected to be in the top ten of BtoB Magazine’s “2002 NetMarketing 100 Best B-to-B websites.” Jesse Engle, general manager of eMarketing at Armstrong, has strong convictions on the topic: “Flash is a means, not an end, “ says Engle. ”It’s a very effective tool web designers can use to illustrate competitive advantages, product benefits, or even corporate positioning. But it needs to be used wisely.”

Who’s doing it right?
Siemens uses a Flash movie to showcase its lifecycle factory automation solutions. An interactive demo shows the plant manager or engineer how they can optimize operations when designing, building, and running their plant. From a usability standpoint, the concept is great, but the execution leaves a little to be desired as the fonts are far too small for readers.

For their automotive segment, Motorola uses Flash to embody their “intelligence everywhere” tagline (there’s that strategy again) with a wireframe illustration of a car. Users can click on products and are shown what part of the car makes use of Motorola’s advanced technologies.

Using rich-media formats like Flash to convey information on the Web is a convenient, economical, and dynamic way to keep visitors coming back to the site. Macromedia’s latest MX suite of technologies allows more interactivity and can incorporate real-time information. In fact, Macromedia’s “Executive Presentation” is a prime example of business-to-business communication at its finest. It incorporates video into a slick interface that illustrates exactly how their product can provide its customers with their own rich-media applications.

Please help me make up my mind
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the customer feedback I’ve gotten on behalf of clients over the years, it’s that website users want the site to help them make a purchasing decision. According to BtoB Magazine, 91 percent of industrial buyers go to their supplier’s website for information before they pick up the phone. Further, 80 percent of buyers are likely to select another supplier if they don’t find the information they need on the site. How do you help them out? By presenting information logically, usefully, and appropriately for the web medium. There are a few elementary principles that apply to parsing and presenting technical information:

  1. Don’t be stingy.

    The phrase “too much information” only applies to things your friends might tell you under the influence. When it comes to the business-to-business customer, you simply can’t give them too much data. However, how you structure that information is key, and here are a few ways to do that:

    Give users multiple navigation schemes to get to your deeper information. For example, include the technical data sheets for every product, but make them searchable by product families, model codes, part numbers, or any other iteration that users might use to search.

    While you’re at it, don’t try to force users to register before they can get any information from your site. That is a huge turnoff, and there’s no proof that it’s effective. Remember, the company’s job is to service customers, not make their lives more difficult. If your client is concerned about competitors getting their information, remind them that proprietary information is stored on their extranets, so public information should be left unencumbered by forced registration. And remind them that you will help them interpret their site statistics better or build an online survey to collect the type of information that they are seeking through registration.

    If you do decide to have site users register, make it as simple as possible, in direct proportion to the kind of information they will be getting from you. If you have an advanced specifier with specialized product selection capabilities, or special training video available online, a short registration is acceptable.

    The best way to think of the Web is as a huge information exchange. As the prospective seller, you have to give and give and give to your buyer before you can expect anything in return. And only after giving them something really significant can you ask prospects to invite you into their world and exchange information with you freely. That’s basic permission marketing.

  2. Group information wisely.

    Don’t put your model codes on the homepage. Instead, give users product families and groups that are based on what they will understand, and not how your business is structured. Try to limit the number of choices to a set that is easily scannable. While the good old “7 plus or minus 2” rule is an acceptable starting place, I think between 10 and 15 items grouped logically will work just as well. For example, I once helped a client whittle a list of markets down from nearly 45 to 13 by grouping specific segments like education, government, healthcare, and office properties under the main header “Commercial and Institutional.”

    This client, GEBetz, a manufacturer of water treatment chemicals, is also a good example of giving users many ways to find information. Users can find information right from the main navigation by selecting application, industry, product family, and even case histories that are sorted by all three of those categories.

    A less than desirable example of categorization appears on the Ametek website. Check out the list of industries. Not only is it contained in a scroll-box, but the choices number nearly a hundred. And I have to wonder why Metal Casting, Metal Forming, Metal Pickling, and Metal Plating weren’t grouped under one header—Metal. The product brand dropdown menu has the same problems. One might expect brand names—names that would be recognizable in the industry, I’m sure—but instead there are choices like “500 Series” and “Series 90” alongside such brands as “Windjammer” and “Jofra.” Huh? With names like these, new customers aren’t able to choose the right product for their needs unless they already know those brands. To make matters worse, a few product family names, like “fluoropolymer tubing” and “heat exchangers,” expand the confusion. What this site really needs is a good information architect to lock themselves in a room with the obviously varied business units until some kind of consensus on site structure and operations is achieved.

