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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4 ways to stay visible in Facebook’s news feed

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For many brands, Facebook is the default anchor of their social media strategy. But as with all social media, the direct ROI for Facebook has been difficult to prove — and with visibility via “organic” news feed posts on the decline, merchants must work harder than ever to reach their followers.

Facebook is popular with merchants largely due to its sheer critical mass. Some 71% of U.S. online adults use it, more than any other social network. Facebook is the site of choice for 79% of those who use only one social network, and of the 52% of online adults who use multiple networks, Facebook is in the mix for the vast majority of them: more than 85% of Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest users say they’re also on Facebook.

But Facebook has become increasingly problematic as the visibility has steadily dropped for unpaid business Page posts. Partly, the difficulty is a byproduct of Facebook’s massive popularity; as more brands join the social network and post ever more frequently, competition for news feed visibility has risen precipitously. The number of branded posts is up 31% in the first quarter of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to the Adobe Digital Index.

Partly in response to this growth, Facebook has taken two significant steps to prioritize non-commercial content. In mid-January, Facebook downgraded content deemed “too promotional”, including posts pushing purchases, downloads or sweepstakes entries and posts that mimicked ad content verbatim. Then, following an April announcement that coincided with with Google’s “mobilegeddon” update, Facebook gave top priority to original status updates from friends versus Pages, and, furthermore, downgraded notifications showing friend activity such as liking or commenting on other posts.

While the effects of Facebook’s April update have yet to be quantified, data for the first quarter shows that the January algorithm change alone has accounted for a significant drop in “organic” traffic to business Pages. Unpaid impressions for brand posts overall dropped a whopping 35% for the first quarter of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to the Adobe Digital Index. Specifically within retail, the rate of interaction with branded posts dropped 12% to 4.1%.

Given Facebook’s dominance, the changes are likely behind falling referrals to eCommerce sites from social media overall. In Q1, visits driven by social media dropped to 1%, down from 3% in the prior quarter and 2% a year ago, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.

index_socialcontribution_2015june

In our view, renewed skepticism toward Facebook is a healthy reaction to these new challenges. The key is to act on that impulse by analyzing the behaviors that lead to strong brand connections — and to determine whether and how Facebook can support those behaviors. Among the tactics to consider:

Smart segmentation for paid Facebook posts. In a way, Facebook’s changes suggests that merchants should undertake a similar shift to the one that’s already occurred in search engine marketing, where merchants have increasingly dropped their obsession with keyword-driven organic rankings and upped investment in paid search campaigns in response to Google’s algorithm changes.

Similarly, merchants may want to consider paid Facebook placements, with or without “buy” buttons attached, to make up for lost organic visibility — but, as with search, the key to ad effectiveness is to target relentlessly. Merchants undertaking paid Facebook ads should integrate social campaigns with data from Web analytics and CRM systems to connect followers (and would-be followers) with social ads tailored to their situations. Browse and cart abandonment remarketing, post-purchase promotion of complementary or replenishment items, and loyalty or membership club promotions can be effective social advertising strategies using Facebook’s Custom Audiences tool.

Activation of influential followers. With the most recent news feed adjustment, even followers’ “likes” of and comments on brand posts may not be enough to make the content show up in their friends’ feeds. So merchants need to go further to spur individuals to post their own original content about brands. A good place to start is with existing advocates — those brand followers who already “like” posts, share and pin products, write reviews and otherwise take an active role in social media. Engaging those individuals on a one-to-one basis and inviting them to up their involvement can result in the kind of traction that boost brand visibility in news feeds across the network.

MarketLive merchant Francesca’s uses its Facebook page to give props to style bloggers, who, in turn, give visibility to Francesca’s page and products in their coverage. Francesca’s own post featuring the blogger HapaGirl garnered 28 “likes”, while her own post and link to further blog coverage received more than 450 “likes” from her audience of more than 70,000.

Social example from Francesca's

Social example from Francesca's

Empowering customer service. We’ve touched before on the crucial role customer service plays in building brand reputation on social networks and beyond. Merchants should both promote stellar service on Facebook and promote examples of above-and-beyond care along with customer service offerings such as personal shoppers and free returns. Service-oriented content both reinforces followers’ allegiance and provides fodder for their own posts about the brand.

Integrate user-generated content everywhere. By featuring the customer voice throughout the shopping experience, not just on Facebook, merchants give followers incentive to use Facebook to link to eCommerce site content or to branded community resources they’ve helped build. MarketLive merchant Beachbody features the Beachbody Challenge, which rewards customers who submit testimonials with cash prizes, on its eCommerce site and on a dedicated Facebook page. Contestants are encouraged to solicit votes as part of the process, thereby creating a popularity contest that drives traffic to both the brand’s Facebook and eCommerce sites.

bbodychallenge2

How is your brand faring in the Facebook news feed? What strategies have proven successful for engaging followers and their friends?

