Social media watch: Go visual or go home

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While merchants may grumble about the ROI of social media, most are investing in it anyway. Brands are expected to host profiles on Facebook and Twitter at a minimum, and as the array of social sites grows, merchants are sifting through the networks to find communities that appeal to their audience. But whether they’re sticking to Facebook or exploring edgier options, one theme is emerging as a social priority for 2015 and beyond: visual content.

Newer visual social networks are clearly on the rise. Both Pinterest and Instagram attracted more usage than Twitter in 2014, while by its own admission Twitter’s growth has stalled. And upstart visual blogging platform Tumblr achieved user growth of 120% in 2014, compared with just 2% for Facebook.

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In addition, the  friend-to-friend photo sharing app Snapchat is leading growth in the nascent field of mobile messaging networks that combine social features with one-on-one messaging capabilities.

 

Even when it comes to Facebook — which is still the most popular network by far, with 71% of U.S. online adults using it — visual content is rising in importance. Using Facebook’s video player to stream content can help brand visibility in news feeds on the site, and the tool’s new embed feature means that merchants can syndicate the content elsewhere. Twitter has expanded beyond the micro-video app Vine to offer longer video uploads and live video streaming thanks to acquisition of the Periscope app.

The message is clear: merchants need to invest in visual content creation for social media, or risk being left behind. Among the ways to dive in:

Establish brand pages on visual social networks. It’s time to take the leap and embrace visual social networks such as Pinterest, Instagram, and industry-specific sites like Polyvore for fashion. While launching and maintaining a new brand outpost is an investment, it’s also an invaluable tool for learning how shoppers are using these platforms to engage with and promote products and brands they like. Additionally, these sites can generate significant revenues; Polyvore, Instagram and Pinterest ranked as the top three social sites for average order value in a recent survey.

Make every post a visual post. Merchants should get creative with how they use images in social media to ensure every post achieves its full engagement potential. That means posting photos with recipes, sourcing illustrations for quizzes and polls, and translating text quotes into images that can easily be re-pinned or reposted. MarketLive merchant Learning Resources participates in the #InspirationMonday hashtag meme with quotes that are presented as colorful images, making them eye-catching as well as shareable.

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Retool blogs for image-centric impact. As a corollary to the concept above, merchants should find innovative ways to incorporate images and video into blog posts — and should opt for a blog layout that moves away from listing blocks of text toward more visual presentations. Switching altogether to the visually-dominated Tumblr platform is one option, but other platforms also offer the option to apply themes or layouts that are image-centric. And merchants should ensure that blog content syndicated to other social networks or the eCommerce site retains its visual elements.

Develop video content and adapt it for native social formats. Although the utility of video has been well-documented, many merchants are hesitant to invest. But with social media video drawing heightened engagement and improved visibility, it’s crucial to develop a deep library of video content that can be adapted for individual social networks — and to incorporate video into key social content types, such as coverage of live events, behind-the-scenes peeks, and sneak previews.

Consider social video advertising — starting with YouTube. There’s a reason Facebook and Twitter are making moves into the video space: they want a share of digital ad revenues, which are forecast to grow by 30% this year. YouTube currently owns nearly 20% of those revenues, according to eMarketer, and earned more than $1 billion from digital ad sales last year. Merchants should consider augmenting their brand’s presence on the Internet’s largest video network with targeted ads, such as retargeting campaigns featuring previously-browsed items, that have high engagement potential.

Invite and promote visual contributions from shoppers. Merchants should encourage active participation with the brand by building momentum around Instagram hashtags and offering “pin it to win it”-style sweepstakes. Such contributions should be incorporated across social outposts and even on the eCommerce site itself; showcasing how shoppers interpret the brand demonstrates that merchants are authentically interested in what consumers want and are listening for feedback and inspiration.

MarketLive merchant Francesca’s offers followers the opportunity to win monthly prizes through the “#franootd” hashtag campaign and spotlights their contributions on the brand’s main Instagram page, as well as on Facebook.

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Understand the legal issues behind visual content. With increased usage of user-contributed snapshots, candid video and live streaming comes a new raft of privacy and intellectual-property concerns. No sooner had Twitter’s live-streaming feature launched than it raised concerns about harassment and privacy violations. Merchants should ensure that new initiatives around image content follow best practices that include updates to their privacy policy, explicitly stating how user-submitted content might be reused and prominently featuring contest rules that are concise and easy to read. In addition, merchants should research and adhere to any existing industry standards, such as the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for online video and the Internet Advertising Bureau’s guidelines for digital video.

How are you maximizing the visual impact of social networks?

