Maximizing your mobile app for Holiday 2014

Mobile-enabled purchasing is on fire. Now is the time to get prospective customers connected to your brand and get your app into their hands so they will be poised to shop with ease as November rolls around.

According to the 2013 MarketLive etailing group survey for Holiday 2013, 50% of users planned to use their smartphones for purchases. In a RetailWire survey 41 percent of consumers now actively use mobile apps while shopping, nearly double the 21 percent that did so in a similar survey last year. Most consumers of all ages indicate that they have two to four shopping apps installed. How can you make one of them yours?

You’ve got some work to do to get that handy little hunk of software onto your customers’ mobile devices and get them engaging with it. Just 5% of non-gaming or entertainment apps see repeat usage within 30 days, according to Forrester Research.

So finding ways to make it something shoppers use regularly is vital to its success. Your first job:

Make sure it’s useful beyond shopping

There are the bedrock capabilities consumers are seeking when using mobile for shopping: the ability to check availability at a store before visiting, and buy or reserve for pick up, and check for sales and specials. But there is so much more creative marketers can do to add value and utility to apps and boost brand engagement.

Speaking of engagement, jewelry retailer and diamond specialist Helzberg Diamonds has created a specialized app that’s a manageable mix of content around its collection of engagement rings.

The highly-rated app is a comprehensive resource that’s focused on one topic, with links to the mobile commerce site woven in at appropriate  junctures. Using the Proposal Pro, suitors can choose the date they plan to propose, browse rings, determine their beloved’s ring size, and read etiquette tips and advice about the ritual. They may even choose to have the app generate their proposal for them, or to rehearse using a built-in recorder.




Then Helzberg Diamonds brings it back to the sale by offering a $25 reward for making progress through the app.

Brand giant Charmin has created an app called Sit or Squat that will direct you to public restrooms which you can then rate and upload photos. “Gotta Go? Relax we got your back.” This is true utility with a splash of humor and perfect fodder for social sharing.



Promote It

Even the most innovative apps need to be effectively promoted to ensure they don’t languish in obscurity.

Search engines aren’t likely to direct new customers to your app unless they already know — and type in — your brand name. Even then, searches will most likely lead them to your desktop or mobile web sites where they may never even realize you offer an app.

A few suggestions:

Promote your app consistently and prominently across other brand touchpoints, including on your mobile website, in email campaigns, and in-store at POS.

If someone has found your mobile site, they are a prime candidate for using your app. Make it easy for them.

Apple offers developers Smart App Banners which can detect whether users have already downloaded your app and will either direct them to download or open the app upon clicking. 2014-7-22 6 1 39

Look at how American Eagle Outfitters uses its mobile site to offer a direct link to download its app from the appropriate device store.


Sometimes it may take more than just dangling a link an app store. Taking the time to download an app is a commitment, and customers need to feel it’s worth their effort.

Consider giving your app not only a prominent position on your web sites but also a preview of how it will improve the shopping experiences.

Design Within Reach, the innovative San Francisco-based furniture and accessories retailer, has an app available for the iPad through the iTunes store that was a 2013 Webby Award finalist.

The company effectively markets the app on its web site with an easy-to-watch video tutorial showcasing the functionality of the tool in action.

The video shows people zooming in on details of tastefully designed rooms, effortlessly flipping through various furniture styles, and learning more about the designers behind it all.


Social networking cannot be overemphasized

Reaching those who aren’t already visitors to your sites can be more of a challenge. Be aware that people don’t necessarily find apps the same way they find web sites.

Most people hear about apps through recommendations from friends and family, followed by “top-rated” recommendations in an app store, according to Forrester.

Since it’s likely to be awhile before your new app gains “top rated” status by reviewers, it’s best to focus on helping people discover and share your app through social media. Developing social app content and promoting it on social media sites is a good investment.

Here’s a way Nike has found to tap into their customer’s interest in sharing and comparing their athletic accomplishments through social networking sites.

