Successful replatforming in 2016 starts with the right shopping list now

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A new eCommerce software platform is at the top of many online merchants’ shopping lists for 2016. For some, the impending closure of Amazon’s Webstore eCommerce solution has forced their hands, while for others, the time is simply ripe for updated technology that can help achieve multi-touchpoint mastery. Whatever the reason, close to one in five merchants say replatforming is a top priority, according to technology researcher Forrester.

But the replatforming process is much like painting the interior of a house: while applying color is the splashy result that immediately springs to mind, most of the effort is actually devoted to preparation — covering furniture and floors, taping borders, priming walls, and testing different paint shades. Similarly, merchants shouldn’t jump into the splashy fray of shopping for eCommerce platform vendors without first laying the groundwork of a solid plan. They should thoroughly assess their current capabilities and identify performance gaps and opportunities – not only within the eCommerce sphere, but across the entire organization.

The scope of this soul-searching may seem daunting, but it’s also absolutely essential. The role of the Web is only poised to keep growing for shoppers, regardless of how they end up making purchases. Forrester estimates that nearly 60% of B2C purchases of any type will be influenced by the Web by 2018.

The assessment itself needn’t take undue resources or time. While the specifics may vary, the following checklist will stand merchants well as they begin to shape their vision for the perfect technology for their business.

1. Look to the right sources for guidance. Merchants must resist the impulse to “keep up with the Joneses” and add whiz-bang features to their list only because competitors already offer them. Instead, merchants should focus with singular intensity on understanding their own customers and how best to serve them, both online and offline. Potential sources to inform their assessment include:

  • Analytics data: Site usage data can be a goldmine of actionable information on what shoppers seek and where sites need further improvement to resonate.
  • Store associates: Merchants should find the means to tap these valuable front-line information sources and act on their recommendations when it comes to gaps in brand offerings.
  • Visitor and customer surveys: Asking shoppers directly what features of the site resonate and what expectations are going unmet can be valuable input in advance of replatforming.

2. Articulate a plan for mobile. Mobile shopping is soaring, with fully a quarter of revenues during the fourth quarter of 2014 derived from mobile devices, a year over year growth rate of 44%, according to the MarketLive Performance Index. And when it comes to shopping research, mobile is now shoppers’ primary point of contact with brands. According to measurement firm comScore, close to two-thirds of all minutes spent with retail brands now occur on mobile devices.

Consequently, even small to mid-sized merchants must prioritize mobile optimization. Before replatforming, merchants should carefully consider their mobile site options and develop a road map for development. Deciding whether to undertake responsive design is a key decision point. Plans for mobile apps, email and SMS messaging campaigns, in-store mobile features, and alternative and mobile payment integrations should also come into play. With a mobile development plan in hand, merchants can develop a list of mobile-focused criteria potential vendors must meet.

3. Identify integrations organization-wide and how to improve them. Merchants should understand how the eCommerce platform interacts with technology across their business, from fulfillment operations to the call center, and identify existing and new opportunities for integrations that can improve efficiency and customer service.

For brick-and-mortar retailers, the top priority in this category must be in-store inventory integration. While just 20% of retailers offer it currently, consumers now expect total visibility and consistency, regardless of where they are physically and what screens they use. According to Forrester, 56% of consumers say they expect products to be priced consistently, whether in-store or online.

Furthermore, universal inventory transparency supports “endless aisle” capabilities that can save sales and drive up average order value, and unlocks a host of fulfillment options, such as store-to-store and ship-from-store delivery networks, that can boost efficiency across the organization.

4. Audit existing content and plan new development. The old mantra “content is king” has lately seen a resurgence. Whereas 34% of customer experience professionals cited Web content management as a top technology priority in 2013, the number jumped to 60% in 2014, Forrester found – a whopping 76% increase. The reasons for prioritizing content are numerous, but foremost among them is the imperative to differentiate the brand by communicating what’s uniquely valuable. Along with product selection and pricing, content forms the third component of a potentially compelling brand story.

Merchants contemplating replatforming should therefore develop a detailed content strategy to inform their criteria for potential vendors. They should also audit the content they have — from product information to videos to user-submitted social content — and identify opportunities for growth, syndication and improved efficiency, along with content imports and exports.

5. Build measurement into the technology foundations. With consumers shopping across multiple screens, social outlets providing streams of information, and new technologies increasingly available to quantify offline activities, merchants are juggling plenty of data beyond what traditional Web analytics tools provide — but struggle to put it all together to create a complete picture of customer behavior. Fewer than a third of merchants believe they have strong or even average capabilities when it comes creating a unified view of customer behavior across touchpoints.

To avoid further compounding the challenge, merchants should examine how potential technology solutions interact or integrate with their existing measurement tools, what data is provided and how it can be knit together with other sources.

Replatforming is a potentially daunting project. But by analyzing existing and desired capabilities before adding vendors to the mix, merchants can ensure that they meet their brands’ needs — and better serve customers in the long run.

