Designing for B2B 101



The process of one business selling to another business (B2B) is enormous and involves billions of dollars in the US economy ($559 billion according to this study). Yet if you Google ‘designing for B2B’ why is there hardly anything on the internet?

So who are the companies that spend these billions on B2B? It could be anyone from coffin makers selling to undertakers, or, on a grander scale, the likes of Cisco, IBM, Intel or HP selling cloud storage to equally large companies like Apple or Microsoft. It’s a very different type of sell since no one is going to buy a server farm from a banner ad.

And just who am I to talk about designing for B2B? Well, currently I head up the creative for CBS Interactive’s B2B division, dealing mostly with big tech clients so in this post I’ll mostly be looking at designing for these types of clients.





CBS Interactive’s Visualizer 360 brings together all of Brocade’s social media – click images to see original live version (Vica Filatova, Jeff Hill and Rick Byrne)


As consumers, we experience ads or sites that ask us to do something straight away, such as buy now, watch a video or learn more. However, the cost of buying something large like a company’s data storage is too huge to pull off in an online experience and a business still needs to get the message out to its audience somehow. These ads/projects are part of a brand awareness campaign and are intended to get customers on the first rung of the purchase funnel. They are usually hosted around relevant content (articles, videos, white papers etc.) found on publishers’ sites.

For a big splash such as a product launch there are immersive fullpage takeovers (covered in this post more extensively). These certainly generate higher engagement rates, often with many replays of the ad. In catching people’s attention they have both higher close rates and higher brand recall rates when compared to regular banner ads‏ – the two go hand-in-hand.

For a more semi-permanent branding experience CBS Interactive offers its ‘Visualizer 360’ as a sort of one-stop-shop for all a client’s social media, videos and white papers, etc. It can be built once in Flite’s console with multiple units such as a pushdown or lightbox acting as a window to that file. Our major user of the Visualizer is Brocade, who loves how it allows them to consolidate all their social media feeds which are scattered across different sites. The Visualizer can also be hosted on different sites and networks, rather than on a single page that would need ads to drive traffic to it – see for yourself by clicking here.


The Lead Gen process: click the banner, fill in the data entry form and download the white paper (courtesy of LinkedIn)


Building awareness of a new product/service/app is one thing but no one is going to buy 100 laptops from a banner ad. To get around this, B2B advertisers can offer users a chance to download a white paper or similar giveaway in order to get their contact details for a follow-up sales call. This process is called lead generation (Lead Gen).

Simplified, here’s the process:
1. Click
2. Data capture
3. Download
4. Follow up call.

For Lead Gen ads there are a huge amount of clicks on the initial banner ad offering a download a white paper or similar asset. However when faced with the data entry page that follows, users can abandon the process (called The Abandon Rate). To avoid this some kind of warning of the process ahead should be in the text or button/call to action such as ‘Find out how to download’.  This may create a lower CTR (Click through rate – see Measuring Success below) on the initial ad but creates a much better brand experience for the user.

Another drawback of the process is that the user filling in the data can provide false information; except for their email address (usually how the download  link is delivered) everything else can be incorrect. According to Stephen Corby, CEO of Specless, a mobile ad  agency, another drawback is that the process doesn’t work for mobile and tablet users as the mindset for both of these environments doesn’t lend itself to lots of clicks or reading documents. Pinable ads may change this in the future like this.


Fullpage takeover for an editorial feature with IBM sponsorship (Rick Byrne)


The main aim of any of these campaigns is to sell more of a client’s product or service. In order to do this a campaign is broken down into smaller phases (CBS Interactive B2B defines these in 5 steps: Discover, Investigate, Compare, Justify, Optimize) each with its own target impressions, clicks or leads. Since this is a post on the business of business let’s look at the metrics of how online campaigns are judged:

Impressions are a measure of the number of times an ad is displayed, whether it is clicked on or not.

Cost per mille (CPM) (Latin: mille = thousand) is a commonly used measurement in advertising indicating the cost per thousand people who see an ad (impressions). To see just how it’s calculated click here.

Click-through rate (CTR) is a way of measuring the success of an online advertising campaign for a particular ad by the number of users who clicked on a specific link or button.