The Nike + Running app not only allows users to track their workouts via GPS but also includes “leaderboards” where they can share times and see how their workouts over popular routes compare to those of their friends.


There’s even a feature where users can hear a cheer every time someone likes the run they’ve posted on Facebook.


The app is effective because it builds a community of runners who are actively engaged with it, then drives them to the main site where they can find multiple links to running gear shopping options.

According to Forrester’s Predictions 2014: US Retail eBusiness, consumers are leading merchants about changes they seek in mobile shopping and showrooming. Merchants who will flourish are willing to experiment with promotional activities and mobile functions that are specific to their product sets and find the custom solutions customers are seeking and be willing to adjust your investments accordingly.

Try as many new things to promote your mobile capacities as your budget allows and do it now.

Trend watch: What’s happening with alternative payments?

Implementing alternative payments is a smart move for merchants, and for a plethora of reasons. For starts, alternative payments offer a viable detour around purchase hurdles concerning data security and privacy — and with high-profile data breaches during the 2013 holiday season still painfully fresh in shoppers’ minds, offering a way to avoid typing in credit card data makes more sense than ever. Secondly, alternative payments can ease transactions across borders, enabling merchants to reach growing international eCommerce markets.

But perhaps the most compelling reason for merchants to undertake alternative payment integration is the central importance of mobile shopping. To convince shoppers to complete transactions on mobile devices, merchants must focus relentlessly on convenience and efficiency, and streamline checkout to the utmost. With mobile now the default touchpoint for interacting with brands, and with mobile transactions set to account for close to 30% of all online purchases by the end of this year, alternative payments should be near the top of merchants’ priority lists — if they haven’t implemented them already.

So when we set out to replicate research we conducted in late 2011, crunching data from the Internet Retailer Top 500 database to uncover trends in alternative payment usage, we expected to find substantial increases. Instead, we were surprised to discover that the percentage of merchants who’ve adopted alternative payments has remained completely flat. Just as then, 59.6% of today’s largest online brands offer online payments.

statistics on alternative payments

While nearly 60% may seem like a sizeable figure, given the increasingly-urgent mandate to cater to mobile shoppers, which has accelerated substantially in the past year in particular, we were surprised that the percentage hadn’t budged.

And while the changing lineup in the top 500 might account for the lack of movement, these merchants represent the largest and most successful brands online from year to year, with the resources to experiment with an array of revenue-boosting tactics.. Stasis among their collective ranks suggests that for small- to mid-sized merchants with smaller budgets and technology resources may struggle to prioritize alternative payments.

A deeper dive into the numbers reveals a trend toward consolidation. Among those merchants implementing alternative payments, more than half have opted to implement a single alternative payment service, and the runaway favorite is Paypal. Close to 90% of merchants offering alternative payments use Paypal — that’s more than 50% of all Top 500 merchants. These numbers signal a shift from 2011, when the majority of merchants offered multiple alternative payments.

statistics on alternative payments

statistics on alternative payments

The decline in usage of other payment methods besides Paypal is partially attributable to Google, whose transition from Google Checkout in late 2013 has yet to manifest itself fully. Google  Wallet isn’t an exact equivalent, which explains its decline among top merchants. But Paypal’s Bill Me Later financing service also experienced a decline, as did eBillMe, which has been rebranded as WU Pay as of mid-2012 after its acquisition by Western Union.

With alternative payment options in flux, merchants should rely on their customers to guide them to the right choice for their business. But whatever service is the best fit, merchants shouldn’t delay implementation if they hope to realize the benefits during the all-important holiday season.

Which alternative payments do you use, if any, and why?

MarketLive News: Delivering Responsive Commerce

We’ve discussed at length the crucial role mobile plays in today’s shopping experience — and we’ve stressed the importance of flexible technology  and the importance of sound implementation. That’s why we’re excited to share that today at IRCE in Chicago, MarketLive announced the launch of Version 14.1 of its award-winning e-commerce platform. This latest version delivers MarketLive’s ground-breaking Responsive Commerce technology, which includes responsive design templates to optimize the commerce path to purchase and enable streamlined design, implementation, and management of online stores across desktop, mobile and other device interfaces.

