Helping Buyers Cover Their Butts: The Ultimate B2B Conversion Strategy

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Before the Internet, B2B companies approached conversions the traditional way: building trust through relationships in hopes of convincing prospects that they're the right choice. This probably involved a lot of face-to-face meetings, two-martini lunches, and maybe even a few afternoons spent on the golf course.

Today, much of the B2B buying cycle is done online, from researching options to learning about companies and requesting quotations. But don't be lulled into thinking that the conversion principles that are used successfully by B2C companies can be applied to your B2B site. The stakes for B2B buyers are higher - they extend way beyond watching a bad movie, having an unappetizing dinner, or buying a fuzzy flat-screen TV. B2B decisions involve much higher price tags, require the weighing of many diverse and often conflicting considerations, and can have an impact on the career and job tenure of the prospective buyer.

There's an old saying: "No one ever got fired for buying IBM." This was when IBM was the "gold standard" of the computer industry, but the power of this statement still remains. What it's demonstrating is the key motivation for B2B buyers and decision-makers: covering your butt.

Back in its heyday, IBM represented a safe choice for buyers. It may not have been the most innovative or the least expensive, but it certainly wasn't risky. And that's what is important to business buyers. If you're responsible for a B2B website, forget the "Buy now" approach that B2C sites can use. The main goal of your site should be to reduce perceived risk and move your prospects steadily through a series of small conversions rather than going for the big conversion upfront.

Here are three ways to apply this thinking to your online initiatives:

1. Showcase clients that have had a positive outcome working with you. How has your company helped other clients solve their problems? Demonstrate your organization's track record through the power of testimonials and referrals from past and current clients, and through case studies.

Business buyers want to know that their peers have had a good experience with you. Give them industry- or application-specific examples - just one or two targeted testimonials or case studies can actually be more effective than a generic statement about the volume of customers you have or how long you've been in business.

Take, for example. As soon as you land on the home page, you are presented with a number of trust signals, this being one of them:

When you click through, you can choose to explore public projects that demonstrate how Basecamp has helped organizations through project management:

Think about all the ways that you can translate your success stories online. You should be constantly in the mode of harvesting client happiness and goodwill. Start a social campaign that draws upon relationships with clients to share their success stories. Or incorporate "rich snippet" reviews on your services pages so your ratings from clients show up in the search results next to your listing.

2. Dress the part. People will judge a book by its cover. There have been studies that show that some people will follow complete strangers dressed in a suit into traffic at a pedestrian crosswalk. Yet the same effect is not observed if the person is dressed in more casual clothes.

B2B websites should be the equivalent of the well-dressed business person. If that means erring on the side of being a bit more conservative, then do so. Unless your buyer demographic is very specific (e.g., "car guys" in the automotive industry, or more colorful companies in the entertainment or advertising industries), you should look "normal" as defined by your prospective customer.

Remember, the buyer is trying to evaluate the risk of working with your company, and the first impression makes a difference. It is often better to be subliminally noticed as the bland and professional choice than to stand out and make a loud statement like a teenager with blue spiky hair.

That's not to say that you shouldn't let your brand's personality shine through with its unique editorial voice. But in most B2B situations, the approach - and the output - should be more refined.

3. Create content for every stage of the decision-making process. You may be expecting too much from your website's visitors. Many marketers are so focused on calls-to-action that they ask for the sale prematurely. B2B buyers typically make several visits to your site and will research your company on other channels like social before choosing to engage with you.

Knowing that this pre-engagement courtship period is longer in the B2B setting, your initial conversion points should be focused on providing information. Maybe a no-obligation download of an e-book is your first step, then an email ask at some point would follow. The idea is to show your prospects you know what they need by respecting their space but still being helpful.

Remember, when you're in a B2B relationship, you're in it for the long haul. There is inherent value in every action the prospect takes. Choose your conversion prompts wisely, and think about the long-term, mutually beneficial relationship you're embarking on together. Make sure that you offer high-quality content and information that reduces buyer uncertainty at every stage of the sales pipeline.

Naturally, few B2B sales happen solely online. Most also involve knowledgeable people interacting with your prospects on behalf of your brand. From your website's content and your social networks to your guest blogging, speaking engagements, and salespeople on the front lines - all of these points should be working together to reassure prospects that your organization is a good choice that they can feel confident making.

Think about how your brand will be communicated at every point, but also how you can build trust with your prospects by showing you have an understanding of their problems and what matters to them.

Focus on these key principles and remember that the most successful B2B conversion strategies take into consideration the inherent risk and apprehension buyers feel. Show that you understand their problems as well as their desire to cover their butts and you'll have a happier sales team and more confident buyers.

This article originally appeared in Tim's ClickZ column June 11, 2013