Not B2C or B2B, But B2I (Business to Individual)

Michael Ni

Having been involved in the sales of digital goods in some form or fashion for the better part of two decades, it’s easy to see technology-enabled shifts are culminating in fundamental changes in how marketers engage and increasingly drive sales. Cloud-based delivery, Web- and mobile-based interaction, marketing automation (starting to live up to the promise of what we used to call one-to-one marketing back in the 90s), and the broad adoption of subscription and other fractional ownership models are definitely the most documented of these shifts.

Funny enough, though, these changes are bringing business full circle, with technology enabling business to actually go back to the “old mantra” of selling to individual people (B-to-I), not a consumer or business.

While the concept of one-to-one sales is not new, the change in buyer behavior to expect self-service discovery, engagement and buying combined with the power of automation and data analysis is. Vendors can now take advantage of that technology to deliver on the promise of personalization on a mass scale. So what’s a marketer to do in this old, new world of B2I?

Be human: sense & respond
As most marketers are already discovering, buyers no longer respond to guided paths designed for the masses. To them, this methodology is a blanket one that does not have their specific interests at heart. Clearly, the ability to measure customer behavior and combine that with increasingly available customer data has its place for smart segmentation, event triggers and guided selling. At the same time, it is equally important to be able to be at the customer moments of need.

On a mass scale, this means being context aware – knowing if the customer is going down the aisle of a brick and mortar, online looking for how to better balance their house finances on your blog or browsing your website reviewing the best practices on using your product.

In whatever context, you not only need to have the content and the tools to be a resource to your customers, you have to be ready to start a dialog when the customer needs you to be there, understand where they are coming from and where their head is at, and most importantly, service that customer frictionlessly from any touchpoint. This could mean buying online from within the community forum after reading about new capabilities used by a peer, signing up for a free add-on trial from your partner, or even offering one click downgrade to the right tier of service from within a service chat.   This allows you to go beyond just engaging and directly into exchanging value.

Exchange value however it comes
Especially true in the rapidly expanding digital goods market, products quickly become commoditized and marginally differentiated. This is not a bad thing, but it is one of the biggest challenges in the digital economy, and one that we as individuals are aware of. Think about it: in the early days of technology, it was all about products and features, but when was the last time you thought about the processor speed on a laptop or the actual pixel resolution on a smartphone outside of marketing terms like “retina display?” Probably not since the iPhone 4S was announced. The reality is, competing technologies hit parity very quickly, and today’s buyer need more than a feature set to make a purchase decision.

This means business model flexibility is becoming the new hot button differentiator, even as markets around the world are being remade digitally (as seen in McKinsey’s article on the 4 Lessons From The Software Industry). Rather than just offering the one-size-fits-all of freemium, subscription-based, one-time licensing, etc., you need to be able to deliver as modularly as the customer wants. This doesn’t always necessitate the exchange of money either. Supporting freemium for some, a recurring model for another, and a trial plan for a few more coupled with the ability to quickly launch and test these new models across the right channels and touch points increases value to each individual customer.

Deliver what they want, not just what you have
This is where we really go back to basics and start serving our customers as individuals again. Going back to the small-town shopkeeper analogy, today’s online shopper wants and has the power to demand that everything be tailored to them. Whereas the shopkeeper made mental notes about what brands you liked and what could complement them, you now have technologies that enable this record keeping at scale to make everyone feel well known. Not only that, the online shopkeeper also now has technologies that enable him to offer products complemented by curated ancillary products.

Instead of looking at how 50-percent of your shoppers seem to like Brand X and showing them a single offering of something tangentially related, you can now offer up a precise match to their existing purchases and build it into their existing buying behavior in a way that is comfortable for them and profitable to you. It’s an interesting world of mass customized products. A world where the ability to buy only a portion of a product, rent it, or couple it into a another solution has made how you do commerce an actual part of the product value you are offering.

By now, you probably have noticed that the operation of selling to the individual is not at all a foreign concept, even for an online vendor. The reality is, this is a basic practice and behavior that we have honed for hundreds of years. It is just that the process has been reinvigorated and given a new lease on life thanks to technology hitting a parity point that allows and demands us to focus in again on relationships over the shotgun methodology of sales.

Michael Ni is Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President of Marketing and Products at Avangate, an e-commerce solutions provider.