For the last several years web designers have been focused on incorporating the newest technologies and design trends into their sites. There was a huge push to rip down clunky, primitive pages and replace them with search engine optimized, mobile responsive, modern platforms decked out in the latest flat designs.
A few are still playing catch up, but most major brands have already made that transition. The next phase in web development assumes that you’re already on the second or third major revamp of your website and is asking whether you’re continually revising it in light of visitor insights to improve the User Experience (UX).
“Taking into consideration the different purchase cycles, switching costs, audience makeups, decision making processes, and user relationships is vital to building websites that establish credibility.”
UX doesn’t describe the look or even functionality of a website, it refers to the ease of usability and the general feelings it evokes. It’s a measure of how simple it is for users to solve their problems and find what they are looking for. It also captures the qualitative attitudes and emotions that their interaction with the site arouses.
When the navigation is intuitive, the information is relevant and helpful, and every encounter is consistently smooth and rewarding, people simply ‘feel’ better about using a website — and that is true of every site, whether it’s B2C or B2B. Beyond that, however, both types of sites usually have mutually exclusive audiences, with vastly dissimilar needs and expectations. Building websites with outstanding user experiences has to take those distinctions into account.
Here are the five most important differences:
1. Purchase Cycle
The biggest difference between B2B and B2C user experiences is the pace of interactions. The purchase cycle in B2B markets is tremendously long in comparison to B2C. Business to business transactions are often far more complex and costly than consumer purchases, and they are rarely the result of an emotional or impulsive need. Rather, the research that goes into a B2B purchase can start weeks, months, or even years before money ever changes hands.
For a B2B website, the call to action (CTA) is almost never “Buy Now!” More often, it’s something like “Learn More,” “Request a Quote,” or “Talk to a Representative,” gentle nudges to take another step. B2B web users are all somewhere in your conversion funnel, from a first look to checking out benefits to discovering your pricing options. The goal is to tailor the experience at each stage to encourage forward progress and avoid the implication that a decision has to be made right this second.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have a completely different customer journey for B2C websites. B2C is about stimulating prompt action with assertive directives and frictionless interactions. It’s a more appropriate platform for hard selling, urgent calls to action, and appeals to emotion.
Consider the example of Amazon’s patented 1-Click Ordering. They know that a significant portion of their customers are ready to buy immediately. There’s no need to shepherd them gently along the customer journey. They show them where to buy and get out of the way. That system works if all your customer wants is a stapler, but if you’re responsible for requisitioning office supplies for a multinational corporation, nothing happens with one click.
2. Switching Costs
B2C brands try desperately to build close relationships with their customers, but brand loyalty is increasingly rare in the consumer marketplace today. Serial switchers, shoppers that move quickly from brand to brand, abound. B2B firms have it somewhat easier, switching costs are much higher for their customers. It took time, energy, considerable costs, and team buy in to make a purchase, install it, and get their organization utilizing it optimally. They aren’t likely to start all over again on a whim.
For B2Bs, price information is much more important. Companies contemplating a purchase are going to try and take emotion out of their decision making process and choose the product or service that best suits their needs and has the more acceptable cost to benefit ratio. Best practices in UX require that information to be as accessible as possible. If specific prices can’t be displayed, users need to be able to get in touch with someone that can walk them through estimates and typical pricing scenarios just as easily.
Compatibility, integration, and regulatory fit are related issues. A consumer buying a new shirt only has to worry if it will fit and work with their wardrobe. Companies have to know with certainty that the things they invest in will interoperate with their existing workflows. Good UX requires making those details plain, such as by providing proof of industry standardized products or services (e.g. IEEE, ISO, ANSI) or compliance with legal requirements (e.g. environmental regulations or privacy and personal information disclosure laws like HIPAA and GDPR).
3. Multiple Targets
B2C requires speaking as simply as is appropriate to appeal to a fairly well defined target audience. For example, leisurewear brand Lululemon’s public facing website only needs to communicate with a fairly specific demographic that is mostly high earning, fitness-focused women. Old Spice’s website is filled with content that speaks to a young male demo.