“With this release, we have evolved the integration of responsive design into eCommerce, extending the range of capabilities previously available. We handle responsive design for today’s phones and tablets and other devices, but we go further.  Our implementation of Responsive Commerce incorporates eCommerce best practices across the customer lifecycle, optimizing templates for path to purchase and customer service interactions to ensure our merchants engage and grow their customers, regardless of touchpoint,” said Ken Burke, founder and CEO of MarketLive Inc. “We are constantly improving our platform infrastructure so that our customers can be confident that they have the best technology available on which to run their commerce.  Responsive Commerce is just the latest fulfillment of this promise.”

The new release offers out-of-the-box Responsive Commerce templates that optimize the path to purchase and “future proof” for extension to new devices to come. These templates are designed to automatically present an optimized view on a given device and  manage all aspects of sizing for different devices and screens, including touch/zoom capabilities on any device.

Responsive Commerce from MarketLive is also designed to minimize future complexity for merchants by evolving and adapting to ever-changing shopping norms – it accommodates mobile and tablet today, and can be expanded to include Portable POS, in-store kiosks — and even future commerce interfaces not yet invented.

Among the benefits of this approach to merchants:

  • Reduced complexity in managing cross multiple devices, due to the ability to design, configure and deploy once across desktop, tablet, phone and other touchpoints.
  • Improved customer experience through optimization of load times by device type
  • Flexible merchandising control enabling tailored merchandising experiences by device, if desired
  • Improved SEO through the implementation of responsive design, technology that Google, Bing and other search engines give preference in their rankings
  • Broader range of responsive technology capabilitiesfrom Bootstrap3, the latest, state-of-the-art responsive framework providing enhancements across the responsive design continuum
  • Future proofing for merchandising on future devices, while benefiting now from out of the box responsive templates for phone, tablet portrait, tablet landscape and desktop displays.

For more information, read the full release — or stop by Booth #1601 at IRCE.

Want to re-engage email subscribers for the holidays? Start now.

With the season of sprucing up for the holidays well underway, merchants would do well to tend to their existing email subscribers.

Shoppers are by and large positive about email marketing, and its continuing effectiveness explains why email remains a top investment priority for merchants. Furthermore, as the growth rate for U.S. eCommerce is forecast to drop into single digits in the next five years, with revenue gains increasingly driven by experienced online shoppers, retention is set to take center stage — making it more crucial than ever to engage subscribers who’ve already consented to receive offers in their inboxes.

But perhaps still more compelling — or alarming — is the estimate from email intelligence firm ReturnPath that up to 20% of a merchant’s list is inactive at any one time; those subscribers receive emails, but don’t open them, much less click through to view offer details. While the relatively low cost of email marketing means that merchants may be able to carry this “dead weight” without significantly impacting their budgets, there are consequences when it comes to deliverability: the rate at which recipients engage with emails from a particular sender is a determining factor for email services in gauging whether a message is spam. So if for no other reason, merchants should court inactives as a means of ensuring deliverability for the rest of the list.

Among the ways to entice subscribers to re-engage:

The basics: Make email content mobile-friendly. To better engage all subscribers, not just inactives, merchants should design email Subject: lines and content to render well on mobile screens first and foremost. With fully two-thirds of email messages now being opened on mobile devices, by some counts, the mandate to switch to “mobile first” email is clear. Merchants should develop “responsive emails” that adapt their format in accordance with the device and email reader of the recipient. In addition, merchants should ensure that click-throughs from email offers lead to mobile-optimized landing pages and content.

