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

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.

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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?

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

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?

Performance Index: Focus on first impressions to boost allover growth

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.

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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.

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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.

5 ways to buy time post-“Mobilegeddon”

By now, Google’s much-anticipated “Mobilegeddon” algorithm change has rolled out completely, and some retailers are feeling the pain. Hours after the changes took effect on Tuesday, SEO site Search Engine Watch reported that retailer American Apparel had slipped in natural search results for mobile users, and reports of other changes in rankings have started trickling in as the week-long implementation takes effect.

On the one hand, it’s hard to have much sympathy. Despite the alarm bells being rung this week all over the media, the shift toward favoring sites with mobile-friendly content has been in the cards for a long time. Not only did Google first announce the April 21 change in February, giving merchants months to prepare, but the search engine giant has been moving inexorably in this direction over the past year. As we’ve discussed previously, prior algorithm adjustments favoring “contextual search” cues prioritized sites attuned to mobile users; the addition last November of the “mobile-friendly” badge was another sign of Google’s intent. On the paid search side, refinements of Google Shopping policies and parameters to favor mobile-friendly ads and landing pages further indicated that Google has made mobile effectiveness a top goal.

And, of course, Google isn’t making this shift in a vacuum. Most merchants need only look at their eCommerce site analytics to recognize the impact mobile devices have had on shopping. As we’ve reported previously, more than 40% of holiday visits and 25% of holiday revenues were attributed to mobile devices and the majority of marketing emails are viewed first via mobile devices — just two of the reasons we’ve long urged merchants to adopt mobile as a top priority.

At the same time, we appreciate that small- to mid-sized merchants especially face significant resource challenges when it comes to optimizing their sites for mobile shoppers. Because of its prominence, perhaps Tuesday’s change will serve as a catalyst for merchants playing catch-up to commit to a “mobile first” philosophy. As MarketLive CEO Ken Burke said in a recent article for ROI Magazine titled “How Mobile is Changing SEO”,

“Google’s algorithm update puts new urgency on the proposition and promises to widen the revenue growth gap between retailers that have embraced the mobile shopping revolution and those that haven’t.”

Luckily, those who’ve found their mobile search rankings compromised since Tuesday have a few quick options for recovering their standing while they work to further perfect their mobile offerings. Among the ways to regain visibility:

Up mobile paid search spend via PLAs. Google’s paid Product Listing Ads continue to soar in popularity, and their prominence within mobile search and image-centric format give merchants an opportunity to win back visibility if natural search results are sagging. The hitch: Google gives priority to paid placements with mobile-friendly landing pages, so merchants should optimize images and content accordingly to maximize their chances for a successful campaign. And, of course, depending on merchants’ paid search budgets, this workaround can prove an expensive proposition as anything other than a temporary measure.

Piggyback on mobile-friendly sites for visibility. While the flagship eCommerce site may need further mobile optimization, brand outposts on social media and in third-party marketplaces may well earn the coveted “mobile-friendly” badge. Major players such as Facebook and eBay are mobile-optimized to the hilt, and can give merchants a leg-up in visibility as a result via a boosted investment in marketplace listings, usage of social login and social sharing tools, and of course fresh and relevant content on brand social outposts.

Optimize the top 20%. Because the new algorithm assigns “mobile-friendly” status at the page level, merchants can still benefit even if they must adopt a piecemeal approach. Even if the numbers don’t hew exactly to the 80/20 rule, a large majority of merchants’ revenues and traffic are likely to be generated by a relatively small percentage of products and pages. Merchants should identify their most popular products, categories and content and set about creating mobile-optimized versions, if they don’t exist already. To justify further mobile optimization beyond the first batch of upgrades, merchants should track results — in search results rankings as well as in visits and revenue.

Streamline code. Removing mobile-only “page not found” errors and replacing them with appropriate mobile redirects, stripping out calls to content that’s potentially unplayable on mobile devices such as Flash-based video, and removing interstitial ads prompting mobile users to download the brand’s app all count in merchants’ favor in the new algorithm. For a detailed list of code-level changes that can help enhance search rankings, download MarketLive’s “April 2015 Google Mobile SEO Algorithm Update and Reference Guide.”

Boost site speed. As we’ve previously discussed, mobile site speed plays a crucial role in consumers’ expectations, and it’s a factor in search ranking overall as well. As part of their code-streamlining exercise, merchants should strip out obsolete tags, establish a speed-friendly page structure, and consider using a content delivery network if they don’t have one already. For a more detailed list of site speed fixes, read Ken Burke’s contribution to the eTailing Blog titled “Top Speed Hacks for Better Mobile Experiences.”

Of course, these quick fixes will only get merchants so far. To serve shoppers on a variety of devices — as well as to enhance their “mobile-friendly” status in Google — they should consider upgrading to responsive design as a longer-term solution and adopt a mobile-first outlook to stay abreast of shopping changes that go beyond the search engine.

How has “Mobilegeddon” affected your site, if at all?

Social media watch: Go visual or go home

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you maximizing the visual impact of social networks?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early holiday example from Modell's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The item to drop from your 2015 priority list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is the prospect of mobile payments affecting your priorities?

Research update: 2 resources for mobile commerce optimization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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