The eCommerce Growth Series – Growing a Fully Online B2B Brand with Polycase

Brittany Currieby Brittany Currie

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On this episode of The eCommerce Growth Series, we talk with Erin Brunner and Kate Began from Polycase on how they took a 30-year-old company completely online and grew the brand through eCommerce. Some of the areas we touched on include: 

  • Building a brand new B2B eCommerce website
  • Managing a complex B2B customer acquisition model
  • How to educate both customers and internal team members on how to use a website
  • The future of B2B eCommerce

 

For any questions, feel free to email ron@visiture.com. Thanks for listening!

 

Ron: All right, welcome to the eCommerce Growth Series. My name is Ronald Dod, Chief Marketing Officer and Partner at Visiture. We’re here today with another episode of The eCommerce Growth Series where I talk to Kate Began and Erin Brunner at Polycase. Both are in charge of the eCommerce marketing division and we had a fantastic discussion–around 28 minutes–focused on how Polycase grew online as a B2B merchant.

Polycase is a true 100%, all online B2B business, which is very rare. They used to be catalog and seeing them 100% online is a really cool thing to see. I’ve known both of them for about two and half years now and seeing them grow over the past two and half years has been really fun to see. I’m really excited for them to talk a little bit about what this experience has been like. We discussed a number of things today such as: what it was like going from a non-eCommerce in a marketing background and how to learn on the fly–what it was like building a website. A little spoiler: They took their time in the process. It almost took two years, but it is wildly successful.

We discussed the complexities of being a B2B merchant online and managing a complex customer acquisition model, where you have samples and higher purchase items later in a very long sales cycle. We talked about how to educate customers and internal team members on how to use a website [it’s probably one my favorite things to talk to them about]. We talked about conversion rates and, a really cool thing I haven’t ever thought of: how to give the right information and making sure that you’re really serving them the right stuff when they’re looking for you to improve the conversion rate. And finally, we wrapped it up with some talk about the future of eCommerce and B2B eCommerce.  All right. Enjoy!

 

Thank you for joining us, Kate and Erin. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourselves and how you came to Polycase?

Erin: Sure! My name’s Erin Brunner. I’m a Marketing Analyst here at Polycase. I’ve been with the company for nine years. I came into my role here actually with split duties. I was working part-time customer service and sales and part-time web-marketing. It was actually very helpful for me to learn the product line that way actually because each role played off itself well. Then, when Kate took over as Sales and Marketing Director, she really saw the need for more full-time focus on marketing. So, that’s now where I spend one hundred% of my time–with Kate.

Kate: I’m Kate Began. I’m the Marketing Director here at Polycase. I joined the Polycase team around four years ago. When I first started, I was doing kind of a variety of roles, but decided to focus more on the marketing aspect. My background is actually in finance, but it plays in well because marketing now is very data-driven. So, it all kind of plays together.

Ron: Yeah, great, Kate. And one thing that I liked, you know, when we talked pre-show is that Polycase is a family business. Is that correct?

Kate: Yes, it is. My dad started the company over 30 years ago. We actually just had our anniversary in May.

Ron: Great. And can you tell the audience a little bit about Polycase?

Erin: Yes. So, Polycase is a manufacturer. We make enclosures that house electronics and electrical equipment, so we have a proprietary line of enclosures that we sell–basically off-the-shelf stock enclosures. And then, we have secondary services to customize those stock enclosures. So, we’ll do CNC machining or digital printing. It’s a little bit unique because electronics are used in virtually any industry. They’re used a lot for control boxes, sensors, telecommunications, agriculture–really, a variety of industries. So, we’re not as much industry-specific as a lot of B2B businesses are, especially.

Ron: Great! That’s exciting. It’s very impressive to be a 30-year-old business that’s now fully eCommerce. You all are fully eCommerce–am I correct in that? It used to be a catalog business.

Kate: Yes. We started as a catalog business. We are a manufacturing company, but we sell direct to the consumer and so we started as a catalog business. And through the years, we were really one of the first in the industry to get a website and then to start doing eCommerce. Part of that is just because we sell to a lot of engineers and product developers and, you know, we wanted to keep up with the trends for them and continue to innovate and provide that information right there online. As eCommerce continued to grow, we shifted away from catalogs because it wasn’t really necessary anymore and we found that most people liked having the information online and being able to update it. So, our last catalog was probably 11 years ago or so and now we’re pretty much all online.

