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 (Buy.com) 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 AE.com 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.

HSN.com 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?

How to focus social media efforts for 2014

For many merchants, social media continues to be a tricky proposition when it comes to achieving ROI. Direct sales from social networks amount to just 1-2% of all revenues, according to the MarketLive Performance Index, which means that merchants must dig deep to justify their investment. And that investment needs to be significant if merchants are to adequately staff social media for responsive service and innovative content — making the value proposition even more potentially lopsided.

For those reasons, many merchants are striving to focus social media efforts. With an ever-expanding array of social networks to consider, that task may seem impossible — but recent data suggests the opposite may be true. With more options than ever, consumers increasingly being selective and gravitating toward individual social networks that cater best to their needs, making it easier for brands to reach their intended audiences.

For merchants to successfully reach their target audience, they should:

Consider the demographics. December 2013 data from the Pew Internet & American Life project gives merchants insight into the leading social networks — both in terms of numbers of users by factors such as age and ethnicity as well as frequency of usage. This combined information can help merchants not only select appropriate social networks, but also throttle resource allocation. For example, while Pinterest has replaced Twitter as the third most popular social network, Twitter users log in far more frequently, with double the number of Twitter users reporting they check the site at least daily.

Data on social media from Pew Data on social media from Pew

Dig deeper into Facebook engagement for younger audiences. As the Pew report shows, Facebook dominates both in terms of frequency and popularity, with 71% of all Internet users reporting they use the site. But while 84% of 18-to-29-year-olds report using Facebook, and 94% of teenagers aged 13 to 19 report doing so, survey responses suggest they consider the social network the purview of adults and assume their posts are monitored by parents and potential employers — prompting them to prefer other platforms for unfettered social interaction.  Research firm NextAdvisor found that Tumblr ranked highest among social networks, with 66% of teens reporting usage, while 9% fewer teens in 2013 versus 2012 named Facebook as the most important social site. In addition to Tumblr, the photo-sharing site Instagram ranked high in NextAdvisor’s survey, with SnapChat — which delivers photos, then deletes them after 10 seconds — becoming popular as a means of sharing images without the fear of leaving a permanent online record.

Data on social media

Incorporate mobile into social strategy. Regardless of demographic segment, merchants should assume their audience will access brand social outposts via mobile devices. Fully two in three smartphone owners say they use their devices to connect with social media, according to eMarketer — slightly higher than the 65% who visit social media sites on their laptop or desktop browser. More than half of tablet owners use them for social media.   All in all, eMarketer forecasts that more than one in three consumers will access social media via smartphone this year.

Data on mobile/social use from eMarketer

To adapt to this usage, merchants should design social strategies with mobile in mind, from posting links to mobile-friendly landing pages to featuring mobile-friendly content such as store locators within Facebook.

Go beyond the numbers. While demographics and industry-wide statistics can serve as a guide, ultimately merchants must rely on in-depth knowledge of their audience in order to develop effective social strategies. To understand the preference of their existing and potential customers, merchants should use:

  • Surveys. Ask existing customers about social media usage and what social content would be helpful.

  • Analytics. Study traffic logs to identify social sources — both mobile and desktop — of existing traffic.

  • Competitive data. Examine what social offerings exist for brands that cater to relevant audiences.

  • Product shares. Merchants can enable sharing of products from the eCommerce or mobile site even to those social networks where they haven’t established official brand profiles. Destinations where items are frequently shared merit further exploration.

  • Social “listening”. Monitoring social sites for brand mentions and unofficial pages or profiles enables merchants to both identify social opportunities and provide responsive customer service.

How are you fine-tuning and focusing social strategy for 2014?

Performance Index: Holiday season finishes strong

The final results are in from the holiday season, and merchants in the MarketLive Performance Index fared very well indeed. Merchants achieved traffic and revenue gains of more than 15%, and average order size grew a substantial 6.1% — suggesting that deep discounting isn’t always the key to holiday sales growth.

Additionally, merchants in the Index outperformed the industry at large, which notched a 10% sales gain overall, according to measurement firm comScore. The results demonstrate that small- to mid-sized merchants held their own against the mass merchants whose revenues account for the majority of online sales overall.

Holiday sales data from MarketLive

The results also revealed potential areas of improvement for 2014. Both the add-to-cart rate and conversion rate ended the season a tenth of a percentage point lower than in 2013 after lagging in the final days before Christmas and in the first rush of post-season sales. To reverse the trend in 2014, merchants must do more to capitalize on increased traffic if they want to achieve even greater revenue growth. The 3% increase in cart abandonment further eroded the benefit of traffic gains, suggesting merchants must do more to compel shoppers to become brand customers, using whatever touchpoint they prefer.

In our upcoming 2014 trends report, we’ll examine the key initiatives that will help merchants achieve these goals. Among them:

From mobile presence to mobile competence. Our survey of eCommerce sites during the holidays revealed that many merchants have a long way to go when it comes to offering truly effective mobile touchpoints. While most brands have mobile offerings, many are rudimentary efforts that faintly echoed the marketing and merchandising campaigns of the desktop browser Web sites. Instead, regardless of the technical sophistication of their mobile offerings, merchants must customize content and products to take into account shoppers’ situational priorities and present relevant context. MarketLive merchant Armani Exchange presented mobile shoppers with a streamlined experience that included gift guides by price. Email signup was prominently integrated into the presentation so that mobile browsers could sign up to receive special holiday offers, while sharing tools enabled shoppers to post favorite items with ease.