This post is produced in conjunction with the Plumtree Group, part of MarketLive’s Implement program. Through MarketLive and the Plumtree Group, omni-channel retailers can quickly deploy and customize e-commerce features and functionality in order to meet market demands, increase revenue and loyalty.  The MarketLive/Plumtree partnership provides the emerging merchant who will need to transition off of Amazon Webstore in the coming months with the tools they need to succeed today and grow with unlimited scale tomorrow.

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Why customer service is a top priority for pre-holiday content development

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Content is on the ascendancy once again, and in the runup to the 2015 holiday season merchants are devising innovative campaigns that spotlight engaging content that resonates with shoppers and spurs them to buy. While video, social and user-submitted content are all alluring, there’s another category of content that merchants should prioritize — customer service content.

Perennially overlooked and undervalued, and often relegated to the global footer, customer service content  has a significant potential impact on sales. Self-service content on brand Web sites is now the top customer service source of choice, used by 76% of consumers, topping even phone service from call center reps. With more than half of consumers saying they’ll abandon brands that don’t provide quick answers to their queries and with 77% saying valuing their time is the top way brands can deliver stellar service, it’s crucial for merchants to develop content that proactively addresses top questions about products, ordering and policies.

Not only can finding information quickly and efficiently ensure that shoppers stay on the path to purchase, but demonstrating efficient service for a first transaction is a key building block for future loyalty. Fully 73% of customers say a high-quality customer service experience is important when deciding whether to repurchase.

And prominent customer service is acutely needed on mobile devices, where shoppers must often struggle with cumbersome checkout processes and where smaller screen sizes often force merchants to background crucial product information, policies, or both.

During the holiday season, when shoppers will compare products and promotions on the go and across screens in their quest for the best value, customer service content has further potential to differentiate brands and instill trust. As merchants begin their countdown to the holidays, they should dedicate content resources to articulating their customer service policies across touchpoints. Among the key components to feature:

Plain English information featured like a top product. Customer service information is of vital importance to shoppers. Two-thirds of shoppers review merchant return policies before purchasing products, according to measurement firm comScore, while 53% said knowing the shipping cost and estimated delivery timeframe was a purchase influences, second only to a free shipping offer. Multi-channel service options are key: more than 60% of shoppers said the ability to purchase online and return in-store was a factor in purchase consideration, while 44% said the ability to buy online and pick up items in-store would encourage them to purchase, comScore reported.

To cater to this desire for information, merchants should assign merchandising copywriters the task of crafting customer service information that’s as enticing as product descriptions. The information should be succinct and jargon-free, so that it can be promoted in a variety of locations throughout the path to purchase.

MarketLive merchant Title Nine, a women’s recreational outfitter, specializes in sports bras, and has “product-ized” its fit system and syndicated information about it across touchpoints. Not only do product pages include comprehensive fit charts, but the bottom of the home page features a guide to bra fitting, and relevant product index pages display fit tips. The brand uses social media to promote in-store events giving shoppers the opportunity to be measured by the pros.

t9_bras t9_bras_fitfest_fb

How to connect with a real person. Shoppers with questions should be able to reach live help at any point along the path to purchase – and that includes on mobile sites. Fully 41% of U.S. mobile shoppers report using mobile live chat for shopping support, ahead of text messaging and mobile social media, the E-Tailing Group found. And mobile live chat is poised to play an important role in cross-channel sales, with one in five shoppers saying they accessed mobile shopping support while in physical stores.

To support cross-touchpoint access to live help, merchants should ensure not only that customer service contact information is prominently placed on product pages, in the cart and throughout checkout; they should also layer in functionality such as click-to-call and mobile live chat for users on smartphones and tablets.

Once the content has been developed, merchants should feature it prominently by:

Creating a hub of self-help resources on the eCommerce site. Merchants should tap call center and live chat staff to develop comprehensive content to address common questions, and gather that content into a help center where shoppers can search and browse popular topics. Additionally, product or category “Q and A” sections where brand experts and customers alike weigh in give prospective buyers the opportunity to ask specific questions that might not be covered in product specs or reviews.

Developing nuggets of “micro-content” to nudge shoppers along the path to purchase. Merchants should pay attention to every snippet of verbiage they serve to shoppers – from pop-up windows containing shipping and delivery estimates to descriptions of video clips and email signup form language. Especially on mobile devices where space is at a premium, merchants must convey core information quickly and without scrolling, while providing links to further information where relevant.

Home improvement giant Lowe’s has optimized content and information design on its mobile product pages to maximize information delivery. Colorful icons help shoppers understand at a glance the delivery options available to them, while was/is pricing information and the upcoming end date for the promotional discount are also displayed.

lowes_mobileprodpage

Establishing a forward position on social media. Nearly half of social media users have relied on “social care,” according to NM Incite, and Forrester found that 37% have used Twitter specifically to seek customer service. Given shoppers’ propensity to consult social channels for brand information, merchants would do well to adopt a proactive approach and to repurpose and post their core customer service content directly to social channels.

