January 04, 2012
Case Study

B2B E-commerce: How an online retailer garnered 100% top-line growth in its affiliate program (plus 5 more marketing channels)

SUMMARY: Getting a granular look inside an individual marketing campaign can be informative, but sometimes it can be helpful to see the entire picture of the overall marketing strategy covering many channels.

This case study looks at how one B2B e-commerce company utilizes and integrates a number of channels including email, PPC, display ad retargeting, affiliate marketing, social media, and comparative shopping engines. Find out how this total marketing strategy led to triple digit growth for the company in a tough economy over the last four years.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter


While many B2B marketers only think of the complex sale when they hear the phrase "business-to-business," B2B e-commerce is growing as a sales channel, according to an August 2011 survey conducting by BtoB magazine and Rainmaker Systems.

According to the survey, 35% of B2B marketers engage in selling directly online, with 58% of those companies expressing an increasing commitment to e-commerce.

Shoplet.com, a pure e-commerce company with a direct-to-customer (mostly B2B) business model, sells more than 400,000 items in the office and business products sector.

Its competition includes well-known brick-and-mortar retailers such as Office Depot and Staples, although 85% of Shoplet.com’s customers are B2B with a majority of that business coming from the SMB (small- and mid-sized businesses) market.

The company was founded in 1994, and continues to be successful even in a down economy, featuring triple-digit growth between 2007 and 2011.

A typical MarketingSherpa case study provides a detailed look at the steps of a particular marketing effort. This article will actually cover every marketing channel Shoplet.com is operating in, providing insight into what is proving to be a successful marketing strategy.

Shoplet’s integrated, multichannel marketing strategy provides a unified message to draw in new customers and retain existing customers. And unlike many B2B case studies, this one covers a company that is not involved in a complex sale.

Read on to learn more about how the e-tailer approaches email, affiliate marketing, behavior-based marketing, PPC advertising, and learn why a B2B retailer of office supplies and products retains a sales team.


Although Shoplet.com derives 15% of its business from sales to consumers, the focus of its marketing is on its B2B business, and the company keeps separate metrics for each market. All results reported in this case study are based on the B2B metrics.

Leslie Scharf, Senior Vice President Business Development, Shoplet.com, said, "From a global marketing strategy, what we are ultimately trying to do is create a retention business model."

The company actually employs a full inside and outside sales team to manage customer accounts and customer relationships. This past year, the company actively added behavioral-based marketing campaigns to its overall strategy.

Making Sales part of the marketing strategy

Since the company is purely an e-commerce play, all of its marketing efforts are through digital channels. Because of this, the company can perform a great deal of data mining on potential leads, as well as new customers. Collecting, and analyzing, demographic information and personal attributes is an important part of the initial order process.

"After that, the salespeople have these warm leads," Scharf said. "It is not a cold call, (the customer) has already placed an order and they are dissected based on the demographics."

"Warm leads" are technically already customers because they were segmented into B2B based on data collected during the order process. However, treating these new customers as leads to be handed off to Sales shows how Shoplet is applying a B2B marketing and sales approach to a product mix that doesn’t require a complex sale. Making that initial purchase turns a B2B customer into a lead for Sales.

Once Shoplet.com gains a B2B customer, Sales will follow up and engage the new customers to retain through:
  • Telephone communications

  • Email

  • Setting online meetings

The idea behind utilizing a sales team to enhance its B2B marketing is to give the company an opportunity to differentiate itself in a very competitive marketplace that is relatively transparent in terms of product pricing.

Scharf said this personal touch also gives the company the opportunity to explain "what our unique selling proposition is all about."

Here is closer look at each marketing channel Shoplet.com uses:

Channel #1. Email

During the 15 years Shoplet.com has been in business, it has collected 2.8 million subscribed customers for its email database with a currently active email list between 300,000 and 400,000.