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Why “easy” internationalization is still harder than it looks – and how to tackle it anyway

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As the middle of the year approaches and merchants start looking beyond the holidays to map out their core priorities for 2016, internationalization is high on the list for many. And with good reason: while U.S. online commerce is forecast to grow by a healthy 12% this year, and to average gains of 10% through 2019, other countries are experiencing more marked growth. Nascent markets in Asia and India are expected to see online sales jump by more than 20% by 2019, and even the relatively mature European market represents an opportunity to capture significant new audiences. While the United Kingdom’s eCommerce growth rate is forecast to average just 9.1% over the next three years, for example, those sales will represent 18% of all retail transactions in 2018. By comparison, in the same year in the U.S., online revenues are set to make up just 12% of retail sales.

When contemplating launch into new markets, merchants understandably cast their eyes first toward markets that seem “easier”: the Canada, the U.K., and Australia, where language and cultural barriers appear minimal. And these three countries represent a significant sales opportunity:

  • The U.K. is currently Europe’s largest eCommerce market, forecast to generate more than 56 billion Euros in revenue this year.
  • In Canada, year-over-year growth of 15% is forecast for the second year in a row in 2015, bringing total eCommerce revenues to more than 25 billion Canadian dollars. eCommerce giant Amazon has seized the opportunity, announcing this week that it now offers 100 million products through its Canadian site and speciality shopping hubs for fashion and shoes.
  • Australia is forecast to generate $28.9 billion in eCommerce revenues this year — with much of it in play for cross-border companies, thanks to a friendly duty-free import allowance.

But merchants tempted to jump into business abroad armed with little more than an eCommerce site in local currency should consider recent failures by some of the U.S.’s biggest brands. Target closed the last of its Canadian outlets in April after a two-year fiasco that included supply chain problems and a glaring lack of eCommerce. Coffee juggernaut Starbucks pulled out of Australia after products failed to resonate with local tastes. Best Buy ended efforts to expand into the U.K. in 2011 and ceased all European operations in 2013.  And, proving that cross-border difficulties go both ways, in 2013 U.K. retailer Tesco sold off its Fresh and Easy stores on the West coast of the U.S.

These high-profile flops suggest that even English-speaking countries represent a significant expansion challenge for U.S. brands. Subtle but significant cultural differences abound; fulfillment and supply chain logistics are complicated by geographic distance and legal fine print; and in Canada, merchants must develop a strategy for serving the 22% of the population claiming French as their mother tongue — including 80% of residents in Canada’s second-largest city, Montreal.

Among the factors merchants must consider before making the leap:

Mobile readiness. In many parts of the world, mobile is even more ubiquitous than in the U.S., with some populations using mobile devices as their primary means of accessing the Web. In Australia, one in five consumers researches purchases on smartphones at least weekly, while 16% report making purchases. By 2018, 49% of all European online retail transactions are forecast to take place on mobile devices; the U.K. specifically is set to see an average growth rate of 36% year over year. That means a “mobile-first” strategy must not only be an ideal, but concrete reality for merchants wishing to expand abroad; they must offer full-featured mobile sites on a par with local competitors. In the U.K., department store Debenhams offers a rich mobile experience, complete with reviews and easy-to-scan delivery information, and also gives shoppers the option of app downloads that incorporate barcode scanning in stores and tracking loyalty club points for beauty purchases.

debenhams

Order fulfillment nimbleness. In densely-populated areas, two-day shipping can be the norm, with some brands offering same-day delivery as a differentiating service. Merchants must weigh whether they can compete on local terms using their own supply and delivery networks, and at what cost. In Canada, the postal service has been a key player in online commerce shipment options. A new service gives shoppers the ability to direct individual orders to post offices for pickup, while the Delivered Tonight program has been in operation since 2013 offering same-day shipping in greater Toronto and Vancouver — a service Amazon is now matching.

Canada-Post-Mastermind-Toys-150x150

“Lite” alternatives. We’ve previously addressed how brands can test the waters abroad by offering international shipping from U.S. sites and selling in marketplaces internationally. Merchants should also delve into local social media sites to build interest and check out the competition; that might mean establishing outposts on sites still nascent in the U.S., such as mobile/social messaging services in Asia. Merchants can also consider using new “buy” button alternatives on social media and mobile search as an alternative to launching full-fledged eCommerce efforts.

MarketLive merchant Ylang 23 relies on Borderfree to fulfill shipments to more than 100 countries. The integration includes localized currency sitewide and duties and taxes calculated in checkout.

ylang_ship

Whose “boots on the ground” can help. Brands opting to launch full-fledged eCommerce efforts should either establish their own base of operations in target countries, or consider partnerships that can provide access to native knowledge of the local industry, trends and culture. Agencies, fulfillment partners, distributors, technology providers and manufacturers’ retail outlets can all provide valuable insights and best practices.