MarketLive merchant Berkshire Blanket has posted on Facebook detailed information about care and maintenance of its bedding items – proactively addressing an important topic for those considering a purchase and wondering what the total cost of ownership is. A separate FAQs page addresses further popular topics, from shipping policies to wholesale agreements. Both pages feature “Read More” links connecting shoppers to the eCommerce site, along with sharing buttons so that followers can alert friends to the information. Links to both pages are anchored prominently in the left-hand column of the brand’s timeline.

bb_fabric_care

What content are you polishing in advance of the holiday push?

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Follow the retailers to unified shopping success – MarketLive Performance Index

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Should anyone still need convincing that delivering a unified shopping experience is a priority, the latest data from the MarketLive Performance Index proves it — and reveals the leaders of the pack in cross-touchpoint effectiveness: brick and mortar retailers.

It may seem surprising to spotlight retailers for online performance, given that the category’s conversion rate lags other categories overall, and abandonment is among the highest in the Index. But retailers have managed to do something no other sector in the Index has: they’ve accumulated steady gains in conversion and revenue across both mobile devices and desktop and laptop browsers — signaling that they seem to be navigating the rough seas of cross-touchpoint commerce more successfully than other merchants.

MarketLive Performance Index data

Happily, every sector is realizing significant gains when it comes to smartphone shopping. But, as we discussed in our coverage of the previous volume of the Index, the tables have now completely turned when it comes to performance by screen; whereas just a year ago, lagging smartphone performance was responsible for tempering overall Index results, now it’s desktop and laptop sessions that are failing to pull their weight.  And because the vast majority of shoppers who transact online opt to do so on the big screen, overall Index performance is suffering.

One reason retailers are bucking the trend may be that they’ve contended with at least two consumer audiences since the earliest days of eCommerce: those looking to buy online, and those researching online prior to visiting physical stores. Retailers were also among the first to feel mobile’s influence, as on-the-go shoppers demanded access to store information from their devices and began using early “showrooming” tools such as RetailMeNot to check prices while in stores.

(Catalogers, too, have potentially served online and offline audiences simultaneously, but in reality most cross-touchpoint catalog traffic has been one-way, with printed catalog browsers turning to their computers to place orders efficiently rather than online searchers discovering the brand through the Web site before ordering offline.)

While the challenges and opportunities for retailers are in some aspects unique, it can be instructive for merchants to study leading brick-and-mortar merchants in their own product category. And while it’s foolhardy to play “keep up with the Joneses,” such analysis can reveal fresh approaches to audience engagement and new features and functionality that may be worth consideration.  Among the best practices leading retailers in the Index demonstrate:

They work hard to engage visitors past the “one and out.” In addition to maintaining growth in revenue and conversion, retailers are holding the line on the bounce rate, the percentage of visits ending after a single page. The overall bounce rate for retailers grew just 5.3% year over year, to 31.5% — significantly lower than the 19.8% growth in the bounce rate for the index overall, to a high of over 40%.

To achieve that engagement, retail merchants are developing content that informs purchase decisions and encourages participation from brand followers, with a focus on visual elements such as video and hashtag campaigns for user-submitted photos.

MarketLive merchant Beauty Brands puts the focus on individual brands sold online and in stores with rich content. From a “brands” button in the global navigation, shoppers can access extensive brand stories, how-to videos, and shade-matching charts, along with individual products sorted by sub-category. An inspiration page displays user-submitted photos from Instagram and other social sites.

Content example from Beauty Brands

They encourage, rather than discourage, cross-touchpoint usage. Successful brick-and-mortar retailers devote significant space on their eCommerce sites to describing the in-store experience and encouraging store visits, and provide the tools to enable a smooth transition.  In going beyond a listing of store hours and locations, these merchants develop continuity across channels and distinguish their brands from mass merchants by promoting a unique shopping experience.

MarketLive merchant Design Within Reach encourages visits to its “design studios” in a set of dual home page promotions. The store locator page includes a photo gallery and an enticing description that promises “you’ll never see a ‘do not touch’ sign.” A second promotion specifically spotlights the brand’s design consulting services – emphasizing the high level of in-house expertise that stands behind the brand. Shoppers can make appointments online using a simple-to-navigate interface. Further along the path to purchase, shoppers can save the contents of their shopping cart for quick retrieval later on another screen or in the store.

Online promotion of in-store services from DWR

They cater to return as well as new visitors on smartphones. With the recent hand-wringing about “Mobilegeddon”, the skyrocketing costs for mobile paid search, and the hype about mobile “buy” buttons in search and social media, it seems that merchants are focusing mobile efforts predominantly on acquisition. But they would do well to take a page from leading retailers who are focusing just as intently on supporting existing customers — whether through mobile tools for loyalty club members, mobile apps for those familiar with the brand, or personalized paths to purchase that take into account prior browsing and buying behavior. Such efforts to engage returning customers have the potential to pay off handsomely, as returning customers currently comprise 40% of the eCommerce customer base, but account for 61% of total online revenues.

