B2B vs B2C: similarities, differences, and customer journeys

When was the last time you bought 1,600 tons of steel on an ecommerce platform? An industrial jet wash? Forty-eight liters of ketchup? You’re an individual consumer, so the answer is most likely never (unless you really like ketchup).

What about a smartphone or package of toilet paper?

Much more likely. 

You’re a B2C ecommerce customer. Business to consumer, B2C, refers to businesses selling directly to end-user consumers. By contrast, B2B, business to business, is a company selling to (you guessed it) other companies.

Simple, right?  Once upon a time, it was. But with the rapid development of business technology and growth of the B2B product sector, the differences between these types of buying experience — among both small businesses and large ones — have become more nuanced.  

How are B2B and B2C sales different?  

In terms of marketing strategies, for some time, B2B was seen as B2C’s beige older sibling. While B2C-buyer marketing efforts consisted of racy advertising campaigns, often accompanied by celebrity endorsements and sports sponsorships, the B2B customer experience was all about detail-heavy catalogs and steady trade shows.

B2C marketing is famous for big-budget campaigns in the 1960s Mad Men era. B2B’s history is not half as exciting, but it’s still fairly interesting.

How did B2B marketing get started? In 1895, John Deere released what is widely regarded as the first example of content marketing: The Furrow. It was a B2B agricultural journal with information and updates on farming practices and machinery, with recommendations thrown in for good measure. At its peak, in 1912, The Furrow reached more than 4 million people. 

In the years that followed, B2C marketing took the lessons learned from John Deere and put them into action, creating ads that were entertaining and spoke to consumers on their buyer journeys. However, for most of the 20th century, B2B marketing to potential buyers consisted mainly of a catalog or perhaps a frumpy website, plus a phone number. No market research, no customer journey map templates, no customer personas, no email marketing.

Why the laid-back approach? B2C tactics didn’t prove especially helpful with kicking up business sales, for several reasons:  

Cool heads prevail

Consumer purchases tend to be made based on emotional reactions, whereas purchasing on behalf of a business is, well, more like work, which requires cool-headed thought. For that reason, evocative ads don’t work nearly as well on potential customers in a B2B buyer-journey context. In fact, a study by MarketingWeek found that, frankly, 75% of B2B advertising is ineffective. 

Talk is cheap

Due to B2B customer needs for large quantities and specialized items, B2B sales processes often involve some level of negotiation between the stakeholders. Before the age of ecommerce, B2B transactions meant contacting a sales team or hashing it out with a salesperson over the phone, or doing this while visiting a physical office. Old habits die hard, and to this day, 50% of B2B decision-makers prefer to be contacted by phone. That makes B2B business transactions an entirely different animal.

People power  

B2B customer relationships tend to be solid, ongoing partnerships — they can last months, years, even decades. B2B buyers want to make purchases from suppliers they can trust, and they likely want to find out more about an organization before they make any purchasing decisions. When customer expectations for continuity and enduring personal relationships come first in determining buying decisions, promotions fall flat.

B2B vs. B2C customer journeys  

The key differences between the B2B customer journey and the B2C customer journey have always been significant due to the fundamentals of each business model. What does this look like in practice in a customer journey lifecycle?

Here are two fictional examples of the customer touchpoints involved in the different real-time stages of the individual customer buying journey; quick case studies for B2C and B2B. 

The B2C customer experience: emotional and impulsive 

FitLife Apparel sells comfortable activewear. The different stages of the shopping journey include:

Awareness: Toby, a runner, sees an Instagram ad featuring the company’s collection of running leggings with breathable fabric. 

Interest: Intrigued by the ad, he clicks to visit their ecommerce website and browses the collection, reading product descriptions and checking out customer testimonials in the review section. 

Evaluation: He adds leggings to his shopping cart and compares them with similar brands he’s bought on Amazon. During his decision-making, he notices that the company has competitive pricing and free shipping. 

Decision: Satisfied with the product features and pricing, and happy with the seamless online experience, he enters the decision-making process. He puts the item in his shopping cart, thinks about it some more, and decides to buy it, perhaps in a couple of days.  

