B2B: To Compete in Digital, You Need to Own Your Product Information

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If you’re like most B2B manufacturers or distributors, you’re taking a page from the B2C playbook and you’re building out the product experience in your digital channel. Because we all shop and buy on-line as consumers, we expect the same capabilities from the B2B sites we frequent. Many industry analysts have talked for years now about the “consumerization” of B2B – that’s a $20 word for “make it work like Amazon.”

3 Big Things You Need to do to Transition to Digital

Unlike B2C sites – many of which were built “digital first” – most of us in B2B started off with our feet firmly planted in a physical world. We built our businesses as a direct sales force with hundreds or thousands of experts selling products over the phone. Those of us in the distribution world had warehouses that we converted into storefronts, and we’re proud of our recent innovations such as vending machines on the factory floor for high-demand items. We were proud of our print catalogs – our Big Books were prized possessions for our customers, and in some cases were hard to come by. In the words of a CIO of one leading industrial supply company, “The whole company existed to put out the Big Book.”

B2B Digital Product Catalog Maturity

In this “print first, digital second” world of B2B, putting hundreds of thousands or even millions of products online is a daunting prospect.  We don’t have product data production operations – instead we have catalog teams and databases, and we do our best to repurpose that catalog content on-line. This may help us get started or get by, but it’s not what we need to compete in a “digital first” world.

If we want to compete in a digital world, we need to invest in digitizing our product information. What does that entail? Doing lots of things we didn’t do in the physical world. In this post I’ll list the Big Three new things we need to do to manage product information to compete in a digital world.

Well-organized Product Taxonomy

First, managing product information and publishing it to multiple channels (including websites and print catalogs) requires developing a well-organized product taxonomy. A taxonomy is a hierarchy of types of products, and includes the attributes we need to display and search on products. How many of us even thought about taxonomy when publishing our Big Book? Taxonomy helps us manage products in a Product Information Management system (PIM) – the one-stop shop for managing information your customers need to discover, compare, buy, and use your products. The PIM contains everything we need to display products in our on-line catalog as well as a in a print catalog. Taxonomy enables the PIM to map products to channels, then flow the information any given channel requires from the PIM system.

Flesh Out Your Product Attributes

The second major new thing we need to do is be thoughtful about product attributes – the features that are displayed and used for navigation. What features do we need for our customers to find the products they need? Which attributes do we need to display, and which ones do we need to show as search filters or comparison features? Which ones matter most to our customers? Which ones do our competitors show on their sites? Attributes are powerful, but every one we add comes with a cost – the cost of populating the data for every product in our portfolio with that attribute.

Data Entry, Data Entry, Data Entry

Which leads to the third and most daunting new activity: entering the data for every attribute, for every product in the portfolio. Manufacturers struggle to get this data from product managers and marketers because before now, it was nobody’s job. To assure compliance after a transformation, most manufacturers require detailed product data as part of the product lifecycle Phase Gate process – now it’s somebody’s job, it’s important, and it’s inspected. We can’t launch the product if we don’t enter the data that describes it.

Distributors struggle even harder to get detailed data from product manufacturers. One product management leader at a top industrial supply firm told me this story: Imagine that you sell 1000 different flashlights in your catalog – all kinds, with different features and capabilities, and different applications. Now imagine that you source these 1000 flashlights from 100 different manufacturers. Lastly, imagine that you require each manufacturer to supply 20 or more technical attributes (e.g. brightness, brightness settings, hours of service, battery type, batteries included, housing material, waterproof, submersible depth, etc.) and up to 20 logistical attributes (GTIN; pallet/case/package dimensions, weight, and quantity; minimum order quantity; warranty, etc.). You have three choices for getting this information: get it from the manufacturer in a file (usually a spreadsheet); get it from a third party in an XML feed (e.g. IDW or Trade Services); or gather it yourself. Usually, if you want it done right – comprehensive, accurate, well-formed – you do it yourself. You can’t count on others to provide the data you need to compete.

Not Easy But Worth It

I spoke on the topic of owning your product information at the 2016 B2B Online conference in Chicago this past May. I had the opportunity to listen to one B2B leader after the next tell their story of evolving from a catalog business into a digital powerhouse. Every last one of them told the same story: They invested millions of dollars, usually over several years, in their product information. They partnered on building product taxonomy and reengineering their old platforms and business processes. They put governance in place. They now have in-house staffs of 20 to 80 personnel dedicated to gathering and authoring the attribute data they need to compete in digital. The evolution from print catalog to digital did not happen overnight. It took time, money, hard work, and putting new capabilities in place – for product data, PIM, search, and ecommerce.

Don’t underestimate the value of your product information. One leader in the space had no on-line revenue five years ago and now does over $1B in commerce on-line. As they told the conference attendees: “It took us over five years and over five million dollars – just on the data. Why? Because best-in-class search on top of bad data is bad search. Best in class user experience with crap data is crap experience.” Another said, “Search is not about technology – it’s all about the content.” And yet another: “The data is the experience.”

If you want to compete in digital – even if you don’t plan to sell products on-line – you need to invest in your product information. Don’t sell yourself short when planning your digital transformation.


For a deeper dive, download this free white paper: "B2B: World-class Customer Experience Requires World-class Product Data."

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