MarketLive merchant Cost Plus World Market fully supports its Explorers Club loyalty program via smartphone, with the capability to sign up and check rewards status via the mobile site. In-store shoppers are reminded to avail themselves of discounts using their mobile devices, thereby encouraging usage.

Loyalty club support from Cost Plus

Signage promoting mobile loyalty club features

Download the latest Performance Index report for further data, including results by sector and product category, and read the official press release for more details. What retailer innovations have you adapted, if any? What retail brands are you watching?

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New Whitepaper: 360-Degree Content for Commerce

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Top Strategies to Drive Sales on the Big Screen, the Small Screen – and Off-Screen

MarketLive: 360-Degree Content for Commerce

Content is king – again.

The old mantra, initially ubiquitous prior to 2010, has lately seen a resurgence as online merchants juggle rapidly-proliferating content needs across multiple touchpoints. Whereas 34% of customer experience professionals cited Web content management as a top technology priority in 2013, the number jumped to 60% in 2014 – a whopping 76% increase according to researcher Forrester.

There are many reasons for content’s resurgence as a top priority for merchants. Among them:

SEO now demands quality content. In the past five years, Google has undertaken a series of algorithm adjustments to deliver results based on “things not strings” – thereby favoring sites that deliver context-relevant, authentic content as opposed to simply matching keyword terms. Penguin and Panda culled out junk sites and content farms; Hummingbird incorporated contextual and natural-language cues; and the most recent prominent update, which earned the moniker “mobilegeddon,” added another layer of contextual relevance by prioritizing content suitable for phones and tablets in mobile search results.

Merchants are going wide on social media. The number of social media sites is growing, and consumers are responding both by establishing multiple profiles on multiple sites, including those particular to niche interests. While Facebook remains the dominant network, with 71% U.S. online consumers maintaining a profile there, more than half now use more than one site, and more than one in ten report using at least four sites according to Pew Research. In response, merchants are establishing brand outposts on ever more social media sites, which compels them to generate ever more content to feed status updates and photo streams.

Consumers have more desire than ever to contribute. By some estimates, two-thirds of all online content is either created or used by consumers. And shoppers overwhelmingly favor content generated by other consumers over brand ad copy. As a result, merchants are grappling with how to sift through and engage meaningfully with this rich mélange of voices – and guide the conversation toward favorable relationships with their brands.

Underpinning these changes lies a still more fundamental content revolution: the rise of mobile devices as a shopping research tool, ubiquitous social connector, and pocket-sized content generator.

The mobile connection. Content is now consumed first and foremost on the small screens of tablets and smartphones: Nielsen reported in February’s “The Digital Consumer,” on average, U.S. consumers spend more than 34 hours per month accessing content via their smartphones, compared with 27 hours per month using the Internet on a personal computer.

Mobile is now the default touchpoint for social networking, Comscore says some 71% of social traffic is now originating on mobile devices; some fast-growing social sites, such as Instagram and social-messaging services such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, are designed primarily for mobile users.

And when it comes to shopping, mobile devices have become indispensable tools. That means merchants must do more than give lip service to “mobile first” strategies; they must embrace a vision of content that prioritizes mobile consumption and preferences, while simultaneously integrating with product specifics and purchasing functionality online, extending across screens and even translating into offline formats to create a cohesive brand message.

In our latest eBook 360-Degree Content for Commerce,  you will find how-to tips and real-life examples of merchants meeting these challenges. One such is MarketLive merchant and cosmetics brand Stila showcasing customer generated content in a mobile-optimized email campaign. Using snippets of review text in the email is one avenue for repurposing user-generated content with pathways leading to actionable products and offers.

Stila's user generated content

Content strategy is the key for growing sales especially as the consumer is accessing your brand across a multitude of touchpoints. Do you have the resources to develop content for all touchpoints?

Download the eBook now to discover the tools and strategies you need for growing sales:

How to create and manage content on all sized screens

  • How to create and manage content on all sized screens
  • The importance of visual content
  • Developing customer service content

How will you meet your content priorities?

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Why “Christmas in July” is just the beginning of holiday optimization

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Once upon a time eCommerce sites went into “lockdown” mode in September or early October and nothing fundamental changed until after the holidays. Indeed a survey by Internet Retailer magazine showed just 35% of merchants last year made changes frequently in response to consumer behavior/trends. But as “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” nearly half reported that when rare changes were made they were required to address a major issue.

In preparing for holiday this year, brands will be forced to be more responsive and dynamic to meet expanding consumer expectations for granular personalization and marketing brought on by big data, as well as for flawless, fast performance and uptime.

The concept of agile computing, a term once reserved for software development teams, now finds itself an essential piece for planning holiday. Merchants must adopt an environment of continuous improvement and encourage rapid and flexible response to change.

