At the start of the B2B Next Conference & Exhibition, conference founder Andy Hoar shared a revealing story. Six years ago, a company hired him to host a B2B ecommerce event and a dozen people showed up. Last week, 700 people sat in front of Hoar for the inaugural B2B Next event in Chicago, a clear sign of the tremendous interest in and growth of this field.

The two-day show included sessions and workshops designed to help B2B leaders build a digital-first business by attracting more buyers online, leveraging emerging technology like the Internet of Things and rethinking their business model for a subscription-based economy. Most of the attendees were manufacturers and distributors who realize the potential of ecommerce but have yet to be rocked by online commerce in the same way as consumer retail.

Here are a few highlights from the first annual B2B Next Conference & Expo:

Keeping distributors happy while selling direct

Distributors share a deep-seated fear that manufacturers will start selling direct to customers and eventually abandon them, the middle man. But HID Global VP Apryl Erickson explained how her business found a way to support both channels. HID Global is a leading manufacturer of physical and access control solutions best known for their ID cards that allow people to enter secure buildings like offices, schools and parking garages.

The company built a partner program that provides distributors with product go-to-market strategies, product image galleries, and a library of detailed item information. These tools help distributors provide exceptional customer experiences while protecting brand integrity. At the same time, HID Global allows company administrators and end users to manage their credentials directly on the company’s website. HID Global also has a program called Corporate 1000 where it manages all data for those customers.

What will the workplace of the future look like?

Internet of Things (IoT) is a popular buzzword, but how will it affect our jobs and lives in the years to come? Sam Ganga, partner at KPMG, explained how IoT devices powered by artificial intelligence could, for example, quickly identify the SKU and corresponding issue that prevented your business from meeting its forecasted revenue last month. Businesses must figure out how to use IoT in their operations and scale it to succeed in the age of the 21st century enterprise.

Ganga laid out the four pillars he thinks will be critical in this new age:

  • Customer engagement: Companies will focus on providing a full experience for the customer by finding the right products and services that maximize benefits, even if a partner provides some of those products and services.
  • Changing nature and value of assets: Organizations will trade in an asset-heavy supply chain for an asset-light supply network with strategic alliances.
  • Everything-as-a-service: To stay lean and agile, businesses need subscription-based technology that does not require complex in-house infrastructure and a large IT staff.
  • Workforce of the future: Employees will be worried about income security, not job security, meaning they may work three jobs and will not be “captive” workers.

Taking Advantage of AI Starts with Clean Data

AI recently entered the public lexicon, but it’s not a new concept. Seth Earley of Earley Information Science pointed out that search algorithms and spell check, both of which have been around for years, use machine learning and are a form of AI.

Earley also noted that AI will only help your business if you have clean, accurate data and it’s important to identify the sources and owners of this data, a challenging and time-consuming but necessary task. Even as people increasingly rely on technology to make decisions, humans must still make judgments and ensure processes are not broken. They must define the governance, curation and scalable processes around data collection that power AI. Otherwise, it won’t do much for your business.

How Connected Devices Can Help Farmers and Contractors

IoT has practical applications for even the most old-school industries. Davie Sweiss, a VP at Bosch, detailed how farmers in South America struggled to feed their cattle the proper amount of food or recognize if something was wrong with an animal because there was no simple way to weigh them. So farmers equipped their cows with sensors that link to a scale they must cross whenever they are fed, weighing them every day and storing that valuable information in the cloud.

Sweiss also talked about how technology helped construction contractors address the problem of lost equipment – they lose $40,000 worth of equipment, on average, per project. Sub-contractors check out tools, but sometimes they misplace or never return the equipment. Bosch sells a sensor that a contractor can attach to these tools and track online to minimize those losses. Sweiss’ overarching message was that organizations must think about how software and services can help them resolve straightforward issues that lack a clear solution.

These are the B2B trends and strategies companies must think about now to remain relevant and successful in the years to come. While a solid ecommerce platform is a key part of that equation, it is not the only thing businesses need to think about. Leveraging data in innovative ways with IoT and AI leads to smarter, faster decisions that will help manufacturers and distributors thrive.

It’s time for B2B companies to catch up to everyone else.

To learn more about how a unified ecommerce platform can help B2B companies, read this ebook or listen to this podcast.