B2B sites – harder to use than B2C sites?

November 9, 2016

We work with clients in all sectors undertaking usability testing on all sorts of sites with all sorts of users – one day it is wine buyers on an eCommerce site, the next it is process engineers buying steam systems. Inevitably one looks for patterns in all this data. One I see is that B2B sites are often harder to use than B2C sites. At the risk of being accused of suffering from apophenia – my ‘word of the week’ meaning the tendency to see meaningful patterns within random data – I will try and justify and explain my conclusion.

Take this example. We have recently undertaken some usability testing of a global B2B site. The site had been redeveloped and there were concerns about its usability: we were asked to investigate after it had been launched. Perhaps not surprisingly for a site that had been developed with no user input, it did not perform well. We had recruited very senior business buyers and, memorably, one of these, after about 40mins, on the site had still not worked out what they did!

In another case, I recently visited one of our B2B engineering clients that has become a global player over the last few years by a series of mergers. The conversation got round to how well they understood their users. It quickly became apparent that not only was their understanding limited but they, the head office web team, could do little to influence the content that company divisions put on the website. The site content was often verbose, key content that users wanted was missing and there were no sensible calls to action because the content authors were internally focused. But because of the way the business had grown the divisions were politically more powerful than the web team and they could not change the content to make the site better.

These two examples are by no means isolated experiences. We find that B2B websites are often less usable than B2C websites. So why is this? Well clearly there are a whole range of reasons but some of the key issues are:

  • No clear idea of what success looks like – ecommerce sites have a clear idea of success – how much income they generate. You can argue about how well this serves long term customer value but at least it gives a clear focus for a website. Non transactional B2B websites often have lots of aims with lots of content owners competing for website resources (e.g. lead generation, product support, account management, shareholder support, recruitment, etc.). Usually there are no clear priorities as to the purpose of the site. This means they often become bloated with content so users find it hard to find what they want.
  • Poor understanding of users – many B2B sites are product or service lead. The people who own the products understand them so they tend to write the copy about them. They love their products. They understand them and are fascinated about all their intricate details. Unfortunately the product people often don’t understand that their users don’t think like them and aren’t interested in a lot of this stuff: their customers want to know what the product/service can do for them and how successful it was for other people like them. Consequently, site content can be long on an internal perspective on product features and light on evidence of product benefits and case studies.
  • Poor understanding of the buying journey – the B2B buying journey is often long and complicated. This goes from ‘I don’t know I have a problem’ (raising awareness), through researching solutions, to identifying a vendor, to getting support. There are often different types of users whose needs have to be met (e.g. technical, marketing, procurement). Identifying the right content for these different users at the different stages in the journey is key to building an effective site. Many B2B websites don’t think like this – they need a content marketing strategy and just don’t have one.
  • Relying on existing sales channels – many traditional B2B businesses have well established sales channels – distributors, sales forces, etc. – which have served these companies well over the years. Where the solutions being offered are complex and go offline early in the buying process there still seems a belief that the website has a limited role. The fact that virtually all B2B sales enquiries start online these days, however complex the solution, does not seem to be recognised. If customers are turning to digital channels for this information, then the existing sales channels are of little use.
  • Not device independent – Most B2B websites are still not responsive, especially if they are not transactional. But mobile is where most research is done – in spare moments, on the train, under the broken equipment if I am an engineer. The belief that customers sit in their offices to do their research is still current and almost certainly wrong!

It is notable that, when I talk to B2B managers, their understanding of the digital market place and its impact often feels like the B2C market did 5+ years ago. The good news is that this means there is a huge opportunity for businesses who understand the digital environment to steal a march on their competitors. Of course what I am seeing could just be random data and I am guilty of apophenia….