 

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Loyalty 2.0: Long-term retention is a continuum, not a points program

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Loyalty is the ultimate honor customers bestow on brands. Growth of a loyal customer base signifies that merchants have succeeded in earning brand trust, connecting shoppers with relevant products and offers, and providing services that align with customer expectations. These factors combine to create a seemingly-ineffable affinity with brands that brings shoppers back time and again.

As eCommerce enters its third decade, merchants are increasingly translating the qualities that engender customer loyalty into online features and services that forge lasting connections, even in the distracted and fiercely competitive Web environment. Returning customers currently comprise 40% of the customer base, and from 2013 to 2014 sales from repeat buyers rose from 51% to 61% of total revenues.

That’s good news, because as online commerce matures, earning repeat business isn’t just a matter of burnishing a brand’s reputation – it’s crucial to survival. With the growth rate for U.S. eCommerce revenues projected to slow to below 10% by 2016, competition for digitally-savvy shoppers’ loyalty will become increasingly fierce.

Furthermore, as mobile devices, social networks, and online shopping possibilities proliferate, ever-more-fragmented and distracted experiences are becoming the norm.  Merchants must work harder than ever to deliver brand messaging that has lasting power to drive engagement and sales.

To meet that steep challenge, merchants need to adopt two fundamental changes to their approach:

1. Broaden the definition of loyalty. In such a clamorous environment, merchants must do more to foster loyalty than service members of formal, structured programs that award points and tiered perks. While those clubs continue to thrive, savvy merchants recognize that they represent just one form of brand engagement, and that tracking points accrual and redemption captures just one facet of it.

Myriad other interactions that were once invisible are now trackable in the online medium – and merchants should identify and reward those moments as a means of encouraging further engagement. Whether they’re messaging to pre-purchasers whose emotional connection with the brand is deepening, or to existing customers, merchants must earn their way toward loyalty by tailoring messages to demonstrate contextual relevance and trustworthiness.

2. Make it mobile. Not only must merchants widen their definition of loyal shopping behavior, but they must deliver loyalty-building experiences across an array of touchpoints. Far beyond just implementing online versions of the card-based loyalty programs of old, merchants should adopt mobile-centric loyalty strategies that take full advantage of the ability to serve customers in stores, online, and on the go.

Not only is mobile’s influence on shopping well documented, with a quarter of online revenue now generated via mobile devices, but the nascent field of mobile payments is likely to be a potent tool for fostering brand affinity. As we discussed previously, consumers want loyalty perks built into seamless mobile buying solutions: when asked what features they’d like to see in a “mobile wallet” payment system, integrated access to loyalty program points balances, coupons and perks topped the list, with 57% of consumers requesting it.

With those twin imperatives in mind, merchants should use existing customer profiles, personas, analytics from social networks and other data points to identify opportunities for building brand affinity and repeat business. Call it Loyalty 2.0 – the new continuum along which merchants can coax shoppers to become brand advocates and frequent customers.

While the specific milestones on that continuum may differ from brand to brand, depending on their unique identity and the array of touchpoints they employ to engage shoppers, most merchants should build their strategies around a handful of key opportunities to invite deeper commitment from shoppers:

From visitor to follower. It’s one thing for shoppers to check out an eCommerce site or brand’s social networking profile, and quite another to invite promotional messages into their personal inboxes, news feeds or mobile messaging. Merchants should reward shoppers willing to receive targeted messaging with relevant offers and content that boost confidence in the decision to subscribe.

From browser to buyer. The first purchase is all-important, as shoppers’ perceptions of the brand’s capabilities influence future decisions to return and become repeat customers. When asked what factors increase the likelihood of return purchases, 83% of customers say that positive prior purchase experiences are crucial to the decision to become repeat customers, according to technology researcher Forrester. Customer service is a crucial component of that positive experience, with 73% of customers saying a high-quality customer service experience is important when deciding whether to repurchase. Merchants working to convince shoppers to become buyers should prominently promote all available customer service resources, and do so across touchpoints so that brand followers on the brink of purchase anywhere have service information at their fingertips.

From customer to regular. The opportunity to earn the next purchase begins with the first one. Starting with transactional messages confirming an order, merchants should encourage ongoing brand engagement and create opportunities to explore products and content anew.

From follower or customer to advocate. Social proof isn’t just a powerful influencer of individual purchase decisions; it can affect visibility in natural search results and form the basis for engaging value-added content. Merchants should incentivize active participation on social networks and beyond, as MarketLive merchant Modell’s did during the 2014 holiday season with its “Holiday All Star” campaign. Social followers climbed the Facebook leaderboard and earned more chances to win by sharing links and posting content.

Early holiday example from Modell's

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From customer to club member. Whether convincing shoppers to join a free points program or to sign up for a paid free shipping club, merchants should showcase and deliver on exclusive benefits that encourage active participation.