Not there yet? Here are some ways to appear agile without endangering basic functionality:

Feature user-driven content as a source of up to the minute info and ideas for promotions. To build synergy between its website and social media buzz Helzberg Diamonds promoted a Twitter hashtag on its homepage and featured a gallery of customer images.

helzberg-hashtag-2014-holidaySuch user-generated content is always changing, is often on the forefront of cultural trends and memes and can provide an endless supply of value-added bling to your web site. It can also help you triangulate your store’s commerce site with the brand’s social media properties providing the heat necessary for better SEO.

Build campaigns around top sellers and trending items. Use the data about most-desired items collected by user-generated content and shared wishlists to build campaigns around top sellers and trending items. Or better yet, beyond static categories or hand-merchandised gift lists, seek out advanced technology partners.

Gone are the days when integrating advanced web features required a team of dedicated internal development staff. Merchants should be on the look out for platforms and plug-ins that can automate the parsing of the myriad data into usable and dynamic marketing tools. Employ on-the-fly generation of new site pages based on your site’s popular search terms. Bloomreach’s tool parses popular search terms and dynamically generates new site content organizing pages around what customers are actually actively looking for.

Get grassroots feedback from store staff throughout season, adjust content and customer service offerings accordingly. Close the information gap. Forge pathways for store personnel and customer service staff to communicate with business, merchandising and technical teams about what they are hearing in the field. Big data notwithstanding, no one has a better pulse on what customers are experiencing in their brand interactions than the humans you have hired to guide them through the buying process. Find a way to collect and act on their recommendations.

Conversely, provide front-line staff with the all the necessary tools and training to navigate online resources and guide shoppers to purchase. Be sure to empower associates to acknowledge and reward loyal customers, facilitate smooth returns, or ameliorate bumpy customer experiences with coupons and discounts.

You don’t want social media to become the de facto disgruntled customer service forum. Don’t let yours be the brand that requires multiple emails, phone calls and a social media post to extract customer satisfaction. Note the customer frustration in the posts on Pottery Barn’s Facebook page below.

Pottery Barn Facebook Customer ServiceWhen it comes to customer service, get your yoga on. Small to medium-sized merchants have an advantage here. Think contortion.

Its easier to balance on solid ground. Evaluate the role your technical partnerships played in 2014. Take a hard look and ask these questions. Is your cloud or Web hosting and e-commerce platform provider reliable? Do they have the expertise — including mobile? Are they responsive?  Can they handle the traffic? Are they agile enough to react to customer feedback or are they resource-strapped from fall onward? Now is the time to make necessary adjustments to your team.

Can you handle mobile? Mobile is playing a dominant role in holiday shopping. Make sure your site is optimized for the small screen. This step is not optional for the holiday win. 24% of total revenues are now attributable to mobile, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.

Strive for real-time inventory across touchpoints and make live order tracking available to your entire team. Study cloud services and benefits and dynamic load handling options to ensure your site stays up during traffic spikes/big sales events. Performance (speed and uptime performance) and the ability to quickly employ updates will win the season. Investment in technology that assures site performance and stability is critical. Look for technology and merchandising automation solutions that allow for quick response to market signals.

The takeaway. Don’t wait and see what might happen, prepare well and early for commonplace failures and be nimble enough to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities. Those who invest in the right tools and technology will be able to make the most of Holiday 2015. What are your priorities?

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When to jump on the bandwagon – and when to go it alone

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The old adage came to mind last Wednesday, as headlines about Amazon’s Prime Day sales event peppered news feeds and email inboxes were full of discount offers — and not just from Amazon itself. While the competing sale offered by Wal-Mart grabbed most of the media attention, dozens of retailers calendared deep discounts and free shipping days to coincide with Prime Day in an effort to ride Amazon’s coattails to a revenue high.

These sales events, while competing with Amazon for shopping dollars on the big day, were at the same time tacit endorsements of the mega-merchant’s power — “allowing Amazon to wag the Internet,” as one analyst put it. The world’s top Internet merchant, in effect, created a sales event out of nowhere, and achieved Black Friday-like revenue results.

Third-party marketplace merchants on Amazon also enjoyed a bounce, with sales 93% higher than the comparable date last year. Other merchants who jumped on the bandwagon may have seen their boat rise with the tide — or they may have inadvertently reminded their customers to check out Amazon’s event instead.

The question of whether to join forces with big players or to go it alone is relevant beyond Prime Day. In fact, with the ultra-competitive holiday season on the horizon, it may be more crucial than ever.

