Guest post: Creating a seamless omnichannel loyalty experience

Alinn Louv of Social Annex Marketing, a member of the MarketLive Agency Network,  contributed this post.

By now, most merchants know that consumers expect to shop across touchpoints. And they also recognize the importance of improving loyalty.   After all, it costs 6-7 times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. Perhaps that’s why from 2008-2012, loyalty programs grew by 10% each year.

But it’s not enough to award shoppers points for purchases; to meet the needs of the always-connected consumer, merchants must develop an omnichannel loyalty strategy that caters to customers – and entices them to make repeat purchases — wherever they interact with the brand. We’ve come up with a four- step plan to help you develop and implement your loyalty strategy across all channels for a seamless experience for your shoppers.

1. Create a seamless mobile experience. As of last year, more than half of all American adults own a smartphone (Pew). More and more consumers are starting to shop online either through a mobile device or tablet, with the time spent on mobile surpassing time spent on desktops last year (eMarketer).Of those mobile users, nearly three-quarters say it’s important that websites are mobile-friendly (Search Engine Watch). So the first step in moving toward an omnichannel experience is creating a mobile experience. Make your site mobile friendly, with large visuals and simplified navigation to help mobile users quickly find what they are looking for. Integrate loyalty across all channels, including mobile apps, to ensure that customers are receiving points and rewards no matter how they shop.

2. Focus on the customer experience first. Forty percent of consumers buy more from retailers who personalize the shopping experience across channels (Internet Retailer). So merchants should ersonalize the experience at every step possible. Utilize a social login tool in order to gather insights and create a more complete customer profile. Collect data from social network APIs for structured data, such as verified email addresses and birthdates, and unstructured data, such as interests, likes, friends, and more. Use this information to structure your loyalty program. Find out which rewards and perks will resonate with your shoppers and how active your users are on each social network. This information can help build your loyalty program with a focus on Facebook contests or “Pin to Win” Pinterest campaigns.

3. Manage user data. Fifty-four percent of marketers revealed that the biggest inhibitor in establishing a consistent omnichannel customer experience is not having a single view of customers across channels (Retail Systems Research Institute). Gathering data is only half the challenge; still more important is sorting through and organizing the ‘big data’ so merchants can actually derive useful strategies from the information. Standardize all information gathered from a variety of social networks in order to maximize the full potential of personalization. Ensure you have the right infrastructure in place to store massive amounts of data and the ability to access it quickly as well. Organized data makes it easier to scale marketing efforts and target the right customers, at the right time. Leverage this data to inform email marketing efforts, to target new buyers, repeat buyers or inactive buyers. Remind inactive buyers of their expiring rewards to drive them back onsite. Reward repeat buyers with bonus loyalty points or rewards for making their third purchase. Motivate new buyers to sign up for loyalty with large first-time incentives. Keep your loyalty program segmented with staggered rewards to keep your members excited about exclusive access to sales and perks.

4. Engage with customers across all channels. Actively engage with users to foster user generated content, boost SEO, increase referrals, time spent onsite and ultimately conversions. Implement loyalty across all channels and reward users for shopping on each one. Once the channels are in place, engage with users on each channel with social media to boost your loyalty program. Run social contests within social apps or onsite. Interact with users and build a branded community with ratings and reviews. Fully 90% of consumers would recommend a brand after interacting with it via social (IAB, 2013). Furthermore, 64% of Twitter users and 51% of Facebook users are more likely to buy the products of brands they follow online (Business2Community). Reward users for cross promotion to further drive engagement to every channel. Use point incentives to motivate shoppers to download mobile apps, or shop in store for bonus perks.

Leverage customer data and insights to personalize the omnichannel user experience and create an authentic, immersive customer experience that is sure to increase brand loyalty and lifetime customer value. All businesses and customers are unique; loyalty programs should be too.

Why flexibility is the key to on-site engagement – MarketLive Summit report, I

It’s been a couple of weeks since the 2014 MarketLive Summit, but we’re still abuzz over the strategies speakers and attendees discussed. While the statistics and trends were enlightening, the chief inspiration from this Summit came from the MarketLive merchants who shared their success stories — and challenges — in detail. Through them, it was possible to glimpse the real-life implications of the new commerce paradigm, where brands seek to engage always-connected consumers via a variety of touchpoints.

Just how omnipresent has the online shopping experience become? In his opening address, MarketLive CEO and Founder Ken Burke shared data from technology researcher Forrester predicting that more than 50% of all retail sales in 2014 would be influenced by the web, either through direct online sales or online research feeding offline transactions.

More dramatically, Pat Duncan of MarketLive merchant Helzberg Diamonds said that online initiatives have such a profound impact for multi-channel retailers that they account for five to seven times the amount of revenue directly attributed to sales through the web site.

Throughout the Summit, merchants demonstrated how that outsized impact plays out in the trenches of daily commerce. And while there was plenty of discussion about the perennial hot topics of social media and mobile devices, the dominant theme was more fundamental: merchants must become ever more flexible in their brand presentation, even as a strong foundational core of eCommerce content and products is more essential than ever.