Download MarketLive’s encyclopedic new whitepaper to access best practices and tactics for every point along the loyalty continuum. What loyalty strategies have worked for your brand?

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MarketLive News: MarketLive named CODiE Award finalist for Best Commerce Solution

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MarketLive’s commerce platform has been recognized for its innovations as a finalist in the 2015 SIAA Software CODiE Awards category for Best Commerce Solution.

The CODiE Awards, originally called the Excellence in Software Awards, were established in 1986 by the group then called the Software Publishers Association, which is now the SIAA, so that pioneers of the then-nascent software industry could evaluate and honor each other’s work.

“Recognition of our software technology by a group of developer peers is a huge vote of confidence and a tribute to the many engineers we have working every day to maintain and improve our commerce platform for our customers,” said Marketlive founder and CEO Ken Burke.

The winners will be announced May 5, so stay tuned. Meantime, you can read the official press release on the MarketLive site and check out the full list of nominees.

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The item to drop from your 2015 priority list

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Now that the first quarter has drawn to a close, merchants are coming to terms with the reality of the priorities they’ve undertaken. With the all-important holiday season rolling out earlier and earlier each year, the window of opportunity is suddenly looking narrow to launch new features and functionality in order to meet year-end goals.

So it should come as a relief that one item can definitively drop off the list: same-day shipping. While media hype surrounding Amazon drones is flying fast (as it were) and new same-day delivery services are popping up right and left, for most merchants, the potential benefit of rushing to provide this service while it’s in its nascency industry-wide is far outweighed by the potential backlash if shipments are late, not to mention the potential drain to the bottom line.

For starts, research has repeatedly shown that consumers value free over fast when it comes to shipping. Fully 50% of shoppers have chosen a slower delivery timeframe in order to qualify for free shipping, a study by UPS and measurement firm comScore found; 57% say they’re willing to wait 7 days to receive items ordered online, and the same percentage report being willing to wait an additional 3 days if it means their orders ship free. Similarly, Business Insider found that fully 92% of shoppers are willing to wait four days to receive goods. And technology researcher Forrester found that shipping costs were second in importance only to essential product costs as a factor for consumers deciding where to shop online.

Secondly, the cost of successfully executing a same-day shipping program is significant — and with consumers largely unwilling to foot the bill, it’s not surprising that so far just a few merchants with significant economies of scale, such as Amazon and Walmart, are taking up the challenge.

That doesn’t mean same-day shipping won’t rise in importance in the future, or even next year. After all, while consumers value delivery cost over speed, they also cite the immediate availability of products in-store as a top reason they don’t buy online; even if they conduct research via phones or desktop computers beforehand, most consumers are close enough to stores that the convenience of popping into physical outlets for immediate post-purchase gratification trumps the efficiency of online ordering, which is why 75% of the forecasted growth in web-influenced sales through 2018 is projected to come from in-store purchases.  But that statistic also suggests an opportunity: if the costs of same-day delivery drop, merchants just might convince shoppers to skip the trip and finish the order they started online.

Additionally, same-day shipping is a higher priority in 2015 for merchants who meet multiple key criteria. Among them:

  • The brand has big plans for Asia. In the densely-populated urban capitals of China and India, same-day delivery is increasingly common, and further innovation is on the way, with Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba already testing drone delivery in Beijing. Merchants with a footprint in these countries need to adapt to local custom and find a way to meet local expectations.
  • The audience is young and urban. The millennial city-dweller presents an ideal target for same-day delivery service for a number of reasons: urban areas afford merchants the potential to achieve economies of scale with their same-day shipping programs, and 39% of consumers aged 18 to 34 are interested in same day shipping —  a percentage 34% higher than for the general population. By offering same-day delivery, merchants can serve young professionals who already rely on takeout food delivery, and who may have discretionary income to spare.
  • Ship-from-store capabilities are in place at a number of locations. Same-day shipping requires that merchants tap every existing means at their disposal to meet the deadline, including a tightly-networked array of physical stores with sufficient inventory and staff to fulfill online orders, and quickly.
  • The brand specializes in high-margin products. Because same-day shipping is such a costly proposition, and because only for select product categories are shoppers willing to entertain paying more than $10 for the service, only merchants who can afford to subsidize costs to some extent should consider it.

