MarketLive Performance Index: Holiday sales growth accelerates, with help from social (yes, social!)

With the holiday shopping season entering the home stretch, merchants are on track to achieve solid sales growth. While much media hand-wringing ensued following smaller-than-anticipated increases in revenue on Thanksgiving weekend, results from the MarketLive Performance Index show that once off the starting block, merchants are seeing increased sales growth rates as the season progresses.

For the week that included “Green Monday,” Dec. 8, MarketLive merchants achieved a year-over-year revenue growth rate of 11.5% — especially impressive given that visits grew just 8.6%. With the conversion rate trailing last year’s by more than 5% and abandonment up 6.7%, the revenue growth is likely thanks to merchants holding the line on pricing — and, indeed, average order size for the week was up 4.6% year over year.

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Combined totals for the season to date follow the same trend, with revenue up 9.4% on increased visits of 13.5% and average order values averaging 4.1% higher than last year.

 

The increased average order size is especially impressive given the continuing downward price pressure exerted by the largest online mass merchants. The growth in average order value demonstrates that MarketLive merchants are presenting unique finds, relevant promotions for their target audience and stellar service that trump bargain-basement pricing.

In this light, the potential value of social media becomes clear, as it connects merchants with an audience predisposed to be receptive to their products and offers. Although overall, the percentage of visits and revenue directly attributable to social media remains small, a select group of MarketLive merchants have capitalized on the opportunity social media affords to drive a significant percentage of sales and visits from social networking sites.

For the season to date, the merchants with the 15 highest sales figures attributed to social media achieved average social media revenue gains of 212.31% and average social traffic gains of 210.12% year over year — significantly higher than the Index as a whole, which saw gains of 135.7% for social revenue and 113.1% for social traffic. Some individual sites among the top 15 are seeing more than 20% of their traffic and 10% of their revenues originating from social media.

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To maximize social impact in the remaining days of the holiday season — and in the year to come — merchants should:

Display an array of targeted discounts. Merchants can avoid decimating their margins by judiciously targeting discounts to focus on top gift categories, and then promote them socially using imagery that displays the full array of possibilities on offer. MarketLive merchant The Cartoon Network Shop employed this strategy for its extended Cyber Monday sale, offering an array of discounts on top items that were promoted via its Facebook page with a large image showing an assortment of products.

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Showcase social recommendations. Social media is a rich source of word-of-mouth recommendations, and merchants should capitalize on them by boosting visibility of endorsements and reviews. Developing last-minute campaigns focusing on top-reviewed products is one way to go, but merchants should also boost visibility within social media itself using the “share”, “retweet” and other like functions. MarketLive merchant Neutrogena actively retweets posts featuring product recommendations. Not all of them are gift-related — such as a post from BeautyBlitz promoting the opportunity to win makeup removal wipes, which “every girl needs … near her bed,” the post points out, especially during the busy holiday social season. Also retweeted by Neutrogena: mentions in major media outlets such as InStyle, whose feature on celebrity gift picks lends authority to the brand.

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Watch for our final wrapup of holiday results after the New Year, along with 2015 trendwatching and more.

MarketLive Performance Index: Mobile sales zoom as holiday season peaks

As the peak holiday period passes the midpoint, the latest data from the MarketLive Performance Index shows that merchants are continuing to achieve year-over-year revenue gains — with the biggest spoils going to those brands who’ve optimized their mobile experiences.

In the week that started with CyberMonday, shoppers flocked to mobile devices to browse deals and make purchases. A whopping 43% of all online traffic was on mobile devices, and those visits generated 24% of total online revenues. While tablet revenues increased year-over-year by an impressive 42%, smartphone revenue growth was even more impressive, at 107%, accounting for $1 out of every $10 spent online.

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Overall, seasonal growth remains steady, with merchants seeing revenue gains of more than 9% on increased traffic of more than 18%. But while the add-to-cart rate is showing a modest year-over-year increase of 1.3%, the conversion rate has slipped by two-tenths of a percentage point, for a drop of 5%.

The gap suggests that merchants are missing the opportunity to win sales from highly-qualified shoppers who’ve engaged with the site, identified relevant products, and gone so far as to place them in the cart.

Usage of the cart to to research total order costs is likely partly to blame; past research suggests that more than half of shoppers add items to the cart with no intention of buying in the first place, and a similar percentage use the cart to stash items for further perusal later — an activity that has doubtless spiked as shoppers research on phones and complete purchases on desktop or laptop computers, or in stores.