Ron: Great! And something that I love about both of you all is you really didn’t come from backgrounds in marketing or really eCommerce. So, how are you able to really gain this knowledge in eCommerce marketing and learn so quickly?

Erin: Yes, so I didn’t really have a ton of eCommerce knowledge or experience specifically coming to Polycase, so I sort of learned as I grew with the company. Early on, we really leaned heavily on our partners to guide us in our PPC and SEO efforts. Then, we eventually realized we really should have a better understanding of how the stuff works for ourselves, so, 1) we can know if our marketing partners are making the right decisions for our business; and, 2) so we can ultimately help and guide them in the right direction.

Kate: We really just learned along the way. A lot of research, a lot of books and articles and relying on our partnership with Visiture to continue to learn and kind of hone that knowledge. There’s a lot of information out there on eCommerce and on SEO and PPC, so we just took advantage with as many resources as we could to really be a better partner with our vendors basically and provide the business sense because we know our business really well and they know SEO and PPC. So, when we know more about SEO and PPC, we can really leverage our knowledge with theirs and have a much better partnership.

Ron: I read so much about how, you know, merchants who are just starting up, especially in B2B, want to just outsource everything immediately without kind of gaining a baseline knowledge of a certain, you know, field like paid advertising. Would you recommend to B2B merchants out there to just do it a little bit themselves to learn it or kind of go fully onboard with a partner as soon as they can?

Kate: I think it kind of depends on your business situation, obviously. For us, our website and SEO and PPC are critical for our business. We don’t have an outside sales force. It’s all inbound. We have marketing and our website. So, for us, having a partner to work with and guide us and have that expertise was definitely critical just because it’s the lifeline of our business. It’s how we grow. So, I think having a partner has always been critical for us, but it doesn’t mean that we should not understand it. The more we know, like I said, the more valuable we are to our partner and the more they can leverage our business knowledge. So, I think having the expertise is very important, but understanding it to better guide the decisions is also equally important.

Ron: And for someone who’s new to eCommerce and even early in digital marketing, are there any specific resources or things you suggest for them to learn?

Erin: Yeah. I would say, 1) get to know your website’s platform and use it as a tool to grow your business online; and 2) like Kate mentioned, it’s important to align yourself with a knowledgeable SEO and PPC partner like Visiture to help gain insight on the digital marketing landscape.

Kate: And it can be challenging because there are so many resources out there and some of them are not as high-quality as others, obviously, so I think finding the ones that are higher quality that you can trust is important–especially with something as complex as SEO, where you just get different information from so many sources. So, finding the sources that seem to be the most knowledgeable are really important and I think we leaned a lot on Visiture to kind of help guide us. So, whenever they would be talking about different things, we would kind of ask them, “You know, can you provide us more information?” and they sent us different resources and links to read articles about. So, there’s some of the bigger SEO resources out there that are really valuable. And then Google’s docs as well are very important, especially on the PPC side of things. Just trying to understand them, Google has so many resources and so many articles about what everything is. So, you can go down a little bit of a rabbit hole reading different articles and trying to understand all the different aspects. But if you just kind of learn as you go, it’s very manageable.

Ron: Well, thank you very much for the plug. I appreciate it. And with that, you said a little bit about platform and I’d love to explore that a little bit more because I know you just went through a new platform migration. You were probably one of the few merchants that I’ve heard of actually being on time with a new website launch, so I’d love to explore that a little bit more. What was that like going through a new website process where you came from a custom cart setup to a much more refined platform?

Kate: Well, we weren’t quite on time [laughs], but that was to be expected, I know. I don’t think any of us expected to be on time. So, when they gave us the initial timeline, we kind of pushed it out a few more months. But I think one of the most important things with what we decided to build the new website was taking our time in picking our partner who we wanted to work with. We spent several months interviewing various companies and deciding who we wanted to partner with, and it was well worth it in the long run. For us, what was very important was we have a whole custom-built side of our website that is for custom quoting for our secondary services. So, we wanted someone who had experience in building custom quoting tools. And then, something else that was very important to us was a heavy emphasis on SEO. We wanted to make sure that whomever we worked with had knowledge in SEO.