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For most merchants, though, investing more heavily in existing fulfillment operations is a better bet for 2015. Merchants should consider investing in these alternatives:

  • Earlier and better messaging of shipping costs and delivery timeframes. While it’s long been a best practice to display total order costs in the cart and to message delivery options on product pages, many merchants still don’t do so. The problem is especially acute on mobile devices, where even in the cart merchants are unlikely to list all the available shipping options and their timeframes, according to MarketLive’s whitepaper on path-to-purchase optimization.
  • Ship from store and store-to-store delivery. As referenced above, merchants need to develop the technology and staff to transform retail outlets into local distribution hubs before they undertake same-day shipping. And meantime, such investments can help store associates locate “endless aisle” items out of stock at their locations, while online orders can be processed from nearby locations to speed delivery — even if it’s not within 24 hours.
  • Blanket free shipping for loyalty club members. Close to three quarters of U.S. consumers participate in a loyalty program, and of those participants, four out of five routinely redeem rewards. Active club members are willing to pay higher prices; while 79% of participants say they expect membership to save them money, fewer than 45% of active club members say price is more important to them than the brand name. Merchants should reward these behaviors by cutting the best possible shipping deal for club members — whether blanket free shipping, periodic free shipping, or just free shipping on their birthdays.
  • A friendlier returns policy. Fully two-thirds of shoppers peruse merchants’ return policies before purchase, according to comScore/UPS, so brands offering free or flat-rate return shipping or easy in-store returns have the potential to earn significant traction.

Are you contemplating options for same-day shipping? Why or why not?

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Mobile payments: it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee when it comes to key integrations

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On the surface, mobile payments would seem to be more of a much-hyped distraction for online merchants than a legitimate top priority. But while merchants may not need to jump on the bandwagon immediately, the innovations percolating in the mobile payment space deserve attention — and should cause some projects to move higher up the “must do” list.

Defined as portable technologies for enabling offline and online transactions digitally, without plastic cards, mobile payments are currently deployed by just a few well-known brands. The most visible and successful payment system belongs to Starbucks, which has offered a mobile app combining loyalty benefits and payments since 2011, allowing customers to pay for their morning caffeine fixes by scanning their phones at cash registers and earning points in the process. The company now claims that 16% of all in-store transactions are conducted using mobile devices and that mobile payments are growing 50% annually.

 

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Of course, Starbucks isn’t the only merchant experimenting with mobile payments. In addition to the much-hyped debut of ApplePay late last year, mega-players Google and Amazon are both in the alternative-payments business, and Visa and Mastercard are both experimenting with payments that smooth transactions both on- and offline. Several major retailers, such as Walmart and Best Buy, are backing an independent effort called CurrentC. And there’s still Paypal, which remains the most widely-used alternate payment option for online transactions to date.

While to date just 3% of U.S. shoppers report accessing a mobile wallet in stores recently, sorting through the options is increasingly an imperative for merchants. As more and more merchants adopt mobile payment solutions and more and more consumers encounter and become familiar with the options, wider usage is only a matter of time. In fact, Forrester predicts that mobile payment adoption will grow exponentially, to 18 to 20% of consumers just three years from now.

To sort through the options, MarketLive founder Ken Burke offers this advice in “Merchants and the Race for Mobile Payments” in Retail Online Integration:

2015 will be a year of profound experimentation and flux in the mobile payments arena. Retailers should consider several factors before deciding which providers to partner with, including the percentage of their customers using mobile devices. Those with brick-and-mortar stores need to consider that an increasing number of their customers will be expecting to not only interact with their mobile devices in-store, but be able to purchase goods through them as well.”

Whether or not merchants undertake a mobile payment integration  in 2015, they can position themselves for smooth and swift adoption by optimizing their mobile experiences to the utmost. After all, the mobile payment solution doesn’t exist in a vacuum; merchants should prioritize key functionality that allows shoppers not only to check out quickly, but to take full advantage of brand offerings in the process.

As Burke writes in “Online Payments and their Effects on Mobile,” also in Retail Online Integration magazine,

“If consumers get used to buying music on iTunes or apps on Google Play with one click, they’ll expect the same experience in other mobile transactions. If their phones allow them with a single touch to buy a sandwich at Subway, how much patience will they have for m-commerce sites that take too long to load or don’t correctly adjust to the smaller mobile screen size? If they can buy a washing machine at Sears by scanning a barcode with their phone, how will they react in the frenzy of the holiday rush when an online retailer requires them to fill out multiple screens of personal, shipping and payment information on the fly?”

Beyond paying attention to essentials such as mobile site speed and checkout optimization, merchants should prime themselves for mobile payments by focusing on two key areas:

Loyalty programs. We’ve already noted the importance of a unified loyalty strategy for today’s maturing eCommerce marketplace. And with mobile payments on the horizon, the stakes are even higher: when consumers were asked what features they’d like to see in a mobile wallet, loyalty program integration was the top pick, with 57% of shoppers saying they’d want the ability to view their points balance and redeem rewards alongside mobile payments, Forrester found. Merchants can prime themselves for this future scenario by integrating rewards or loyalty programs with their online operations if they haven’t done so already — and prioritizing mobile functionality as the core of their offering.

