Usability, Personalization Drive Distributors’ Web Efforts

Personalization is the name of the game for distributors trying to meet a growing list of online demands from engineers and procurement professionals in 2012. As online buyers navigate the maze of capabilities inherent in almost every e-procurement site out there, distributors are realizing that taking things out of the customer’s way can be even more important than giving them every capability under the sun. That means developing a more intuitive and customizable Web presence that allows customers to create their own experience. It also means listening even more carefully to what is happening in their online audience.

It’s no surprise that electronics distributors are taking an even closer look at their Web offerings in an effort to meet customers’ growing and varied needs. B2B ecommerce is expected to grow considerably over the next several years, following the consumer market’s lead. As consumers and professionals become more accustomed to an “always connected” lifestyle, buying everything from music to office supplies online is becoming part of a normal routine.

A pointed example of the growing comfort with e-purchasing is the rise of mobile commerce or “m-commerce”—purchases made not just online, but via your mobile device or smart phone. U.S. m-commerce sales grew 91% to $6.7 billion last year and are expected to reach $31 billion by 2015, according to a recent study by digital market research firm eMarketer.

All of this fuels the “customization” fire that is spreading throughout consumer and business-to-business markets. As service and solutions specialists, distributors are no strangers to the trend, and many are focusing on delivering a more customizable online experience these days.

Meeting The User’s Needs

Avnet Electronics Marketing is taking the message to heart, targeting usability and personalization in its Web enhancements this year. Although the distributor has several new online features planned for its e-commerce site, Avnet Express, in 2012, it will spend much of its time on continuous improvement to make all of the online services it already offers as easy to use as possible, says Avnet Express senior vice president Beth Ely. She points to online sourcing in general as a case in point.

“Just as in any other business transaction, the goal is to accomplish it with the least amount of steps, get the job done, and move on to the next task,” Ely explains.  “[As] the types of tasks that customers can actually do online expands beyond simple online purchasing to include things like order maintenance, supply chain management, and design, the Web sites that make it easy to accomplish this will become the new favorites.”

Avnet’s “engineer wish list” feature, introduced in December, is one. Created for engineers who don’t typically making purchasing decisions, the engineering wish list allows engineers to choose the products they need for a particular project and place them in a virtual shopping cart that is then e-mailed to the designated buyer for the account. Once the buyer approves the order, the engineer is notified that the products are on the way.

“We know that innovation can happen at any time, even at three in the morning,” Ely said in announcing the new service in mid-December. “With the engineer wish list, Avnet has provided a way for engineers to automatically notify buyers in their company what products they need. For engineers who typically don’t approve orders themselves, this unique service helps streamline the purchasing process and get the design phase started a whole lot faster.”

Along with usability, personalization will be a key focus for Avnet Express in 2012. Because customers can do so much more online today, creating a more streamlined, uncluttered online experience is at the top of Avnet’s to-do list, Ely explains. The distributor is attacking this problem by creating different paths and user experiences depending on the visitor’s role and allowing customers to set their profiles for different views depending on what they are trying to accomplish.

“In order to do this, we have spent significant time building and validating our Web personas and will be engaging key customers in usability lab tests to make certain our internal perceptions don’t override the true needs of our customers,” says Ely.

“Helping customers navigate our site to find what they need quickly is top of the list, because although we know we have a very rich offering of information—which at the right time we know can be beneficial for our customers—when and how we display it is also key. The analogy I use with our teams is that it’s fine to have billboards on the side of the road, but putting them in the middle of the road will only cause the customer to take another route,” she adds.

Fusing Commerce With Community

In many ways, the challenge of finding new and better ways to deliver a wide range of information online is just an extension of what distributors have been doing offline for many years: evolving from sheer product providers into problem solvers and solutions providers. Distributors have known for a long time that their customers come to the Web for information first, commerce second.

The element14 online community, part of electronics distributor Premier Farnell/Newark, puts this theory into practice. Launched more than two years ago, the site offers forums, discussions, news, videos, design assistance, and e-commerce all in one place. It also hosted more than 2 million visitors in 2011—a nearly 40% increase over 2010, its first full year in existence, according to Dianne Kibbey, global head of e-procurement and community at element14.

“Users are coming to the community for access to the experts, the manufacturers, and to connect with other design engineers,” explains Kibbey. “It’s really about access to industry expertise. They know they can come to us and get information about a vast number of technologies and manufacturers. And there is also the desire to see and learn about new trends.”

When considering site enhancements, element14 takes its cue from the audience. One of its newest offerings, launched in late December, is element14TV, an online television channel for design engineers and technology enthusiasts. Billed as a “YouTube for engineers,” the new channel is a way to put some of the site’s more popular attractions, such as how-to videos and the ever-popular Ben Heck show, all in one place.

The channel features electronics how-tos, Arduino tutorials, user-generated videos, and informational videos from electronic components and subsystem providers, as well as the latest in technology and product news. It’s anchored by the Ben Heck show—the syndicated online TV series featuring modding guru Ben Heck, which has been a big traffic driver to the element14 site. The show is consistently ranked as the second most popular page on the community (after the home page).

Also, element14 recently launched an “innovation series,” which included a two-day virtual summit in January that brought together experts in medical, alternative energy, and robotics to discuss the latest products and trends in each market as well as provide online technical training on the latest technologies in each area. The event featured a series of speakers in 30-minute “livestreamed” videos, offering live chat opportunities as well. The event will be archived on the element14 site.

“All of this is borne out of what we have seen our community of users doing,” explains Kibbey. “We’re really addressing the trends we’re seeing on the element14 community.”

And that ties back to flexibility and choice—giving online users a variety of tools to accomplish whatever they want to do online. And that’s because everyone has a different idea of how they want to use the Web, adds Janice Fleisher, public relations/communications manager for element14/Newark.

“We offer documents, discussions, video,” says Fleischer. “It’s about how you like to learn and giving you a lot of choices. It’s about really trying to offer the complete solution in one place— to save [customers] time. They’re in the driver’s seat and we’re trying to give them as many choices as possible.”

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About the Author

Victoria Fraza Kickham | Distribution Editor

Victoria Kickham is the distribution editor for Electronic Design magazine, SourceESB and, where she covers issues related to the electronics supply chain. Victoria started out as a general assignment reporter for several Boston-area newspapers before joining Industrial Distribution magazine, where she spent 14 years covering industrial markets. She served as ID’s managing editor from 2000 to 2010. Victoria has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire and a master’s degree in English from Northeastern University.