Tl;dr - Executives at industrial manufacturing firms usually focus on graphic design when they create a website. That's understandable - it's the surface element to which they react. Below that veneer though, are important details that determine success or failure. Sadly many "website development" firms fail to guide executives to success.
Why Do You Even Have an Industrial B2B Website?
Have you stepped back to ask yourself this question?
If the quick answer isn't any more substantive than "That's what we're supposed to do", then you're likely missing opportunity.
Actually, I'll go a step further.
Looking at most manufacturing websites, I'd say that much of the investment is wasted - for two reasons.
First, industrial website design and construction is normally treated as a "project." A defined undertaking with a beginning, messy middle, and end. That design and execution approach conflicts with many digital best practices and creates higher expense with lower return.
Second, most industrial B2B websites are built for the wrong reasons. This costly error is evidenced through the user experience as well as what's included, and importantly, what's excluded.
So why do you have a manufacturing website? It should fulfill many functions of your industrial marketing strategy including these 12:
- helping prospective buyers find you
- establish differentiating authority, expertise and value for prospective buyers and current customers
- provide information to help prospects understand their challenges, quantify their problems/opportunities, and make informed decisions
- provide information to help customers constantly improve their operation with your product
- help your sales team close deals with new prospects
- help your sales and customer success teams close more business with current customers
- define your culture and brand around guiding principles and community contributions
- attract vendors that share business philosophy to create mutually beneficial partnerships
- attract investors, strengthen confidence from bankers, and help recruit strong, strategically important independent directors
- recruit and hire top talent
- share news from your company
- promote and publicize important trade association initiatives
- resource for your employees
You'll accord each of these different priorities at different times. And you may well have other goals to add to the list.
The point is that you must clearly understand and then articulate the goals of your manufacturing website so that all of the important purposes are fulfilled. And this is tougher than it sounds for three reasons.
First - most of the examples you'll find don't do it well. And those which do, you'll likely experience at just one stage in your buying journey with them, so you might not even be conscious of the breadth of what the site does. Great industrial website design makes most of it completely transparent.
Second, most companies that promote website development services don't really understand it themselves. They have technology skills, and often aesthetic preferences and some graphic design savvy, but little experience running a business like yours across the full range of marketing, sales, success and operations functions. They frame the challenge through their very limited filter.
Third, you likely approach the task with some strong biases, thinking of an industrial website as a form of product literature - kind of like a catalog that has an attractive cover, a number of pages about your products, and a back cover that introduces the company. If you look at the list of website purposes above, this approach barely ticks any of them.
So let's dive into five important planning guidelines to help you create a really effective industrial B2B website - one that's a true business asset.
Five High-Level Manufacturing Website Development Guidelines
These five guidelines will help you create a strong framework for your website - well beyond a "project."
1. Properly Define the Goals of Your Website
Each of the 13 important purposes listed above has important industrial website design implications. For example, "1. helping prospective buyers find you" has implications to technical infrastructure and site architecture to optimize technical and on-page SEO. "4. provide information to help customers constantly improve their operation with your product" means you'll want easy website access to service and support, ticketing, troubleshooting information, access to order history, explosions, manuals and more.
The form of the site naturally follows the function. The function must be well defined, founded on strategy, and comprehensive.
2. Focus on Buyers and Customers
Most websites are designed around what the company's execs, marketing, and sales teams want to see. That in turn is usually a reflection of what they are conditioned to talk about. And that is almost invariably their products (in excruciating technical detail) and themselves.
There's a problem with that approach.
The website is primarily intended to speak to prospects and customers. Therefore the organization and presentation must be structured to optimize for the customer experience. From organization, navigation and chatbots to simplify finding the information they need, through personalized content that makes the experience more relevant, to customer portals, knowledgebases and loads of information content spanning the customer lifecycle, a strong industrial B2B website is built around the users.
One quick caveat. Of course, you'll have information on your products and services. And you'll include technical details. You'll also include pricing information (yes, I know yours is all custom....but there are some general ranges...and news alert...your competitors already know), downloadable drawings, and more. So you'll provide lots of rich, detailed technical information for the right members of the buying team at the right stage in the buying journey...but that's not the raison d'être of your site and intuitive website design will reflect that.
3. A User Friendly, Well-Supported, Secure CMS Should be Integrated with Marketing & CRM Databases
Your website needs to be built on a strong platform - the CMS (content management system.) That means one that's well-supported and secure. Secure whether your team remembers to patch daily or not. In other words, properly hosted and continuously patched and updated all the time (and probably not open source.)
It shouldn't be a science project in your IT department that is subject to submitting internal support tickets to make any changes, which has undiscovered security holes, and which becomes unusable when the person who develops and maintains it leaves.
It should be user-friendly enough that your marketing team can create new pages, templates and layouts, and rarely needs development assistance. Marketing should own the operation of the site and not require IT assistance.
Finally, the CMS should be natively integrated with marketing automation and CRM tools. This is important to capture and alert sales to important intent signals from user activity, and to support personalized visitor experiences (e.g. different experiences for contacts who are unknown, from a target industry, from a target account, with an active project pending, or a customer.)
4. Incorporate Capabilities to Expand the User Experience
Not only must your site be more than a catalog, but it must also provide rich experiences for each type of visitor/user.
This means customer portal capabilities for current customers to access important information about their order history, support resources, product details, and replacement parts and service. Portals also are valuable for the buying teams on complex projects - it helps them stay coordinated and represents value that you're bringing as a business.
It means a knowledge base that not only is a great manufacturing SEO tool, but works in conjunction with a chatbot to help visitors quickly find solutions and answers - always with live help within easy access too.
It often means several blogs so that users with one set of interests (e.g. food science, maintenance, etc.) have access to tailored information and value.
And behind these capabilities that create rich experiences and engagement for buyers and customers lie certain functionality of the CMS and the integration with CRM. Custom objects are an example.
5. A Great Industrial B2B Website is the Product of a Process, NOT a Project
Often companies think of a website as a project with a refresh schedule of 5-7 years. Then the site lays largely fallow in between.
This is a costly approach, and one that misses opportunities to capture new technical capabilities, adapt user experience to meet current expectations, and leads to lots of decisions to/not to include important elements.
Technology and expectations for buyer experience change quickly. Manufacturing company websites must adapt consistently.
So while a major refresh may be appropriate from a design perspective once or twice a decade, construction and improvement of the site should be continuous.
Some refer to this as growth-driven design - essentially a site development process that follows a roadmap with ongoing quarterly milestones. Examples of the planned, progressive work for most manufacturing companies include ecommerce integration, database-driven content, enhanced educational resources (e.g. virtual showroom tours), and personalized content.
A B2B Industrial Manufacturing Website Isn't a Brochure
Graphic design is a cosmetic aspect of a website - not its essence. But because it is the only high-level, easily observed aspect, it's the one that many business owners focus on.
The role of graphic design is to naturally guide visitors to the important and relevant information they need; highlight salient points and juxtapose important information to help users quickly understand their challenges and opportunities.
It is a critical aspect of a successful website, but it must be transparent.
Too often agencies and business owners focus on visual design without understanding all of the important strategy, technical, marketing and sales requirements behind it.
A great industrial website is neither catalog nor index of your products and services. Rather it helps buyers think about how to define and quantify problems and outcomes; it challenges their original diagnosis and helps them visualize a better end state.
It's possible to do. It often needn't be any more expensive than an aesthetically gorgeous but dysfunctional website.
It's up to you. Can you select the right business team to turn your website into a valuable business asset? And can you step back to let them work?