A large part of that database was picked through the ordering process, and the company is also able to immediately segment those list subscribers in a number of ways, including:
  • Business address rather than freemail (Gmail, Yahoo!, etc.) address

  • Company data such as industry or business sector

  • Geographic location

When the geographic location includes a street address, the company will check to see if the physical address is a residence or a business.

Email marketing includes transactional email such as order confirmation, processing, shipping and tracking, and these sends are automatically triggered as part of any order regardless of the segmentation.

The company also sends most of the list a newsletter about twice a week that pushes information from Shoplet.com’s product vendors that have a relationship with the company.

A third type of email marketing Shoplet engages in is very targeted sends to smaller geographic and demographic list segments for the purpose of cross- and up-selling.

For example, Scharf said if someone orders paper, several months later they would get an email with an offer for printer toner, or a customer who orders a shredder will receive an email offering shredder oil, bags or other components that go along with that shredder.

The final type of email marketing is extremely targeted, one-on-one email, containing product recommendations based on the recipient’s tracked browser activity and shopping activity.

Scharf stated, "Those emails are dynamic and will be individually different for every customer."

Channel #2. Display advertising retargeting

Online display advertising retargeting is a specific strategy that uses online tracking technology to determine when website visitors view ads, visit the website, and even return later to make, or not make, a purchase.

The retargeting element really comes into play when a potential customer visits the website, but does not make a purchase. Later, when surfing other websites, those previous Shoplet.com visitors will be retargeted with Shoplet.com display ads when visiting:
  • Shopping information sites

  • Blogs

  • Other websites that serve targeted ads

A second component of this strategy is the data collection and tracking also involves creating a digital data profile of a potential Shoplet customer based on algorithms.

"All that data that is collected by my various retargeting partners," explained Scharf. "They create models as to who the potential customers are, and what a Shoplet customer looks like."

These Shoplet customer profiles are used to serve Shoplet ads to Web surfers whether or not they have visited Shoplet.com as long as they meet the profile.

Scharf described display advertising as a very strong channel for Shoplet.

Channel #3. Affiliate marketing

Shoplet runs two affiliate marketing programs, one through Commission Junction and the other through Google Affiliate Network. Scharf said this was another strong channel for the company.

The Commission Junction program is full service with account managers helping Shoplet with managing and optimizing the effort. Scharf described the Google Affiliate Network as a second-tier service where Shoplet is utilizing the user interface without much additional human interaction from Google.

He added that Shoplet’s consumer marketing takes up a larger than usual percentage of the affiliate marketing channel as well, with the mix closer to 60%B2B and 40%B2C, instead of the 85/15 mix found in other channels.

Custom affiliate offers and content

Exclusivity is an important part of Shoplet’s affiliate campaigns.

"It is very much a relationship-based program, where we are providing exclusive offers to our top-performing affiliates that can’t be scraped, can’t be poked, can’t be pulled, and can’t be taken off of their sites," stated Scharf. "We spent a significant amount of time from a technology standpoint and in making sure that offers we give to our top-performing affiliates are theirs and only theirs."

There is a tendency in the affiliate marketing world where other parties will grab deals and essentially steal them from the affiliate partners. Shoplet’s technology ensures this cannot happen, protecting their affiliates.

He said the marketing team spends a significant amount of time on this channel providing its affiliates with:
  • Custom offers

  • Custom content such as text links, banner links, different banner ads

All these offers are tied to the marketing calendar, and the custom collateral provided by Shoplet is all created in-house by designers and developers, which allows Shoplet to provide quick and efficient service for its affiliates.

Channel #4. PPC advertising

Because Shoplet’s product offering is so huge -- more than 400,000 items -- the company manages more than 4 million keywords at any given time with the pay-per-click channel segmented into up to 300 detailed campaigns.

The entire channel is serviced by a six-person team at Google who manage the accounts and optimize the individual campaigns on a daily basis, and that is augmented with eight or nine Shoplet employees who also help create and run the campaigns.

