More Than A Catalog To Build Your Online Business

 

Just a few years ago, the Internet was a place where design engineers ordered small quantities of items to fill immediate needs. It was quick, easy, and efficient. And that was all it was. Today, that situation has changed, says Beth Ely, senior vice president at Avnet Electronics Marketing, where she is responsible for global e-commerce.

Though still a convenient place to buy products, the Web has become a workplace where design engineers and others can perform a multitude of tasks. Consequently, distributors are ratcheting up their online offerings, and most now view the Web not as a separate component of their business philosophy, but as an integral part of their go-to-market strategy.

“In the early days, [the e-commerce experience] was not all that different than going to a [print] catalog,” explains Ely. “Today, customers are looking for a little bit more.”

Indeed, today’s Internet customers are looking for product information and specifications, technical support, local inventory, and multiple payment platforms, among other capabilities. They want support and inventory that is specific to their region of the world. They want to connect with other sources of information and ideas online. And they are looking for one source to make all of this possible.

This e-commerce evolution is driving many distributors to embrace the Web in ways they never thought possible even a few years ago. That may mean providing multi-language Web sites, complex design tools, online forums, or a variety of other offerings. At the end of the day, it means making everything distributors do accessible in an online environment.

“We want customers to get our whole offering online,” Ely says of Avnet. “Our philosophy is to provide an e-commerce site that allows the design and fulfillment of electronic components in a speed and convenience model. It’s doing what Avnet does, and doing it quickly online. It’s also, of course, doing it globally.”

More Than E-commerce
Online marketing expert Bob DeStefano, president of SVM E-Business Solutions, agrees that a company’s Internet offering must include much more than just the ability to order products. That’s where a comprehensive online strategy, including a focused online marketing program, comes into play.

Chances are customers are searching for information and resources when they’re looking for your products online, DeStefano explains. Providing that kind of information not only keeps customers engaged once they find you, it will keep them coming back, he says.

E-newsletters, white papers, and other sources of content, along with online chat options and a very obvious customer support phone number (so customers can get in touch with someone quickly and easily) are some of the simple ways companies can achieve this goal.

 

“Inviting people to reach out and ask questions can help you generate immediate sales through your e-commerce [system] and build a marketing database to nurture future opportunities,” he explains.

Distributors such as Avnet have taken such messages to heart. In an effort to include Avnet’s entire offering online, the distributor combines ordering, support, technical assistance, resources, and more on one global Web site, Avnet Express. As Ely explains, the idea is to support customers from concept to production with a single, consistent Web experience.

This means beginning with exposing customers to new products and engineering tools during the design phase as well as moving all the way through to providing ease of purchase and inventory availability during the purchasing phase. Regional pages within Avnet Express allow customers to localize their online experience with access to local inventory and local technical support, in addition to local currency payment options.

“We look at everything our customers do to get their product to market and say ‘What can we do to make that easier?’” Ely says. “What can we do in each of these spaces that can be online-enabled?”

These efforts include an online marketing program. Search engine marketing is a key component (advertising on sites such as Bing and Google as well as some vertical search engines), as are pay-per-click campaigns (sometimes done in conjunction with suppliers), targeted e-mail campaigns, and the use of social networking media such as Twitter.

The trick is using all these tools to provide relevant information to an audience that is easily turned off by receiving too much or incorrect information.

“Above all, we want to be sure we’re bringing value,” Ely adds.

The company was set to launch Avnet Express Europe in January, following the launch of Avnet Express Asia last June.

Keeping It Simple—And Relevant
Keeping up with customer demands is another challenging part of the online business environment. Many professionals advise focusing on the basics.

“The fundamentals are ever more important [today]. Ease of use, the speed of the site, ease of execution [regarding] what you are looking for—these are the things we focus on,” says Martin Rohde, vice president of e-business for Arrow Electronics.

“It all has to do with the evolution of the online environment. [We all] have expectations of how we conduct business on the Web—and our tolerance for things that are not perfect becomes less and less,” Rohde explains.

The ultimate goal: delivering results the customer is looking for at that particular point in time.

“If I give customers irrelevant information, they won’t stick around long,” Rohde adds.

Arrow has tackled this issue with a slogan: “My information, my terms, my tools.” Simply put, it means providing customers with the right information at the right time, extending custom pricing terms to the Web, and providing customized business tools users can share with their colleagues. Arrow also views the Web as one piece of a larger whole.