B2B websites don’t have the luxury of that kind of specificity. They are talking to high and low earners, men and women, and people of a variety of ages and areas of expertise. They have a complex audience of many different, narrow groups, from worker bees through to higher management, and across numerous industry verticals. Jargon and industry-specific terminology can’t be avoided in these cases, but it should be properly explained so that no one is left out of the conversation.
Each group will seek out a different place to focus on your content. Operational staff will want to know the specific features, benefits, and support options of your product or service since they’ll be the ones dealing with it directly. For service-based B2B websites, staff bio pages serve a similar function by providing compelling information about the people they will potentially be collaborating with.
“B2B websites have a complex audience of many different, narrow groups, from worker bees through to higher management, and across numerous industry verticals.”
Team members also need plenty of information to help them justify choosing a B2B option to their supervisors. Things like advocacy kits, brochures, and slide decks go a long way in making that task easier for them. The details in those materials, however, should appeal less to the needs of the rank and file than to executives. Top brass is going to zero in on costs, reliability, and expected return on investment. They will want assurances that the product or service they are reviewing is not only superior to the competition, but also makes sense financially and will integrate easily with their existing systems.
4. Decision Makers
For consumer websites, you really only have to appeal to one or two major decision makers. For B2B websites, your content is going to be appraised by an entire corporate hierarchy. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, the average number of people involved in a B2B purchase was 6.8. The addition of more decision makers complicates things and requires user experience changes that take into account the needs of a multifaceted group.
The first visitors to encounter your website are likely going to be front-line employees, the people who are actually going to be using whatever it is you’re selling. If you make a good impression on them, they’ll share your content with mid-level managers, who will then ask for approval from upper management. Plus, accountants, lawyers, marketers, and procurement-teams might be looped in for their sign off as well.
More people generally means lower tolerance for risk, hence purchase intent drops as more decision makers are added to a buying process. The average purchase likelihood with just one decision maker is 81-percent. A second person drops it to 55-percent. Six or more decision makers and the average purchase intent is just 31-percent. You are not going to steamroll a group of that size with just persuasive headlines and eye popping graphics. They need every question answered ahead of time. B2B content should be front loaded with as much social proof as you can muster to address those concerns, including:
- Case Studies
- Customer Testimonials
- Blog and Social Media Posts
- Third Party Reviews and Ratings
- Industry Awards
- White Papers
In business management circles there’s an old saying that “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” IBM was synonymous with a safe, reliable, industry-leading (and hence unimpeachably justifiable) choice of vendor. Perhaps there was a better option out there, a newer product with more advanced features or a more inclusive service contract, but if something went wrong, the purchaser would have to answer for it. Great B2B websites instill that kind of confidence.
One of the main ways all websites begin the process of converting a mere visit into a continuing dialog is through contact forms and other types of outreach like live chat. B2C websites are typically asking for contact information primarily to add leads and repeat purchasers to their email marketing lists. Some go further and ask for specific information like demographics and interests so they can segment and tailor their communications.
On the other hand, B2B sites want to build much deeper relationships that are going to take longer to form and last much longer once they do. B2B sites want more information and should request detailed input from visitors such as the industry challenges they face, budgetary requirements, functional role, and company size.
“B2B sites want to build much deeper relationships that are going to take longer to form and last much longer once they do.”
The type of relationship between a B2B website and its users is also of a different character than B2C sites, it’s necessarily more formal and conservative. Design choices should reflect that difference. For example, typography and imagery selection should tend towards the utilitarian and classic rather than wild and trendy. Naturally, these rules should always be adapted to the particular brand. Some B2B companies do court a less buttoned-up relationship with their audience and their websites should align with that brand ethos.
B2C and B2B sites alike should have well thought out information architectures that are suited to their markets, be updated regularly with content that their audience is responding positively to, and reduce confusion and usability friction whenever possible. All that being said, achieving a high quality user experience on B2C and B2B websites requires many distinct changes.
Taking into consideration the different purchase cycles, switching costs, audience makeups, decision making processes, and user relationships is vital to building websites that establish credibility, anticipate user needs, and speak to multiple segments without alienating anyone. The end result is a website that is suited to its users, is eminently functional and appealing, and fosters consistently gratifying user experiences.