Local privacy laws and norms.  As we’ve touched on previously, European sites must now disclose use of cookies to track shopping behavior, a mandate merchants considering U.K. expansion must mind. But beyond the letter of the law, merchants should understand what data collection practices are considered acceptable and adhere to local standards. By some counts, Europe and Asia are more lax in attitudes toward privacy; fully 86% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Consumers have lost control of their privacy,” while only 76% of European and 74% of Asia-Pacific consumers did so.

Are you operating internationally, or do you plan to make the leap in 2016? How and why?

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Sorting hype from reality for digital store success – new whitepaper

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With more than half of all retail transactions now affected by the Web and nearly 70% of consumers using their mobile devices to access online content while in stores, retailers recognize the importance of connecting online and offline brand offerings.

In the rush, merchants and media are understandably drawn to a flashy blend of nascent technologies that range from location tracking to interactive tabletop and glass surfaces to facial-recognition software. The ensuing vision of connected stores conjures a well-known scene from the movie “The Minority Report,” where omnipresent retinal scanners feed data to hologram images that call to mall shoppers by name and attempt to engage them by referencing past purchases.

minorityreportFor most merchants, though, implementing these futuristic technologies would be putting the cart before the horse. Their expense and experimental nature means return on investment may prove elusive. Furthermore, for consumers, the prospect of being tracked as they move through physical store spaces may not be as alluring as it is invasive; on mobile platforms, for example, 42% of consumers say businesses accessing their geographic location is an invasion of privacy. As we’ve discussed previously, the potential for alienating shoppers rather than winning sales is very real.

Instead, the digital store initiatives with proven positive impact on sales – whether they occur online or offline – are more down-to-earth, and build on the existing qualities that have the potential to differentiate brands in a crowded marketplace. While they still entail significant investment and a complete embrace of mobile technologies, real-world digital store priorities should be an extension and expansion of current activities.

Make no mistake – even the most practical digital store initiatives represent a fundamental shift in how retailers conduct business. By letting the consumers’ quest for information and seamless service drive digital store priorities, merchants must let go of traditional internal divisions, make unprecedented investments in store staff and technology, and upgrade key online features and content to satisfy shoppers’ expectations.

MarketLive’s new eBook outlines three core principles to guide merchants’ digital store initiatives:

  • Embrace, don’t fear, online shopping in-store – the evidence suggests empowered store shoppers buy more, not less.
  • Be aware of privacy concerns – merchants must stay on the right side of the line between relevance and creepiness.
  • Store associates should be central to digital store strategy – they hold the key to unlocking a seamless shopping experience that martials all available brand resources.

Additionally, the report delineates best practices for dissolving the divide between online and offline experiences in two key areas:

  • Product selection – a completely transparent view of the brand’s entire inventory gives shoppers maximum flexibility.
  • Customer service – by providing context-relevant, proactive service, brands can build lasting connections with shoppers.

Download the eBook now to read up on key strategies and real-world examples. And let us know: how have you integrated digital and store initiatives?

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MarketLive news: unlocking data for unified commerce success

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For months we’ve stressed the need for relevant and unified commerce — a cohesive shopping experience built on a foundation of consistent product, price and promotional information that’s tailored to the touchpoint and the individual, taking into account all their interactions with the brand regardless of where and when they occur.

That lofty goal is now within closer reach for MarketLive’s merchants, thanks to two innovations announced at this week’s IRCE show in Chicago, both of which enable seamless data exchange to provide the most relevant experience possible.

ML API

Launched into public release yesterday, the ML API is a RESTful web service that allows real-time access and data exchange between MarketLive and external data sources.

The ML API enables access by front-end apps to information such as inventory levels, product descriptions, pricing, customer preferences, order history, loyalty points, and any other contextually-related content that is held within the MarketLive Engine.

“Customers asked us to free MarketLive data in the system for use throughout the entire organization,“ said Ken Burke, founder and CEO of MarketLive Inc. “And this delivers the right balance of data exchange that our fast growing commerce customers and partners told us they want and need as they succeed moving forward.”

Using the ML API, MarketLive merchants can:

  • Syndicate their data anywhere, and create dynamic profiles
  • Target ads more accurately by enabling MarketLive data access by ad networks
  • Sell anywhere, pulling product data into content or community sites to cross-sell or upsell
  • Enable access to MarketLive data for partners developing their own apps

ML-360

Complementing the data exchange with external data sources provided by ML API, MarketLive announced this morning the launch of ML-360, which provides merchants with a 360-degree profile of customer browsing and purchase behavior by capturing and analyzing consumer behavior online and offline, and combining previously disparate backend data silos.

MarketLive’s ML-360 answers the need for retailers to convert more online browsers into buyers, to grow one-time buyers into repeat purchasers, and to retain valuable lifetime customers.

