For many small businesses that operate on a B2B (business-to-business) model, the process of transitioning to the virtual marketplace can pose a unique set of challenges. Unlike their B2C (business-to-consumer) counterparts who can successfully market themselves to a broader audience, owners of a B2B business not only have to target a specific client base, but they also have to stand out from their competition. In this episode, Jon Aidukonis and Gene Marks along with special guest, John Davis, offer advice on how to distinguish yourself as a B2B-oriented small business online.

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Executive Summary

0:45—Today’s Topic: How Do I Navigate the Online Marketplace as a B2B-Oriented Small Business?

3:08—As the owner of a small B2B business, you need to find an effective way of holding your meetings online. If you need to conduct business onsite for any reason, make sure you have the proper safety measures in place to protect both yourself and your clients.

5:18—Because almost all business is done online, B2B businesses with an e-commerce component need to have a prominent SEO presence so that they will be among the first results that their prospective clients see after conducting an online search.

7:15—Due to the expenses and challenges associated with SEO optimization, B2B businesses should not be afraid to target their prospective clients directly, either through personal connections or social media.

8:41—LinkedIn can serve as a valuable resource for B2B marketing because it allows you to reach a very specific client base. You can increase your chances of making a strong impression by presenting yourself as an influencer or thought leader in your field.

10:40—Content creation, whether through blogs or videos, is another way that you can further distinguish your brand. However, you need to produce it on a consistent basis to keep your audience engaged.

12:18—While you do need a certain level of production value when you’re producing creative content, don’t try to overwhelm your audience with distracting visuals. Instead, you should focus on making an authentic connection with your storytelling.

16:19—Because convenience is such a high priority these days, you need an online sales channel just to stay competitive. However, if most of your clients purchase your products through another channel, either due to contracts or rebates, your focus should be ensuring that these arrangements remain satisfactory for them.

19:29—In some instances, you may have to implement more traditional sales approaches to generate leads before your clients decide to engage with your business online.



Gene: Hey everybody. This is Gene Marks and I’m here with my cohost, Jon Aidukonis and welcome to the Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. We’ve got a great guest. That’s joining us, Jon today. His name is also John. John Davis. John is the president and CEO of Paul Davis Automation. First of all, I’m going to start with my question and it’s an easy one. Tell us a little bit about what you do.

John Davis: Sure. So classical entrepreneur, so I’m involved in several different businesses and different things, but the main line business, which is Paul Davis Automation, we are a high tech manufacturers representative firm based out of Cleveland, Ohio. So what that means is that we work with a variety of small, to midsize, and even some large manufacturers to help take their technical product and apply it to applications here in Ohio and beyond to, in broad strokes, help people automate their factories or automate the processes. But on top of that, we’re involved in some other technology development of our own technology. So, I’m attempting to make that and sell that and it’s a very interesting economy we’re in right now.

Jon Aidukonis: Awesome. I didn’t realize you were in Cleveland. That’s actually one of my favorite cities.

John Davis: You’re my new favorite guy. I like it. It’s a great city.

Jon Aidukonis: I am a fan of the, what was it? The hashtag #ThisIsCLE, Cleveland Clothing company. One of my favorite stores. I did some event work with House of Blues out there. Yeah, it’s a great city and a miraculous kind of story of how with the right partnership between private and public sector, you can really bring back a business community, but an awesome place.

John Davis: It’s a great story indeed. And Cleveland Clothing Company is another great company. I’m friends with the owner of it and they’ve just done tremendously. So great, great company and a great story there too.

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Gene: John, I got to ask like, who is Paul Davis? I’m going to make the assumption that this is some type of a relative of yours?

John Davis: It is. Yes. So he is my dad. So you can insert your jokes about second generation business here, or second generation business owner here. But I did buy the business from them about 12 years ago now. So I’ve been involved. So they started the company back in 1989 in a similar type of role, but it certainly has changed over time.

Gene: I bet your dad is quite happy he’s not in the business now.

John Davis: He is. Yes.