“We look at the Web as another channel to market that the customer may choose or not choose,” Rohde says, pointing to the company’s inside and outside sales reps and its field application engineers as key physical resources for customers.

“The whole concept is that you can contact Arrow in different ways, and we have different resources available,” he notes. “Think about the evolution from phone to fax to e-mail to Web. This is just another way of contacting Arrow.”

Like Ely and Rohde, Hayne Shumate agrees that relevancy is a key part of any Web strategy. He says a good Internet platform gets customers what they need as quickly as they need it. Shumate is vice president of Internet business for Mouser Electronics, where he says “staying out of the customer’s way” is an equally important part of meeting that goal. He points to the retail environment as an example.

“In the last decade, a lot of retailers were trying to understand their customers better so they could put more in front of them,” says Shumate, who has worked in the consumer market as well as the business-to-business sector. “Now, a lot of that is reversing. We’re trying to understand our customers better so that we don’t get in their way.”

As an example, Shumate points to Mouser’s online marketing program, which includes direct outreach to customers through targeted e-mail and e-newsletters.

“We are very careful about what we send and how much we send,” he says. “With us, it always comes back to, ‘How do we help the design engineer?’”

That doesn’t mean Mouser is shying away from new technologies and methods of communication, however. The company uses many of the leading social media channels to promote new products, for example, and it recently launched Mouser Mobile, a mobile Web site available on any Web-enabled smart phone.

Mouser operates 42 country-specific Web sites and makes its content available in 16 languages supporting 16 currencies. Mouser Mobile is available in all 16 languages and supports all 16 currencies.

Social Media And Other Trends
Going forward, many industry professionals expect the current “total offering” trend to continue, as customers seek to do more and more online. They also expect to continue their efforts to deliver online services to a wider range of customers around the world. In that vein, two key trends to watch are social media and multiple payment platforms.

Looking at social media in particular, Shumate says he is skeptical about how much of an impact it will have on the design engineering community. Current collaborative social sites serve hobbyists and students well, he says, but they have limited value for design engineers because their work is so proprietary and competitive. Sharing one’s material or trusting someone else’s becomes problematic, he says. For the most part, distributors are using social media for new product introductions and similar “alerts.”

“I think there are some appropriate applications of social media, but I don’t think creating a new Facebook for our market is something that will happen or that we would be interested in doing,” Shumate says. “We’re much more focused on providing trusted technical knowledge directly to folks when they need it.”

Tony Harris, chief marketing officer for Digi-Key Corp., agrees that it may be a while before social media finds its place in such a complex, technical environment.

“In our space, the engineering market, [social media] is still developing. We’re talking about design and we’re talking about technology, and, often times, there is a lot of IT wrapped around that. So you have to be careful about how you handle social and engineering in the same breath,” Harris explains.

“There is certainly a long and healthy road in the area of social marketing [in this industry]. It’s just that I think it’s in its infancy,” he says.

Digi-Key has embraced the Internet, positioning itself as a “global Internet marketing company that has a very strong grasp of the engineering and procurement community,” according to Harris. Founded as a catalog distributor 36 years ago, Digi-Key conducts the majority of its business online today.

The company prints just 300,000 catalogs a year compared to millions a few years ago, and Harris says 81% of its worldwide sales come through the Internet. The balance comes via phone or fax orders. Digi-Key has no field salespeople.

“Four or five years ago, we said that we saw a lot of opportunity with the Internet. Now, understanding and harnessing the power of the Internet is what Digi-Key has really found a niche at. We’re good at understanding how a customer wants to search, what they search for, and the frequency of that search, as well as how they source product and how they experience Web sites,” Harris explains.

“Essentially, we use technology as an Internet-driven marketing company. We use technology to help drive our products to customers,” he says.

As someone who’s in the Internet “trenches” every day, Harris says the use of alternative payment methods is a key trend to watch and a growing opportunity for distributors. The idea is giving customers multiple payment platforms beyond the standard open account or credit card methods. Paypal is one example.

“The practice is fairly well documented outside this industry,” Harris says. “So I do think this is something you’ll see in the future.”

Others agree that this is one more weapon in today’s business arsenal, as customers continue to look for that “little bit more” Ely talks about.

“The days of thinking that if you have a good Web site you can reach all customers across the globe [are gone],” Ely adds. “There are other things you need to tie in. We need to take what we do for customers [across the board] and figure out how to accommodate that online, where it makes sense.”

TAGS: Distribution
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