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Put a Problem in Front of Us and We’ll Help You Solve It

By Bridget McCrea

How electrical distributors can tap into one of their biggest competitive advantages by using the right mix of product content, descriptions, photos, and videos online.

Take a look at the average electrical distributor's website and you're likely to encounter a few missteps and errors that are replicating themselves industry-wide. One regional distributor's website, for instance, offered up very little in the way of product data, information, specs, or photos. It also lacked a user-friendly shopping cart and required all users to “log in” in order to place an order.

Backtracking a bit, we also looked at a supplier site (advertised on the distributor's home page) and found a lot more data and support. Comparing the exact same product on both pages, for example, we were able to do a lot more (i.e., enlarge the image, download a PDF product page, view the product in an ebook, read much more “descriptive” specs, and so forth) than the distributor's site allowed us to do.

The question is, are distributors really demanding all of this information from their suppliers, or are they just taking what they get? And, are manufacturers spending more money on their websites and e-commerce offerings? If the answer to the latter is “yes,” then does that put distributors at a disadvantage in today's ultra-competitive marketplace?  And, if customers visit a distributor's site to research products and place orders—but if the supplier's site is filled with more useful and engaging information—how can distributors turn the tide and keep more “eyeballs” on their own websites (and, particularly those sites that aren't living up to their potential)?

Not Just an Electrical Problem
Justin King, co-founder of the DigitalBranch, and Senior Partner at B2X Partners, says this problem isn't limited to electrical distribution. In fact, industrial distributors across the board are struggling to find their place in the online selling world, where competitors like Amazon and Grainger continue to fine-tune and finesse their own e-commerce strategies.

“It's indicative of how so many distributors look at product content only as a cost center (to be minimized to as little as possible),” adds Jason Hein, a partner with B2X Partners, “as opposed to an asset to be invested in until it can differentiate and create a superior customer experience.”

Hein's statement isn't just lip service. He not only worked at Amazon, launching many of the current categories for Amazon Business, but Hein also put in more than 10 years at McMaster-Carr. There, he designed content-based merchandising strategies and helped lay the foundation for McMaster-Carr's transition to its first web-ready Product Information Management (PIM) system.

According to Hein, the most innovative distributors in today's markets see product content as the very fuel for e-commerce, and not just an afterthought or “filler” to take up space around a site's marketing and advertising messages. The problem, he says, is that many companies view content as a cost center versus an asset that can help them attract, engage, and retain customers.

King concurs, and says he recently worked with a large HVAC distributor that was hitting a wall on the e-commerce front, only to realize that an investment in product content (i.e., high-res photos, specs, descriptions, videos, etc.) would allow it to create a better customer experience online. “That, in turn, translated directly into online sale growth,” says King.

Not Just for the “Big Guys”
Leveraging product content isn't a game reserved only for the “big guys.” In fact, King says even the smallest distributor can take advantage of the “content is fuel” approach. He knows of one distributor that's put a lot of muscle behind its content approach, for example, and as a result that company “can be found on the first page of Google from anywhere in the world.” That's because the company invested first in product content.

For example, instead of “scraping” other companies' websites for photos—most of which are low-res, and some of which are blurry—the company shot its own photos and/or obtained high-res images from is suppliers. This strategy has not only helped boost the company's online sales, but it has also significantly cut down on the number of product returns that it has to process during any given quarter.

“Having quality online content has reduced this particular company's e-commerce returns by 70 percent,” says King. “That's because its customers have the online tools that they need to be able to read descriptions, zoom in on high-res photos, compare products, and know that they're making the right selection.”

Got a Problem? We'll Solve It!
Electrical distributors are well positioned to fully leverage the power of online content, and mainly because most of them already have strong, offline relationships with their customers. Unlike the business-to-consumer (B2C) firm, which may make a $100 sale online and then never hear from that buyer again, the business-to-business (B2B) company knows, understands, and tries to align itself with its customers. Now, all that distributor has to do is apply that relationship-building online, where websites like the one described in the beginning of this article simply don't cut it anymore.

“The beauty is that most distributors not only know their customers well, but they also know about the application of the product and how to solve their buyers' pain points,” says King. For example the motto, “Put a problem in front of our team and we'll help you solve it,” can be extended online and supported by a product content strategy that's better than anything a customer would be able to find internally, or by searching around the web for answers.

Acknowledging that both small and large B2B companies are having a hard time “extending” this level of knowledge and expertise online, King says distributors can start by borrowing some of Amazon Business' own strategies. For example, shooting video and still footage of a product—so that customers can zoom in and see its fine details—or creating line drawings of the product and publishing them online, are both good starting points. In terms of product descriptions, he encourages distributors to use standardized language that customers themselves use (i.e., don't abbreviate “diameter” as “diam” in all of your product descriptions if you want customers to be able to use your site's search tool to its fullest potential).

King says these initial steps will take time and a mindset shift, but they aren't expensive. “There's going to be some strategy involved, but with the right processes in place any distributor can improve its product content on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and/or yearly basis. It's not expensive; it's just a time thing.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.



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