But with the explosive growth in mobile visits and sales, mobile usage is likely contributing to the conversion gap in another way as well — thanks to checkout experiences that are cumbersome on smaller touchscreens. Indeed, half of online consumers say “easier checkout” would spur them to buy more via mobile devices, while a third specifically cited one-click checkout, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey.

While it’s far too late to streamline checkout processes for this year’s peak season, merchants whose holiday mobile numbers are lackluster so far may be able to institute small changes that have big potential to smooth the mobile path to purchase — and salvage sales. Worth considering:

Prominent customer service messaging. The mobile checkout process should include a prominent link to customer service throughout, including a live chat option and preferably with click-to-call functionality built in.  Merchants who don’t already display that information should investigate whether they can adjust their checkout templates.

Promotion of account creation and wish lists. Another way to combat cart abandonment is to offer viable alternatives for researchers who wish to save items for later access across touchpoints. Merchants should consider promoting wish list and account creation, using prominent messaging in the cart, in email campaigns and on social media to get the message across.

MarketLive merchant The Room Place encourages mobile users to save cart contents with a prominent button. Shoppers who click the link are invited to create an account with a streamlined form that doesn’t require entering delivery or billing addresses or other extraneous data.

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Watch for more holiday results updates through Christmas and a season-end wrap-up after the New Year.

Performance Index: Cyber Monday gains cap successful holiday kickoff weekend

The results are in for the final salvo of the 2014 Thanksgiving weekend and the results confirm that merchants are off to a strong start — even as consumers appeared to experience promotion fatigue, slowing Cyber Monday revenue gains.

Merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index achieved year-over-year sales growth of 7.3% for CyberMonday, driven by an increase in traffic of more than 20% and an increase in average order value of more than 4%. Mobile saw especially strong revenue gains, with sales from mobile devices up 141%.

Both comScore and Adobe reported double-digit eCommerce revenue gains for CyberMonday — but, tellingly, Adobe separated results for the industry’s top 25 retailers, who each generated more than $30 million on Cyber Monday alone, from smaller merchants generating $2 million or less that day. Adobe’s data found that the mega-merchants achieved 25% growth on Cyber Monday, while the smaller merchants saw 5% year-over-year sales gains.

That widening gulf presents a unique challenge for small- to mid-sized merchants. Not only must they contend with the deep discounting strategies of the online mass merchants who are dominating market share, but they must also find ways to stand out among the torrent of promotions offered by those retailers, whose reach is often deep and wide.

One approach is to manifest brand identity consistently across touchpoints by presenting products and offers that resonate deeply with the target audience. Among the ways to do so:

  • Offer discounts that support brand identity. Small-to-mid-sized merchants can’t match the deep discounting strategies of mass merchants — so instead, they should use discounts as a means to demonstrate their knowledge of the needs and priorities of their target audience. That can mean offering free shipping or a discount on a particular category of products, or gift-with-purchase incentives that strike a chord.
  • Put the spotlight on exclusive products. 43% of shoppers say they’d pay full price for a holiday gift that perfectly matches the recipient, and 37% say they’d pay full price for hard-to-find items, according to the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey. Merchants should emphasize unique finds and exclusive sets.
  • Roll out the customer service red carpet. Merchants should strive to provide personal service on a level the big mass merchants can’t match — and to market their customer service offerings as they would a valuable product. MarketLive merchant Title Nine heightens customer service visibility on the all-important shopping cart page with an invitation to engage in live chat and a concise description of the brand’s product guarantee.

cybermonday_brandbuildserviceFor more Cyber Monday and Thanksgiving weekend details, read the full MarketLive press release. And stay tuned for further holiday results next week.

Performance Index: MarketLive merchants see strong Black Friday gains, with mobile leading the way

The numbers are in for Black Friday weekend, and amidst slumping overall sales eCommerce has once again proved a bright spot. Merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index achieved year-over-year revenue gains of 16.2% during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend.

That performance trumps the flat online sales growth reported by the National Retail Federation and the 9.48% gain reported by IBM. At the same time, the growth rate for Thanksgiving and Black Friday was slower than in previous years, suggesting that shoppers visiting MarketLive merchant sites weren’t immune to promotions fatigue — or perhaps they expect the near-constant drumbeat of specials to continue, and are holding out for even better deals.