“Win-back” campaigns: commit to the long haul. Sending a special offer to inactive subscribers is a popular last-ditch effort for merchants looking to cull their lists, and data from Return Path suggests these campaigns can be effective — in an unexpected way. While just 12% of shoppers open initial win-back emails, 45% of those who receive them go on to open subsequent messages from the same brand. This finding suggests that merchants should develop a series of win-back offers, not just a single message, and tweak their calendars to extend the period between delivery of the first offer and list removal.

And when it comes to crafting win-back content, merchants should avoid all-or-nothing calls to action that require shoppers to confirm their subscription. But they needn’t send a stream of increasingly-desperate discounts, either. While a discount offer can be part of the win-back series arsenal, merchants should also attempt to cajole inactive recipients back into action by inviting them to update preferences and reminding them of brand benefits, as this message does from MarketLive merchant H2O Plus. Shoppers who click the link to update preferences can specify which skin care products they’re interested in, as well as the frequency with which they’d like to receive emails and the kinds of notices they’d like to receive (such as new products or general skin care information).

Win-back email example from H2O Plus

Resubscribers: Welcome, don’t ignore. With shoppers hungry for holiday bargains, it’s likely that at least a few inactive subscribers who’ve forgotten they’re already on the list will try to re-subscribe via the eCommerce Web site to gain access to seasonal deals and exclusives. The merchant practice of employing home page pop-up or modal windows that spotlight discount offers for new email signups is likely to contribute to the number of existing subscribers who try to sign up again.

Merchants should adjust their signup processes now to greet these familiar email addresses with a message that encourages re-engagement — starting by acknowledging their status as return shoppers, rather than simply signing them up all over again. And merchants should by all means avoid giving these shoppers an error message for their troubles, as this site does when returning subscribers attempt to sign up again. The message is not only unfriendly, but by prompting shoppers to “enter a different email address,” it puts the onus on them to fix the problem.

Example of a "don't"

Instead, merchants should consider offering returning subscribers the following:

  • the ability to specify which topics or product categories are of interest
  • the option of throttling back delivery frequency
  • information about how to connect with the brand on social media
  • an instant discount better than the one on display for new subscribers.

How are you enticing inactive subscribers to re-engage with the brand?

3 top priorities for optimizing mobile checkout

In previous posts, we’ve surveyed top eCommerce web sites to gauge how merchants are optimizing the shopping cart and checkout to maximize sales. But as the latest MarketLive Performance Index revealed, the desktop experience is only part of the overall shopping picture: mobile devices now account for more than a third of all traffic to merchant sites and bring in nearly 20% of online revenues.

In last week’s blog post, we revealed how a deeper dive into those numbers exposed a lost opportunity: smartphone shopping. With 22% of traffic generating just 6% of total online revenues, it’s clear that merchants must do more to win sales on the small screen.

The Performance Index numbers confirmed our findings from the survey of mobile purchase experiences we undertook for our new whitepaper, which details path-to-purchase practices for 100 top sites on both desktop and smartphones. We found that in general, mobile purchasing is reminiscent of online shopping circa 2000 – basic, sometimes un-intuitive functionality often lacking crucial supporting content or creative offers. And on the extreme end, 13% of the sites we surveyed didn’t even offer a mobile-optimized version, while the purchase process on a few of the allegedly optimized sites was longer and more complicated than on the desktop/laptop browser version!

While the mobile add-to-cart and shopping cart steps had their own highs and lows, the most glaring deficiencies came in checkout. For starts, our tally revealed that close to 40% of mobile-optimized sites required at least five pages to complete checkout, compared with just 16% of desktop sites  – a counter-intuitive finding, since we assumed that merchants would streamline the process to the utmost for small screens with finicky touch keypads.

Checkout research from MarketLive

We hoped that the higher number of steps was merely due to a desire to limit the amount of scrolling mobile shoppers had to undertake. Unfortunately, that was not the case; rather, the high number of steps was due to clunky implementations that in some cases require more typed input than on the desktop sites.

