5 Steps to Turn a B2B Legacy Company Into a Revenue-Driving Digital Star

Because all consumers shop and buy online, B2B sites are expected to have the same capabilities as their B2C cousins. Many industry analysts have talked for years now about the “consumerization” of B2B. Translation: “Make it work like Amazon.”

If you’re a B2B manufacturer or distributor still struggling to make your mark online, don’t get frustrated. Instead, keep your eye on the prize—unlocking the value of your product information, no matter how sprawling and scattered it may now be. You can never underestimate that value.

Remember, the Amazon site was built “digital first,” as were many other B2C sites. So if you are trying to take a page from the B2C playbook, you’ll have to first understand how to get to the starting line.

“Keep your eye on the prize—unlocking the value of your product information, no matter how sprawling and scattered it may now be.”

The truth is that most B2B companies were born with their feet firmly planted in a physical world. They built their businesses as a direct sales force, with hundreds or thousands of experts selling products over the phone. And they were proud of their print catalogs—their Big Books—which became prized possessions for their customers. In the words of a CIO at one leading industrial supply firm, “The whole company existed to put out the Big Book.”

But putting hundreds of thousands or even millions of products online is a daunting prospect. The pages of those ponderous books simply don’t translate easily into accessible digital data. It will take a new approach, shaped by a new mindset, to join the “digital first” world.

To begin the journey, here are 5 steps you’ll need to ensure your people are taking.

1. Identify the product attributes essential for navigation. What attributes, i.e., features, do customers require to find the products they need? Which ones have to be displayed directly, and which can be employed in the background as search filters or for comparison purposes? Which ones matter most to your customers? Which ones do your competitors show on their sites? Attributes are powerful, but each one comes with a cost—the cost of adding that data for each product in your portfolio with that attribute. Before going too far, you’ll need to see some cost estimates on that front.

2. Develop a disciplined structure to sort out the attributes and other product information. Managing data and publishing it in multiple channels (websites and print catalogs) requires a well-organized product structure, a hierarchy of types of products that highlights the attributes needed for successful online searches. Without it, you won’t be able to open the kind of one-stop shop your customers are clamoring for, both online and print, that will permit them to discover, compare, buy and use your products.

3. Capture and enter the data needed to fill that structure. This is where the rubber meets the road. Manufacturers  struggle to get the necessary attributes from product managers and marketers because, until now, it was no one’s job to collect and verify that information. Distributors struggle even harder to get the information from the manufacturers.

One product management leader at a top industrial supply firm put it this way: “Imagine that you sell 1,000 flashlights in your catalog—all kinds, with different features and capabilities, and different applications. Now, imagine that you source these 1,000 flashlights from 100 manufacturers. Lastly, imagine that you require each manufacturer to supply 20 or more technical attributes (brightness, brightness settings, hours of service, battery type, batteries included, housing material, waterproof, submersible depth, etc.) and up to 20 logistical attributes (global trade item number, or GTIN; pallet/case/package dimensions, weight, and quantity; minimum order quantity; warranty, etc.). Your people have three ways to get this information: from the manufacturer, from a third party or gather it themselves. You want it done right, which means, almost always, that your people have to do the work. Too much is at stake to leave it to others.

4. Dig in: it’s going to take time. The evolution from physical to digital does not happen overnight. It takes plenty of hard work to put new capabilities in place—to gather the right data, develop a unique knowledge system and design search tools. In fact, it often takes several years. Typically, a company has to find a partner to build out its product structure and reengineer old platforms and processes. You’ll likely need to approve some hiring—an in-house staff of 20 to 80 people will have to be dedicated to gathering and authoring the relevant attribute data. And you’ll need to make sure that governance is in place.

5. Budget to spend some serious money. None of that effort will come easy, and none of it will come cheap. To evolve from a physical or print-catalog business into a digital powerhouse typically costs millions of dollars. But what other investment is likely to get you a billion-dollar return?

Remember, online success is a journey, not a destination. You will always be evolving. But the key to success is in your product information. Adopt these 5 steps and you can ensure your team and your company are always exceeding your customers’ needs and driving new financial value for the firm.

Seth Earley :Seth Earley, founder and CEO of Earley Information Science, has developed search, content and knowledge strategies for a diverse roster of Fortune 1000 companies.