When I became the CEO of a San Francisco sneaker company in 2012 after a career focused on business-to-business tech, I saw an opportunity to use the tools I’d learned in tech to bring the business-to-consumer world up to speed with B2B in technology, data and analytics.
I wasn’t the only one on this journey. Around that time, the first green shoots of the e-commerce revolution were sprouting, and businesses were beginning to incorporate technology in ways that would transform retail. Many of the digitally native brands born around that time are household names today: Warby Parker (2010), Harry’s (2012), Allbirds (2014) and Casper (2014), to name a few.
Today, after eight years in the sneaker world, I’m back in tech — this time, with new insights from the B2C world of retail that can benefit the B2B world of tech. Here are three key lessons from my sneakers to software journey.
3 tips for B2B companies from B2C
- Build a community for your customers online.
- Do rapid tests internally.
- Hyper-segment your customers.
Build an Online Community
In the past, B2C interactions happened only in stores. Now, social media has made possible a whole new approach to connecting with like-minded people. At the sneaker company I led, this let us build authentic connections with our customers at scale while collecting invaluable customer insight and data from our social media interactions. Now, connecting digitally has become foundational to a lucrative B2C relationship.
Similarly, B2B companies used to connect solely over the phone or in person. But those touch points took a real hit when remote work became commonplace and in-person meetups declined, pushing B2B companies to connect in the same ways digitally that B2C companies started doing 10 years ago. Today, technologies like software-as-a-service, cloud and social media allow B2B companies to serve more customers than ever before.
It's not enough for B2B companies to have a presence on LinkedIn and X (formerly Twitter), which tend to be ad focused. They can no longer afford to use these channels to push one-way communications to buyers. Taking a page from the B2C playbook, B2B companies need to focus on building a community — a place where customers feel seen and heard, engage with the company and peers and build trust in and affinity for the brand. If you interact with your audience authentically on multiple platforms and maintain the same tone and values throughout, you will build long-term connections and loyalty organically.
Conduct Rapid Tests
Once you’re digitally connected to your customer, take advantage of technology to conduct rapid tests. Historically, in the retail world, this was not an option. A new sneaker, for example, was created and designed in a lab — often in partnership with an elite athlete — then unveiled to the world a year or so later with a product launch. Instead of direct contact with consumers, the sneaker maker dealt with buyers at large retail companies and sold to a channel.
Today, through social media and other digital channels, B2C companies have learned to get rapid feedback from their audience. Organizations can pick an element they want to test, such as purple or green sneakers, or Velcro straps instead of laces. Then they can run micro tests with 100 or 1,000 consumers, measure which option gets the best response and rapidly improve the product. Instead of one big product launch a year after choosing a design, they can create three versions of a design idea, test it in a day, and implement feedback and revisions a week later.
B2B companies need to embrace this model too. A lot of software companies already successfully deploy this approach through agile methodologies. It works great. But where B2B companies could benefit from rapid testing is market expansion. How do you do this?
Put together a small team of two to three employees who can validate the new market before investing additional resources, develop early messaging and some marketing collateral, and test various engagement strategies and collect data to fine-tune outreach efforts. After a few months, your team will have the insights they need to scale up or pivot.
Use AI to Hyper-Segment Your Consumers
B2C companies have learned to identify population segments differently than they used to. Traditionally, they used broad-brush demographics like age, gender and ZIP code. But new tools, such as visibility into a customer’s purchase history, online interactions with a brand, and ads on social media that focus on hyper-segmented audiences allow these companies to attach more significant characteristics.
Is the customer an Amazon Prime shopper? Do they get their groceries at Whole Foods? Do they like environmentally conscious brands? Are they shopping for winter clothing?
As a result, when data-driven brands communicate with customers, they can do so in a personalized way. When they find a segment that works, they can keep creating content and products that serve that segment, even if it comprises just a few thousand or tens of thousands of consumers.
Data is scattered like breadcrumbs across the internet. AI can surface these deeper insights almost immediately, turning average go-to-market teams into great ones.
B2B companies need to learn to segment like this too. Traditionally, they have relied on firmographics — broad-brush filters such as industry, company size and number of employees — in their efforts to find new prospects that match their ideal customer profile. But these criteria produce superficial descriptions and direct sales teams to the wrong prospects, wasting time and clogging the sales funnel with leads that will never convert to customers.
Taking a note from this B2C strategy, B2B organizations need to employ more granular lenses. Is a business an early or late adopter of new technology? How fast is it growing? Has it undergone recent changes in leadership?
These bits of data are scattered like breadcrumbs across the internet on company websites and LinkedIn pages. The best sales reps (and data science teams) spend hours searching the web and gathering data to surface these deeper insights manually. By the time they’ve analyzed the data, however, the company’s situation — the data — has changed. AI can tackle all of this almost immediately, turning average go-to-market teams into great ones.
Connecting with consumers online, conducting rapid tests and hyper-segmenting the target audience can help B2B companies engage the highest quality targets. Just as tech is revolutionizing the B2C world of retail, these lessons can put B2B companies on the fast track to a smarter and more profitable model than ever before.