To uncover the extremely large number of PPC keywords, Scharf said the marketing team worked with its Google partners and utilized Google Analytics and Optimization tools. The channel strategy includes focusing on long tail and broad-match searches.

Scharf stated, "We look to capture as many people who are a lot of times searching for stuff that they cannot normally find at some of the big three office products, brick-and-mortar stores."

He added, "It is no secret that Staples, OfficeMax and Office Depot are the ultimate in the industry, but we are giving them a run for their money and we continue to take market share from them every day."

Channel #5. Comparative shopping engines

Comparative shopping engines are websites that compare the prices for shopped-for items at different e-tailers. Shoplet creates a product data feed with about 150 entry points to its website that it syndicates to a number of large comparative shopping engines and aggregators.

The company pays a pay-per-click cost if a Web visitor clicks on the Shoplet link. Although the comparative shopping engine gets the fee whether or not that click results in a purchase at Shoplet.com, Scharf stated the company garners "a significant, very good, share of topline revenue" through the channel.

A related channel is marketplaces platforms campaigns, such as listing with Amazon, eBay or Buy.com, and although that particular channel is more heavily utilized for B2C marketing, Shoplet does consider it a B2B channel as well.

Channel #6. Social media

The social channel is used mostly to help unify Shoplet’s marketing message and includes a Facebook presence, a Twitter presence and blogs hosted by the company.

Scharf said the marketing team spends time messaging fans and followers with information and promotions, and the company is looking to expand the way it utilizes social media.

"There has been a big shift in being able to utilize the social media platforms for commerce," explained Scharf. "We are actively engaged in figuring out how we can monetize that channel from a commerce perspective."

Integrating the channels into a unified strategy

Scharf said the channels are integrated to keep a consistent message across each marketing channel of Shoplet’s three-word selling proposition:
  • Selection

  • Simplicity

  • Service

He added the company understands that the commodity items they sell can be procured in many places and the integrated marketing message is geared toward creating customer retention and repeat business.

Scharf said, "We need to resonate with our customer base on the value proposition that will keep them coming back. We cannot only sell."

He offered an example of how Shoplet would coordinate multiple channels for individual promotions. He said there would be unified email sends; social media messaging on Facebook, Twitter and blog posts; and all its banner and display advertising would tie into the specific promotion.


Referring to the entire marketing strategy at Shoplet.com, Scharf said, "In 2011, we made a very strong push into a global behavioral based marketing campaign through various channels and to try to create very much one-to-one targeted communications to our customers, whether it be through email marketing, whether it be through re-targeting and predictive modeling in the display arena, or whether it be through our affiliate marketing channels."

Here are Shoplet’s results for each channel:


  • Typical open rate of 18-22%

  • Typical conversion rate of 20% - 16-25%

Display advertising retargeting

  • 1 million impressions per month

  • 80% increase in reportable sales from 2010 to 2011

Affiliate marketing

  • 100% top line growth year-over-year between the two affiliate programs

Pay-per-click advertising

  • 70% increase in ROAS from 2009 to 2011

Comparative shopping engines

  • 61% increase in ROAS year-over-year

Scharf also added that it was "critical" for Shoplet to be a positive cash flow company because they carry no debt and don’t have an equity sponsor.

Useful links related to this article

  1. Targeted one-on-one email

  2. Display advertising retargeting

  3. Comparative shopping engine example

  4. Shoplet’s Tweets


Commission Junction – Shoplet’s affiliate marketing partner

Google Affiliate Network – Shoplet’s affiliate marketing partner

Marketing Strategy: Revenue-oriented approach leads to 700% two-year growth

Online Behavioral Advertising: How to benefit from targeted ads in a world concerned with privacy

PPC Advertising: 5 winning display ad tactics that increased paying customers by 2,900% and dropped cost-per-lead 37%

Manage Your Affiliates' Social Marketing: 4 Tactics to Protect Your Brand and Encourage Proper Social Outreach

Online Advertising: How your peers optimize banner ads

E-commerce growing as b2b sales channel

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