Such a combination of solid substance and agile fluidity allows merchants to cater to always-connected consumers at every stage of the path to purchase via a variety of touchpoints. Among the strategies merchants discussed to achieve the right balance:

Use responsive design for the flexibility to focus on consumer needs — not devices. In his keynote address, Mark Hurst of Creative Good reminded merchants that they need to develop technology based on users’ needs, rather than by rote by device. While he did make specific recommendations for mobile platforms (develop a smartphone-friendly mobile site and a tablet-friendly desktop/browser site, and mostly eschew apps), the larger message was that merchants need to be prepared to address shoppers’ questions and unmet needs, even if they require a heretofore-unimagined combination of core functionality and content.

While responsive design isn’t a silver bullet for achieving this goal, with plenty of pitfalls to avoid, it’s a strategy merchants should seriously consider adopting, as it gives them maximum flexibility to tailor the site experience according to a shopper’s situation and device. We’ll be writing a lot more about responsive design in the months to come as MarketLive rolls out new functionality to support it, but meantime the 46% of merchants planning complete site overhauls this year should be incorporating the approach into their plans.

Customize views of brand-building content and functionality. Now more than ever, merchants have the ability to tailor the site experience, presenting a different array of products, content and features according to criteria that range from the shoppers’ location to the length of their tenure as customers. In so doing, they boost convenience and relevance, and create positive associations with the brand.

For new visitors, manifesting the essence of the brand throughout the experience is essential, as merchants battle to differentiate themselves and compete with discount mass merchants like Amazon. Lori Edmonds of Peruvian Connection urged merchants to consider the Web site their premier flagship store, a showcase for the brand’s story and the source of continuity among multi-touchpoint experiences. She detailed how brand identity can be consistently manifested — not only through text tone and voice and design elements like colors and fonts, but through technical specifications and functionality. Such consistency not only conveys a singular brand vision, but also boosts shoppers’ confidence in the site and facilitates movement along the path to purchase.For example, Peruvian’s use of consistent images on index page listings through to the product page instantly provides visual confirmation and brand reinforcement.

Image from Peruvian Connection


For returning customers, these brand signifiers remain important — but merchants should also appeal to potential repeat buyers by spotlighting convenience and efficiency. For example, they could present complementary items likely to be relevant based on past purchasing history, send  timely refill or replenishment reminders, or populate content sections with advanced topics rather than introductory brand-building information. Kyle Janssens of Greatland Corp. detailed how the site experience for returning customers was streamlined to include a custom reorder page, while bypassing introductory content. The tailored reordering experience, which was promoted via an email campaign highlighting past buyers’ “personal order history,” helped Greatland achieve a 28% lift in sales.

email example from Greatland

In our next post, we’ll look at how the guiding principal of fluidity applies to online/offline interactions. Meantime, how are you maximizing flexibility of your eCommerce assets?

Social media watch: Mobile messaging apps – the new frontier

Just as merchants are learning to adapt to the ever-proliferating and fragmenting social media landscape, with new communities springing up tailoring to ever more niche interests and demographics, a whole new frontier has opened up: social messaging apps.

These platforms, which use the mobile web to deliver messaging, picture exchanges and even voice calls “over the top”, without having to pay mobile carrier messaging or call fees, are proliferating even faster than browser-based social networking sites. And a flurry of recent headlines signal that major technology players believe these apps hold plenty of revenue potential.

First came the news that SnapChat, which enables one-to-one and group sharing of photos that disappear after viewing, turned down a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook late last year. That figure was dwarfed in February when Facebook shelled out $19 billion for WhatsApp, which provides one-to-one and group messaging capabilities as well as photo sharing and video and voice calls. And some of the biggest brands are getting into the game, with Rakuten ( acquiring Viber for $900 million in February and Chinese commerce giant Alibaba investing $215 million for a minority stake in Tango.

The reason for such heady valuations is the potential to tap an exponentially-growing audience. Technology researcher Forrester estimates that more than one in five U.S. online consumers use a mobile messaging app daily, and globally the picture is even bigger, with WhatsApp, WeChat and Viber all claiming audiences to rival Twitter’s, according to analyst Benedict Evans. More than 500 million photos are exchanged via WhatsApp daily — 150 million more than Facebook and several orders of magnitude more than on Instagram.

Furthermore, users are highly engaged with these apps, with the minutes spent in-app globally dwarfing usage of Facebook’s messaging service, Forrester reports.

Forrester data on mobile messaging apps

But while the high valuations mark strong potential, actual revenues so far are scant — and the apps present a host of challenges for merchants. First, the services are intended for private or semi-private use among individuals — making commercial messages more potentially intrusive than a status update on Twitter. Perhaps for that reason, the apps currently feature no advertising units; brands must seek permission for users to receive their messages, much like with an SMS campaign. Finally, if the proliferation of social networkng platforms seems dizzying, that’s nothing compared with the array of mobile messaging apps — more than 50 of which have more than a million downloads on Google Play, and a dozen of which have more than 50 million downloads, according to Evans.