You hear kind of some horror stories about launching new websites and having issues with it and losing a lot of traffic and rankings. And we had some issues with the website we launched in 2016 initially, where some of our SEO wasn’t in line the way it should have been and we took a hit for a few months on traffic. And so that was something that was very important to us as well in looking for a partner–someone who understood SEO enough that we had faith and confidence in them that the transition was going to go well. And then, along those lines, having a partner like Visiture to ensure that we had two parties checking all the different SEO aspects to ensure smooth transition was extremely helpful–just kind of having both people double-checking everything. They both had SEO checklists to make sure that the launch was successful and that we wouldn’t have the same issues with SEO that we did, especially because we were switching platforms and it was a whole new website.

Outside of kind of the SEO emphasis, I think learning as much upfront as possible about the platform that you’re building on and its capabilities is really beneficial. And having some kind of pre-thought-out strategy behind the basics, like product pages, category pages, navigation and kind of knowing how you want people to flow through your website, is very helpful. But at the same time, leveraging your partner’s expertise to see their suggestions and kind of get that outside perspective as well.

Erin: Before we picked our partner, we spent several weeks just researching platforms to find what we thought was going to be the best fit and then looked specifically for developers that were experts with that platform. So, it just was a lot of research that we didn’t just, you know, pick and go. We spent a lot of time vetting out companies and even the platform before we made our decision to move forward.

Kate: It was a long process. We’re not going to sugarcoat it. It was stressful, but it was also a great opportunity and well worth it in the long run.

Ron: I love it. And I think so many merchants out there, especially when you have lots of customization when it comes to things like variable pricing–another functionality that B2B merchants need–a lot of merchants underestimate the time. So, if you don’t mind, would you maybe even share like what do you think a good timeframe is to do a new website project that you all kind of undertook? 

Kate: It’s kind of hard for us to say. Our website is very complex because we do have the whole second half of it that is a custom-built custom quoting tool and that made it a very challenging project. It’s not just kind of an off-the-shelf standard eCommerce platform–part of it is, but the other part’s not. So, our site build was a long time. From the time of looking at vendors and interviewing them all the way through the build, I mean it was almost two full years, which is obviously a very long time. But, like I said, I think a big part of that for us was how heavily or how much time was spent on the custom-built aspect of it. So, it’s a little hard to say because every website obviously is different–but with one that was as complex as ours. 

Something else that was a little different for us is that we use our website as a tool internally. Our customer service reps are engineers. They all use our website as well. So, that adds kind to the complexities because the backend of the website needs to function to our needs, on top of the frontend functioning for customers’ needs. But the B2B aspect definitely adds some different variables–as you mentioned, having tiered pricing. We have customers who have net-30 terms and we wanted to allow them to place orders online and, then, being able to place custom orders online was all new for us. We had a quoting tool on our old website, but you couldn’t order custom parts on the old website. So, all of that was new on top of really building this from scratch since we are migrating platforms.

Ron: One thing that I’m really excited to ask you all is around education because you have this complex amazing website that you invested so much time and resources into. You have a customer base and an internal team that may not know how to actually use it. So, how do you educate your customers that are online, your internal team who are taking the phone calls to answer questions? How do you all navigate them to use that website?

Kate: Great question. We had a lot of internal training for several months before the launch of the website. Our customer service reps were doing training in the backend of the website and just navigating it when it was still a demo site, so that they could get as used to it as soon as possible. I think something that helps us is the fact that our customer service reps do use the website as their product database, as their way of processing orders. So, because they’re on it all day, every day, you know, they just learn as they go as well. We spent several months going through training to make sure that everyone was kind of up to speed on how it would work so that when they are the frontline talking to customers they can direct them on how to best utilize it. And then, not just that, but communication throughout the website I think is very important as well–making sure that we have tool tips along the way, having different emails that are sent out when the accounts are created and all those different aspects as well–and explaining how to maximize the benefits of their online account. Luckily, a lot of our customers are engineers and product developers and they like kind of the tech aspect of it and a lot of people wanted to be able to place their own orders and their custom orders online. So, most of our customers were actually pretty excited. We had really a lot of very positive customer feedback, which we weren’t sure how customers would react. It did end up being pretty positive, which was really exciting to hear that we were moving in the right direction and kind of migrating to continuing to innovate and make it easier for our customers.