“We coached our customers and cautioned the industry that pre-empting Black Friday with early discounts is not healthy,” said Ken Burke, MarketLive founder and CEO. “This year saw an unprecedented number of retailers ‘jumping the gun’ on holiday sales and discounts which drove pre-Thanksgiving sales.”

Mobile sales jumped by more than 50%, with close to 30% of revenues originating from a mobile device. MarketLive merchants saw fully half of their visits coming from mobile devices, raising the prospect of shoppers on the go using their devices purely for research versus purchasing, and thereby causing key metrics to slump. Cart abandonment rates did, indeed, increase over the holiday weekend compared with 2013. But conversion rates and average order size held steady or increased, suggesting that merchants have improved their mobile experiences to meet the increased potential for sales.

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The Index and industry results demonstrate that merchants will have to work hard for the remainder of the season if their offers are to stand from the crowd of promotions. Among the tactics to consider:

  • Go for quality vs. quantity with email. As we discussed in one of our recent holiday tips, merchants should aim for maximum relevance when designing email campaigns, and should avoid sending multiple emails per day unless deals really are changing that rapidly. One merchant who shall remain nameless sent five nearly-identical Cyber Monday messages all containing the same content, with only the Subject: line changing — a sure-fire way to irritate consumers and guarantee that future messages will be summarily dismissed.
  • Use social to up visibility of promotions — and monitor their reception. Merchants should go beyond a single status-update post to Facebook and Twitter and find innovative ways to showcase deals via social media. MarketLive merchant Marc Jacobs Beauty promoted its “Blaquer Friday” deals across a range of social networking sites, including Google Plus and Instagram, and even devised a hashtag to increase visibility. And it’s important not to “set it and forget it” when it comes to sharing promotions socially. When a follower complained that exclusive gift packs were sold out by the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a  Marc Jacobs Beauty representative responded within an hour to reassure followers that inventory was still available.

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For more, view the official MarketLive Black Friday press release. And watch for Cyber Monday results and analysis coming momentarily, with weekly updates to continue through Christmas.

Performance Index: Proof mobile-ready merchants will be the winners this holiday season

We’ve long been advocates of mobile commerce competence, and past editions of the MarketLive Performance Index have underscored why: the past year has seen a surge of mobile traffic, but until now mobile revenues have lagged, suggesting merchants must do more to inspire shoppers to complete purchases via their devices.

But third-quarter results suggests that merchants are finally hitting their stride. Not only did mobile traffic surge again to account for 43% of all shopping visits, but mobile revenue jumped to 24% of the total — with the most significant increase coming from smartphone purchases, which grew 110% year over year to account for 11% of all purchases. Tablet revenues comprised 13% of all purchases for an increase of 18% year over year — still an impressive gain, but one that’s dwarfed by the smartphone growth.

Data from the MarketLIve Performance INdex

While the top-line numbers are impressive, a deeper dive into the data shows that plenty of opportunity still exists to capitalize fully on mobile audience growth. After all, more than 40% of traffic is now generated by smartphones and tablets — but low conversion and high abandonment rates plague mobile sites, resulting in failure to earn immediate revenues from mobile interactions. The 0.90% conversion rate for smartphones caused the overall Index conversion rate to drop by 2.7% to 2.05%; the smartphone cart abandonment rate was 83% — 20% higher than on desktop sites.

Still, as merchants head into the holiday season, the Index data suggest that those who’ve worked to optimize mobile offerings have reason to expect strong results. And for those with sub-par experiences, the Index results add fuel to the argument that mobile is 2015’s top priority.

Regardless of whether merchants offer a cutting-edge mobile experience or are getting by with limited mobile resources, they can still take advantage of the holiday season to advance their mobile goals. Two last-minute tactics to adopt:

Promote what you have. As discussed previously, all the mobile savvy in the world won’t pay off unless shoppers know it’s available to them. Merchants should double-check their social media presence, email campaign lineup and eCommerce site supporting content to ensure that mobile receives prominent mention.

Track performance wins and gaps. To justify 2015 investment in mobile, merchants should closely track usage of existing mobile tools. Not only should they attempt to capture any traffic and sales growth, but they should also provide data on where performance gaps hindered purchasing and what mobile content proved most engaging.

Download the full Performance Index report for industry-specific data, mobile analysis and more. And watch this space for further holiday tips in the countdown to Black Friday, including last-minute mobile tactics that can boost sales and engagement.

