Make no mistake: Online, your success in converting interest into acquisition depends on your ability to connect with prospects precisely where they are in the buying process. B2B and B2C buyers go through similar stages in that process as they consider their purchasing decision: needs assessment, requirements analysis, evaluation, purchasing.

Using this model, there are four distinct methods you can use to successfully transition prospects from first click to conversion.

1. Optimization offers industry dominance

Recently, 93.4% of those surveyed by MarketingSherpa and Enquiro said they would use the Internet to research a major business decision. Research shows that your next customer likely started his/her needs analysis using generic search terms, and then refined it with increasingly narrower searches. This spiral search process underscores why creating dominance across a broad range of keywords is critical: You need to make sure that your next customer finds you on the first pass.

In fact, referring to the results of a 2006 GlobalSpec survey, ClickZ trend reporter Enid Burns writes that "traditional means of sourcing new suppliers, trade shows, sales calls and catalogs are being replaced by Web searches." When it comes to industrial equipment buyers, 73% look for new sources on search engines and online directories. Search engines are the first place to query for new vendors, and online industrial directories account for 21% of first searches. Burns goes on to write, "Online sources exceed initial searches through traditional channels like recommendations from colleagues, manufacturer sales calls, trade magazines, and direct mail."

Also of interest, the size of the purchase influences the length of time spent searching (and thus, the number of searches), according to a study from Enquiro. For purchases valued at $1,000 or less, 79% took place within just one month of the initial search. For purchases valued at over $50,000, 73% were made from two months up to a year after the initial search.

One of the indicators of how critical search marketing is the growing amount of money spent on online ad targeting. In a May 2006 report, eMarketer estimates that businesses will spend about $1.2 billion on behavioral targeted online advertising in 2006. By 2008, online ad spending will surpass the $2 billion mark.

In short, the more dominant your search engine presence, the more potential qualified clients you attract during the needs assessment phase of their purchasing decision—and, in fact, search engines are clearly the dominant means by which B2B customers find their vendors.

Converting Customers Through the Entire Buying Process

Place in Buying Cycle Buyer's Concern How to Address It
Needs identification What do I need? Search engine strategy
Requirements specification Which companies can provide what I need? Who can I trust? Design
Research and evaluation Of the companies I can trust, which has the best value? Superior content, targeted copy
Selection How do I make it happen? Clear path to purchasing—an easy shopping cart, a contact form, or other tools to support buying

2. Empathic design builds trust

Search engine dominance gets qualified traffic to your site. But once that's happened, your design and brand identity help your buyer through the requirements and evaluation stages of the buying decision.

Jeff Rosenblum, cofounder and research and strategy director of Questus, is quoted in a January 2006 ClickZ article as saying, "We find that Web sites have three seconds to make an impression.... The actual usability is more important than aesthetics, but at the same time aesthetics are critical."

Three seconds would be generous, according to a study by Carleton University's Human-Oriented Technology Lab in Ottawa, Canada. Allowing visitors only flashes of Web sites, the study published in Behaviour & Information Technology concluded that people only need 1/20th of a second to evaluate visual appeal.

This conclusion is supported by Stanford University's "Guidelines for Web Credibility." Based on a three-year study with 4,500 participants, it finds that "people quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone."

Your brand presentation, type treatment, layout, imagery and consistency all visually cue the visitor that this is, or is not, a professional organization. Design convinces prospects—in fractions of a second—that you're a contender for their business and they can trust you with their purchasing needs.

3. Targeted content creates confidence

Once a prospect has been persuaded through your design, it's up to your content to help them complete the evaluation component of the buying decision. Addressing content for your prospective customer is more than about writing to their needs—it's also about writing for the Web.

In a study conducted by John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen, re-writing Web content so it was more concise, scan-able, and objective (rather than sales-oriented) created a 159% increase in measured usability.

According to 2006 Nielsen/NetRatings research on the top 25 parent companies ranked by number of users and time spent online, content superstars dominate users' experiences. Who are they? Microsoft, Amazon, Time Warner, eBay and Interactive Group (parent brand of were all top contenders for online destinations where users spent the most time.

So it's no wonder that, as evidenced in 2002 research by Enterpulse, 90% of B2B buyers who use the Internet have a "significant disconnect or customer expectation gap." Expectations are established by your next customer's hopes about how their online involvement with your organization will proceed—and also by their experiences as a whole with the Internet. In a very real way, your site competes with every other site your prospects have experienced—and your content has to be world class to make the cut.

4. Development delivers conversion

A recent Enterpulse study points out that consumer-oriented sites such as those on Neilsen's list of stickiest online brands proactively make recommendations, create buyer profiles, remember your list visit, and provide real-time transaction capabilities. These intelligent online applications set the expectation bar high when that same person comes to your B2B site.

Jakob Nielsen, cofounder of the consultancy Nielsen Norman Group, points out, "There is a difference between the look and feel of a website. Feel is what happens while you're using a site, and it is important to adapt the site's task flow to the individual user's problems." Your next customer needs to feel he/she has ownership and control of the buying process in order to commit.

So, your prospects discovered you through search engines. You appealed to them through empathic design and persuaded them with strategic content. Now it's up to the "business end" of your site to establish the interactivity that converts them into customers. Your Web applications, from request forms to shopping carts, finally "get something done." They translate your premium position in search engines into action.


Even if you are in a niche industry on the outskirts of online marketing, your visitors have been trained by leading organizations to react to the best of the Web—and that's how you will be judged. Fortunately, when it comes to marketing paradigms, online marketing is one of the most affordable and rewarding avenues available for businesses.

By intelligently addressing your prospects at each stage of their buying process—needs assessment, requirements analysis, evaluation, and purchasing—you can build lifetime customers through your online marketing investment.

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Brian Dempsey is vice-president of client strategy with Red Clay Interactive. Find out more at