Erin: Along with the internal training, another important part of it, I think for us, was documenting our training and how do you use the different aspects of the site. Because, like Kate mentioned, the quoting tool is highly customized and there’s other features specifically on the backend of the site that are highly customized. So, we needed to document how to use the site so our sales and customer service reps knew what they were doing when they were interacting with customers. We didn’t want to rely solely on the platform’s documentation and how to use the site functionality because of all the customization we did.

Ron: And, with that, you have all these complex functionalities with your site from custom quotes. It’s very different from a traditional, you know, eCommerce business and not only does that create complications in actually building the website, but also when it comes to marketing and, you know, goal measurements, etc. So, how do you attribute and measure across all your different marketing channels how successful they’re being when you have so many different ways you can attribute success?

Erin: We have several different goals we track here internally. But the goals kind of all mesh together. As far as our initial goal, it is obviously to get a new customer to the site and make an initial purchase, most likely sampling products. So, hopefully that stock sample order eventually turns into a quote which is another objective and goal of ours. You know, increasing quotes. Hopefully, they quote their custom project with us and then inevitably purchase the custom project with us, which is the ultimate end goal–converting customers to order custom parts. Once they have their customization business with us, we expect that they’re going to stick with us from here on out. So, they’ll be a return customer in the future hopefully if their product inevitably takes off.

So, basically, tracking goals isn’t as complicated is it would sound as far as how complicated our business is because they’re all intertwined. And then we do a lot of data tracking and analyzing of our numbers that Kate’s really good at managing.

Kate: Yeah, just kind of adding to that, I think it’s easier now with the new website because people can place custom orders online. We can actually track all of that better. Previously, they could do a quote online, but we couldn’t track if they were ordering it or not. Whereas now, we actually can track through paid ads of: this paid ad converted a stock order and then 30 days later they did a quote or then, you know, 10 days after that they purchased the quote. We can actually track all of that now, which is really important and it makes it so much easier for us to determine what ad spend is worth it and what ad spend is, you know, not as successful. If we’re not getting as many quotes, then it shows that the quality of customers might not be quite as high.

Ron: Yeah, with that and because you have to create a quote from a sample, I’m sure you’ll have a really long sales cycle. How do you manage all that?

Kate: Yes, we definitely have a longer sales process because engineers are using our enclosures to basically speck our enclosures into a product. So, the product development phase can be longer. There’s really a variety between our customers, but for the most part, it is going to be a longer sales process. As Erin touched on, you start typically with the sample order and then maybe a few more and then they start getting into kind of low volume production runs to higher volume production runs. So, with a longer sales process, we really rely a lot on faith. Once we started working with the Visiture team, we realized that it wasn’t 100 percent necessary, but it’s definitely still part of it. But being able to track further back on paid ads and track customers who not only place stock orders, but complete quotes helped us to truly determine what ad spend is worth it. We also tend to focus on different metrics than a lot of eCommerce businesses. For us, cost per order is more important than revenue generated per order because most of the first orders are smaller sample orders. And the value of a quality customer comes down the road–not typically with their initial order. So, we’re not quite as worried about, you know, how much revenue was generated for every dollar we spent. For us, it’s much more about getting the orders, and as long as they’re the right customers, we know that they’ll turn into longtime customers and the value of that customer is so much more substantial in the long run than in the short run.

Ron: Do you utilize retention tools such as email marketing to stay up to speed with them and try to get them back to buy larger orders later?

Erin: Yes, so we are starting to get much better with our email strategy here. We try to send out more valuable information and content versus like spamming our customers with self-promotional emails since being B2B we don’t really offer sales coupons or discounts. So, there’s not like an instant buy incentive necessarily with our email. So, we feel like we need to be sending them content and valuable information to their business to help them engage with it, versus just trying to sell stuff through email.

Ron: And when you mean that valuable information, do you mean kind of like educational content, educating them on your products or maybe industry tips?

Erin: Exactly! Industry tips and information, application information, ratings information–stuff that we feel like different groups in different industries can find valuable to their business.

Ron: Great! This is a random question, but how much of a repeat frequency do you have with customers? How much did they come back, how many times do they buy from you on average?