In our opinion, merchants who engage with their larger competitors via marketplaces and other tactics stand to gain visibility and new audiences they would otherwise be unable to achieve. The key is to strike a balance and, moving beyond the initial sale, to engage those shoppers to interact directly with their own brands. Among our recommendations for when to jump on the bandwagon — and when not to:

When to join:

  • Gain mobile visibility via social networks. Mobile is now the default touchpoint for social networking, with some 71% of social traffic now originating on mobile devices; and the latest crop of fast-growing social sites, such as Instagram and social-messaging services such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, are designed primarily for mobile users. As a result, merchants with brand outposts on social networks have another avenue for reaching shoppers via their mobile devices — one they can capitalize on by ensuring that relevant customer service and content links are fully integrated in the social environment and by stimulating connections with brand-owned resources. And with the new spate of “buy” buttons debuting on social networks, the time may soon come when those social pathways lead even directly to purchase.
  • Leverage mobile payment options. Use of mobile wallets is forecast to rise steeply in the next few years, rising from 3% of U.S. shoppers today to 18-20% by 2018. So merchants would do well to assess which payment provider is the best potential partner, track whether third-party marketplaces are offering integrated mobile payments, and survey customers to understand their interest in and usage of mobile payments.

When to go solo:

  • There’s no substitute for native mobile prowess. While merchants can partner their way to increased mobile visibility, that heightened consumer awareness will lead nowhere unless brand sites are usable and offer a seamless transition from device to screen to physical store location. If they haven’t already, merchants should invest in fully optimizing their mobile Web sites, whether through responsive design or as a standalone offering, and devise the means to track meaningful mobile performance data.
  • Give loyal customers a home in a brand-owned community. While social networking on the leading sites such as Facebook and Instagram is a good way to attract a new audience and invite existing followers to take action, ultimately merchants should establish direct relationships with their best customers — and feature their contributions — within the walls of their own brand’s flagship site. Such “owned” communities aren’t subject to the vagaries of social networks’ algorithm changes, privacy policy revisions or functionality upgrades. Loyalty club content and perks can be incorporated into the community to encourage members to use the site, alongside expert content and user-submitted video and/or images. Offering discussion forums and the ability to vote on ideas for improvement gives the floor to consumers in a meaningful way.

Fitness company and MarketLive merchant Beachbody provides customers with a comprehensive community that offers training support, recipes, and more for those who aim to get in shape. Content such as customer testimonials and tips are cross-posted to Facebook, but valuable lookup tools for finding workout trainers and partners are exclusive to the brand’s site — as is content from the message boards and direct-messaging capability.

Cmmunity example from Beachbody

How are you leveraging partnerships with big players, and what areas does your brand “own”? And why?

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Research update: 2 resources for making the most of your data

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As the Web plays an ever more central role in shopping, more data than ever is available to help merchants deliver the relevant experiences that spur sales and foster brand loyalty.

With the number of eCommerce merchants growing, the number of devices consumers use to shop proliferating, social outlets providing new streams of information about brand reputation and word of mouth recommendations, and new technologies increasingly available to capture and quantify offline activities, merchants have plenty of numbers at their fingertips.

Analyzing and giving shape to that data – and turning it into actionable results – is the crucial next step for merchants, and a necessary one to take. Increasingly, consumers want brand interactions to be anything but generic, but rather to cater to their personal preferences and histories. Among the expectations:

Data is central to meeting these expectations, and merchants acknowledge the importance of integrating systems to move beyond isolated data sets such as web analytics and CRM databases that fail to take into account shoppers’ activities across the brand. Fully 83% of merchants somewhat or fully agree that a single view of the customer is crucial to long-term success, according to eConsultancy, and 56% seek to deliver cross-touchpoint personalization, the E-Tailing Group found.

But identifying a goal isn’t the same is attaining it, and so far merchants report trailing behind consumers’ expectations for sophisticated data analysis and the tailored experiences that should result. There are multiple pain points:

  • Less than a third of merchants report having strong or even average capabilities when it comes to uniting data from different sources into a single customer profile, according to eConsultancy.
  • Fully 85% of merchants say they’re unable to extract full value from the data they already have, and 62% report being overwhelmed by that data, eConsultancy found.
  • At the same time, the E-Tailing Group reports that less than a quarter of merchants believe they have enough data to truly personalize their shopping experiences.

As merchants strive to capture valuable insights from the upcoming holiday season — and plan for data-gathering improvements, upgrades and integrations in 2016 — they should consult two essential MarketLive resources:

Implementing Big Data for the Mid-Sized Merchant defines concretely the much-hyped term “big data” in the context of online commerce, and offers real-world applications of big data to improve brand interactions throughout the customer lifecycle.

Connecting Data Points and KPIs in a Multi-Channel World examines how merchants can move beyond the basics of their Web analytics packages to attain a cross-touchpoint view of shopping behaviors, from social media interactions to online/offline connections.

Stay tuned for our latest MarketLive Performance Index benchmark report, as well as performance updates throughout the holiday season.

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How to focus holiday priorities (and the input to ignore)

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With the Fourth of July in the rearview mirror, it’s time to realistically assess the status of new features merchants planned to roll out before the holidays, and to put the final touches on holiday campaigns. Choosing the right priorities for the remaining weeks before holiday kickoff is crucial — and too often, merchants are looking in all the wrong places for guidance.