Mobile coupon alerts and redemption.  The ability to access digital coupons and promotions was second on consumers’ wish lists for mobile wallet functionality, according to Forrester. Add the fact that 55% of shoppers reported they’d use their phones in stores to redeem coupons during the 2014 holiday season and mobile coupons become a compelling proposition. In addition to considering whether to implement SMS deal alerts, merchants should integrate in-store redemption options into existing email and social campaigns using scannable barcodes or QR codes shoppers can snap using their phones and take to stores.

How is the prospect of mobile payments affecting your priorities?

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Research update: 2 resources for mobile commerce optimization

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The transformative effect of mobile was the overarching theme at the recent MarketLive Summit. From keynote speeches that envisioned a frictionless commerce experience to breakout sessions on mobile performance and responsive design to panels on multi-channel integration with mobile as the connector, Summit content demonstrated that merchants recognize and are grappling with the new reality of mobile commerce.

But the Summit sessions also demonstrated that there remains significant room for improvement if merchants hope to fully capitalize on the opportunities created by this transition. Mobile conversions remain an abysmal 1%, less than half the rate of desktop sites, and fully 70 percent of the carts opened by mobile shoppers are ultimately abandoned.

Of course, easier-than-ever access makes it easier than ever for shoppers to bail before a sale. Even so, the disparity is remarkable between shoppers’ use of mobile devices to access brands and how often they use them to purchase the products they’re interested in. Despite two-thirds of online shopping taking place on smartphones and tablets, just 11 percent of online purchases are consummated on mobile devices.

And as merchants at Summit freely acknowledged, using mobile to bridge touchpoints and create a unified profile of the customer is so far more of a goal than a reality. With solutions for uniting disparate data streams still in their nascency and in-store hurdles to online adoption proving steep, merchants are finding the going slow, if ultimately worthwhile.

But while completely seamless transactions and universal data profiles may still be a ways off, there are steps merchants can take today to begin taking full advantage of the potential power of mobile. MarketLive’s latest whitepapers offer strategies and tips in two crucial areas:

Mobile KPIs and best practices: how merchants can track and improve mobile performance, from shopping and buying on mobile devices to enhancing the role of mobile as the crossroads of multi-touchpoint shopping. The mobile device as a shopping and buying environment in its own right – and how merchants can optimize mobile engagement, conversion, and revenue

Top Considerations for Responsive Design: how merchants can accurately gauge the impact on both costs and revenues of investment in a responsive design overhaul of their eCommerce sites.

Watch the blog for up to the minute mobile commerce news, and watch for more research reports on mobile topics in months to come.

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Surmounting hurdles to online/offline integration – MarketLive Summit Report, II

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When it comes to digitizing the retail store and connecting online and offline brand experiences, the devil is in the details. That was the message from speakers at the MarketLive Summit who shared detailed tactics and visionary goals alike around the theme of multi-channel strategy.

With 54% of all retail transactions set to be influenced by the web this year, addressing how physical store locations complement web interactions is a must for merchants. But while buzzwords are flying surrounding technologies such as i-beaconing, clienteling and mobile POS, the reality of integration is far less breezy. Breaking down silos between store and eCommerce operations requires an organization-wide shift with implications beyond simply outfitting retail locations with iPads.

Among the Summit insights speakers shared:

Store associates can make or break offline/online integration – treat them accordingly. Both Summit keynote speakers touched on the importance of store associates when it comes to providing the kind of individualized shopping experience shoppers who visit physical outlets ought to encounter. But as MarketLive founder and CEO Ken Burke highlighted in his keynote, consumers currently prefer by a wide margin consulting information on their phones when in-store — signalling an untapped opportunity. Burke demonstrated how MarketLive’s new point-of-sale tool will give associates a toolset for one to one interactions with customers that can not only drive sales, but build a lasting affinity with the brand.

O’Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly cited the Apple Store as an example of the potential value of store associates. After seeking help on the Web site, he was directed to make an in-store appointment via an online tool. At the store, he was assisted by an in-store “genius” who was able to transact for any equipment costs or fees he accrued. The process was smooth and seamless from the consumer’s perspective, and the brand demonstrated its expertise.

Ryan Gripp of MarketLive merchant H2O+, a beauty manufacturer and retailer, also cited Apple as an example of multi-touchpoint integration done right. “There isn’t even a ‘ship to store’ button, it’s just seamless,” Gripp said. His anecdote called to mind O’Reilly’s earlier mantra to “make customers do less” — for example, rather than presenting them with buttons for in-store pickup versus shipment, the Apple model backgrounds the unlikely options to create a smoother flow for the shopper.