New eBook: Replatforming in 2015? Here’s what you should consider

As the end of the year approaches, merchants are looking past the frenzy of the holiday season to top 2015 priorities — and for many, the future holds the challenging prospect of replatforming.

In fact, more than 40% of merchants are currently underway with a project or planning to start by the end of this year. As merchants survey the landscape of eCommerce solution providers, flexibility is likely to be a common refrain.

After all, supporting an online commerce business has never been more demanding. The pace of change is accelerating, driven by the increasing connectedness of consumers who are now as accustomed to shopping on their phones as in retail stores, and who are empowered by social media to influence brand success through word of mouth.

When evaluating eCommerce platforms, merchants need to tease out how solution providers can accommodate these ever-shifting needs — whether the core platform is intended to provide every feature, whether technology partners integrate their offerings with the code, and whether it’s possible to take advantage of plug-in-like “agile” solutions that solve a focused need. MarketLive, for one, offers an array of out-of-the-box solutions, paired with extensible technology that integrates easily with both established and new partners.

In this process, merchants must not only ensure compatibility with existing iterations of their site, but attempt to predict what integrations and add-ons might be needed in the future — a tricky exercise to conduct without having a crystal ball, but a crucial one nonetheless, as the consequences of failing to plan for at least the forseeable challenges are significant. With eCommerce playing such a central role in the business, Web site failures are now high profile affairs that can cost companies millions – as when The Finish Line launched a new site in November 2012, only to experience outages that led to missed quarterly earnings projections.  And headlines from this year about multiple instances of hacking at eBay serve as a chilling reminder that brand reputation and trust, and years of potential lost sales, could be at stake if systems become vulnerable.

To avoid the potential pitfalls of replatforming gone awry while still embracing innovation, merchants must strike a balance between flexibility and stability. The spectrum of eCommerce platform options is vast.  Ultimate flexibility but also a high degree of complexity and risk can be found in the “wild West” of open-source solutions on one end; on the other, some hosted platforms offer technology that’s so rigidly controlled there’s no room for individual sites to innovate.

MarketLive’s new eBook on replatforming examines how to navigate between these two technology extremes and outlines the 30 most crucial questions to ask when evaluating new technology vendors. The questions fall into three crucial categories:

  • Flexibility: the ability to get started quickly with a full set of features out of the box, and integrate further cutting-edge technology in the future
  • Performance: the ability to scale both for seasonal spikes and for long-term growth
  • Security: the ability to proactively fend off attacks and comply with industry standards

Download the eBook today for a comprehensive look at replatforming considerations, along with a matrix worksheet.

Performance Index: Mobile challenges and opportunities for the holidays

If the latest MarketLive Performance Index is any indication, the upcoming holiday season could be a fruitful one for merchants. Index data reveals that year over year revenue for the second quarter was up by more than 19%, building on traffic gains of 11.1%. The conversion rate increased nearly 5% as merchants optimize their offerings to convince browsers to become buyers — and even better, the average order size grew by more than 5%, indicating that tactics other than bargain-basement discounting are driving the improved performance.

And just as in Q1, the impact of mobile device usage for shopping is significant. Smartphone traffic now accounts for one in four visits to merchant sites, with traffic soaring 334% year over year, while tablets now drive 15% of visits. But also as in Q1, merchants are by and large failing to capitalize on the mobile opportunity. While conversion rates for both smartphones and tablets increased from Q1 to Q2, cart and abandonment rates remained shockingly high — suggesting that merchants have a long ways to go before realizing their mobile potential.

Data from the MarketLive Performance Index

While mobile cart and checkout optimization should be a top priority, the holiday season’s rapid approach means that many merchants are out of time for major integrations and technical overhauls. But there are more straightforward changes merchants can still undertake to drive improved holiday mobile results. Among them:

Amp up mobile cart messaging about shipping options and costs. To cater to consumers’ continuing obsession with shipping costs and promotions, our recent survey of 100 top mobile merchant sites found that 77% of mobile-optimized sites display the shipping price in the mobile shopping cart. Fewer merchants, however, back up this key piece of information with two other data points that help shoppers make purchase decisions:

  • Close to 8 in 10 mobile sites fail to include a description of shipping methods and their timeframes for each tier of delivery service, whether on the cart page or even through a link — which means that there are plenty of carts displaying shipping costs without letting shoppers know what, exactly, the charge buys them. Shoppers value this information, with more than one in five saying they’ve abandoned sites when no estimated delivery date was provided early in the purchase process, according to comScore.
  • Just a third of mobile sites feature a free shipping promotion in the mobile shopping cart — whether by displaying a free shipping threshold, a free shipping promo code, or by dynamically calculating the amount shoppers should add to meet the threshold.