To improve the mobile checkout experience, merchants should:

Provide guest checkout. We can’t say it enough: forcing shoppers to set up usernames and passwords in order to complete purchases is an unwise move — especially on mobile sites, where streamlining is the name of the game. So we were surprised that a higher percentage of mobile sites (11%)  than desktop sites (8%) required registration to complete purchases. Even more surprisingly, the discrepancy was partly due to instances where account creation was required on a brand’s mobile site, but not its desktop site – a jaw-dropping finding which made us wonder whether the eCommerce executives in charge had ever actually tried purchasing on their own mobile sites.

Instead, most mobile sites would do well to skip the “login vs. guest checkout” step altogether or relegate it to a secondary position, as MarketLive merchant Helzberg Diamonds does in its three-step mobile checkout process.  A link labeled “Sign In” at the top right gives registered users access to their saved information, while the majority of shoppers proceed directly to entering billing information, including the email address on the first screen.

Helzberg checkout

Implement alternative payments. The popularity of alternative payments continues to soar, as shoppers seek ways to skip entry of credit card data and eliminate checkout steps. Not only were more than a quarter of all online purchases in 2012 made using something other than a credit card – but a whopping 78% of mobile transactions were completed using an alternative payment method such as PayPal, according to technology provider ShopVisible.

Given that staggering figure, the percentage of merchants in our survey who promote the availability of alternative payments on their mobile sites seems low, at 44%. In another counter-intuitive finding, we discovered that a greater percentage of desktop sites promoted alternative payments (56%), meaning that some brands did highlight alternative payments for desktop users, but not mobile shoppers — a glaring oversight.

Go back to basics for checkout form design. With the prevalence of inefficient sequencing and usability problems in mobile checkout, we recommend that merchants start with a clean slate, developing a checkout process that caters specifically to mobile users and the challenges of the small-screen format. Merchants should:

  • Use shortcuts to streamline the number of fields. Merchants should attempt to reduce the number of keystrokes needed to complete purchase by eliminating as many non-essential fields as possible. They should:
    • Set form defaults to assume that the billing and shipping address are the same, unless the shoppers indicates otherwise.
    • Use the ZIP code to trigger the city and state, rather than requiring shoppers to select their state from a long drop-down list.
    • Eliminate the prompt to select a credit card type before entering its number, since different types of credit cards use different number sequences. Once the number has been entered, merchants need only display the card type so shoppers can confirm they’ve entered the right one.
    • Eliminate every non-essential field, including email subscription signups and collection of demographic data (yes, a site in the survey actually did this in mobile checkout). If merchants can convince mobile shoppers to purchase, post-purchase transactional emails provide plenty of opportunity to promote email, social media and the like.
  • Facilitate form entry by triggering input-specific keyboard layouts. That is, when shoppers click on a field that requires numerical entry, the mobile device’s touch “keyboard” should convert to a number pad; when a field requests an email address, the keyboard should display specific options for entering online data, such as an easily-accessible “@” sign.
  • Clearly label checkout steps. This advice seems like eCommerce 101, but a number of sites we reviewed failed to give mobile shoppers any inkling of how long the checkout process might take.
  • Encourage order completion by any means necessary. At a minimum, the global footer should include click-to-call and click-to-chat prompts for reaching customer service if checkout hurdles otherwise prove insurmountable.

MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet puts it all together with a sleek mobile checkout process that clearly labels the three steps involved – addresses, payment, and order review and submission. Login for registered customers is available via a link at top right, while optional loyalty club data entry is accessible via a collapsible menu. A second collapsible menu puts order contents within easy reach, while customer service contact information is listed via the global footer. Form data is kept to a minimum and uses field-specific keyboard entry.

Sport Chalet mobile checkout


Download the whitepaper for more path-to-purchase insights and best practices for both desktop and mobile commerce sites. How are you optimizing the mobile experience to maximize sales?

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.


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.

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)?