ML-360 was developed in partnership with AgilOne, whose predictive technology empowers marketers to execute highly targeted acquisition, growth and loyalty campaigns. AgilOne’s predictive marketing technology uses fuzzy matching and other sophisticated algorithms to ‘connect the dots’ among customer data to find incremental sales opportunities through highly targeted offers based on profile behavior.

Luxury footwear and accessories brand Donald J Pliner, a MarketLive merchant, leveraged AgilOne’s capabilities to merge its customers’ digital and physical identities into complete customer profiles, creating a unified view of its customers for the first time. The brand was then able to identify a forgotten segment of repeat buyers and launch successful reactivation campaigns targeting them. The company was also able to identify VIP customers, understand their repeat purchase patterns and communicate with this important segment at the right times. As a result of these and other strategies, the company’s online revenue has grown by nearly 50 percent over the past two years.

Donald J Pliner example

To learn more, read the official releases:

And, if you’re at IRCE, stop by MarketLive’s booth (#1601) for further details.

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Checklist: making the most of user-generated social content

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User-generated content on branded social media outposts is highly valued — but for many merchants, the reasons why remain murky. Often, the utility of endorsements, photo submissions and home-made video clips starts and ends with nebulous terms such as “engagement” and “credibility,” as merchants struggle to articulate the concrete value of letting shoppers articulate in their own words and images how brand offerings meet their needs.

Less than a third of merchants use social content curation tools to parse incoming feeds; of those, just 5% cite revenue generation as a primary goal of social curation efforts, versus the 50% who say they use the tools to generate customer insights, according to technology researcher Forrester.

But by now, merchants can — and should — have directly-attributable sales within their sights when it comes to user-generated social content. Brands that have connected user contributions with relevant offers and products leading to the “buy” button have boosted sales significantly; New Balance’s #hknd photo campaign, for example, led to a 39% increase in sales for the duration of the campaign, according to Forrester.

Harnessing the power of user-generated social content is even more important in the runup to the all-important year-end sales push, when shoppers turn to social media for gift inspiration. Close to half of shoppers prior to the 2014 holidays said they would both look to social networks for gift ideas and heed referrals from family and friends, according to the MarketLive/E-Tailing Group 2014 Consumer Shopping Survey.

To begin syncing users’ social content with concrete commerce opportunities, merchants should:

Lay the privacy and permission groundwork. The ability to repurpose user-generated content into promotional campaign material starts with securing the permission to do so. Merchants should be transparent about their intent when it comes to gathering user submissions via social media contests and hashtag campaigns, and include a prominent disclaimer — not one buried deep in contest rules or the privacy policy — about their reserving the right to use images for promotional purposes.

In addition to crafting blanket usage policies for contests and hashtags, merchants should also seek explicit permission from individual users for images and content they plan to repurpose extensively. Birch Lane uses vendor Piqora to solicit opt-in permission for re-use of images from Instagram with the hashtag #yesbirchlane.

Permission example from Birch Lane

Align user-submitted content with call-to-action pages. Integration of user-submitted social content with actionable product information is the foundation on which monetizing social media is built. Merchants must develop the means to link social followers smoothly and seamlessly to products and transactional capabilities — whether using the new generation of built-in “buy” buttons developing a custom feed of user contributions for display on eCommerce product pages, or inserting product links into streams of user-generated content, as MarketLive merchant Armani Exchange does in The Credits. The eCommerce site content area features meticulously-curated endorsements and “as seen in” magazine editorial citations mixed with candid social media photos. Product links are displayed beneath the image caption and credit; when clicked, a separate window opens the full product page for the item in question.

The Credits from Armani Exchange

User submission from Armani Exchange's The Credits

Even without a sophisticated method for integrating social content and eCommerce product information, merchants can go a long way toward driving social commerce with savvy linking policies that prioritize product promotion. MarketLive merchant Francesca’s showcases fashion bloggers’ stylings on its Facebook page, using the platform’s tagging mechanism to gain visibility on the bloggers’ timelines while pointing the URL within the post to the featured product on the Francesca’s eCommerce site.

Francesca's Facebook exampleConnect to events IRL. Merchants should invite social submissions in connection with in-store and other offline events, which have a built-in audience of potential contributors. Showcasing the content they generate can both inspire other social followers to explore the products and topics the event featured, and can give contributors an opportunity to check back for ongoing follow-up information and relevant offers.

Throttle user-submitted vs. brand lifestyle content to achieve critical mass. While some brands have legions of committed and active social followers to fuel campaigns, most merchants will achieve critical mass more quickly, at least at the outset, by creating a blended environment that features the best of user-submitted content alongside brand expertise and product promotions. MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet has built a series of robust communities focused on individual sports and recreational activities, showcasing user-contributed social content, learning videos and expert profiles interwoven with featured products.

Community example from Sport Chalet

How are you integrating user-generated social content with sales opportunities?

