B2B websites come in all shapes and sizes, but they all suffer from the same pitfalls. Yes, they do serve different sectors and solve a myriad of business problems, but B2B websites have this in common: they cater to more than one audience; and according to recent marketing studies, 57% of prospects are already halfway through the buyer’s journey. That means they have done a ton of research before they hit that carefully worded, A/B tested, call to action at the foot every page.
B2B marketers know this, but there is often complexity in understanding who those audiences are and how they talk to those audiences. Their job gets even harder as their business grows, and their offer grows as new features or products get shipped.
Throw in the fact that startups move at pace, it is easy to understand how offers become fractured, and messages lose their coherence. It can be one hell of a tangle to untangle.
Fear not. It’s not hard to overcome; it just needs a little space, time and user-centric thinking to make sense of it all. But then again it’s not plain sailing either. Otherwise, these common pitfalls wouldn’t be prevalent, and I wouldn’t be writing this article.
So, what are the common pitfalls of a B2B website, and how can you overcome them?
1. Your business moves at pace, but the messaging hasn’t caught up
A fractured offer is symptomatic of a growing business (whoop! high fives). It can also be indicative of a leadership team that hasn’t fully articulated a clear vision, and the company is in headless chicken mode. No amount of design will plaster up those cracks. Design thinking can help, but this article is about B2B websites so let’s stick with our growing business.
While a growing business has a plan, it sometimes reacts to the market and changes course. Sometimes it ships a feature that takes off like a rocket and becomes a new product. Like any ecosystem, businesses tend to evolve organically, and their offer stops making sense to their customer.
I have seen it so many times before. Often the marketing team can’t see the wood for the trees as they are knee-deep in writing long-tail content and white papers. Sales are busy making calls to meet their KPIs and screaming at marketing to get them more leads. Meanwhile, engineering is stowed away in a soundproof room, committing reams and reams of code to GitHub to ship new features to stay with — or ahead — of the competition.
Content, content, content!
Sell, sell, sell!
Ship, ship, ship!
(Phew! Stressful, huh?)
Artistic licence aside — and possibly a little unfairly so — in these fast-paced businesses it is rare for any team (or teams) to step back and say hold on, this doesn’t make sense to our customers.
Making sense of it all does indeed require stepping back and looking at your offer through the eyes of your customer.
If it doesn’t make sense to your customer or is woefully behind the business, then it is time to re-frame your offer, create a product ecosystem or hierarchy and update your positioning. You might think updating your positioning is a leviathan task. In which case, fire up Chrome and Google ‘awesome B2B design agency’ or talk to us. We can help if you don’t have the skills or resource in-house.
What we will do, and you can do this too, is look at your offer through your customer’s eyes. In essence; what problem do you solve and for whom?
Ask yourself these questions: are your products part of a broader ecosystem and are they interchangeable? In which case, do you need to create an ecosystem that has some visual coherence throughout all your brand touchpoints? Just take a look at Atlassian’s homepage to see what I mean. All those product logos are singing from the same hymn-sheet in sweet, sweet harmony! Integrate them into your workflow, and you will notice a UI consistency across their products as well since they implemented a design system to complete the journey.
Is your product an end-to-end solution but your customers think they can cherry-pick parts of it until they have a demo call? In which case, work harder on your messaging and make the UX much, much clearer.
2. Your UX can mislead
Which brings us neatly to UX. When surveying the landscape of B2B SaaS companies, you start to see patterns. For example, ‘Features’ is often an essential navigation item in which you group software features underneath (obviously). It is so easy to fool the user into thinking they are individual products, so be careful and how you frame that message.
Asana has done this well. They are careful to ensure that there is an ‘Overview’ link in the drop-down and features, are well — just that — features.
The clarity in your customer’s mind will make your job much more easy. Instead of trying to pick apart what you do, they will instantly understand what problem you solve for them, and you can begin to build on that all-important part of your relationship: trust.
You have walked in their shoes by framing your offer around them. Not the way your business evolved, haphazardly or not.
3. Positioning isn’t clear enough
In this process of re-framing your product offer, your positioning will likely need updating. Philip Kotler, known as the father of modern marketing, defines brand positioning thus: “the act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the mind of the target market.”
So chances are, if you are looking at your positioning you will be looking at your offer, and vice versa. These two tend to come hand in hand. There is, however, an important distinction. Clarifying your positioning isn’t just about making sense of your product ecosystem, it is about making sense of what you stand for — to quote Kotler again — in the mind of the target market.
Positioning encompasses everything: what problem you solve and for whom; how you go about talking to all those different audiences; and what you look like to them.
I see positioning as the underlying structure for everything you say. And, much like a pyramid, starting at the pointy end, you start simple and clear.
‘We solve problem X for Y’
That’s your positioning statement front and centre on the homepage, and in your PPC campaign, and in metadata. (Yeah, I know it could be better and that’s what you pay killer copywriters for). Short, sweet and to the point, there’s no misunderstanding what you do and for whom. And more importantly, it permeates the entire site, short form and long-form.
I love Keap’s.
“Wish you had eight arms? Us too. That’s why we built Keap. Our CRM and sales and marketing tools help you get more done with less work so you can grow your business.”
(See that brand voice in there? Oh yeah! But that’s another story.)