So how should merchants proceed? A couple of guidelines:

Take an experimental approach — with exceptions. For most, mobile messaging apps represent an intriguing frontier to explore, rather than an urgent mandate; they shouldn’t unseat mobile Web site optimization as a priority, for example. But as always, there are exceptions, depending on the brand’s target audience. A couple of notable ones:

  • Merchants doing business (or planning to) in Asia. With mobile phones serving as many consumers’ primary connection to the Internet in Asia, mobile messaging apps are especially popular, with top apps Line, Kakao and WeChat originating in Japan, South Korea and China, respectively. Merchants seeking to engage shoppers in Asian markets need to invest in these services sooner rather than later, and to consider participating in nascent eCommerce messaging efforts, such as Line’s flash sale program. Response to the flash sale alerts has been strong, such as with this promotion for Maybelline, which sold out in 13 minutes.

Maybelline Line campaign

(image from TheNextWeb)

 Social media data from GlobalWebIndex

Plan for complementary SMS and messaging app strategies. Recently we recommended that merchants consider developing an SMS marketing strategy — and that advice still holds. But merchants should delve into their target audience’s behavior to determine whether mobile messaging apps are likely to overtake the messaging services native to their devices, and plan accordingly.

It’s also crucial to recognize the distinct qualities of SMS versus messaging apps, and build campaigns accordingly. Plain-text delivery of transactional updates might better be suited to SMS, for example, while video snippets and images more seamlessly integrate within a messaging app.

And then there are the stickers. The decorative icons are used pervasively in mobile messaging apps; some cost users a small fee, while others are provided by brands, who pay for the service to offer them free to users. The stickers can help brands introduce themselves to users across mobile messaging app networks — a strategy that worked for musician Paul McCartney, whose series of stickers on Line helped build a following of over 3 million (compared with 1.87 million on Twitter).

Paul McCartney Line campaign

(image from TheNextWeb)

Are you investing in mobile messaging apps, and if so, which one(s)?

When disaster strikes – best practices for problems large and small

Over the holidays Target and Nieman Marcus experienced security breaches – proving that even the largest mass merchants aren’t immune to hacking. Even if you avoid massive security problems, there are bound to be web site problems, product recalls or even email errors that need correcting … it’s not a matter of if, but when.

It’s imperative to be prepared with plans and transparent policies that reassure customers and spotlight proactive service. Here are a few of our favorite disaster recovery tools:

1) Full and fast disclosure

In this age of information, full and early disclosure quickly followed by steps to move forward is crucial. While most agree that Target eventually came through with a comprehensive program to salve customer trust, the company waited far too long: rumors of the breach first surfaced on December 12, yet the company’s official statement wasn’t released until December 19. A millenia in Internet communications time. Nieman Marcus didn’t chart bold new territory in its disclosure either, waiting 2 weeks before it alerted customers.

“…Target was behind when this first broke,” Levick strategic communications firm’s Jason Maloni told the Minneapolis StarTribune. “Anytime you are not controlling the release of information, you lose the opportunity to cast yourself in the role of the hero rather than the villain.”

Forbes reported in February that Target’s sales figures fell in the second half of the fourth quarter by as much as 46% attributed to lack of consumer trust.

We hope your errors aren’t as big, but no matter the size, getting out in front and leading the parade of information is huge.

2) Work that web site and email list

Now is the time to capitalize on your web real estate and coveted email list. In addition to admitting an error or disclosing a problem, find ways to help your customers, with links, videos, or other resources. Here are some damage control examples:

Catching up at Target

Target highlighted the security breach on its home page during the busy holiday season, and a midpage reference to a “data incident” can still be found today, three months later. Some complained that the plain black and white banner was too subtle, but the retail giant also emailed customers and offered free credit monitoring for a year.

Target Home Page Dec 26

Target’s web site now also offers a comprehensive section on their security misfortune, with information and resources including a video with CEO Gregg Steinhafel discussing the handling of the breach.

Screenshot: Target's Security Breach Crisis Web Response

Product Recalls at takes a proactive stance about product issues and spreads the word on behalf of a manufacturer with an email notifying buyers of new information about recalled car seats. The email, whose plain format distinguishes it from potentially skippable marketing messages, links buyers to resources found at both the online retailer’s and the manufacturer’s web sites. Such “pre-emptive” service can not only stave off calls to customer service, but helps time-starved customers connect immediately to the resources they need to act on the recall — thereby establishing as a brand that delivers convenience and efficiency as well as products. Graco Product Recall Email

Email marketing oops at Sur la Table

The kitchenware aficionado Sur la Table even cleans up mistakes with panache. What do they do when the subject line of the a promotional email announcing a special dinnerware sale doesn’t match the content featuring in-store cooking classes? They make it right by sending out another message that uses both humility and humor. Let’s try again … “sometimes emails are like souffles – they don’t turn out. Here’s the dinnerware sale email we meant to send you.” Note that the tone is appropriate for the relative lack of severity of the glitch; no one would want to receive as breezy a message if identity theft were the issue.

Sur La Table Ooops Email

The Sur la Table email gaff is minor in relation to the Target and Nieman Marcus public relations nightmares, but true character is often revealed under pressure and handling mistakes with forthrightness can even be an opportunity to boost brand image because customers know details matter always.

3) Step up social media response

Now that social media is an integral part of the culture, a daily (or hourly) ritual for many, using it for customer care is moving from cutting-edge concept to business necessity according to experts at the recent Wharton School of Business Social Media Best Practices Conference. There’s a good chance your customers will take their grievances to social media — whether you’re monitoring there or not.