 

 

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“Buy Now,” “Buy Now” everywhere, but no customers to gain?

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The rumor that Google is preparing to debut a “buy” button for search ads on mobile devices has set off a flurry of speculation and recommendations for merchants. But the search giant is just the latest big online player to join the race to provide a shortcut on the path to purchase. Merchants should not only evaluate the options and prepare to experiment; they should acknowledge that these initiatives send clear messages about the shortcomings of their own commerce offerings.

Like Google, Pinterest is rumored to have a “buy” button in the works, while Facebook and Twitter both officially announced initiatives in the past year. Both are still in limited release, with Facebook “buy” buttons popping up occasionally and Twitter’s offering most often seen for event ticketing so far.

Buy button example from Facebook

As merchants evaluate these new options, they should keep in mind the balancing act required to successfully sell on marketplaces without undermining their brands, and determine:

  • What customer information, if any, the host of the “buy” button will share with merchants
  • Which entity conducts the financial transaction
  • What branding elements, if any, will be displayed with the product and transactional content
  • How they’ll pay the “buy” button host. Google is rumored to be integrating the “buy” button into its pay per click search ads, thereby raising the prospect of intense bidding wars to own the “buy” button for popular terms.

But over and above the immediate strategic concerns, the dash to roll out “buy” buttons has other repercussions. Tech titans Google and Facebook are likely using the initiatives, in part, to vie for total Internet dominance, with Amazon and eBay in their sights; and all three social networks are likely scurrying for the “buy” button as a means of demonstrating concretely the ROI of social media.

But there’s a still larger message for merchants to ponder, which is how their own offerings have fallen short and created the void Google and others now seek to fill. While few foresaw just how quickly mobile changed the shopping landscape, merchants’ past decisions to silo eCommerce as just another sales channel alongside — but not integrated with — retail or catalog operations rendered their organizations less nimble when the time came to adapt. With more than 40% of retail traffic to eCommerce sites now coming from mobile devices, but generating barely more than a quarter of online retail revenue, according to the MarketLive Performance Index, the gap was too large for tech giants to ignore.

So while it’s unrealistic to forgo experimenting with the new slew of “buy” buttons, merchants should simultaneously tend to their own brand offerings. Specifically, they should:

Go responsive — in the code and beyond. Merchants should consider responsive design techniques as the best current solution to standardizing the purchase experience across touchpoints, including sharing the alternative-payment options that could rival the convenience of being able to pay with Google. But beyond committing to the design and programming investment responsive design entails, merchants should also adopt a nimble mindset for their businesses that endeavors to break down barriers between online and offline operations so that future changes can be taken in stride.

Evaluate what success on social media looks like for their unique brand, and act accordingly.  While the lack of revenue directly attributable to social media has long been problematic for merchants, that doesn’t mean they should automatically begin plastering Facebook “buy” buttons on all their product promotions. After all, with the convenience of in-Facebook purchasing comes a loss in direct connection with the customer, which should be balanced in the equation. And merchants should recall that early “f-commerce” attempts by large brands such as J.C. Penney, Gamestop and The Gap were all shuttered within a year due to lackluster results.

Former f-commerce experiment by JCPWhether shoppers are now more apt to buy via social media, and whether the improved efficiency of having payment data stored by Facebook will spur sales, remains to be seen. Before merchants enact “buy” buttons, they should gauge the degree of engagement of their brands’ social followers and whether they’re inclined to try the new service in the first place.

Develop online “express lanes” for returning customers. While lifestyle content, product imagery and videos, and comprehensive product information are all invaluable, merchants should also devise ways to enable ultra-efficient reordering for those customers who already know what they want and just want to get it, without paging through a lot of additional information. Merchants should consider offering automated replenishment or subscription services; use social login to speed access to stored account information; and even enable shoppers to pre-set how they’d like to handle refills to speed future orders, in the style of Amazon’s new Dash button. The gizmo is receiving mixed reviews in its limited release so far, but enables Amazon Prime members to customize recurring orders of products from participating manufacturers and make those purchases without using a screen at all.

Amazon dash promo video

Optimize paid search spending now for targeted “buy” button bids in the future. With paid search spending on the rise, spurred largely by product listing ads, merchants are already in competition to win prime spots on mobile devices for top keywords — a contest that may only intensify once “buy” buttons are added to the mix. Merchants should do their utmost to target paid search campaigns so that they can easily add or subtract the “buy” button to segmented product groups.

Which new “buy” buttons have you tried, if any — and why? How are they performing?

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Why B2B sellers must begin thinking like B2C merchants – webinar preview

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By now, most B2B brands recognize that the Internet has upended the world of corporate purchasing. Customers who once relied on printed catalogs and placed orders through sales reps are increasingly ordering online using self-service tools, using mobile devices for research, and sharing feedback on suppliers via social media.  As a result, B2B online sales are forecast to top $1.1 trillion by 2020, comprising 12% of all B2B sales. To put those numbers in perspective, the forecasted revenues for B2B eCommerce this year total $780 billion, more than double the $334 billion projected for all of direct-to-consumer retail sales online.