Gene: That I would believe. So you were talking about some sort of technology developments and one of the reasons that we wanted to talk to you about us about is about eCommerce and bringing your business online. I know you guys do like technical sales and what caught my attention is that felt like the kind of business that going online, it’s not like, Amazon merchants do what you do. So what’s your thinking about going online and are you still heading in that direction?

John Davis: I thought, man, there’s a long answer and a short answer. So the short answer is yes. And then the long answer, I’ll try to keep short for time sake. Generally what we sell is it’s a highly consultated sale. And what that means is we’re working with engineers on a specific design for a machine, let’s say. So there’s a lot of back and forth and information sharing. It’s not transactional at all. It’s hey, we have this need. And then we have a basket of products that we can apply to it, to fit that need. When it comes to taking that online, it’s difficult in two ways. You can look at it from an online perspective of the sales perspectives so switching from in person meetings to virtual meetings. And then there’s the other side of it, which is the eCommerce side of how do we sell these products in an eCommerce platform, or is that how even people want to buy them through some type of eCommerce platform?

The virtual meeting side of it is complex. We’re still finding a need, and we wear all the appropriate PPE and take the appropriate precautions, but sometimes you just need to go out and see something that’s physical, if you’re trying to apply something physical to it. So we try to do as much as we can virtually. I’m sure you’re in the same boat with your business, but everybody has gotten a crash course in how to do virtual meetings. And I think we’re better now than we were 60 days ago, but Oh my gosh, there’s still a long way to go there.

So that’s how we’re certainly getting in there. As far as eCommerce, the products that we sell, they can be very inexpensive, but more often than not, they’re very expensive and there’s some complicated sales channel aspects of that. And we’re trying to sort through that, but the long and short of it is people are working from their homes now, increasingly. And I think that’ll probably stay. And if they need to purchase products, they probably want to do it through some type of eCommerce platform, for convenience sake. So we’re still navigating through that as well.

Jon Aidukonis: Like how were most people finding you before? Or as you think about pivoting, like what do you think that kind of next step for you guys is to establish yourself online? Because it feels like this is the type of product or service that someone would probably be very specific in their journey, in investigating.

That is the thing that’s top of mind right now is how do we stay in front of people and how do we let them know that we have this basket of products to sell them. So traditionally that would have been done by if you think of the in person meeting, we have clients that we meet with on a regular basis and they pose their new projects in person, and we would sit around a conference table and figure out what we’re going to do. Now, as we all experienced, when we buy stuff on Amazon, the first instinct of somebody nowadays is not to pick up the phone and call somebody. The first instinct is to go to Google or whatever your search engine of choice is and type in what you need. And generally the first search result or the first three to pop up are what you look at.

Trying to kind of get in the middle of that and intercept that and get it to our company is tough. I mean we’re a small business, but we partner with a lot of very large businesses. And I would say 50% of our large businesses have significant SEO and online presence. And that does help filter sales leads if you will, down to us. But as far as our small company, paid search and SEO are very expensive things. So we’re still trying to navigate through that figure out how to best apply that.

Gene: I mean, John, I’ve got the same experience with that as well in my business, like we resell some CRM products, customer relationship management. And all the paid search. Don’t you find it’s dominated by the companies that you represent. So, I mean, if people are doing searching online, they’re finding those companies first, then you are like way, way, way, way down. And then if you’re going to jump into the world of pain on your own, I mean, it’s an absolute fortune to try to do stuff with like Google ad words, not only the cost of the advertising, but also it’s almost as if you have to pay somebody to just constantly be monitoring it, testing it and working on it. So, how have you been dealing with that? I mean, I’m almost ready to give up on search engine optimization and just try and get leads from other ways, you know what I mean?

John Davis: Yeah. I mean, that’s pretty much what … I hate to say it’s the strategy we’ve adopted, but from our company’s standpoint. The paid search route it’s a challenging one. I just don’t see the ROI on it. What we have been doing is we’ve been really pushing the marketing teams of the companies that we partner with and saying, all right, this is specifically what we need. And these are the types of conversations we need to be having with people. And thankfully they’ve all been receptive. And in most of the companies that we work with are just tremendous partners and they’re trying to navigate all of this abrupt shifts in how we do business just as we are.