Apple Store as example of successful multi-channel integration

Gripp shared his experiences on a keynote panel of MarketLive merchants whose topic for discussion was multi-channel integration. Also on the panel was Alyssa Young of sporting goods retailer Modell’s, who said it was imperative to back in-store/online initiatives with ongoing and extensive training, coupled with the right employee incentives for store associates and executives alike. “You don’t just put it out there once, you’ve really got to make sure you’re consistently communicating … this is for the customer overall and that’s a good thing,” Young said.

Unified data is a multi-channel initiative in its own right. A comprehensive customer profile that incorporates interactions and purchases across touchpoints is the key to delivering a relevant, individualized experience — so much so that two Summit merchant panelists said data integration was their top multi-channel priority. In addition, Burke’s keynote included a peek at upcoming MarketLive technology to help merchants better visualize customers’ activities across touchpoints.

Rick Turek of MarketLive merchant Sundance Catalog said his organization is working on implementing new data solutions and devising new revenue and order attribution models in the process — but he added that even without new technology, there are ways to ensure disparate data is shared across the business. Currently, he said, customer feedback from live chat, the call center, reviews and retail stores is compiled together and reviewed by representatives from each division. “Oftentimes we’re so busy being focused on our respective areas, it’s easy to forget the most important factor in the equation, and that’s the customer,” Turek said.

Pick your battles. Young emphasized the need to tune out the hype and base priorities on customer expectations. “Based on your customer base, based on your business, what do you think is most important?” she said. She also advised picking a simpler cross-channel implementation to start with, and fully absorbing all the lessons learned in the process, before moving on to larger projects.

It’s crucial to execute properly what projects merchants do undertake, the panelists agreed. Turek related how he used the “buy online, pick up in store” option with a large electronics retailer and was disappointed when the pickup process took the better part of an hour as store associates fulfilled his order and completed the transaction. “When you’re going to roll a program out, you’ve got to have it be a well-oiled solution .. doing it without a well-executed plan can really shoot you in the foot,” he said.

Not only do store associates need to be trained and incentivized to participate, but elements such as store signage, transactional email instructions to the customers, and point of sale procedures need to be synched.  “It is about the entire experience. It’s not just about saying yes, we have ship to store, it’s about the signage and everything,” said MarketLive strategist Scott Compton, who led the panel.

More blog topics based on Summit sessions are forthcoming. Meantime, how have multi-channel initiatives fared in your organization?

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3 fundamental shifts merchants must make to meet customer expectations – MarketLive Summit Report

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The MarketLive 2015 Summit opened Tuesday morning with a bracing challenge for attendees: stop thinking like eCommerce site owners. The morning’s keynote speakers, MarketLive founder and CEO Ken Burke and O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly, urged merchants to undertake fundamental shifts in perspective in order to continue serving shoppers with the relevant experiences that earn sales and loyalty.

Thanks to rapid technological innovation, consumers’ shopping behaviors and expectations are changing more quickly than merchants have so far been able to match, said Burke. The rapid rise of mobile has triggered demand for a new in-store experience that draws on the wealth of information available online, and in the process has laid bare inconsistencies and gaps between touchpoints. Mobile has also become the default access point for consumers to flit among a growing array of social networks; 52% of U.S. online adults use multiple social media sites, according to Pew Research.

social network data from Pew

O’Reilly described how technology is on the cusp of revolutionary change that will eliminate manual searching, browsing, and buying in favor of seamless interactions where consumption implies consent to purchase and transactions occur entirely behind the scenes. As an example of how existing modes of commerce are being upended, O’Reilly cited the driving service Uber, where riders provide payment information on signup and are automatically charged per ride, rather than having to dig in their wallets at the end of each trip. Other cutting-edge examples of frictionless commerce include Cover, which allows diners to skip waiting for the check at meal’s end, and Etup, whereby college students snap selfies to charge meals to their campus accounts.

Example of transactionless commerce - Etup

To position themselves for this new paradigm, merchants need to adopt new modes of thinking for 2015 and beyond, letting go of fundamental ecommerce tenets to make way for innovation. Among the necessary shifts:

It’s not (just) about the Web site. With two-thirds of consumers using a combination of mobile and desktop to interact with brands, and fully a third of 18-to-24-year-olds using mobile exclusively, merchants should adopt “mobile first” as their credo — not only in designing site experiences, but in how they themselves interact with brands and services online.

Moreover, by escaping the tethered web browser and exploring the unique blend of location data, social networking information and image tools mobile apps can draw on, merchants can move beyond segmentation and even personalization to deliver truly individualized commerce, said Burke. Rather than offering one-site-fits-all experiences, brands should take into account shoppers’ preferences and personal shopping histories, marrying disparate data points to deliver a wholly unique set of products and offers for each customer, Burke said.

