As jan/san distributors vie for attention in a competitive online marketplace, an increasing number of customer interactions are migrating to a digital environment. Add social distancing to the mix, and it’s no wonder more distributors are turning their attention to e-commerce transactions.

Unfortunately, many are struggling to lead customers and prospects to their websites — and a variety of factors are to blame. Kathryn Bruno, marketing supervisor for Hill & Markes, Amsterdam, New York, says that distributors in general have been slow to hop on the e-commerce train.

“The industry hasn’t prioritized e-commerce until recently, and it takes time to build a digital strategy and an editorial calendar around your website,” she says.

Another reason distributors are grappling with this issue is that many of them have neglected marketing in their business development plans, says Bob DeStefano, a B2B online marketing strategist in Red Bank, New Jersey.

“Distributors have relied on their sales team making face-to-face calls as the primary method of e-business growth,” he says. “For the most part, marketing has been an afterthought.”

Fortunately, a successful online marketing campaign doesn’t have to break the bank. Distributors have a variety of low-cost or free online tools at their disposal to remain top of mind with existing customers — and entice prospective customers to their website.

Tell, Don’t Sell

One of the most efficient ways to draw customers to e-commerce sites is via communication modes already in use on a daily basis. Distributors have reaped rewards with email campaigns that promote products, educate customers and impart the latest news and trends.

Gordy Gillette, director of marketing and inside sales for SupplyDen, Auburn Hills, Michigan, sends email blasts to customers once or twice a week promoting products and seasonal items. More recently, the company switched gears due to the pandemic: Emails are sent out daily with stock updates on hard-to-find items, such as hand sanitizer and face masks.

But Gillette knows under normal circumstances it takes more than products to lure customers to distributors’ web page.

“People can buy anything anywhere right now — all they have to do is move their hand an inch,” says Gillette. “So rather than trying to hawk a bottle of this or that, we need to educate customers and offer them solutions to ongoing problems.”

Indeed, websites with strong educational content — be it webinars, blog posts or how-to videos — are a surefire way to capture customers’ attention and set distributors apart from competitors.

Hill & Markes has experienced great success with webinars that focus on timely topics, such as COVID-19. The website also features a back-to-business center with information on the phases of reopening, as well as guides and checklists for different market segments.

According to Anthony DePinto, chief information officer at in Poland, Ohio, the more relevant information a business can put on its website, the better off it will be.

“Content that tells more of the story will establish you as the expert in the industry and have people coming back to your website,” he says.

Bruno concurs, adding that Hill & Markes loves to use the written word.

“We don’t want to sell, sell, sell,” she says. “Our email campaigns and social media presence are about storytelling. The new buyer is browsing online and going to different pages before they even consider making a purchase, so we need to be the thought leadership for them.”

Content should also be updated on a regular basis.

“One of the mistakes people make is they launch a website and never look at it again,” says DePinto. “But just putting a website out there doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you — especially in a market where a lot of companies are selling the same types of products. So make sure that there’s always something new on your site that makes people want to come back.”

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