So they’re eager to listen to feedback. And I think the processes that’d be put in place with some of them have been good so far. And I should say too, they have also gone away from search engine paid search, and they’ve been putting a lot more money into targeted social media, for lack of a better term, but specifically LinkedIn, that’s been a good pay back for us.

Gene: Well, that brings up a really good point. So John, John A, I mean, what are your thoughts on LinkedIn marketing? I was talking to some SEO consultant recently and he was saying to me, Hey, you’re right about paid search and even just organic search it’s dominated by others, but there’s opportunities to, get leads and expand your business on LinkedIn. And what do you think about that, John A?

Jon Aidukonis: Yeah, so I think two things. So one, I feel like LinkedIn can be an investment, right? So the benefit is you have a really well qualified base, so you don’t often have information … so with LinkedIn, you can pretty much get in front of the people that you’re trying to get in front of, in a B2B environment in a way that’s really difficult to do without significant kind of data overlays or investments in broader channels. Right? I think where there’s an opportunity that a lot of people don’t take advantage of on LinkedIn.

And even when we’re thinking about SEO strategy is content marketing, right? So one of the best ways to kind of show up and rank on those keywords is to be talking about it. So whether that’s a blog on your website or picking a couple photo [inaudible] from your company and kind of almost setting yourself up as an influencer in your space. Like that, to me, feels like an untapped market for most B2B marketers, but like anything, right? You have to keep doing it. So if you’re doing it once a week, you have 52 shots of success of, if you want to call it going viral, where if you can commit to doing it two or three times a week, you just increase those odds and increase the amount of people who may interact and hopefully the ranking of people who are interacting in a more favorable way so we can get content put in front of people like them. So I do think it’s a big opportunity, but it’s just as much a big commitment.

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Gene: John Davis, are you generating contents? I mean, listen, I mean, no offense, but the stuff that you guys are going to write about is not exactly going to make the front page of the New York Times. But at the same time you’ve got an audience of people that would probably be interested in technical advice, on using the products that you have. Are you doing anything like that?

John Davis: We dipped our toe in and Johnny has hit the nail on the head. Content creation is I think, paid search, and some of the other things that are extremely expensive from a money standpoint, content creation, you can be a star in content creation and the cash outlay for it can be pretty low. Now the other side of that is the time outlay. And for a small business owner that is sometimes more of an issue than necessarily the cash outlay. But yeah, I mean, one of my most popular LinkedIn posts, I did it probably about a month ago now was a video that I put together where I spent maybe overall time 10% was maybe spend on the product that was talking about. 90% of it is spent on a compelling story about a tool restoration that I did. My grandfather was a farmer and I took an old bench press of his and restored it and did kind of an artsy video about it.

People I work with, they’re very hands on people, they’re engineers and maintenance people who like to see stuff and they like tools. I’ll tell you what, that video got 800 views. And I got a huge amount of feedback on that. All of which was positive and even some good customer interactions and leads out of it. And the surprising thing was it had very little to do with what I was actually selling. So, now the downside is, I’ve only done one. They take a tremendous amount of time, and I have a brand new respect for people to do this full time on YouTube, let’s say. But we’re definitely looking forward to doing more of those in the future.

Gene: Do you have any advice for John Davis about doing videos? Just some sort of best practices and things, if you were in his shoes and you wanted to step that up.

Jon Aidukonis: Yeah. So I think video creation is one of those things that it’s kind of like the black box, right? Everyone feels like there’s a secret formula to it. And I don’t know if that’s true. I think it’s more on, and I think John, you mentioned this. It’s what story are you trying to tell? And then is that resonating? So, if you’re really trying to kind of sit down and share a personal story, it probably doesn’t have to be a highly produced thing, right? It could probably be done on your phone and you want some decent level of lighting. So maybe if it’s something you want to commit to, you stop it like a Best Buy or a local lighting store and you get something like a Ring light or a soft light. So you can make sure that people can actually experience you in a way where they’re not distracted. But I think super simple things, don’t worry about a complex edit, like quick cuts can really be an effective way to kind of keep continuity.