Eliminate payments. As we’ve discussed previously, merchants should adopt alternative payments both to ease online transactions and to smooth potential offline-to-online purchases occurring in stores. But merchants should also begin mapping new modes of shopping that background transactions altogether. Automatic replenishment programs and subscription models such as the one used by O’Reilly Media (itself a MarketLive merchant) for digital books are only the beginning of the possibilities merchants should explore.

Subscription payment example from O'Reilly

They’re not customers; they’re community members. O’Reilly urged merchants to connect with consumers by identifying and serving their passions and demonstrating authentic expertise, saying that despite having a large social media following, his social contributions have at times been less effective than posts featuring lesser-known tech authors who nonetheless have an ardent following in the niches they cover.

Rather than focusing on individual social networks, brands should focus on telling the stories that resonate with their communities, and giving a platform to the voices that help tell that story. “By celebrating the people in your community, you actually create a social web,” said O’Reilly.

Sport Chalet, showcased during Summit as a MarketLive Merchant Award winner, has built a series of robust communities focused on individual sports and recreational activities, showcasing user-contributed social content, learning videos and expert profiles.

sportchalet

Watch the blog for more Summit recaps coming soon.

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How to unlock video’s engagement potential

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As online commerce matures and audiences grow more sophisticated, the challenge of engaging browsers and researchers so that they embark upon the path to purchase is becoming ever more acute. With the growing cacophony of social networks, close to 60% of shoppers reporting they delete email almost as quickly as it’s received, and merchants playing catch-up to consumer behavior on mobile devices, the ability to deliver a brand message that is truly arresting has become something of a holy grail.

Take the add-to-cart rate — the percentage of visits that result in items being placed in the shopping cart. Arguably, the cart plays a more important role than ever: as shoppers hop from touchpoint to touchpoint, the cart can serve as a repository for items they’ve researched and wished to access later, whether via a different device, in stores or on their computers once they get home. Data from the MarketLive Performance Index shows that the add-to-cart rate grew 1.5% year over year in Q4 2014, but still hovers below 10%, meaning that fewer than 1 in 10 shoppers are resonating with products enough even to want to save them — much less to buy them.

The main culprit behind the sluggish performance: smartphones, on which a mere 6%of shoppers added items to the cart.  And it’s not just the add-to-cart rate; pages per visit and time on site also lag on smartphones compared with the overall Index average, and the bounce rate, at 47%, is 30% higher than the overall average. These numbers are especially troubling given that smartphones are increasingly the key to mobile success, and given that mobile overall plays an increasingly crucial role in both online and offline sales.

To cut through the chatter and combat shopper ennui, merchants should take a close look at their video strategy. Since we last addressed the effectiveness of videos during the product consideration phase, more and more evidence has surfaced to demonstrate that video can be an effective engagement tool — including on mobile devices.

While the audience for brand videos is still relatively small, with around 10% of shoppers visiting pages with videos opting to view the content, that audience goes on to engage deeply and powerfully: not only do 70% of video viewers watch at least 80% of the video, but they’re 1.9 times as likely to make purchases after watching, according to video services firm and MarketLive Connect partner Invodo.

What’s more, fully a third of those video views occur on mobile devices, and mobile viewers are among the most engaged when it comes to promotional video content. Nielsen and AOL found that smartphone viewers were more likely to recall advertising content than desktop, tablet, or TV users, with 88% of smartphone users who watched ads without interruption remembering them. Even when distracted by their devices, 57% of smartphone users remembered ads, as opposed to just 23% of television viewers; when interrupted by a person, over a third of smartphone users remembered the ads, rivaling the recall of desktop computer users and trumping television by far.

In order to maximize the potential for videos to engage shoppers, merchants should:

Create and test different video content for different audiences. Rather than use a templated approach that shoehorns all their products into a single video format for shoppers across touchpoints, merchants should vary the length and content of video content — and track results religiously to tease out which combinations work best.

In general, shorter videos correlate with higher conversion rates, according to video services provider LiveClicker. (That doesn’t mean merchants should shy away from in-depth product demonstrations when they’re necessary, but they might want to experiment with multi-part tutorial rather than a single long segment.) When it comes to substance, video featured on smartphones should feature enough close-up content to render well on small screens; by contrast, finer details will be visible to desktop and laptop viewers.

Place video throughout the eCommerce site, not just on product pages. Merchants should give shoppers multiple pathways to access video content, including in content hubs where all videos are available to browse and on category pages. And like other forms of value-added content, relevant videos should be accessible via search results pages.

MarketLive merchant Brickhouse Security includes a link to its Video Center on the home page alongside blog and Q and A content, and a search for “nanny cams” brings up a featured video in addition to products.

