B-to-b Web sites have made great strides since 1997, when BtoB’s predecessor, Business Marketing, published the first annual NetMarketing 200. The majority has evolved beyond brochureware, and some—the 200 sites in the following pages, for instance—exhibit the latest in online technology and design.
But this year’s top 200 list hasn’t changed significantly from last year’s, and there’s a reason for that. Much of what makes a Web site great isn’t implemented in a sweeping overhaul, an end-all redesign. Rather, the best sites constantly tweak and adjust, endlessly looking for ways to make themselves easier to use and more functional. Given the amount of time business users spend on these sites—gathering information, buying goods or services or checking the status of an order—the importance a Web site to a company’s overall brand and commerce effort cannot be understated.
Some industries are more advanced than others. Of the 13 sites scoring better than a 96 (out of a possible 100 points) on our list, eight fall into the high-tech manufacturing or software category, and five are in the financial services and insurance category. Following closely behind these categories are transportation and shipping, and wholesale/retail/distributor.
Regardless of category, the sites on the NM200 are similar in that they use the Web’s interactivity to their advantage. Not only do they offer visitors information about products and services, most use interactive tools to show what they can do for current and potential customers. This is particularly true of product-oriented sites. Customers search for what they want and the sites return lists of appropriate products. And if, for whatever reason, customers become uncomfortable making the purchase online, they can use the site to ask for help, by "chatting" with online support representatives or by clicking a "call-me-now" button that triggers a phone call from a rep. Even companies that don’t offer tangible products have caught on. At AmericanExpress.com, a customer can use dozens of services available online. Moreover, these services are tailored to each customer. For instance, a small-business executive can log on to the AmEx Web site, apply for an American Express card, pay the bill online, transfer balances from different accounts and get a business loan.
Yet AmEx also offers auxiliary resources and tools. Customers can get expert advice from the site’s small-business adviser, Alice Bredin. They can answer the question of what holiday gift to give business partners and clients by using a corporate gift-giving guide. And what the company doesn’t provide on its own, it gets from partners. The AmEx site offers visitors solutions to human resources problems through Administaff. AmEx doesn’t just refer customers to its business partner, it tells them what Administaff’s services are, how much they cost, what others have said about the company and how to reach it. Again, the focus is on making the site a basic business tool for the customer.
Aside from offering visitors valuable and interactive information about products and services, the NM200 Web sites use the Web as a branding vehicle. By creating a compelling design that uses the same look and feel of their other marketing efforts, these companies are successfully reinforcing their corporate messages online. Some companies, including Hewlett-Packard, make their leader highly visible on the Web site. On HP.com, users are given numerous opportunities to "e-mail Carly [Fiorina]." Visitors to Compaq.com can link to Micheal Cappellas’ home page, a section of the site where the "real-time" CEO discusses viewpoints and innovations.
But the best b-to-b Web sites contain more than useful content and online applications. Most also provide a way to purchase products or services. Thus, the judging criteria for the NM200 included the presence of online commerce. While a lack of e-commerce capabilities did not prevent sites from making the list, most of the higher-ranking sites have some form of e-commerce. Certainly, the Web is more conducive to selling products than services, such as consulting. Yet all companies are looking for ways to move as much of their business online as possible.
Finally, many of the Web sites on the NM200 provide something unique and memorable to the visitor—even if it’s the smallest detail. Take Sonoco.com. Instead of just listing the names or posting the headshots of its board of directors, this site goes a bit further: It has cutout photos of the directors engaged in a lively conversation. By clicking on the individual’s name or photo, the visitor accesses the director’s biographical information.
By a variety of means, the sites on the NM200 list are making the Internet an indispensable part of their business, step by step. The challenge for today’s b-to-b companies is to make their Web site a place where their customers go, and return again and again. Those that succeed in this may find that their Web sites are their most immediate, comprehensive and valuable marketing tool.