Cost Per Lead or CPL is an online advertising pricing model, where the advertiser pays if  an  individual signs up for an advertiser’s offer. This is the primary metric used for Lead Gen campaigns.

Cost Per Action or CPA (also known as Pay Per Action, Cost Per Conversion or Cost Per Acquisition) is an online advertising pricing model, where the advertiser only pays for each specified action such as a purchase, a form submission, watching a video etc. To see just how it’s calculated click here.


If you were in the B2B industry which one would you like to be seen as?


Selling cool stuff to the average consumer can be a lot of fun. However for a multi billion dollar industry B2B is often not seen as cool nor targeted to cool people. B2B is commonly seen as boring and bland, like the businessman on the left above when really the industry should see itself as more like the guy on the right: cool, playful, modern.

This is the B2B conundrum – everyone in agencies regards it as something that has to be done as opposed to something they want to do. I have found that consumer clients work faster and are more on top of the details than Enterprise (B2B) clients.

This may be because of the longer buying cycle and the fact that agencies are populated with people who would rather be working on something else more hip. Creative teams dedicated to B2B can get bored and lose their edge – they’ll need to find other ways to be to creatively challenged or they’ll leave. Rotate them out with consumer clients over time or give them more creative freedom on RFP mocks.



Office’s elegant and creative Smarter Planet campaign for IBM (courtesy of Lisa Friedman at Office)


Just because the B2B Conundrum exists doesn’t mean that it is all bad. In fact IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign is a major B2B project done right.

Ogilvy & Mather New York asked the San Francisco based agency ‘Office’ to develop a visual vocabulary for the launch of the Smarter Planet campaign–an entire visual language system that would illustrate how IBM was transforming the world’s most important systems such as food, energy, transportation, healthcare, education, and banking. Here is a description from Office’s website:

The design challenge was to create a visually arresting language that was as bold as the ideas they represented. How do we create something that will grab people’s attention and engage them so they want to learn more? How do we distill complex essays into one clear visual concept? And how do we represent these big, complicated problems in a way that’s approachable?

The Office team was inspired by the creative vision that designer Paul Rand developed for IBM in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Rand’s work was about boldness and clarity, and had a “wink” that created an emotional connection with people. These became the team’s driving principles.

The resulting pieces give a playful feel to all the parts of the campaign from essays to giant posters to banner ads. A lot of thought has gone into each of the icons as manifestations of different aspects of IBM. Visual cliches were avoided with the assumption that their audience is made up of smart and creative thinkers. Even if their audience doesn’t look too deeply into what the image represents it is still very appealing to the eye and in the online world where the eye roams the finger/mouse follows.


Animated banner ad for aimed at CIOs and IT professionals (by Rick Byrne)


– B2B tends to have a more male bias especially in tech
– This is not an excuse to be one dimensional
– Enliven ads with better design and copy
– Where possible, use endorsement of specific industry leaders for more clicks

– The B2B process is long so break down CTAs into smaller actionable parts
– CTA for awareness ads should be succinct such as ‘Learn More’ or ‘ Watch Video’
– For lead gen the CTA wording should warn the user about the data entry process

– Avoid obvious stock photos – they look very inauthentic
– ‘Native’ ads use the site’s own look and feel to deliver authentic sponsored content
– Images/videos/names of endorsing experts in the industry drive more interest

– Avoid product imagery in ads unless done in a very eye-catching way
– Most servers look very similar and aren’t likely to sell based on looks
– Ads should be led by a product feature (either copy or images) for memorability
– For tech clients add a techy feeling and/or abstract imagery – let the copy do the hard sell
– Avoid visual clichés for tech such as circuit boards, cursors, streams of ones and zeros etc
– A great many B2B clients use blue/gray palette as it’s ‘safe’–perhaps too safe


What makes designing for B2B so different? Well, nothing really, except for the mindset of those involved. To paraphrase JFK, “The only thing we have to fear is fear (of boredom) itself”. This often arises when everyone involved in the B2B industry plays it safe because they are appealing to a committee of business decision makers. Yet this committee is made up of individual human beings, each with their own aspirations and limited time. Lose sight of that and you will be permanently dealing with the B2B Conundrum.


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