In response to this burgeoning growth, business-to-business providers are stepping up investment in online initiatives.  Half of B2B executives in 2013 said they would upgrade their core eCommerce platform by this year, compared with just 12% of eBusiness executives overall.

Initial reports from those who’ve begun focusing on digital initiatives are positive. B2B executives report that customers who’ve migrated online are more likely to try new offerings, make repeat purchases, and spend more than offline-only customers. Simultaneously, the costs are lower to support purchasers taking advantage of self-service online tools; in fact, 56% of vendors report they now service customers who would otherwise have been too expensive to support via traditional offline models.

With such clear signals from the marketplace and the industry, many B2B merchants can rationalize investment in their online offerings. But when it comes to mapping exactly how to invest, the devil is in the details. Best practices abound from the world of B2C eCommerce, which has a decades-long track record compared with many online B2B providers, 45% of whom have been selling products or services online for five years or fewer.

But as B2B vendors strive to follow along, they encounter the same problems many B2C merchants face – a huge array of potential priorities and a seemingly-overwhelming rate of change within the marketplace. Just a few of the challenges B2B providers must contend with:

A merging B2B/B2C marketplace. Some of the largest names in B2C commerce, such as Amazon and Google, are playing a growing role in B2B purchasing. As in direct-to-consumer eCommerce, Amazon is emerging as a force to be reckoned with, having just relaunched and renamed its B2B site, Amazon Business. Fully 45% of B2B purchasers say they’ve purchased on the Amazon site, and a quarter of those report using it frequently. Among younger corporate buyers, Amazon is even more popular: fully 82% of those age 35 or younger say they’re aware of Amazon Business, 63% say they’ve purchased there at least once, and 40% do so frequently.

amazonbusiness

The exponential growth of mobile.  While less than half of B2B executives currently report that even 10% of their online revenues come from mobile devices, workers are increasingly using multiple devices on the job. That means B2B vendors can expect to see the same “mobile-first” shift already underway in B2C eCommerce, where the majority of brand interactions occur via mobile touchpoints. B2B vendors are cognizant of the need to adapt, with 58% reporting that mobile functionality is a top investment priority.

Growing expectations for seamless, unified experiences across touchpoints. While shoppers appreciate the convenience of being able to shop via a variety of touchpoints, research shows they also crave consistency when it comes to products, pricing and promotions. When asked which aspects of the shopping experience should be consistent, participants in the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey ranked product pricing, free shipping policies, and other promotions as the three key areas where they sought a standardized approach.  For B2B brands, that means connecting call center and catalog operations with the eCommerce site, as well as giving sales reps on the road insights into customers’ online activities.

To learn how B2B sellers are grappling with these changes — and what they must do to succeed — register for MarketLive’s webinar next Wednesday, May 20, at 10 a.m. PDT. The session will cover Amazon Business and other non-traditional competitors, examine trends affecting the B2B industry, and recommend three core strategies to shape priorities for 2015-2016. And download the companion whitepaper, which includes detailed research and makes a persuasive case for why B2B brands should “go B2C”.

What B2C principles have proven successful for your B2B business?

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Tilting at windmills: the hopeless but crucial quest to reduce cart abandonment

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In our previous post reviewing first-quarter results from the MarketLive Performance Index, we discussed the performance impact of mobile’s exponential growth and showed how it’s worth taking a deeper dive into the numbers before blaming mobile for lagging KPIs.

While in that post we specifically addressed engagement metrics, the mobile performance gap that’s most widely lamented is cart abandonment. While the 70.6% cart abandonment rate achieved via computer browsers isn’t ideal, it’s far lower than on smartphones, at 84.6%. As a result, the overall Index abandonment rate rose 1.4% year over year to 76.0% — an all-time high.

mlpi_abandonmenttrend

It’s easy to blame these disheartening results on the growing share of shopping visits attributed to mobile phones. But, as is the case with engagement, a closer look reveals that there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

The bad news: cart abandonment may never drop, regardless of how much optimization merchants undertake.  The good news: if handled right, abandonment can become a mere detour on the path to purchase, not an irredeemable disaster.

While the shift to mobile is an underlying factor, the rise in cart abandonment rate reflects a larger trend in consumer behavior. As increasingly-savvy consumers do more research for online and offline purchases, and as they continue to shop across a growing array of digital and offline touchpoints, their journey to purchase has become more circuitous. At one time, high shipping costs far outranked all the other reasons why shoppers left items in the shopping cart. Now, while shipping costs remain the top hurdle to purchase, causing 58% of shoppers to abandon sales, that percentage is followed closely by the 57% of shoppers who use the cart to research total order costs, and the 55% who say they just wanted to save items for later.   Indeed, a whopping three quarters of those who’ve abandoned carts say they actually intend to return to the same site to complete purchases.