I think, if it’s something where you’re narrating, you don’t want to be scripted, but take the time to think through your talking points. So you’re really having a conversation. And I would say kind of trying not to think of the camera, but think of the person behind it. So if you’re really speaking to someone that comes across. And I think there’s really interesting examples of that online. And it’s funny, you kind of bring up YouTube because I think, there, you can see the range of people who you can … They spend a ton, right? And you can just tell there’s a crew, and there’s stunts, and there’s all these flashy edits and there’s intros and outros and music beds, and you can’t follow along because you’re so distracted with the showmanship that there’s really no message to take away.

And then you get people who just sit in front of a camera and talk to you, like they’re your best friend and you feel like you’re having a conversation and the production quality is good, right. They took the time to get the right setup and make sure you can see them. And again, you’re not distracted by kind of inconsistent filming executions, but it’s really not a heavy lift for them. It’s more just making sure that they take the time to deliver the message. So I think authenticity is key and I think don’t get too caught up in the splash. It’s really about the story versus the cover of the book.

Gene: John A, what are your thoughts on in pulling outsiders to help John Davis? It doesn’t have to be an expensive production firm, I mean, it could be a college kid, you know what I mean? A marketing student, that’s just great with taking videos.

Jon Aidukonis: Yeah. I think, especially when you’re talking about creative kind of projects, there tends to be a really good talent pool of, to your point of either a college kid or someone who’s starting out, who’s trying to kind of build a portfolio who’s probably super capable, especially when you’re thinking about digital delivery, right? Because these people grew up in that. That’s what they do every day. Like every person I’d say under the age of 25, grew up as a content creator. Just kind of in a world of social media. So they, they innately get it. And I think it doesn’t require kind of a level of technical expertise the way it used to, to pull off something pretty impressive.

But I think it’s also something you can do yourself, right? If you invest in a little bit of equipment, so the right light or a tripod kind of dedicate a space, if it’s something where you’re going to kind of be more narrating and on camera, I think if it’s something to your point where it’s more technical or you have objects, you want someone with a creative eye who can kind of help you bring that together.

And, depending on the scope that might require a more significant investment. But if it’s really just you sharing your thoughts on an industry or a topic or a story, I think, yeah, a self-driven or a one person show could definitely kind of get that across pretty efficiently.

Gene: So John Davis, just pivoting a little bit, you were talking about considering selling stuff online. I mean, again, I don’t take this the wrong way. I mean, I’m just looking at your business. I mean, what could you sell online? You know what I mean? I mean, is that really a viable thing to consider or do you think that it’s you have a type of B2B business that wouldn’t be really great for eCommerce.

John Davis: I think it depends on the product type and how the end user is used to buying things. In our world, and I’m sure you experienced this with the products you’ve been involved with. Certain things are very straightforward in how they’re sold, and that makes sense, right? We would all assume that if somebody needs something, they would just go buy it. But when we started dealing with larger companies or working with larger companies, there’s typically some type of channel involved for commercial reasons that are complex that have to do with rebate programs or whatever. They just have some reason that they need to buy through a third party, whether it’s an integrator or a distributor or a reseller or whatnot. And for those companies, buying online is less of an attractive option because it just doesn’t give them any benefit.

They’re getting some clear return on investment from purchasing through their channel. That’s why those contracts and relationships are in place. All that said, there is the, and I don’t have a good delineator for this, I think it’s on a per product basis. For certain products that are maybe at the intersection of cost and configurability. If your competitors are already selling online, which we have many that are. If you are not also selling online, that does put us at a competitive disadvantage.

So our charge right now, and this is something we have been going through, but it’s just been accelerated by COVID-19 is to figure out what products in our portfolio sit in that intersection and making sure that those have some type of path to sell online. And the ones that are outside of that, just making sure that the sales channel is in place. So it’s a complex answer, Gene. And you’re right, for certain things. But for other things, I do think we need to have those products online.