A Target Facebook reply during security breach

While they have since been tidied up, on Target’s Twitter and Facebook pages, many incensed shoppers complained about still not being able to access their accounts, being on hold for hours or not being able to call into the customer service line. To its credit, Target’s social media staff responded to posts in a timely manner, but often didn’t have much advice to give other than to apologize.

It is important to respond to every Tweet and Facebook comment that mentions your brand and its problems. Wharton’s social media panelists agreed, responses must be personal, and it’s essential to strike the right tone. This requires constant adjustments based upon your customer’s reactions. It can be a huge undertaking with more and more social media outlets making inroads into the daily lives of countless Americans, but social media is now a mandatory communications tool.

Both Target and Nieman Marcus tweeted about their hacking debacles, but too late and unprepared for the onslaught. Customer service responses were canned, and Target’s service web site even went down. Ouch.

4) Be ready to respond to your customers

According to most reports, even once Target began disclose, communication with customers was far from adequate. The online pages customers were being sent to were down, call centers were overwhelmed and staff at store locations did not have answers, as the Facebook response above indicates.

Your entire customer service team needs to be fully informed and on the same page. Make sure your offline human resources are at the ready. Staff up. There is nothing that adds insult to injury like misinformation, long lines, being on indefinite hold or suffering through multiple transfers or redirections on the telephone.

Don’t force staff to rely on scripts or cardboard public relations statements either. Critics commenting on Target’s shortcomings pointed out empathy is key. Your customers are more likely to accept your mistakes and move on if you are earnest and sound human.

Then you are on the road to building relationships, regaining trust and resuming business as usual.

What are some challenges your brand has faced with damage control? What worked?

Site-to-Store: Tightening the link between in-store and online

What if you could find a way to boost online sales and drive traffic to your brick-and-mortar stores at the same time?

That’s exactly what site-to-store shipping and in-store pick-up promises merchants who undertake it and execute it right.

Site-to-store accomplishes several important objectives:

  • It boosts in-store sales – of those using site-to-store pickup, 38% have purchased other items while in the store.
  • It gives merchants another avenue for holiday order fulfillment, potentially heading off embarrassing logjams such as those that occurred during the 2013 holiday season.

comScore Attitudes on Ship to Store Services

Offering free shipping to those willing to pick packages up at their local store can convert browsers hesitant to pay shipping charges into buyers. And when they arrive to collect their merchandise, merchants have a whole other set of opportunities for additional shopping or other customer engagement.

It sounds simple, but site-to-store can be a big undertaking. Just 52 of the Top 500 Internet Retailers offer the service, 38 in the second 500. Macy’s currently only offers the option at nine of its stores, but is rolling it out to 500 stores around the nation.

To date ship-to-store has been the domain of larger merchants for good reason. They have enough physical stores to make it practical for their customers, and the mature and efficient supply chains to make the service possible. Both are necessary to justify the investment in managing fulfillment logistics and the development of site functionality.

Walmart rolled its site-to-store service out in 2011 in response to the growing threat from two-day shipping, as well as to drive traffic to stores. Best Buy sees such benefit in it as a generator of store traffic that the company offered $10 for every $100 customers spent on site-to-store last holiday shopping season.

But even smaller merchants may be able to benefit from a site-to-store program. Utilizing your own distribution network will in most cases prove less expensive than paying third-parties for residential shipping and offers customers relief from increasing parcel delivery costs.

So if you’re interested in instituting the site-to-store services there a two options to consider:

Pick-Up In Store

One option relies on in-store inventory visibility – shoppers can see if items are in-stock locally and “reserve” one for themselves to pickup. This option can be attractive to shoppers seeking the instant gratification of an in-store shopping experience without the risk that their preferred styles or hard-to-find sizes will be out of stock.

The Gap just began offering the service and markets it as “See it. Love it. Have it held in a store – with one quick click!”

The Gap - Reserve at Store

Ship to Store

The other option is to actually ship items to the store from a distribution center, taking advantage of the efficiency and lower cost of the existing supply chain.

The first page of REI’s online checkout asks shoppers whether they want home delivery or to ship to a tore for free. The company warns customers early of the “not so great news” that shipping to the store can take longer than directly to residential addresses. But it also stresses that shipping is free, which can amount to a significant savings for larger items. A canoe would cost $160 and an adult bicycle $75 to ship to a residence. To sweeten the deal further, store mechanics promise to assemble bicycles shipped to the store and have them ready-to-ride when customers arrive.


REI Ship to Store

If offering both the reserve-in-store and ship-to-store options, merchants need to make sure they distinguish between the two services. Home Depot uses tabs to show items available in your local store, then also lists ship-to-store availability.

Home Depot Site to Store

Promote It

Whichever option merchants offer, those who make the significant investment in site-to-store should promote it effectively throughout the path to purchase, including:

On the product page

The Container Store offers shoppers a convenient “Click and Pickup” box to enter their zip code, which instantly checks inventory in local stores and displays availability.


Container Store Click & Pickup

Meijer prominently displays a red graphic beside items available for shipping to stores, a service it calls “Order to Store.” Entering a zip code finds the closest store and entering a cellphone numbers offers instant shipping updates.