Closing the gap between that intent and action is merchants’ new challenge, and one that’s formidable in its own right. In this light, optimizing sites to the utmost remains crucial, but as a way to facilitate — rather than prevent — come-and-go activity, and to ensure that once ready, consumers encounter no obstacles to closing the sale.

Among the measures to deploy:

Support researchers with “save” tools. Given the rising rates at which shoppers use the cart as a research tool, merchants should adopt an “if you can beat them, join them” mentality and ensure that potential customers can easily pick up where they left off, across devices. Easing the wish list creation and sharing process can potentially divert would-be abandoners into using an alternate tool for saving items of interest. But merchants should also consider implementing an explicit “save cart” feature within the shopping cart itself, tying it to a painless signup process — ideally featuring social login — that presents a swift way to access saved items later via mobile or computer.  “Email cart” and “print cart” functions can provide further alternatives for shoppers to store and retrieve product information.

Merchants who optimize their wish lists and shopping carts for researchers should promote the amped-up features — especially a few months from now, when the holiday season begins to ramp up. In 2014, MarketLive merchant Nancy’s Notions promoted wish list creation in an email that asked, “You know what you want. But does everyone else?” The message additionally highlighted top wish list picks — both encouraging shoppers to use the tool and displaying items they might want to add right away.

nancysnotions_wishlistpromo

Personalized remarketing email. Merchants are increasingly employing remarketing tactics to entice back shoppers who’ve left the site without completing purchases. In 2014, more than a third of merchants in the Internet Retailer Top 500 and Second 500 used abandoned cart emails to recover sales – a 36.7% increase over 2013, according to Listrak. These campaigns are effective, enjoying an average conversion rate of more than 20% — five times higher than a standard promotional campaign.

In order to maximize their effectiveness, abandoned cart notification emails should be as personalized as possible.  Messages that picture the exact item(s) left behind in the cart had a 25% higher transaction rate than those that merely employed a text link back to the brand site, according to Experian. If possible, merchants should include SKU specific images and product details, and personalize messaging further by letting shoppers know whether items are available at nearby outlets. Regardless of personalization capabilities, all merchants should use abandonment emails to message any free shipping offers or free site-to-store services, as well as customer service contact information and value-added content related to the product or the category.

Social media for retargeting. We’ve touched before on the effectiveness of retargeting campaigns that “follow” shoppers across the Internet after departing from a brand’s Web site. While there’s a tricky balance to achieve to avoid seeming creepy, these ads can be effective — and social media presents a low-pressure way to spur further engagement when shoppers are likely at leisure, catching up on the latest news from their feeds and receptive to reminders about shopping they have yet to finish. Although less than half of marketers currently use social retargeting, more than two-thirds say they plan to increase investments in the coming year, according to Marin Software.

MarketLive merchant Intermix invites past browsers to connect with the brand by displaying previously-browsed items and reinforcing brand messaging with text that promises followers will have access to “exclusive designer pieces.”

intermix_remarket_facebook

A relentless focus on lowering *checkout* abandonment. While reducing cart abandonment may not be possible, checkout abandonment is another matter altogether. After all, by entering checkout, shoppers are signaling a clear intent to purchase, and any deviation from the path merchants lay out for them should be studied closely. To ensure the order process is frictionless, merchants should give their analytics tools a workout by creating fallout reports by device to gain insight into which steps present hurdles on mobile devices as well as on computers. In their analysis they should include secondary checkout paths, such as those for registered users and those employing alternative payments.

As we’ve written previously, checkout is an area where mobile is, indeed, lagging. In the latest Performance Index, checkout abandonment on smartphones was a whopping 59%, compared with 36.6% on computer-based browsers — a significant gap. To improve, merchants should incorporate proven best practices into their mobile offerings, including guest checkout, alternative payments and ample customer service messaging, and do their utmost to streamline the number of steps and required text input fields. Using responsive design to deliver a uniform experience across touchpoints can help merchants significantly improve mobile checkout usability.

How are you combating abandonment?

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Performance Index: Focus on first impressions to boost allover growth

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MarketLive Performance Index results are in for the first quarter of 2015, and the data shows continued exponential growth for smartphone activity, with year-over-year traffic growing 269% and revenue growing 123%, to account for 12% of all online transactions.

Merchants need look no further than the Index to justify investment in mobile optimization — not just because of the growth, but because of the missed opportunities evidenced by higher abandonment rates and lower conversion rates, both driven by the larger proportion of activity on smartphones, where orders result in just 1% of visits and abandonment hovers near 85%.