Gene: So, John A, what thoughts do you have from John Davis about selling online? I mean, what would you be focusing on if you were him?

Jon Aidukonis: Well, I think he kind of nailed it, right? That there’s going to be this kind of level of comfort and everybody’s going to be at a different journey. So I think, it’s kind of balancing out, is it really like a lead gen type play where you’re just trying to kind of capture and bring those people into a conversation because maybe there’s a level of complexity? Is it something where they can really purchase? Or is it something where if they’re, to your point, kind of an existing customer with different projects, maybe after the first sale, you kind of think about those future upsell opportunities in a platform where they can kind of self select. But what’s interesting is it’s almost kind of a hybrid of like online service system where you’re looking for product.

So it’s an interesting dynamic, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Right? And I think we’ve learned that out of COVID is that people have been really, really innovative with how they digitize their business. And I think everyone from local gym owners who decided to run out their equipment or do virtual classes to even bakeries who had to shut down who are in person only, but figured out how to kind of launch recipe boxes. So I think if there’s a will or a way, but I think John you’re exactly right. It’s kind of getting under who the audience is and figuring out what their level of comfort is. So you can kind of develop an experience that matches that.

John Davis: Hey, John, and you raised a really good point too, the hybrid side of it for marketing, just a quick bit on that. That’s probably one of the more innovative paths forward that I’ve seen from the manufacturers we’re working with. So especially for the manufacturers where there’s those complex channel and commercial contracts or obligations in place, they would never be able to sell everything online a hundred percent because it would quite literally destroy the foundation of their business with going through all these different channels.

But one of the needs that is currently been unmet, yet they’re trying to figure out. Is all right, you’re spending a lot of money on marketing, whether it’s SEO, paid search, LinkedIn, whatever. They know that they get leads in, but once they send those out, there’s really no way to close it. ‘Cause there’s no there’s no conversion where somebody goes online and they buy the product and they can tie that back to a lead and marketing spend. What they have been doing from a hybrid standpoint is doing like a sample program online. So the call to action is for the customer to buy a sample, so that will close the lead and then they can still take that customer and run them through the traditional sales channel. And we’re just starting to do that with some of the products that we sell. And that is very exciting. I think there might be something to that to try to satisfy both worlds, both sides of the equation.

Jon Aidukonis: What’s really interesting too is I think you’re in an industry where I’m assuming every single solution is hyper customized. It could even be something outside of like a sample or a trial where it’s like, Hey, let us do like a scan or an analysis of your needs and take the time to really kind of get to know what you’re working on, where it’s almost like a consultative meeting. But if you, if there’s things you’ve identified in your time and your expertise, kind of over the years in the business and say like these things, and we know so much about them are going to allow us to design a product or solution for you. I think you definitely have an ability there to kind of stand out as a true partner, which is probably important in your line, especially if it’s really kind of a long tail and renewal type sales process,

Gene: Great conversation, John Davis, is the CEO of Paul Davis Automation, President and CEO of Paul Davis Automation in Cleveland and John, I hope some of these thoughts help you as you’re figuring out how do you expand your business online? I think you’ve got a lot of challenges there, but a lot of opportunities. And I like your hybrid approach to that. And I like the fact that getting people into maybe make a small purchase, if anything, just to sort of grab them, convert the lead and then maybe build it into something bigger.

I like you focusing more on doing some videos for your company, making more content for your company, maybe focusing on LinkedIn a little bit more. And then of course leveraging some virtual tools like you had mentioned at the very beginning of our conversation for meetings and having conferences and at least getting some information across. All of these things, I mean obviously John, there’s no silver bullet for just selling online. It’s a combination of different weapons that you can use to try and close that deal. So, John, I want to thank you very much for coming on. I think your information was really helpful.

John Davis: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

Jon Aidukonis: Yeah. Thanks for joining us and have fun in my favorite city.

Gene: On behalf of John Aidukonis, this is Gene Marks and for more tips and advice on running a small business, please visit us at Small Biz Ahead. Thanks everyone for listening. Thanks again to John and John for participating and we’ll catch you all next time.

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