Merchants should ensure this information is prominent in the mobile cart. MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet calls out a free shipping promotion at the top of the cart, with the cost deducted further downpage for good measure.

Mobile example from Sport Chalet

Bulk up visual mobile offerings. Consumers are increasingly using their mobile devices not just for text messaging and store locator lookup, but to browse rich visual environments. For example, the image-driven social pinboard site Pinterest reported in late 2013 that three-quarters of all usage was generated from mobile devices — a 50% year-over-year increase. Fully 15% of all video traffic globally is generated on mobile devices, while on YouTube specifically, 40% of traffic comes from mobile, according to Business Insider.

And yet most merchants fail to cater to this hunger for mobile visuals, often offering mobile shoppers a single product image, with no video content to speak of. Merchants should rectify the situation by adding existing supplemental images and product videos from the desktop/laptop site to the mobile environment.

MarketLive merchant World Market uses a slideshow format to present multiple images on the product page. THe photos give shoppers the opportunity to swipe through the series to see different product details, such as this close-up showing the texture of a hammered metal lamp base.

Mobile example from World Market

Download the full Index report for further performance stats, including sector snapshots and further statistics about mobile. What final touches are you adding to your mobile offerings for the holidays?

Performance Index: Mobile takes center stage

The latest MarketLive Performance Index, reporting first quarter results, contains heartening news: revenues continued their double-digit growth streak, climbing 18.7% year over year on traffic gains of 13.9%. Average order size also grew, by 4.4%, suggesting that merchants are finding ways to engage shoppers beyond rock-bottom discounts.

But the report also reveals that these gains, impressive as they are, could have been even more substantial. Merchants are missing a key opportunity to win sales, and that opportunity is mobile.

On the one hand, compared with last year, mobile commerce is growing, with revenue from smartphones up nearly 47% and revenue from tablets up more than 30%. But those large percentage gains mask the fact that mobile revenues are significantly underperforming compared with mobile traffic. Most glaringly, 22% of all eCommerce visits originates on a smartphone, but smartphone purchases account for just 6% of revenue — suggesting merchants have a long way to go to make the touchpoint a viable source of sales.

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A deeper dive into the numbers reveals still other challenges:

  • The need for speed on smartphones. With nearly 1 in 2 smartphone visits ending after a single page, merchants are losing a vast number of potential shoppers before they even engage. As one possible remedy, merchants should conduct performance testing on their mobile sites; the majority of consumers now expect load times of less than three seconds, and are disinclined to return to sites that experienced load time problems, according to performance monitoring firm Gomez. And clumsily-implemented responsive design can drag down performance, so merchants contemplating site overhauls should be vigilant.
  • Near-misses on tablets. The add-to-cart rate on tablets is a healthy 11.9% — higher than on desktop sites — but then merchants fail to capitalize on this potential, with the tablet conversion rate lagging at 1.82%. In addition to cart and checkout optimization (more on which below), merchants should also consider the cross-touchpoint habits of their tablet shoppers and cater to those using their devices for research while potentially completing sales elsewhere. “Save cart” and “email cart” options are crucial; merchants should target tablet shoppers with messages incentivizing cross-device access as a benefit of account registration. Additionally, merchants should spotlight options to connect tablet browsers to in-store shopping, such as in-store inventory lookup or the ability to book a personal shopping appointment.
  • Major obstacles on the final steps of the path to purchase. The abandoned cart rate for smartphones is a whopping 83%, and 78% on tablets. While these numbers may partly be driven by shoppers using their devices purely for research, the checkout abandonment percentages are also shockingly high, at 65% for smartphones and 46% for tablets — suggesting that even for shoppers committed to making mobile purchases, the process is far from smooth. Our new whitepaper on path-to-purchase optimization, which we’ll cover in greater depth on the blog soon, contains a compendium of best practices related to mobile checkout we can’t recommend highly enough.

Download the full Performance Index report for more insights into mobile, including “day parting” and mobile performance by vertical. How does your mobile performance stack up?

 

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.

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?