Last month, Thomas Publishing Company announced that as of next year, it will discontinue the print version of its perennial Thomas Register to deliver the data solely on the internet. The shift by the 107-year-old industrial information company signals the magnitude of the online channel in the business-to-business space.
The traditional still holds sway for many aspects of B2B marketing. The trade show and the trade magazine continue to thrive alongside internet-based endeavors. But online strategies are becoming a key consideration -- search engine marketing (SEM) in particular.
According to a study by SVM E-Business Solutions, only 45 percent of manufacturers use search engine optimization (SEO), and a mere 15 percent claim to do paid search advertising.
But those numbers are likely to grow. The SVM survey found that 50 percent of respondents said they plan to start SEM campaigns sometime during 2005 or early 2006.
The growing interest in utilizing search reflects the habits of business users. In a lengthy study entitled "The Role of Search in Business to Business Buying Decisions," Enquiro and MarketingSherpa found that 63.9 percent of B2B internet users would go first to a search engine before other online destinations to find out more about a product or service.
Similarly, a KnowledgeStorm survey found that when B2B buyers need to research IT purchases, the first places they go are internet directories, i.e., search engines such as Yahoo! and Google -- and this among both online and offline possibilities.
Not surprisingly, when internet users wear their business hats, they use search engines in much the same way as they do as consumers. For example, Enquiro found that the biggest share (46.2 percent) of B2B buyers search early on, when they're just starting to research the product or service, with the second phase consisting of the 30.2 percent who do comparison shopping.
One of the key differences between consumer marketing and B2B marketing is business targets typically need far more details about a company's products or services prior to purchase, and they usually take a longer time to reach a purchasing decision.
The search process in the B2B space reflects the prolonged buying process: 41.5 percent of respondents in the Enquiro/MarketingSherpa survey said they start using a search engine anywhere from two to 12 months in advance of purchase.
Enquiro and MarketingSherpa found that 45.1 percent of B2B buyers almost always prefer organic listings but will look at sponsored links. And while 14.2 percent never even look at sponsored listings, 21.9 percent of respondents click on the first relevant listing, regardless of its type.
With the significant preferences for organic listings among B2B buyers, it behooves marketers to develop robust SEO programs. However, a research study by Oneupweb found that 46 percent of BtoB Magazine's top 100 advertisers "showed only nominal search engine optimization or ignored it all together." According to the Lake Leelanau, Michigan–based search marketing firm, "We're stunned that … these B2B leaders are ignoring SEO completely or using it so badly it appears accidental."
Among the well-optimized sites (19 of the top 100), 37 percent appear on page one of a Google search and 31 percent on Yahoo!'s site. In contrast, only five percent of those 46 sites with little or no optimization appear among the top organic listings.
Overall, Google is the clear leader in the B2B search market, preferred by nearly 83 percent of respondents in the Enquiro survey.
While business buyers tend to use the general search engines much like their consumer counterparts, the vertical search category is growing quickly. There's obvious logic in the B2B space for niche search, since a buyer in the shipping industry, for example, cares little about results pointing to containers that might be purchased by CPG companies.
Not only are the broad-spectrum search engines, such as Yahoo! and Google, developing vertical search capabilities, the B2B realm has several search players for specific markets. For example, the industrial database of the Thomas Publishing Company is available online at ThomasNet.com; and as of next year the traditional print publications, such as the Thomas Register, will come to an end. In this online business model, buyers no longer pay for information. Instead, the information is free for them and, as with paid search advertising, the seller pays for the listings.
Thomas sources predict that general search strategies, dominant today, will be replaced with more specific, specialized searches and search providers. Industrial buyer surveys conducted in 2003 and 2004 found the following top needs:
- 68 percent want to find links to supplier websites
- 68 percent want to find product catalogs
- 55 percent want a consistent format for supplier information
- 51 percent want the ability to search locally
- 50 percent want to refine their search by manufacturer, distributor or service company.
Other vertical search players include KnowledgeStorm, an internet technology search provider that supplied some of the data earlier in this report. Selling to the specialized IT market, KnowledgeStorm charges B2B marketers to be listed in its database, in a form of paid inclusion search. Similar offerings are available from Quigo Technologies, which does contextual search in several vertical categories, and Business.com, which operates on the pay-per-click model across a large range of industries. Still another vertical search site is GlobalSpec, a search and directory site for applied engineers. The niche search category is ripe for multiple players.
David Hallerman is a senior analyst at eMarketer. This article is drawn from his recent report, "B2B Marketing: Making the Internet Integral in a Cross-Channel World."