Looking for the B2B needle in the B2C haystack

It’s not easy being a B2B marketer of the digital variety. Trust me. The problem is that 99% of the online world seems to be built specifically for the consumer market, and us B2B types have to try to divvy up the 1% that’s left. And that’s where it gets challenging.

The tip of a hidden B2B iceberg

One of the challenges is the lack of definition of the B2B market. It’s massive. But no one really seems to know just how big it is. When I was writing my book on B2B digital marketing, I tried in vain to try to find some reliable quantification of the immensity of the market, but I never did find a number that seemed fit for quoting. I had consumer market stats coming out of the ying-yang, but no one wanted to go on record to try to nail down the size of the business-to-business marketplace. Consider this though. For every consumer product that ends up in your hand, there is a long string of B2B transactions that precedes it. Some are materials and components that are directly incorporated into the end product, but many are indirect: equipment, services and supplies required to keep the long supply chain running.

Massive fragmentation

If the B2B market is one massive iceberg that remains hidden, the challenges that face the B2B marketer start compounding when you consider that the market isn’t a monolithic one. Unlike the big consumer markets like automotive or consumer electronics, B2B markets are incredibly fragmented. The market lives in tiny little slivers spread across the online landscape. Suddenly our iceberg shatters into billions and billions of slippery little ice cubes.

This becomes apparent when you try to use a service like comScore or Hitwise to get market intelligence. Unless you’re GE, Siemens or Oracle, the vast majority of B2B websites have barely enough traffic to register in the datasets of these tools. Consumer markets tend to aggregate around a few landmark sites. But B2B traffic is scattered to the four winds. Even big B2B suppliers like 3M face the same problem in trying to obtain meaningful competitive data once you go past the home page.

Consider that the main site, 3M.com, gets roughly the same traffic as just one site for a single PG consumer brand, Pampers.com. But within the 3m.site, no less than 70 different product divisions and hundreds of thousands of product lines are represented, from electronic components to liquid absorption materials that are used in, yes, those very same Pampers. If you try to slice and dice the traffic to get any meaningful intelligence, you soon find it would be easier to split an atom.

B2B buyers look very much like B2C buyers in the data

Finally, you have the problem that when we have our B2B buying hat on, we still act much as the same as when we wear our every day consumer hat. We don’t suddenly change our search or online habits. For example, if you’re researching a possible solution for improving the water quality of a chain of coffee franchises, you will be likely to use pretty much the same keywords on Google that you might if you were looking for a home unit to fit under your kitchen sink.

When we search we tend to start broad and only narrow down our searches when we have to. So when you look at search data available through Google or another tool, it becomes virtually impossible to segment B2B traffic from B2C. In the data, it often looks the same. So as you try to quantify opportunity, you start playing the B2B guessing game, where you arbitrarily discount the opportunity based on a WAG on what percentage could possibly be non-consumer in nature.

If you’re looking in a highly specialized product category, you might eventually use a B2B search tool like ThomasNet, GlobalSpec or KnowledgeStorm, but in all our research we have found that vast majority of B2B search activity happens in the same place as our consumer queries: namely Google, and to a lesser extent, Bing and the other alternatives.

Slim pickens…

If you’re a consumer marketer, there is an increasingly rich set of digital marketing tools and data and targeting services to choose from. Everybody and their cousin are falling over themselves to cater to this market. But if you’ve decided to stake your flag on the B2B side of the divide, good luck! Only the foolhardy and brave seem to want to set foot here.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider April 12, 2012