Should distributor websites feature products and product search, or should they tell your story?

This article first appeared on the PromoKitchen blog in the point and counterpoint section, Salt & Pepper. It was inspired by a post by Bill Petrie for his brandivate blog about positioning a website. This article features a debate between distributors Dale Denham, MAS+, Geiger, and Mark Graham, commonsku and RIGHTSLEEVE, on how best to utilize the most essential piece of real estate in today’s marketing world: the distributor website.

Dale Denham, MAS+

Non-product websites were called “brochure-ware” back in the ’90s and were the only type of website anyone knew how to build. Shopping sites came next but were originally available only to businesses with large budgets. Eventually, small businesses were provided e-commerce options to make websites useful. Not too long ago, Google modified default search results to provide shopping results. See the trend?

Searching is what customers want to do online because they want actionable information, not a brochure.

Don’t spend limited money and energy on a brochure-ware site or flip catalogs (although both have a place in your marketing arsenal). Instead, spend money and energy on ensuring your clients find what they are searching for. Most visitors are coming to your site to generate ideas, not to learn more about your company (even though that is important too). Pay attention to your brand as well, but non-product content is far behind the importance of a great product search experience.

You need to have enough products on your site, but not too many. Don’t overwhelm your customer with choices and don’t include duplicate items. Similar items are good, but duplicate items at different prices are confusing. Focus on keywords in your descriptions and in your e-commerce engine. If your customer uses the term “jump drives” to find “flash drives,” both better be found. If not, visitors will look to Google or your competitor to find what they are looking for despite how wonderful your company appears.

Once the base need of finding product is met, prospects and customers may want to know more about why they should do business with you. Success stories, biographies and a brief overview of why you are different are all very advisable. Good marketing copy, along with a strong social presence, will also help drive traffic to your site.

The reality for most distributors is that you can’t afford to build your own search engine so you will rely on a branded site from a third party. When choosing a site, focus on the product search that returns the best results. Adding your copy is the easy part and while important, it is far less important than having a great product search. If you have to choose, go 100-percent product search. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose; you can do both, but product search is where you should focus most of your energy.

Offline, you are far more important to the relationship than the product search. This is why your clients email you links to products on your competitor sites. Online, product search is what matters.

Dale Denham, MAS+, is CIO of Geiger.

Mark Graham

I believe that product-based websites are a mistake for most distributors. By “product-based website” I mean any website that features a collection of standardized products that any other distributor can access.

Generally speaking, there are two types of distributors in the market today: those who are more product- and transaction-focused and those who are more project- and solutions-focused.

For the distributors in the latter category, projects and solutions are at the core of their offering, not the product itself. As a result, it’s harder to shop their concepts and ideas around because their sites don’t present things in a way that lend themselves to easy comparison. In his article, Bill [Petrie] is making the point that these distributors can get away with not playing the price- and-compare game.

In the good old days of the promotional products industry (pre-Google, fewer competitors, less

educated end clients and more territory-centric selling), it was easier to hang out a shingle and collect product orders from end clients.

The challenge with product-based websites is that they create a situation where every distributor looks the same and it makes it very easy to price shop. This leads to margin pressure and creates an unfortunate situation where end clients are more focused on products than on solving marketing problems. I believe this is also one reason why some end clients refer to our industry as “trinkets and trash.”

If the products are put on the back burner and are replaced with case studies, stories about the

distributor’s culture and marketing solutions, then, at a minimum, you’re presenting your business in a different light. You’re now opening up a different conversation with your customer.

The other significant challenge of having a product-based website in 2016 is that you’re not only competing with legions of other small distributors, but you’re now up against well-capitalized e-commerce giants. These big e-commerce players have a large advantage over the small product-based sites in the following areas: e-commerce site design, customer experience, Google AdWords and SEO [search engine optimization] budgets and product pricing.

And we haven’t even talked about Amazon and its plans to grow its promotional products business.

As marketing is all about establishing an edge for yourself, it’s really hard to compete against a well-established player vs. creating your own story and competing in your own space.

Here’s the good news: it’s never been easier to tell your own story with web tools available these days.

  1. Platforms like Squarespace, Wix and Wordpress offer affordable ways for distributors to create sites that tell their own story.
  2. Digital photography has never been easier and more accessible. Think about taking your own

    photographs of products you have produced for clients. Now it’s your product/idea/solution vs.

    something that can be easily searched on Google Images.

  3. Spend some time thinking about what makes you unique, and create copy that reflects this.

    Google loves fresh copy that’s updated frequently. This will help you in SEO and when your

    prospect finds you on the web, you’ll come across as unique vs. looking like everyone else. That

    matters a lot to end clients.

It’s dead simple to look like everyone else, but it requires some creativity and grit to create a unique presence with a different story to your market. The best distributors have creativity and grit in spades. These are the distributors who are creating a moat around their businesses with unique websites that showcase their magic—not everyone else’s products.

Mark Graham is the co-founder and chief platform officer of commonsku. He is also the founder of Toronto-based distributor RIGHTSLEEVE.