  3. Show me the difference.

    When presenting technical information, they key is to show benefits and differences. Comparison charts are an excellent way to give engineers a tool to make a choice between multiple, similar products. Remember, a comparison chart shows the differences between products. If every product that appears in the chart has the same size, speed, shape, color, or specs, then it’s not showing customers the differences between products—and not helping them make a choice.

    A good example of a comparison chart is located at the website of JLG, a manufacturer of industrial material handlers. In each product category, a chart shows the platform height, capacity, horizontal reach, vehicle weight, and power source for each model in the line.

  4. Give me the tools.

    Finally, convince your client that they will not be eliminating the sales force by putting specifiers, configurators, and calculators on their site. These tools, if designed properly, help customers choose the right product for them, so that when they do contact the company they are much closer to making a purchase. This will save the sales force time—and they may even use the tool themselves!

    For example, Dell’s business site (as well as the consumer side) allows users to customize their PCs with a clean, easy-to-use computer “Finder,” or configurator. Further, they give their business customers an ROI calculator to help them figure out how much money their company is going to save by using Dell’s products.

    For GE Lighting’s business customers, they offer a Virtual Lighting Designer that takes a darkened picture and lights it with various configurations of lights. Users may also select energy efficiency, product life, light output, safety, and environmentally friendly as categories when selecting lighting. If customers still aren’t sure, GE Lighting offers a Lighting Auditor that collects user information and then calculates annual energy costs and project energy costs if users switch to GE products. A much simpler suite of estimators called the GE Lighting Tool Kit offers help with lighting layout, fixture replacement, lifecycle costs, and dimming system savings.

Selling sand in the desert
Talking a business-to-business company into any of the solutions above can be very challenging. Here are a few pointers:

  • Put together a solid creative brief that shows how this project embodies their corporate strategy.
  • As an addendum to the creative brief, do a “potential ROI” summary that shows how the added functionality is going to contribute to things like attracting and retaining customers, making it easier for customers to do business with them, or helping customers make purchasing decisions.
  • Develop solid storyboards and functional specs to help show your client exactly what they are going to get. Have the client approve them and sign off on them.
  • Have examples of how you’ve done this for others. Or, if you work for the company, provide examples of how your competitors have done it (or haven’t, so there’s opportunity to be the leader).
  • Develop and present a measurement plan for how you are going to define the program’s success.

Whether you work for an agency, yourself, or for one of the business-to-business companies, your creativity and versatility can always be practical, useful, and fruitful for your employer. Don’t be afraid to “live on the fault line” of emerging technologies, but keep pragmatism and business objectives at the forefront. That way, you’ll be sure to gain friends in your user communities, and hopefully turn those people into loyal customers.

Best of luck!

Nancy Carl is the Residential eMarketing Specialist for Armstrong World Industries, a leading manufacturer of flooring, ceilings, and cabinets. Her job involves working with internal business units to determine their interactive needs and implement them on Armstrong’s award-winning website. Working in the interactive field since 1996, Nancy began as an Information Designer and held various positions since then in the nebulous, ever-changing IA realm. Her specialties include eBusiness strategy, usability, content management, and information organization.


  1. Nancy-
    What article in what issue in B2B magazine were you referencing when you said, “According to BtoB Magazine, 91% of industrial buyers go to their supplier’s website for information before they pick up the phone. Further, 80% of buyers are likely to information they need on the site.”.

    Much thanks!
    Amanda Kahlow

  2. You can see a lot of this article applied to this site.

    It´s fun, talks to the audience in their own terms and provides usefull stuff (cds, testimonials, etc…)

    We also worked with a consistent and easy to use navigation bar and a very very light design.

    The success was measured with the number of people who signed up for the newsletter, reaching around 300 hundred in two months.

    B2b rocks! but keep it easy.

  3. Though I haven’t read many of the other articles in this series, I found this one surprisingly complete in its consideration of the problems specific to communication over web media, while standing firmly on the foundation principles of technical writing. I also have found that visualizing the target audience is the imaginative step most crucial, and inspirational to the design process.

    Good article, Nancy.


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