Video promotion example from Brickhouse SecurityVideo promotion example from Brickhouse Security

 

Go native with social formats. In addition to experimenting with video content and length on their eCommerce sites, merchants should also use video content on social media — and not just by posting video links. Rather, merchants should take advantage of native social video formats, such as the micro-video Vine app for Twitter and Instagram’s mini-video feature. And with posts featuring video drawing heightened engagement from social followers,  there’s a benefit to porting over longer segments as well. Brands posting video on social platforms may even see a boost in visibility, as Facebook last fall altered its algorithm to favor video content using the Facebook player, as opposed to an external link to YouTube.

How do you plan to use video to maximize engagement in 2015?

 

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Compete with Amazon, 2015: Growth leaves plenty of room for merchants to thrive

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The online behemoth Amazon.com is on a winning streak. North American sales were up more than 22% year over year in the fourth quarter, and for 2014 as a whole North American revenues grew nearly 25%. Amazon already accounts for more than a quarter of all eCommerce sales in the U.S., according to Internet Retailer’s Top 500 report, and the recent numbers suggest Amazon will grab an even larger slice of the pie this year.

Furthermore, despite a recent price increase to $99, Amazon’s Prime program continues to attract shoppers, with roughly 45% of its customers paying the subscription fee to access free shipping with every order and exclusive streaming content. The high percentage of subscribers is significant because they spend an average of $1,500 annually with Amazon, 140% more than other Amazon customers.

But looking beyond these impressive numbers, there’s reason for small- to mid-sized merchants to take heart. For starts, Amazon’s direct sales of products were up 9.6% in Q4 — in the same league as the 9.1% reported by the MarketLive Performance Index — demonstrating that pure direct-to-consumer sales for even the biggest of the online mass merchants were in line with the market overall. Instead, the bulk of Amazon’s Q4 growth came from marketplace fees, Amazon’s Web Services cloud hosting service, and other smaller revenue contributors, which together saw year-over-year growth of 37%.

And Amazon still faces significant challenges when it comes to matching smaller brands’ ability to deliver personal service and niche product and lifestyle expertise. As we addressed in our series on competing with Amazon, the giant’s economies of scale give shoppers discounted products and shipping on a wide selection of items, the overall shopping experience can be like using “a massive vending machine”. Attempts to tailor the experience for specific niches — such as fashion, health and B2B purchasing — are still nascent, which means that for now, at least, there’s room for merchants with compelling brand stories to compete successfully.

Among the strategies to consider:

Leverage the visibility of Amazon’s marketplace, but strategically. Nowadays, it’s commonplace for brands competing with Amazon to simultaneously take advantage of its dominant position by participating in the Amazon Marketplace program. As we’ve discussed previously, in addition to gaining SEO advantage and reaching new customers, merchants can use the marketplace to piggyback on Amazon’s international forays and establish brand footholds abroad without the headaches of launching a standalone site.

To ensure the benefits are maximized for their own brands and not simply feeding that huge Amazon bottom line, merchants should curate marketplace product selections and track performance carefully. And they should explore other marketplace opportunities that offer visibility benefits, such as via Buy.com or Sears.com, and keep an eye on new upstarts like Jet.com, set to launch this spring, which is set to offer marketplace shopping to members.

Use mobile to spotlight service. With mobile serving as the primary connector between offline and online, eCommerce and social, merchants should do their utmost to ensure that mobile shoppers feel supported by customer service. By making proactive, individualized service a centerpiece of brand offerings on mobile devices — which are now the primary way shoppers connect with brands — merchants can distinguish themselves from Amazon, whose size demands a less service-obsessed approach.

MarketLive merchant Peruvian Connection puts customer service links front and center on its mobile site, with helpful information such as a sizing guide presented along with standard service links such as “contact us”. A toll-free customer service link anchored in the footer ensures mobile shoppers can always reach a live person from any page on the site.

Mobile customer service example from Peruvian Connection

Bridge in-store and online to create an immersive brand experience. Merchants with brick-and-mortar locations have a distinct advantage over Amazon: the ability to combine the depth of product information online with the concrete experience of touching and trying items in-store and accessing face to face assistance with shopping decisions. And thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, the opportunity to create such an immersive experience has never been greater; technology researcher Forrester estimates that 68% of shoppers use their phones in stores.

Merchants should ensure that device-empowered shoppers in store can access the brand resources they need in a swift and seamless manner, and further differentiate their brands by giving store associates access to online information and training in guiding shoppers toward a purchase decision. Currently, shoppers have low expectations of retail floor staff: close to 60% of consumers believe they’re more knowledgeable than store staff about pricing and product availability, even as 54% say they would buy more from stores where associates were knowledgeable.

MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet opened a downtown Los Angeles outlet in 2013 featuring tablet stations throughout the store where shoppers can browse the brand’s entire product offering, consult reviews and in-depth product information, and seek live help from store experts.

Sport Chalet unified store example

How are you positioning your brand for success against the commerce giants?

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