But while it’s undeniable that performance on smartphones overall lags behind computers and tablets, it’s clear that improvement is needed across the board if merchants are to continue seeing gains. In fact, when it comes to key metrics, smartphones were actually the devices to show improvement compared with computers and tablets. While conversion on smartphones is still just 1%, that’s an improvement of nearly 136% over 2014, while on computers, the conversion rate fell by 12%.

Nowhere is this improvement discrepancy more obvious than when it comes to engagement metrics prior to the add-to-cart. The “bounce” or “1-and-out” rate, showing the percent of visits ending after a single page, grew by 19% to 42.6% of all visits — meaning that more than 4 in 10 visits are ending before shoppers have an opportunity to explore sites in depth, much less add items to a cart or make purchases. In tandem with this shift, time on site dropped by 20% and the number of pages viewed per visit dropped 11.4%.

One might assume that these changes were wrought by mobile users, whose on-the-go attention spans are limiting opportunities for deep brand engagement — but in fact, the opposite is true. The bounce rate for smartphones was 41.7%, an improvement of 4% compared with 2014. On computers, by contrast, the bounce rate was 42.6%, up by more than a third from 2014, when the bounce rate was 31.4%. The lowest bounce rate was on tablets, which scored 40.1% — but that figure represents a 19.2% increase from 2014. Similarly, the number of pages per visit grew on smartphones, but dropped on both tablets and computers; while time on site dropped across the board, the loss was steepest on computers, which saw a 21.5% decrease, compared with a 1.6% drop on smartphones.

mlpi_2015q1_engagement

On the one hand, the performance improvement on smartphones and decline on computers can partly be attributed to the overall shift toward mobile buying behavior; as more savvy, serious shoppers with intent to buy move their activities onto mobile devices, performance is bound to improve.

 

But the discrepancy might also be attributed to tunnel vision on the part of merchants, who are striving so hard to improve smartphone experiences that they’re neglecting the brand’s offerings on other touchpoints. That’s a mistake — firstly because the bulk of purchases are still coming from shoppers on computers. Additionally, a less device-specific outlook that focuses on touchpoint-agnostic strategies will best serve merchants in the long run; fixating on the latest device on the rise can inhibit merchants from thinking holistically to enable successful engagement with brands wherever consumers choose to shop.

 

To create brand experiences that are engaging across devices, merchants should:

Go responsive, and do it right. We’re advocates of responsive design as a technique for serving shoppers across devices; not only does it lay a sound foundation for future adaptation to devices as yet unknown, but it gives merchants a significant SEO advantage; Google explicitly recommends responsive design, although the recent ‘Mobilegeddon’ algorithm change doesn’t give higher priority to responsive sites.

At the same time, we’ve cautioned that responsive done poorly can be damaging and costly. To serve the most relevant experiences to shoppers across devices, a one-size-fits-all framework is unlikely to succeed; indeed, our research revealed that the majority of responsive sites employ so-called ‘hybrid’ techniques that serve variations in code depending on the screen size or device type. (Read our whitepaper “The ROI of Responsive Design” for more insights.) Merchants undertaking responsive projects should front-load their projects with ample research to guide decisions about breakpoints and coding methodologies so that they can support the level of complexity their shoppers desire — on computers as well as mobile devices.

Make landing pages work all the angles. Merchants should use their analytics tools to identify their top entry pages and optimize them so they provide shoppers with as comprehensive a glimpse as possible of the brand’s offerings — especially showcasing differentiating customer service features such as product guarantees or popular promotions such as free shipping with a threshold. And, of course, the landing pages merchants designate for advertising campaigns should not only mirror the ad copy text, but present shoppers with options beyond the main offer so that they can explore more deeply in the site.

MarketLive merchant BeachBody presents paid search ad visitors and those clicking on natural search results links alike with full-featured product pages that present rich content and highlight the brand’s money-back guarantee, along with ratings for its fitness programs and compelling customer testimonials. A product comparison tool helps shoppers discern among the product offerings.

beachbody_landingpage

Create custom categories and content to match popular terms. To ensure that navigation pathways through site offerings that match shoppers’ intentions, merchants should audit their internal site search logs, as well as inbound natural search terms, and glean potential new labels or classifications. Thematic and seasonal terms and searches for popular brand terms and SKUs give merchants input as to which product and services should be highlighted and which areas deserve further content enhancement.

As merchants respond to shoppers’ input, they should ensure that new content pages and amped-up product pages are given prominence in paid campaigns, social media posts and email promotions, so that they gain maximum visibility with shoppers. A “you asked, we delivered” type campaign can even highlight how the brand is responding to its customers’ priorities — boosting brand reputation while also inviting shoppers to engage. MarketLive merchant Perricone MD used email to highlight a shopper-driven promotion featuring an “original collection at unprecedented value” for its UK subscribers. The email highlights differentiating perks such as free samples and 30-day returns, further incentivizing viewers to click through to the site.

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Download the Q1 2015 Performance Index report for detailed data and industry-specific results, and view the official press release for a further summary.

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