Purchase: Returning to the item, he completes the online checkout process.

Post purchase: Toby’s happy with the quality and fit; he leaves a positive review on the website’s product page. He also signs up for the new-products and promotions newsletter.  

The B2B journey: longer and more complex

CloudTech Solutions provides cloud-based software that helps small and medium-sized businesses manage their projects, teams, and finances. Here are the shopping journey stages:

Awareness: Sarah, the CTO of a digital marketing company, has been tasked with finding a way to streamline the company’s project management. In the awareness stage, she learns about CloudTech from a LinkedIn post. 

Research: She visits the company’s website, reads some blog posts, and downloads a white paper and other information detailing how the software could help her streamline her company process. She has a few questions for the friendly chatbot, which answers to her satisfaction. 

Evaluation: At this consideration stage, she requests a product demo and gets in touch with a company sales rep, who provides more information on the product’s features, pricing plans, and customer support. 

Decision: After discussing the prospect of hiring CloudTech with her team and comparing their offerings with those of competitors, she decides they’re the best fit and presents a proposal to the board of directors for approval.

The sales process moves forward…it takes about three months and a series of consultations for a decision to be made. During the review time frame, Sarah uses some of the materials she’s downloaded to help persuade less-tech-savvy board members that it’s the right choice for their particular pain points.  

Purchase: The choice is approved. She signs a contract with the company, which provides onboarding, training, and customer support to ensure smooth integration with her existing systems. 

Are B2B and B2C becoming more alike?  

As you can see from these examples, B2B and B2C are kind of like night and day. However, the ways businesspeople make purchases have started changing, and the differentiators between B2B and B2C are blurring. The stereotypical B2B image of a middle-aged man in a suit making calls to suppliers from an office desk is starting to fade.

Here are a few facts that help explain this phenomenon:  

  • Younger people are more inclined to embrace technology. The fact that 60% of B2B tech buyers are between 25 and 39 — the biggest age group in the B2B workplace — is having an impact.
  • Half of B2B buyers start their searches for items on mobile devices.  
  • Among B2B buyers, according to McKinsey & Company, 99% would make a purchase using a completely digital self-serve model. 
  • The pandemic accelerated B2B adoption of omnichannel selling. McKinsey found that B2B customers use 10 or more channels to interact with suppliers. 

Younger demographics, higher mobile usage, a propensity toward self-serve purchases and omnichannel options. Remind you of anything?

That’s right, all these trends are from the playbook for winning over the B2C target audience. With younger workers and new technology flooding the sector, it’s easy to see why B2B operating procedures are beginning to catch up with those of the consumer market.

And with consumer-experience expectations going through the roof, it makes sense that B2B organizations are creating better experiences for their customers and potential customers. Gone are the days of an outdated-looking business website and phone number. Now, both B2B and B2C customers expect more. They want to find products faster, get relevant and timely recommendations, and be able to access customer service that’s tailored to their unique needs.

Search: great for B2C and B2B  

Modern search functionality has been considered imperative for B2C company websites aiming to ensure customer success. B2C end users, who expect an immediately dynamic user experience across social media, search-engine interfaces, and online stores, are prone to lose interest in the buying process if they can’t find what they want within 10 seconds. After that, they’ll go look somewhere that does a better job with collecting customer data, walking in their customers’ shoes, and creating experiences that ensure customer satisfaction.

B2B ecommerce users aren’t far behind in their quest for a positive customer experience punctuated by enjoyable individual customer interactions. Excellent search should also be at the heart of the B2B company customer experience, as 92% of B2B purchases begin with a user going to the search box. 

Want to do a little site (or app) optimization to increase your shopper retention, ensure your customer loyalty, and improve your bottom-line metrics? With Algolia, whether your site is B2B or B2C, you can create a more customer-centric experience with our SaaS search solution. Contact us or get a free demo, and get ready for some potentially eye-popping results.

About the authorVincent Caruana

Vincent Caruana

Senior Digital Marketing Manager, SEO

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