Optimization and Personalization at a B2B Powerhouse: Grainger

Image source: Adobe Stock / Petinovs.

Grainger is a business-to-business (B2B) giant, distributing over 1.5 million products that its customers use to maintain, repair, and operate facilities. Having been in business for more than 90 years, Grainger stands at an incredibly interesting intersection of vast industry and customer knowledge. In addition, the company is a major force in the digital space, ranked as the 10th largest e-retailer in North America by Internet Retailer. The company’s eCommerce platform, Grainger.com, is a multi-billion-dollar e-commerce site that receives millions of visits each month from customers and potential customers. One of Grainger’s goals is to marry its customer knowledge with its product acumen to ensure its more than 3 million customers have the exact right solutions to keep their facilities safe and up-and-running.

Justine BaMaung, the company’s optimization manager, manages the team that runs the testing and personalization efforts on Grainger.com. Last month at Adobe Summit in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to speak with Justine and learn more about the optimization program at Grainger. She had just presented a fantastic optimization success story in our ExBE awards session. B2B optimization and personalization stories are uncommon, so I wanted to dig deeper into the inner workings of the Grainger optimization program.

What makes B2B so different from B2C?

Before digging into the Grainger story, I want to discuss some of the differences between B2B and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies that I believe may somewhat explain why B2B-ers are relative newcomers to the personalization and optimization space. Key differences are in the target customer, the pricing structure, the buying drivers, the type of content buyers value, and the buying cycle.

Unlike their B2C counterparts, B2B companies don’t so much focus on building relationships with individuals. Yes, at the end of the day a B2B company deals with an individual employee, but those employees can come and go. Because B2B relationships may span years, the most consistent relationship ends up being with the customer company.

In addition, the relative scale of a B2B purchase tends to be much bigger than B2C. Buying is done with negotiated rates and contracts that pass through multiple approval layers. Customers make commitments more slowly, so the buying cycle lasts much longer. Customers aren’t triggered to purchase based on emotion, but rather to meet a business need. And because the relationship is long-term, B2B companies must court and woo customers, showing them how their offerings outshine those of the competition. They do that by offering content like case studies, whitepapers, and webinars that educates the customer and shows their expertise works well for B2B.

All this is to say that optimizing and personalizing for B2B requires a different approach than B2C. It also requires a willingness to challenge old assumptions to devise new ways to engage customers via digital. As you’ll see, Grainger did exactly that, as starting in 2016, the company transformed its homepage through a series of tests using Adobe Target.

Why focus on optimizing and personalizing the homepage?

“We get a lot of traffic, and 40 percent of that traffic visits the homepage,” Justine says. It is an important piece of real estate with a hero banner, left navigation, sign-in and registration capability, product recommendations, and more. “With so many moving parts and teams with different opinions, business objectives, and key performance indicators, we leveraged testing to understand customer preferences and make data-driven decisions. Tools like Adobe Target help drive the right conversations across the business and create alignment.”

Has the left navigation outlived its useful life?

The left navigation list of product categories has been a mainstay tactic for many B2B companies, but as Justine says, “Today’s customers expect great design and experiences. The left navigation was limiting our ability to do that. Because most customers now use keyword searches to locate what they want, there was a desire to remove the left navigation. However, we wondered if we could remove it while maintaining key measures like conversion, engagement, and bounce rate.” Testing the hypothesis revealed that removal had no impact at all. So just like that, a long-held assumption was challenged and proven less important than once believed. They removed it.

Knowing the visitor allows Grainger to cater to them better

For Grainger, knowing who the site visitor is lets them present a better experience. Visitors tell Grainger who they are by registering online and signing in. This lets them see, for example, the contract pricing their company has with Grainger, which encourages them to purchase. At that time, Grainger was not promoting registration or sign-in on the homepage, even though 70 percent of customers visiting it were anonymous.

Partnering with various other teams at Grainger, the optimization team helped address this issue by testing sign-in and registration capability via a hero banner takeover. The results were extremely positive, and showed the need to better highlight these capabilities. Through a series of tests, the team determined the final location for the sign-in and registration capabilities, and experienced a noteworthy 7 percent increase in sign-ins and a 17 percent increase in registration completions.

So many products, so many types of customer companies

After initially implementing product recommendations powered by Adobe Target, Grainger started with recommending four or eight top-selling products on its homepage. But the business and the team questioned how relevant these recommendations were, given the many different types of customers they served. Would the four-to-eight top-selling products in an offering of 1.5 million really resonate with all their different customer types? Probably not.

By tests of various algorithms available with Adobe Target Personalized Recommendations, powered by Adobe Sensei, they discovered that using the “recently viewed” algorithm on the homepage increased overall recommendations engagement on the homepage by 12 percent, and doubled revenue from that Recommendations zone. This was a huge win and suggests that if a B2B company has a highly varied customer base and product assortment, the “top sellers” algorithm may not be optimal.

Later on, Grainger decided that it didn’t want to totally remove the categories from the homepage. Using Adobe Target, they enabled category recommendations to drive more personalized experiences for visitors interested in the various categories.

Moving into deeper personalization

At this point, the optimization team wanted to deliver customers a more personalized experience to see if that drove greater engagement and conversion. Using a third-party service, they were able to identify a customer’s industry based on their IP address, and then show them industry-relevant content and categories. This test is still in progress.

Then it was time to take personalization to the next level. “Contracts are held at a higher corporate level, so bringing in that company touch makes that relationship a little more real. It shows them that Grainger knows them,” Justine says, “but that can be risky, too. So we tested this. We wanted to see if addressing them by name in the hero banner captured the user’s eye in a positive way or simply freaked them out.” Far from being freaked out — customers liked it.

Looking ahead and beyond

Grainger.com has transformed its static homepage on which everyone saw the same thing to a highly personalized homepage based on the company the visitor was coming in from, the account they may or may not have with Grainger, and recommended products based on the visitor’s browsing behavior (see image below).

Companies like Grainger are truly pioneers, creating a map filled with B2B learnings and best practices around optimization. With these wins under the optimization team’s belt, they are now looking beyond tactics and best practices, examining how to develop strategies for deepening customer relationships. Justine asks, “How do we in B2B do what Coca-Cola has done in B2C? How do you build that extreme loyalty to the point where your customers turn into your brand advocates?” These are interesting questions — maybe worth discussing in the Adobe Target community.