The mobile medium not to ignore

In the quest for mobile competence we identified as a top 2014 priority, it’s tempting to focus on tablet marketing techniques and branded apps as the solution for driving mobile consumer engagement. But merchants would do well to consider a humbler, but no less potentially effective, avenue for reaching shoppers: the text message.

For starts, developing an SMS service can help merchants reach the broadest possible mobile audience. Fully 81% of cell phone users send and receive text messages, compared with 60% who browse the Internet on their devices and 50% who download apps, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found.

This near-universal usage extends globally, and even to those using the most sophisticated mobile phones; in Europe, for example, 90% of consumers armed with an iPhone still report using text-messaging frequently, according to technology researcher Forrester.

Finally, the inter-operability of text messaging across wireless carriers and device types means that launching an SMS service requires less of a technology investment than developing — and maintaining — smartphone apps on several mobile operating systems.

Perhaps because of these potential benefits, just over half of merchants report that they’re either using SMS campaigns now or plan to do so this year, according to a recent survey from Exact Target. Of the 26% of merchants currently using SMS services, more than half report “excellent” results for a variety of campaigns, from “welcome” routines for new subscribers to holiday messaging.

So while merchants should attune their mobile strategies to their target audiences, SMS campaigns should almost always be part of the mix. To successfully craft an SMS strategy and develop campaigns, merchants should:

Start with a foundation of ethical practices. While text messaging can potentially provide effective, broad mobile reach, its unique medium and format require merchants to exercise caution and create messaging that conforms to common standards. Among them:

  • Following industry guidelines for opt-in and opt-out. The Mobile Marketing Association’s guidelines describe how to give consumers maximum control over their SMS subscription — essential given that, depending on the wireless plan, a per-message fee might apply. For starts, merchants should institute a double-opt-in routine for new subscribers and include opt-out information with every message.

  • Treading lightly when it comes to frequency and scheduling. Because text messaging is not only a one-to-one medium, but an immediate one — with 90% of text messages being read within 3 minutes, by some counts — merchants should exercise caution with the timing of their messages. For example, overnight hours are to be avoided for delivering text messages, since many consumers sleep near their phones and might not take kindly to receiving promotional materials in the dead of night.

Think beyond contests when it comes to content. While “text to win”-style sweepstakes are commonplace, they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways merchants can engage consumers via text messaging. Among the contenders:

  • Limited-time alerts. With the popularity of daily deals and “flash sales” continuing to rise, merchants can capitalize on the immediacy of SMS messaging to deliver exclusive, limited-time offers. Macy’s messaged SMS subscribers in synch with a network television show, letting them know they could shop looks featured on the show

SMS campaign example from Macy's

  • Post-purchase notifications, including replenishment reminders. Delivering  shipping status notifications and reminders to reorder to mobile devices ups convenience and encourages them to re-engage with the brand on the go.

  • In-store purchase support. SMS can be a viable alternative to QR codes for giving shoppers in physical outlets quick access to further product information online, such as buying guides or customer reviews. And with mobile coupons enjoying a redemption rate of 10%, compared with paper coupons at 1%, SMS links to mobile coupons for immedate use can connect shoppers with the discounts they seek.

Promote — and differentiate — SMS availability everywhere. Once they’ve developed an SMS service, merchants should be sure to promote it prominently — and to detail how messages will complement, not duplicate, existing options for staying in touch with the brand, such as email updates or social media. Among the locations to consider:

  • The eCommerce site. Merchants should let desktop and laptop shoppers know that they have an option to connect with the brand beyond browsing the mobile web.

  • The mobile Web site. While it may seem redundant, the option to receive incoming “push” alerts  means consumers on the go don’t need to remember to keep checking the mobile Web site. Saks Fifth Avenue recently gave SMS alerts pride of place on the mobile home page.

SMS promotion example from Saks Fifth Avenue

  • In stores. Merchants should use store displays to promote the benefits of staying connected via SMS. Ace Hardware emphasizes the exclusive nature of the discounts offered by SMS with a “Mobile Only Offers” banner on signage. The point-of-sale signage includes examples of discounts available via the SMS program.

