Data Standardization Can Give B2B eCommerce Brands A Competitive Edge

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With standardized data, digital sellers can help customers make better buying decisions

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Data is the lifeblood of B2B eCommerce. It flows through every stage of a seller’s operation, from production and purchasing, to transportation, storage, sales, and delivery. And that’s just the physical activities. Behind-the-scenes you’ve got inventory, warehouse, and fulfillment management, each generating huge volumes of information.

With all this going on, there’s a real danger of drowning in data — which is why it’s so important to have a strong data management strategy. But before a business can start getting its gigabytes in order, it must first focus on something all-too-often ignored: data standardization.

What exactly is data standardization?

Data standards are used across a wide variety of industries to give clean, repeatable results. In the B2B eCommerce sector, the process of standardization sees product data — both marketing and technical — taken from the disparate locations it’s stored, and molded into a consistent, interoperable format.

This is easier said than done, of course; but it’s something businesses really have to be on top of if they want to gain a competitive edge.

Why does data standardization matter?

Lifted from silos and transformed into a usable, consistent format, B2B eCommerce data is easier to analyze and act on, which helps make business processes more efficient and error-free.

When data isn’t standardized, however, even small discrepancies can lead to large problems, especially when they’re repeated throughout the product journey. Typos, inconsistent capitalization, conflicting units of measurement, incorrect punctuation, ambiguous acronyms, alpha-numeric characters living in fields they shouldn’t be — these might appear insignificant, but they can cause real issues for B2B sellers.

Imagine, for example, that a buyer is placing a bulk order of building materials. Their first search brings up products labeled in “inches”, so that’s the format they use for subsequent searches. But the next item they’re looking for is labeled in “in.” on the supplier’s site, and thus doesn’t come up. Or maybe an entirely different unit of measurement is used — centimeters, say — and suddenly the seller’s got a costly product return case to contend with.

A bit of thoughtful data harmonization would mitigate these issues, allowing customers to enjoy a consistent buying experience irrespective of the category or product they’re browsing for.

The customer comes first

Without good, reliable product data, customers can’t make more informed decisions about the goods they’re planning to buy. Not only does this increase the likelihood of returns — a colossal problem for B2B eCommerce companies — but it also risks significant reputational damage. No one is going to recommend a business with data so deficient that purchases have to be sent back.

And then there’s the issue of syndication. B2B buyers don’t purchase products to sell simply on their own eCommerce sites — in 2022, they’re looking more and more at other marketplaces, including on social media platforms. Selling in this syndicated fashion can open up whole new audiences, but it brings with it greater fragmentation, and thus a higher risk of inconsistency.

The last thing B2B buyers want to do is confuse their own customers, so it’s vital that product information doesn’t differ from platform to platform. For this, data standardization at the source — the B2B sellers — is paramount.

Take this anecdote from Ali Hanyaloglu, senior director of product marketing at Akeneo, a PIM solutions provider. Hanyaloglu told the story on the Oro B2B Uncut Podcast of how an online pet food retailer had wrongly labeled its products as appropriate for both adult and infant dogs — a blunder that could’ve led to serious health concerns for the canines affected (not to mention legal action from their irate owners). What, in Hanyaloglu’s view, was the origin of the issue? A lack of standardization that allows “mistakes [to] slip through”.

In this case, the error was noticed before any major issues arose; but it’s clear that B2B eCommerce brands have a duty to ensure their data is coherent and consistent. Shirk this responsibility, and customers will have no choice but to take their business elsewhere.

Stand out from the crowd

Happily, the flipside of this is also true: if a B2B seller is willing to take the time to standardize product data, it’ll rightly earn a reputation for helping buyers make informed, reliable decisions. In an increasingly crowded market, that’s an accolade that can really make a brand stand out.

The B2B eCommerce sector isn’t just increasing in size, however: it’s also becoming more sophisticated, particularly on the product presentation front. Not so long ago, a simple product detail page and a few pictures would suffice. Today, customers want to see rich, Amazon-style listings with copious amounts of information and content that offer a more complete buying experience.

Sellers that can provide this experience will be able to differentiate themselves from rivals — but if the data they’ve added isn’t standardized, customers will likely encounter more problems, not fewer, as a result.

Foundational importance

The stakes are rather high, therefore, when it comes to data standardization, which is why strong leadership of the process is crucial. Ultimately, it’ll be a collaboration between IT and business teams that gets the job done, but without impetus from the top, there’s a risk that harmonization gets overlooked altogether.

Is data standardization really an urgent priority for B2B sellers, though? In a word, yes. Product data informs a plethora of eCommerce features, user experience chief among them. Without a good grasp of the details of the items you’re trading — and without that information being accessible in a simple, standardized format — you’ll never be able to design a suitable selling page.

It’s for this reason that data standardization shouldn’t be relegated to an after-thought activity that follows wider digital transformation or replatforming initiative. For these processes to be truly successful, good, consistent, and interoperable product data is a prerequisite.

That’s why, despite not often being discussed, data standardization is of foundational importance to B2B eCommerce companies. It’s the secret to reliable, more efficient business processes, and is a formidable asset in achieving that ever-elusive competitive edge. In an increasingly crowded market, those are two things no business can afford to ignore.

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