Meijer Order to Store

Alongside any promotion of free shipping

Best Buy has a promotion for free shipping with a $25 threshold on the home page, but ship to store is always free.

On the cart page

Payless Shoes reminds shoppers they can utilize the free ship to store option by making it an option in the check-out process.


Payless Shoes Ship to Store Option in Cart

In abandoned cart emails

Autozone follows up with registered customers via emails triggered by abandoned carts. It highlights the pick-up in store option and gives the address of the customer’s closest store.


Autozone Abandoned Cart Email


What are some of your challenges and aspirations for site-to-store services for your brand?

How to boost engagement on Twitter beyond discounts

There’s plenty of data out there showing that people follow brands on social media trolling for the discounts. Indeed, it’s the top reason given in a recent Price Waterhouse Coopers survey of 8,000+ consumers. And according to Twitter itself, of it’s legions of users, 94 percent reported they follow brands for the discounts and promotions. Not far behind, at 88 percent, are those who follow brands for the “free stuff.”

So how’s a merchant supposed to boost engagement on Twitter without giving away the store? Try a little eye-candy. Embedding eye-catching photos into your Tweets is one of the most effective ways to grab people’s attention, like this one from Armani last month.

Armani Valentine's Day Tweet

No discounts necessary

The data demonstrating that images boost Twitter engagement is undeniable. Tweets for brands offering links through, Twitter’s image service, are the highest performing type of link when it comes to engagement, according to a survey by social media analytics firm, Simply Measured. Tweets that embedded an image through Twitter received an average of 210 engagements, defined as a reply, retweet or mention. No other links come close.

Visual content is key on Twitter

The next two highest performers, and, also include photo sharing services, while the third was micro-video service,, also owned by Twitter. All further confirm the point that visual elements are a crucial engagement drivers.

Consider creating a hashtag-based picture-sharing campaign that stimulates follower contributions. Here’s one from Armani responding to and sharing a follower’s pic/tweet. This is smart because it asked a question and invited a return response.

Armani Exchange Twitter Hashtag

Don’t be afraid to share works in progress or products in development, either. They can heighten anticipation and give customers a sense of having an inside track on what’s just over the horizon.

Griot’s Garage, a car care products supplier based in Tacoma, Wash., offered this sneak peak at the classic car — a 1957 Buick Special Estate Wagon — to be featured on it’s upcoming catalog cover connecting its Twitter users to Instagram.

Griot's Garage Tweet

Griot's Garage Instagram

No worries if you don’t have images of classic cars or sultry models lying around. Fans of brands like to see what’s going on behind the scenes, too. Design Within Reach, the innovative New York-based furniture and accessories retailer Tweeted this image of it’s animated and stylish staff in its new San Francisco office.

DWR behind the scenes Tweet

A few other pointers for making sure your Tweets are well-received, according to the social enterprise software firm, Buddy Media, include:

– Keep it short. 140 characters may seem short enough, but Tweets with less than 100 characters see a 17 percent increase in engagement.

– Use hashtags, but sparingly. One to two hashtags equals a 21% increase in engagement, more than two sees a 17% decrease in engagement.

– Ask followers to retweet. 99% of brands don’t do this, but the analysis suggests doing so increases “amplification” by 12 times. If you spell out “retweet,” it jumps to 23 times higher.

As for content, it’s limited only by your creativity. Links to articles and stories of interest to your target audience are a great method of keeping the conversation going, as is retweeting follower contributions.

Participating in popular social media memes, like “Throwback Thursday,” is another way connect with your highly social audience. Or, start your own meme. Skin care retailer H2o Plus shared this alluring photo on what it dubbed Water Wednesday.

H2O Plus Water Wednesday

What Twitter strategies have you found drive engagement?

Filling Gaps in your Email Marketing Campaign

Reaching out with relevant, timely emails can help merchants forge stronger connections with shoppers

We’ve all read the statistics about how email marketing remains one of the most effective and reliable tools for merchants to reach their customers. The Direct Marketing Association, for one, claims that email marketing campaigns have a return on investment of 4,300 percent.

If your ROI doesn’t quite seem to hitting such stratospheric figures, it could be because you’re one of many merchants with a few gaps their email marketing efforts.

Recent data from Exact Target reveals that many merchants still aren’t using some of the most effective email tactics out there.


Of the five email tactics rated most effective by merchants who’ve implemented them, two — loyalty and welcome messages – are in wide usage, with 65 percent and 71 percent respectively.

But the other three showed far lower usage. Just 51 percent used browse retargeting, 38 percent used birthday emails, and a mere 35 percent followed up on abandoned carts with emails. Yet more than 40% of merchants who do use those tactics report that they produce “excellent” results.

Those are huge missed opportunities. When it comes to abandoned carts alone, for example, industry researcher Forrester reports that a whopping 88% of U.S. consumers have abandoned a purchase for one reason or another, so reaching them with effective enticements to return to the site and complete purchases is crucial.

It’s right to be cautious about inundating customers’ inboxes with generic email blasts. But emails that are relevant and timely can not only grab customers’ attention, but earn their appreciation as well. New data from digital marketing firm Listrak shows just how much shoppers value emails tailored to their shopping preferences:

- 84 percent of online shoppers report it helpful if products in emails are based on their shopping habits or preferences, with 69 percent willing to share personal information with retailers to receive more relevant emails.