SMS promotion example from Ace

How are you incorporating SMS into your mobile strategy?

The importance of instant gratification for mobile – and how to provide it

The connection between mobile shopping and cross-channel buying is well-established. As we’ve written previously, mobile is now the default touchpoint for interacting with retail brands, and the vast majority of those shoppers go on to become buyers.

But the case for mobile is even more compelling — and, literally, urgent. Not only are mobile shoppers likely to make purchases, but they want to complete their transactions immediately, according to recent data from Google and Nielsen. More than half of mobile shoppers want to make purchases in the next hour, and 83% plan to buy products within the day.

This sense of immediacy requires merchants to do their utmost to provide the tools shoppers need to act on purchase decisions from within the mobile environment. While providing inventory lookup for local outlets might be beyond the scope of small- to mid-sized merchants, they should consider other tactics to smooth the path to purchase across touchpoints. Among them:

Integrate click-to-contact beyond the “800” number. Merchants should make it easy for mobile shoppers to get in touch with live customer service help in a variety of formats all along the path to purchase. Enabling click-to-call functionality for the “800” number in the global header is a good first step, but merchants should go further by promoting live assistance:

  • on product pages. Merchants should position live help options prominently on the mobile product page, so that researchers who locate the products they desire can act on impulse to complete their purchases, even if they don’t want to transact via their mobile devices. Helzberg Diamonds features a link to “schedule an appointment” on mobile product pages. Shoppers request email or phone help and select a store outlet, so that local representatives can facilitate sales one-on-one or, if need be, face-to-face.

Mobile appointment service from Helzberg

  • within the store locator, with local numbers. Mobile shoppers seeking hours or addresses of physical outlets are likely to want to reach staff at those locations, rather than contending with the automated customer service system at the “800” number. Merchants should enable this shortcut by activating click-to-call for the store numbers listed in the locator, as MarketLive merchant Party City does. In addition to accessing a map and store hours, shoppers can click to reach local store representatives to check local inventory and ask questions.

Store locator from Party City

Promote — and simplify — wish list creation. With 48% of mobile shoppers completing their purchases on desktop or laptop browsers, according to the Google/Nielsen data, it’s essential to provide ways for them to pick up where they left off on another device — and to promote that functionality with mobile in mind.

In our previous post, for example, we recommended cross-touchpoint functionality as a benefit of account registration. But for mobile researchers, the feature most likely to come in handy first is the wish list, which enables them to access products of interest across devices. So rather than encouraging mobile shoppers to “sign in” or “create account,” merchants should promote the wish list itself as a prominent feature of the mobile experience, as Toys “R” Us does on its mobile home page.

Toys R Us mobile page

Furthermore, when mobile shoppers click to create a wish list, the registration process itself should be streamlined to require only what’s needed for that function. While some kind of password creation is likely necessary so that shoppers can use the same login to access their lists from other devices, merchants needn’t collect billing and shipping addresses or phone numbers as part of the process; a simple email address and password should suffice — or merchants should consider tying mobile wish list creation to social login to further speed the process, as does by first offering an “add to favorites” option on the product page, then enabling social sign-in along with account registration.

AE mobile wishlistSocial login on mobile from AE

Streamline mobile checkout and promote it. Close to one in five mobile shoppers finish transactions on their devices, according to the MarketLive Performance Index. While that’s still a relatively small percentage, it’s growing fast, with tablet sales growing 39% and mobile phone sales growing 65% since 2012. Merchants should encourage researchers who find items that meet their needs to secure them on the spot by making the checkout process as frictionless as possible. Not only should they eliminate any unnecessary steps or fields, but they should adopt alternative payments and promote their availability before the shopping cart and checkout stage. promotes the availability of Paypal from product pages by including a “checkout with Paypal” link alongside “add to cart.”

Alternative payment promo on mobile from HSN

How are you enabling instant gratification for mobile shoppers?

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