Your prospect then moves on because you empathise with them. You have walked in your prospect’s shoes. You talk more at length about problem X and begin to sow the seed how your business solves it with Y. You are starting to build trust. At this point, you are in the middle of the pyramid. Don’t dive too deep, too early. You will overwhelm your prospect. Guide them gently.
Once you have piqued their curiosity and you have demonstrated you understand their problem, you can dive deep into how each software feature solves a particular problem. Features are at the bottom of the pyramid.
And, much like our friend the TOF, MOF, and BOF (yeah, those three-letter acronyms — uggghhh) positioning pervades the entire user journey. It underpins all that you say and do.
If you need some sort of framework to work with, there are plenty out there: The Hero’s Journey or Building a Brand Story by Donald Miller. I would always get a copywriter involved, but that’s not very self-help, is it?
4. Selling upwards, not downwards
Some of you know this, some of you may not, but B2B websites sell upwards, not downwards. No CEO is sweating over efficiency gains in the engineering department. They are worried about the entire organisation. You can bet a product owner will be sweating efficiency gains. So will engineering, and — yup — so will middle management.
That’s why you arm your audiences with the information to sell upwards. Engineering is tired of being yelled at because the product owner has no clear line of sight on progress. The product owner needs to report up to middle management, who then reports up to the C-suite. (See where I am going with this?)
If engineering starts the research, by the time you get to the C-suite, you need to make sure you answer everyone’s questions by giving them the ammunition to be your champion on the inside. Engineering care about APIs and integration, middle management will want to look good and make sure they meet their targets, and the C-suite will want to know how much you cost and if you have kudos. (Oh yes, you have Google in your logo quilt. Sold!)
It boils back down to understanding who those audiences are and how you talk to them.
5. Not everyone comes through the front door
You know this, I know this, but not everyone comes through the front door of your website. It is often a piece of long-tail content deeply nested in your blog. So, there are two things you need to be wary of here. Make sure there are clear signposts, so your users know where they are from the outset, and they know where to go next. Clear signposts mean breadcrumbs or clear navigation to you and me.
It’s a puzzle to me: so many Saas websites just don’t orientate users even at the highest level. That, or they treat every page as a landing page, and you just can’t get off the darned things to find out more.
The first page is the start of a relationship. Let’s not propose marriage from the get-go by assuming everyone wants a demo. Gently guide and help them with some signposts so they can find out more. Otherwise, it’s like being dropped into the middle of a forest, and you haven’t got Bear Grylls to get you out.
And, since we have approached our messaging in a top-down fashion (remember the pointy bit of the pyramid?) don’t assume that everyone has absorbed this. Deeply nested pages need a gentle reminder of your value proposition, no matter how small. Chances are your customers will come through the back door first. You wrote that piece of killer long-tail content that worked its magic via SEO.
Easy to overcome, but not always remembered.
6. Messaging just isn’t concise or clear enough
Remember, when we were ensuring our message was clear and orientated around our users? Also, ensure that your message is brief and clear. Don’t try to tell your user the ins and outs of using your software or service. Tell them what problem it solves and how easy it is.
Clarity and brevity apply to the verbal as well as the visual. Don’t show your customers your entire UI. You’ll scare them if it’s complicated and requires training. Simply tell a story by pulling out the components in your UI, and only those components.
This is story telling.
This isn’t story telling.
Work hard on this — and it is hard — but clarity and brevity will lead to better conversions. Again, I always look to Asana. They have mastered this. To quote Beth Nyland in her article, Why brevity and clarity are essential to modern communication:
“We see your weighty words, and we want to look away. Maybe we skim. More likely, we guess. Most likely, we delete. The result? You don’t get results.”
7. Your value is with your people as well as your software
Sometimes your team bring as much value as your software does. You may serve a particular sector or vertical, so chances are your CEO has decades of industry knowledge at their fingertips. You take it for granted, but don’t assume the outside world knows this. Leverage this. It is gold.
Maybe your customer support team always go the extra mile, or you have a stellar onboarding experience, and you walk in your customer’s shoes.
Don’t forget how much value this can bring. People buy people, even if you are selling software. Your people can make the difference, because this is your point of difference, particularly if you are in a flooded market.
8. You don’t stand out
This one is going to be hard to overcome if you don’t have an in-house design team, so — yeah, sorry — back to opening up Chrome and Googling ‘awesome B2B design agency’.
But, bear with me…
Startups are just that; a business that has just started. They don’t have massive cash reserves and have to bootstrap everything, and that includes their first website. It served its purpose, and boy was it cheap. But that’s what it looks like now — bootstrapped. The startup has moved on, has a stable pipeline of work and is beginning to amass a reputation. A bootstrapped website doesn’t stand out. By its very nature, it uses common design patterns, icons and layouts that everyone else can get their hands on — yup, a Squarespace or WordPress theme.
If you survey the B2B SaaS landscape, you start to notice that those businesses all look inwardly at each other. Once upon a time, someone paved the way with ‘human’ and ‘friendly’ illustration. Suddenly everyone has ‘human’ and ‘friendly’ illustration, and it all becomes a bit vanilla — meh (shrug emoji).
Take a look at Mailchimp. Yes, they do use illustration, but they have carved out a unique visual language full of wit and humour. It stands out because it is different and it’s owned by them — no one else.
So there you have it; the common pitfalls of B2B websites. Some may be familiar, some may not. Overcome them though, and your sales team and the C-suite will call you a hero.