- 90 percent of shoppers who sign up for promotional emails want to be alerted when products they frequently buy go on sale, and 72 percent are willing to receive more emails that make shopping easier, such as weekly sales, top sellers and new products.

- 77 percent of shoppers who signed up for promotional emails said they are more likely to purchase items online or in store if emails feature products based on their shopping habits and preferences.

Figures like these should give merchants confidence that their customers will welcome additional emails from them under the right circumstances. Here’s how to implement the top three underused tactics for maximum effectiveness:

Abandoned Carts

Abandoned shopping carts present one of the best opportunities for merchants to reach out to their customers by email.

Getting the emails in the first place requires some delicacy. Forcing customers to create an account in order to check out is a major cause of cart abandonment. Instead, encourage them to sign up for email updates early on, and then use behavioral tracking technology to flag you if they’ve ditched their cart. Or consider collecting email address at the beginning of the checkout process, with a clear message that it will be used to contact them about their order.

However you obtain the email address, once the cart is abandoned, be ready to act fast. Send a cart reminder within the first 24 hours, and then follow up.

Vail, Colo.-based luxury ski and apparel retailer Gorsuch reaches out quickly to would-be customers, giving them a second look at what they left behind as well as some other attractive options to lure them back.


One thing this high-end retailer doesn’t do is follow-up with a discount. As reasonable as discounting at this juncture might seem, it can backfire by “training” customers to abandon their carts expecting you’ll sweeten the deal.

Instead, offer to help them. Ask how you can help them complete their order. Offer on-line chat, a customer service number or other products they might find attractive.

Browse Retargeting

Email follow-ups don’t have to be limited to items that made it into customers’ carts. Everything they’ve viewed while on your site is data that can help you lure them back.

Of the merchants surveyed by Exact Target, 42 percent report of those using browse retargeting emails report “excellent” results. And yet 49 percent of online merchants say have no plans to utilize the tool.

Email subscribers who visit the site and don’t act can be lured back with alerts when items they viewed go on sale, or by showcasing similar products at different price points – giving them a number of alternatives to consider. It’s an opportunity to increase brand awareness and remind shoppers of items they viewed before just as they might be having trouble finding them elsewhere.

Jewelry retailer Helzberg flags recently-viewed items on sale in this personalized email, along with best sellers and new items.

Happy Birthday!

Everyone loves birthday presents. So why not offer your customers one? Most likely it’s because you don’t know when their birthdays are or haven’t figured out the right way to ask them.

In an age of heightened concern about the privacy of personal data on the Internet, asking shoppers for that information without the proper context can be off-putting.

The key is to give context for the request so that shoppers know they’ll receive a benefit for sharing their personal information. Look at how Old Navy asked the question. It’s on the second page of the email signup process, after subscribers have already supplied their email address. It’s optional. And its “Happy Birthday to You” graphic and offer of “a gift” on your special day make it hard to pass up.

The shopping cart: Popular vs. overlooked features

As our prior post on the MarketLive Performance Index revealed, merchants need to optimize their sites to the utmost to improve performance in 2014 — especially when it comes to converting engaged shoppers who’ve added items to the cart into committed buyers. A survey of sites reveals one area to prioritize when it comes to fine-tuning: the shopping cart itself.

The importance and function of the cart has changed since the early days of e-Commerce, when featuring complementary items as upsells was considered cutting-edge cart technology. Features such as estimated shipping costs are more or less considered standard. At the same time, as we chronicled in an earlier post, the very path to purchase has changed, so that only 22% of shoppers now proceed to the “cart page” of old after clicking the “add to cart” button; on some sites, it’s possible to skip the cart altogether and proceed straight to checkout from the drop-down global cart display or a pop-up window.

But with consumer research activities more intensive than ever, there’s no denying the importance of the cart page — which we define as being the page preceding the first step of checkout that’s accessible from the “cart” link in global navigation. The cart can both serve as a comprehensive order information resource, and offer enticements to spur shoppers onward into checkout and purchase. In short, it remains a vital decision point on the path to purchase, and one merchants should ignore at their peril.

Our survey of some 70 sites from among the top 100 merchants on Internet Retailer’s Top 500 list revealed how the biggest brands with the biggest resources at their disposal are positioning their shopping carts for maximum sales. Even among these cutting-edge brands, some information was being effectively conveyed — while some surprising areas were overlooked.

Shopping cart feature survey by MarketLive

Specific contrasts that caught our eye:

Shipping vs. promo codes vs. tax. Merchants are rightfully catering to consumers’ obsession with shipping. As we’ve detailed on numerous occasions before, shipping costs are the prime cause of purchase abandonment, while free shipping promotions are by far the most popular discount shoppers seek, especially during the crucial holiday season.

As a result, merchants are doing well when it comes to using the cart to convey shipping costs and free shipping opportunities. Close to three-quarters of the carts we viewed include an estimated shipping cost, while 60% display the free shipping threshold, free shipping promo codes, or even the amount shoppers should add to meet the threshold.