The stakes are higher than ever when it comes to holiday sales. Online holiday sales accounted for more than 16% of all retail sales in 2014, according to the National Retail Federation. With double-digit eCommerce growth once again expected for the holidays in 2015, merchants stand to win big — or to suffer repercussions for missteps.

That’s why, when it comes to paring down the final list of holiday to-dos, we advise merchants to focus squarely on their own unique business needs, and to tune out hype and conjecture in favor of solid data. To determine which priorities are worth pursuing, merchants should:

Mine the right analytics data for guidance on site tweaks. Site usage data can be a gold mine of actionable information on what shoppers seek and where sites need further improvement to resonate. Among the data to study:

  • On-site search logs. “Zero results” logs can reveal gaps in content and discrepancies between merchant and shopper terminology. Searches for specific brand names and product types can suggest new categories to create or at least attributes to tag for guided search. And searches for customer service-related terms can suggest what service content to elevate and highlight throughout the path to purchase.
  • Mobile vs. desktop discrepancies. Comparing popular site paths, fallout analyses and product page performance reports on mobile and desktop sites can illuminate where mobile versions are falling short and need further optimization — and where it can be useful to encourage (or at least support) screen switching with features such as “save for later” or “save cart”.
  • Usage of online/offline features. Identifying where shoppers hesitate when using features such as “buy online, pick up in-store” or even registration for in-store events can help merchants smooth the transition from screen to store. And close analysis of how shoppers access content promoted within stores on mobile devices — and what actions they choose to take after viewing that content — can give merchants a more complete picture of cross-touchpoint activity.

Double down on social networks with engaged followers. While merchants should be prepared to provide responsive service via all the brand’s social outposts, they should focus their most creative holiday efforts on the networks where followers are more likely to actively respond, share and contribute their own content, versus passively scrolling past brand offerings. In addition, merchants should use their attribution model of choice to determine which networks drive the most direct revenue and consider experimenting with new “buy” buttons to further motivate purchasing.

Consult store staff for online content gaps. Amidst the chatter about beacons, facial recognition, dynamic shelf tags and other whiz-bang technology surrounding the digital store, we’re fans of old-fashioned human interaction and believe store staff are the most important asset for supporting online/offline brand interactions. Not only can store associates help shoppers navigate online resources and complete transactions, but they can gauge consumer sentiment and identify gaps in brand content, whether for products or for services such as in-store pickup or ship-to-store. Merchants should find the means to tap these valuable front-line information sources and act on their recommendations.

Invite existing customers to drive holiday promotions. For guidance on promotional strategies, merchants should look to customers themselves — whether by studying purchase patterns of loyal buyers and loyalty club members or by explicitly asking shoppers to choose which items they’d like to see featured on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, as Target did during “March Madness”. Users of the Target Cartwheel app could vote on which items to discount for the basketball tourney’s kickoff weekend.

Example of voting on a promotion from Target

And just as these sources can provide reliable guidance, there’s plenty of input that merchants should ignore. Two of the biggies:

What the competition does isn’t relevant. This advice may seem counterintuitive. On one level, it’s useful to know what other merchants in the industry are offering shoppers.  But merchants shouldn’t strive to keep up with the features another site offers without knowing whether those strategies are actually delivering results. Even if they have access to such intelligence, merchants should recognize that even within industry sectors, differences between individual brands’ audience demographics, product offerings and price points, and the number and locations of stores, among other factors, mean that a true “apples to apples” comparison simply does not apply.

That hot new social network doesn’t matter. With the ROI of even established sites like Facebook being difficult to justify for most merchants, they should be leery of jumping on the bandwagon of the latest social network just for the sake of “being there” — especially during the holidays, when consumers are likely to have heightened expectations for responsive and savvy customer service on social outposts. With the number of social networks proliferating, merchants should select social opportunities based on where their audience already gathers — or where a specific target audience can be tapped, such as for new international markets — rather than launching new outposts willy nilly.

How are you prioritizing holiday strategies, and what will you forgo?

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How to make apps work for your brand — whether you build one or not

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Conventional wisdom these days dictates that merchants forgo mobile apps. We ourselves have recommended that merchants should prioritize perfecting their mobile Web sites, which can be accessed using devices’ native browsers or via mobile search results, over investing time and money in custom-built programs shoppers download to their devices. The advent of responsive design, which enables maintenance of mobile, tablet and desktop sites from a single base of code, makes mobile apps even more obviously a stretch, as they require separate updates and integrations.

Nonetheless, there’s a compelling argument to be made for building a branded app, and that argument is based on the bottom line. As MarketLive founder Ken Burke notes in “Where’s Your App?” on the eTail Blog, apps drove 44% of mobile commerce sales in 2014, and app-savvy merchants such as Neiman Marcus and Victoria’s Secret credit as much as 60% of their mobile sales to their apps.