Kate: It’s hard to say. As Erin mentioned earlier, once someone is a customer and our product is specked into their product, they typically are a long-term customer because they’re going to continue buying from us for the lifecycle of their product since it is part of their product build. That being said, not every customer is going to be a repeat customer. That’s kind of part of getting the volume of new customers that we do. We do have some hobbyists who come on just do an electronics project at home and they’re probably not going to be a repeat customer. But the quality business customers who are our target market, they typically are customers for a very long time because they’re going to continue buying for the lifecycle of their product. And they’ll continue to just order that same repeat, a lot of times customized order, over and over again.

Ron: Yes, it makes perfect sense. Something that you said a little bit earlier. You talked about conversion rates and I wanted to talk a little bit more about that. Is that a goal for you all and, if so, how are you addressing it to get a higher conversion rate?

Kate: Yes, conversion rate is definitely critical–not just for getting more orders, but it tells us if we are getting the right customers to our website and if it’s easy for them to browse our catalog and find what they need. We’re always trying to make working with us as easy as possible and a huge part of that is for customers to be able to find exactly what they need, be able to find the product information that they need, have all of the drawings online, be able to quote their custom project online and have all that information readily available. So, a big part of conversion rates for us is we know we’re getting customers to the website. Are we converting them then? And the way that we do that is like I said: making it as easy as possible for them to browse the catalog and find exactly what they need and have all the information available to them. If they get there and they can’t find what they need quickly, a lot of them will bounce and search Google again. So, making sure that they have everything right there is really important and just kind of always trying to make their experience better.

Ron: Yeah, and something to add to that is that it could really hurt your search rankings, too. If you have a poor user experience in Google sending you tons of traffic and they’re leaving right away going back to Google, as you said, that will also hurt SEO rankings. So, it can hurt in a lot of ways by not having the right information on site in CAD drawings.

With that, I know that you all are B2B and obviously you’ve got a lot of desktop traffic being that people need to download CAD drawings and more. But do you see a bigger shift from even mobile traffic now than maybe ever before?

Erin: Yeah. So, we definitely see some traffic from mobile which has grown from what it was like five years ago. But the nature of our business and products really are best suited for desktop use. So, we do recognize mobile is important. And although it’s not a primary focus for us, we want to give those users who are finding us on mobile a good experience still. So, we made sure we incorporated responsive design with the newest web build.

Ron: Both of you have just a wealth of experience that you’ve gained throughout the years, and I couldn’t be more impressed with how you’ve really helped build Polycase. Do you have any advice or anything for any B2B merchants out there that have always been traditionally like a catalog or offline and is now going online?

Kate: Yeah. I think B2B companies have definitely been a little slower to adapt to the online marketplace and eCommerce. But I think it is really important and it continues to grow in importance because people like having information readily available to them. So, being able to have all of the product information on your website and make it really easy for people to go and get whatever information they need is really important. And I think a lot of–especially our customers–find a lot of value in that. Not only that, you are opening your doors to having so many more customers and so much more potential. Just with how many people search Google–you know they need a different product or they need something for their business–the first thing they do is they go and search online for it. So, you really are opening yourself up to a lot more business potential and a much bigger customer base by being eCommerce. And again, I think the other biggest part of it is just people having the information readily available. I think more people than you would expect like having the information online and just being able to complete their purchase without having to go through and maybe fill out a purchase order or pick up the phone to call or email. They like just being able to complete their transaction online.

Ron: All right. And finally, what do you view as the future of eCommerce?

Erin: eCommerce is really important in mine and Kate’s eyes–at least for our business. It’s going to just become more and more prevalent–not only in the retail space and B2C space, but B2B like we’re talking about. It’s definitely a constantly changing landscape, so you need to do your research and keep up with what’s going on with it. But it’s definitely important to find a way to grow and change with it, especially with B2B, which, like Kate mentioned earlier, has been a little bit slower to adapt to eCommerce.

Ron: All right. Thank you, Kate and Erin. I appreciate you being on the show today.

Erin: Thank you.

Kate: Thanks.

Ron: Thank you for joining the eCommerce Growth Series. And a big thank you to Kate Began and Erin Brunner at Polycase. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at Ron@Visiture.com, and we’ll see you next time.

 

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