Fewer merchants, however, back up these two key pieces of information with a description of timeframes for each tier of delivery service; just 54% list the options or even link to them via a popup window. While that’s still over half, there are plenty of carts displaying shipping costs without letting shoppers know what, exactly, the charge buys them. More merchants, 56%, are enabling shoppers to enter promo codes and view the associated discounts in the cart — a welcome feature, but one that serves just a subset of shoppers. Shipping, by contrast, is a universal concern, and one merchants should address with details that should be relatively straightforward to display.

Similarly, whether sales tax will be assessed is a question affecting every potential order — yet just 43% of merchants display this information, with most sites stating tax will be calculated iin checkout (or, worse, failing to mention it at all). While implementing estimated tax by ZIP code within the cart requires more technological moxie than displaying a table of shipping timeframes, the information is a crucial component  of the total order costs, and therefore should be a priority.

Convenience boosters vs. basic customer service vs. in-store shopping support. The good news is that merchants are responding to shifting consumer behaviors and implementing key features that smooth the path to purchase, especially across touchpoints. We’ve long recommended implementation of alternative payments, as they’re increasingly popular (and downright crucial when it comes to mobile). So it was a relief to see the sites we surveyed positively festooned with alternative payment buttons, with close to 60% of merchants highlighting the availability of Paypal or another service enabling shoppers to skip entry of credit card data and other checkout steps.

Similarly, it was gratifying to see that more than half of merchants enable transfer of items from the cart to the wish list or other repository of saved products. This functionality not only caters to researchers who would otherwise use the cart — and likely abandon it at some point in their travels — but it signals an attempt to cater to cross-touchpoint activity, such as researching online and then looking up products selected earlier via smartphone while in-store to complete purchases.

But when compared with the startlingly low percentage of merchants displaying the most basic customer service information, these innovations seem like putting the cart (as it were) before the horse. Fewer than half of merchants displayed an 800 number or chat link within the main cart content area (as opposed to in global navigation) — and less than 40% included links to product guarantees or information about returns, information consumers deem crucial to the purchase decision.  As with delivery timeframe details, this information requires little technical prowess to incorporate, and should be a priority for every merchant to display at the cart level.

Similarly, while not every merchant can offer site-to-store shipping, it’s relatively easy to provide a “print cart” link so that shoppers can carry product information with them — and yet fewer than one in five merchants offer it.

The upshot? When it comes to optimizing the cart, there’s some low-hanging fruit even the largest merchants have yet to seize — and small- to mid-sized merchants should follow suit. In an upcoming post, we’ll survey how the cart experience appears on mobile devices. But meantime, tell us: what cart features do you deem essential, and which are merely nice-to-haves?

Performance Index: Lessons from the fourth-quarter crucible

When it comes to seasonal cycles, most merchants acknowledge that the pivotal fourth quarter requires special focus. The latest data from the MarketLive Performance Index demonstrates that the fourth quarter is indeed a crucible. While traffic spikes and conversion rates get a boost, the ruthless mindset of the holiday shopper leaves no room for error — translating into metrics that reveal top areas for improvement in the year ahead.

Overall, the fourth-quarter and annual metrics in the Index report bring good news: merchants achieved year-over-year revenue gains of 26% for the year and 16% for the fourth quarter — beating industry standards by significant margins in both cases. Moreover, those revenue gains were achieved without resorting to race-to-the-bottom discounting, as average order size for both periods also rose year over year. The feat is especially impressive for the  fourth quarter, when merchants saw average order size rise 6.2% despite consumers’ quests for holiday shopping discounts.

MarketLive Performance Index data

But there are performance discrepancies, too. For the year, a significant increase in the add-to-cart, or engagement, rate helped boost revenue gains; once shoppers had placed items in the cart, merchants held the line on “purchase fallout,” with the conversion, abandoned cart, and abandoned checkout rates holding their gain or loss to within roughly 1% compared with 2012.

By contrast, in the fourth quarter, the boost in revenue was tied more directly to the increase in traffic; conversion and add-to-cart rates increased by almost the same percentage, and those gains were undercut by increases in both the abandoned cart rate and the abandoned checkout rate. Breaking down fourth-quarter results even more to focus on the holiday period (November 1 – Jan. 5), the gap widens further, with the both the add-to-cart and conversion rate slipping year over year, in addition to the abandoned cart rate rising.

MarketLive Performance Index holiday data

The numbers from the fourth-quarter crucible suggest one possible pivot point around which to organizing priorities: the all-important add-to-cart rate, which signals intent on the part of shoppers and whose improvement during the other quarters of the year contrasts with the holiday season, when it declined.

Prior to the add-to-cart: develop content to engage shoppers. When it comes to connecting shoppers with relevant products and content and convincing them to add items to the cart, the annual Index data shows that merchants are making marked improvement. But the holiday numbers suggest that they must redouble their efforts if they’re to compete in the battle for holiday shoppers’ engagement. Among the strategies to consider:

  • Service-centric content. As we discussed in our recent post regarding Google’s “Hummingbird” algorithm update, content that focuses on proactively addressing shoppers’ questions about products, service and pricing is more crucial than ever — and needn’t be relegated to the “about us” section. During the holiday season, when shoppers relentlessly research products and hunt for service extras, this content is even more likely to help drive sales.