So while apps are no substitute for a solid mobile Web site, merchants may find they’re worth undertaking if they can design an experience that delivers unique functionality and efficiency, such as mobile payments or loyalty club features. As Burke describes it:

Retailers seeking committed users need to ensure their app provides shoppers with something of value. Think outside the desktop toward unique mobile-enhanced experiences rather than just replicating what your web site does. … When developing your app think, “What can only be done using a smartphone?”

As an example, Burke cites The Home Depot, which takes advantage of the portability of mobile devices and their built-in cameras to enable shoppers to “see” how products would look in their homes using an “augmented reality” app.

App example from Home Depot

In addition to detailing the pros and cons of apps, Burke offers advice to those merchants who still can’t see their way to prioritizing app development. By piggybacking on other successful apps, Burke says, brands can achieve visibility and forge customer connections.

Read the full Etail Blog article, and then let us know your app strategy and the rationale behind it.

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How to overcome security concerns for the holidays

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As merchants prepare for the 2015 holiday season, they’ll need to overcome lingering malaise about information and payment security. The good news is that online touchpoints can play a starring role in the effort.

Thanks to a series of high-profile security breaches since late 2013, from Target to Neiman Marcus to Michael’s to Home Depot, shoppers are jittery about the safety of their transactions, with repercussions for merchants’ bottom line. Fully 45% of all shoppers say they don’t trust merchants to keep  their information safe, according to the marketing firm Retail Perceptions; a third say they’ve hesitated to make purchases online due to security concerns, and 29% have been reluctant to make purchases at physical stores, according to BizRate Insights.

Of those who’ve actually experienced a data breach, more than a third say they’ll shop at the targeted retailer less frequently, and a third say they shared their experiences via social media. Of those who do persist with the brand whose data was breached, 26% say they intentionally spend less.

And lest merchants think the nervousness is confined to tech-averse oldsters, data from defense specialist Raytheon reveals that even Millennials (aged 18-24) are pessimistic about online data security. Four in five are concerned that personal information can be collected about them online, 77% worry about identity theft — and more than one in four have abandoned a shopping transaction due to security concerns.

If there’s a silver lining for eCommerce merchants, it’s that online shopping on desktop or laptop computers is actually considered the most secure shopping touchpoint, edging out brick-and-mortar stores by two percentage points, according to BizRate — likely because those big data breaches in the past year were via retail store point of sale terminals. Not surprisingly, mobile was considered the least secure, with 65% of shoppers saying merchants didn’t offer enough in the way of security for transacting and sharing information via their devices.

Perceptions of information security from BizRateCounteracting these negative perceptions and earning trust is crucial to winning sales, especially during the upcoming holiday season, when shoppers’ gift research could bring them into contact with new brands whose security track record is unknown.  While it’s likely too late to enact basic technology upgrades in support of PCI compliance, encryption and tokenization, there’s still time for merchants to make strides on the security front and spotlight their commitment to keeping shoppers’ information safe. Among the strategies:

Tighten internal controls — especially with an mPOS rollout. Revising and enforcing internal business rules that can close a substantial portion of security loopholes. Just 38% of breaches are caused by actual hacking from external sources, according to the Online Trust Alliance, whereas fully 29% arose from a lack of internal controls such as password policies, and 21% were caused by lost or stolen company devices, equipment or documents. Especially as more and more store associates begin using online brand resources and facilitating purchases via mobile points-of-sale, having security policies and procedures and taking them seriously are essential.

Adopt alternative payments. As we’ve stressed repeatedly over the years, alternative payments can allay shoppers’ fears by giving them a means to complete purchases without entering credit card data. Offering a quick shortcut through checkout is especially important for mobile shoppers, who not only need extra reassurance that their transactions are safe but also are hard-pressed to peck out numerous form fields using a handheld device’s keyboard.

Merchants who offer alternative payments should promote them well before the cart and checkout, so shoppers know they can complete their transactions safely and efficiently from the get-go. MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet promotes its affiliation with Visa Checkout prominently on the front page and even offers a promotional discount to those using the service.

Alt payment example from Sport ChaletEnable a saved cart. Give shoppers the flexibility to complete checkout wherever they most feel comfortable doing so. With desktop or laptop eCommerce sites perceived as least lacking in security features, mobile shoppers may well wait to complete orders until they get home.

Watch the horizon for still more options. Not only should merchants be considering mobile payments, especially in connection with their mobile apps and loyalty programs, but they should keep an eye out for further innovations as vendors jostle to offer the ultimate seamless-and-secure payment solution. One such cutting-edge technology employs facial recognition software to tie shoppers to their stored payment data using selfies snapped on a mobile phone. While futuristic-sounding, this payment method is already offered by the firm Etup on college campuses — and Chinese commerce giant Alibaba debuted “Smile to Pay” in March, with plans to launch it widely coming soon.

How do you put shoppers’ minds at ease when it comes to payment and personal information security?

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