Can Groupon 'daily deals' ever work in b-to-b?

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Last spring, the Chicago-based consulting firm Ajilitee made headlines throughout the marketing world with a novel direct-marketing strategy: using Groupon's popular platform to offer $25,000 worth of consulting services for only $12,500. Not only was this the biggest deal the daily deal site had ever offered, it was Groupon's first real foray into the world of complicated b-to-b sales, according to Ajilitee CMO Diann Bilderback. And unlike the vast majority of Groupon's deals, the Ajilitee offer stayed open for three weeks. Ultimately, when the deadline passed with no takers, Ajilitee offered the same deal on its website—still with no takers. “We were really trying to test the market,” said Bilderback. “What we learned was that we were early to the game. Groupon's platform is the platform for this, but it's very consumer-oriented. The rules didn't align with our kind of sale. Groupon works on snap decisions, but business decisions typically take longer.” Right around the time Ajilitee was experimenting with Groupon, a host of online coupon start-ups aimed at the b-to-b market debuted—including companies like BizyDeal and RapidBuyr. Still, a glance at their sites shows that the concept of couponing might have a way to go before it penetrates the big-ticket world of b-to-b sales. Most of their offerings are aimed at small businesses, with a heavy focus on office supplies and technology. “We are in a market-building stage, so we're focused on people getting in the door and telling them our story and trusting our brand,” said Kevin Wells, exec VP and co-founder of Concord, Mass.-based RapidBuyr. “We're interested in longer CRM-type sales. We think it will be a growing area of interest, but it will take time. Most businesses aren't used to buying like that.” But Wells is confident the business model will mature. “We used to say we were Groupon for b-to-b,” he said. “But we never say that anymore. We're trying to build a really qualified customer base. We might not sell 10,000 coupons for lunch, but can sell 500 laptops in a day to a client base that is full of potential long-term customers for our merchants.” When the market does mature, Bilderback said that Ajilitee is still willing to get in front of a new marketing tool. “I think this model can work, but it needs two elements,” she said. “First, it would need a longer duration of the offer. We understand there is a long lead time on this kind of sale. Second, any platform would need a long time to exercise the purchase, maybe 12 months.” This would give b-to-b buyers both time to evaluate the offer—which will no doubt be much more complex than an afternoon at the spa—and time to budget for it down the road. “In the corporate business buying environment, people don't buy like this yet,” Bilderback said. “But we're going to look at it again for 2012 and see what's out there and which platform is most aligned.”
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