  • Videos focusing on utility. Product demonstrations, installation tips, and video buying guides add significant value for shoppers, as we discussed previously in our post covering key video content. During the holidays, videos can give shoppers the reassurance they need to commit to purchasing gifts without first touching or trying them.

After the add-to-cart: eliminate roadblocks to purchase — across touchpoints. While merchants maintained a relatively steady state when it came to conversion, cart abandonment and checkout abandonment the rest of the year, the holiday season saw slippage across all three metrics — suggesting that merchants can do more to compel shoppers who’ve already added items to the cart to complete purchases, whether via the touchpoint where they started their shopping journey or not. Merchants should:

  • Use the cart for more than estimated shipping and tax. More than just a cost calculator, the shopping cart should give consumers comprehensive information to support their order, from product upsells to information about product guarantees, returns and exchanges. Free shipping promotions and loyalty club benefits should also be prominent, giving shoppers a bevy of options to successfully complete their transactions. And the ability to print and save cart items for later smooth the path to purchase from online browsing to offline buying.

  • Consider single-page checkout. While we’ve written before about how no single checkout format dominates among the largest of merchants,  prior Performance Index data suggests single-page checkout is becoming more prevalent among specialty and boutique sellers, with 75% of Index transactions taking place via one-page checkout. Furthermore, a streamlined single-page checkout can provide a viable starting point for mobile implementations, which need to be even more frictionless. Whatever the format, merchants should dive deep into their analytics to ferret out checkout problems across touchpoints and devices, and deploy A/B tests to put potential solutions through their paces.

  • Implement alternative payments. We’ve repeatedly addressed the importance of adopting alternative payments, to enable both desktop and mobile purchasing. Of course merchants should take into consideration their target audience and the prevailing standards for their category — for example, BillMeLater is more of a priority to implement for sellers of big-ticket items such as furniture or jewelry than merchants offering fast-fashion T-shirts — but in all likelihood, offering at least one alternative payment option should be a top priority for 2014.

Download the latest Performance Index report for in-depth metrics, including mobile data and KPIs by vertical, and further strategic recommendations. How do your 2013 metrics compare with the MarketLive Index benchmarks, and how are the numbers influencing your 2014 plans?

Webinar preview: 2014 trends and “grass-roots commerce”

In the day-to-day quest to win sales and customers, it’s easy for online merchants to lose sight of just how fast the industry is moving. But consider what online shopping looked like just five years ago, in the distant era we might call eCommerce 1.0. Web sites were primarily product catalogs, with images and copy often literally pulled from printed materials and reposted. Shoppers discovered these sites either through offline knowledge of the brand or through online search, with merchants using a static set of keywords to ensure their site’s placement high in organic search results. When shoppers found a brand to follow, they signed up for email alerts, received via a program like Outlook on desktop computers. And when they were ready to transact, those shoppers reached for a plastic credit card to enter their payment data, or logged off to purchase the items they sought offline – at the brand’s physical store or at another retailer altogether.

From the vantage point of early 2014, this scenario now seems like a museum piece. In the past half-decade, the monumental changes wrought by surging mobile phone usage, the introduction of a whole new class of tablet devices, and the social media revolution have rendered the eCommerce 1.0 experience wholly obsolete. As consumers have shifted their browsing and buying habits, the traditional “eCommerce funnel” has exploded into a galaxy of connections that provide the opportunity for an unending cycle of interaction between shoppers and brands.

In response, merchants must completely upend their brands – abandoning static, top-down strategies in favor of agile organizations that can respond to changing technologies and shopping behaviors while maintaining a cohesive message across touchpoints. Call it grass-roots commerce, where the consumer’s situation and preferences dictate the shopping experience.

While most merchants recognize the importance of this customer-driven approach, attempts to respond to the rapid changes buffeting the industry can so far best be termed good-faith efforts.  Brands’ mobile offerings attract traffic, but low engagement and sales; social campaigns attract followers, but struggle to achieve ROI; and transitioning among in-store, mobile and desktop activities is clunky at best.

Tomorrow, MarketLive CEO and Founder Ken Burke will present a webinar outlining the top trends influencing online commerce, and examine how merchants can move beyond experimental efforts to achieve mastery in key growth areas for 2014. Specifically, the webinar will address strategies for providing

  • the “what”: content  and offers shoppers want – going beyond catalog copy to provide the information consumers seek to successfully navigate product offerings. By now, many shopping sites offer extensive product content  – rich imaging, zoom, detailed descriptions, features that spotlight exceptional attributes, customer reviews, and product demonstration videos, along with savvy buying guides and expert advice to support the purchase process. To create a customer-driven shopping experience, merchants should build on this solid foundation by presenting shoppers with a tailored mix of products, content and offers that proactively provides the information they need to make purchasing decisions.

  • the “where”: buying wherever shoppers want – enabling shopping, transactions and fulfillment across touchpoints and borders. There’s no way around it: merchants must invest in knitting together to the fullest extent possible information across channels and sites to create a unified brand experience that smoothes the path to purchase, regardless of how circuitous the route shoppers select. While small- to mid-sized merchants are unlikely to have the resources to match the advanced features and functionality of the largest online brands,  every seller can enact common-sense strategies that make the most of what offerings they do have.

Register for the webinar now, and join in tomorrow at 10 a.m. PDT. We look forward to the discussion!

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