Mobile example from Armani Exchange

Making it personal. Personalization as a concept has existed for years, but the tools now exist for merchants of all sizes to present shoppers with an experience tailored to their preferences and purchase histories and enhanced by individualized customer service. By delivering wholly unique brand interactions, merchants can set their offerings apart from mass discounters and create long-lasting customer relationships. During the holidays, brand manufacturer Carter’s followed up in-store purchases with an invitation to submit a customer review and enter to win a gift card. The message additionally gives shoppers further ways to connect with the brand via social media, and promotes gift card purchase — especially relevant for the holiday season — as well as including store information for the local outlet.

Personalized email example from Carter's

How did your holidays wrap up, and how are the results influencing your priorities for 2014?

Last-minute Black Friday prep: 2 reasons why mobile is the top priority

The juggernaut that is the Thanksgiving-Black Friday-CyberMonday shopping weekend is looming just one week away, and merchants and industry watchers alike are preparing for a holiday kickoff blitz. With the clock ticking down, one priority in particular is emerging as a worthy focal point for last-minute preparations: mobile offerings.
Recently-released research shows that mobile is poised to play a more crucial role than even the hype has predicted, for both online and offline shoppers alike. Among the reasons merchants should spend the next week fine-tuning their offerings:

Smartphones are now the primary starting point for shoppers. This fall, smartphones crossed a crucial threshold, becoming the touchpoint most often used for retail interactions, according to measurement firm comScore. Since August, smartphones have owned the majority of minutes spent interacting with retail brands, and in September, the percentage was 7% higher than desktop. That’s a relatively small gap in terms of percentage points — but it’s a significant reversal compared with earlier this year, when desktop held a 32% lead. And when taken together, tablets and smartphones dominate, grabbing 59% of minutes in September.

Mobile usage data from comScore

To entice consumer starting their shopping journeys via mobile, merchants should enact these last-minute tweaks:

  • Spotlight mobile in email. While it’s important for merchants to incorporate mobile promotions across all available touchpoints, email is especially crucial for the upcoming holiday kickoff. For example, 68% of consumers say they’ll find out about Cyber Monday promotions via email, according to measurement firm Nielsen — a ripe opportunity for merchants to both promote products and discounts and the means to continue engagement throughout the season on mobile devices. Even if merchants’ email messaging isn’t optimized for small screens (and it should be), the content should prominently promote mobile offerings, whether they be apps, SMS sale alerts, or an especially robust store locator on the mobile Web site.

  • Double down on mobile paid search. Any merchants with wiggle room in the budget at this late date should focus their paid search investments on targeted messaging for mobile. The percentage of clicks on Product Listing Ads from mobile devices jumped in Q3 to nearly a third of the total, with smartphones garnering fully one in five PLA clicks, according to The Search Agency. And while tablet cost-per-click rates now rival desktop pricing, smartphone rates still lag, making smartphone-targeted listings a relative bargain in the competition to engage shoppers at the outset of their shopping journey.

Mobile search ad CPC data from The Search Agency

Mobile can play a huge role in store sales — in more ways than one. Across the board, analysts anticipate that mobile devices will see heavy shopping use while consumers are roaming physical store outlets. The MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey found that more than half of shoppers intend to look for coupons or other discounts and to research competitive pricing while shopping in stores, and more than 40% plan to use their phones as research tools to look up ratings and reviews and in-depth product information.

MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey data on smartphone usage

While the prospect of this price-comparison shopping has long terrified merchants, as we’ve previously discussed, the greatest likelihood is that consumers who “showroom” will end up making purchases in the very store they’re visiting. To transform a potential threat into a sales opportunity, merchants should devote last-minute attention to:

  • In-store/online linkage points. Consider adding further store signage pointing shoppers to holiday-specific content on the eCommerce site, such as gift guides or gift card redemption policies. As well, merchants should use stores to promote social engagement opportunities such as holiday-themed contests as well as email subscriptions — thereby opening the door to repeat engagement with shoppers throughout the season.

  • Priming store associates to interact with mobile-empowered shoppers. The eCommerce site can play an especially vital role in the store experience when shoppers are guided by a brand expert in person. Among the ways sales reps can win business for the brand using online tools:

    • They can save sales via the “endless aisle.” If sought-after items are “out of stock” in physical stores, a heartening 47% of consumers said they would find another way to buy from the same brand, compared with 45% who would take their business elsewhere, Deloitte found. Knowledgeable store associates can lend a crucial assist to the 23% of shoppers who said they would locate the item at another of the same brand’s physical outlets, and to the 24% who would source the item from the same brand’s Web site.

    • They can distinguish themselves — and the brand — as knowledgeable experts. Fully 54% of shoppers said they’re be more likely to make purchases in stores where sales associates are knowledgeable, according to consulting firm Deloitte’s holiday forecast. The ability to quickly access relevant product information and connect shoppers with discounts via any available touchpoint can play a key role in building trust and credibility, especially as 59% of consumers currently believe they’re more knowledgeable than store staff about pricing and product availability.

Data on importance of store associates from Deloitte

What last-minute mobile tactics are you adopting for Black Friday and beyond?

How to dive in to cross-channel integration in 2014

With Black Friday just over three weeks away, merchants are focused on the immediate challenge of surviving the holidays. But as they hit their stride and navigate the successes and setbacks of the peak season, it’s likely they’ll also begin to formulate new priorities for 2014. New research suggests that one area stands out for renewed focus: personalized cross-channel integration.

By 2017, fully 60% of all retail purchases will either be transacted directly online or influenced by online research, according to new research from technology researcher Forrester — a 30% jump from 2012, when 46% of purchases involved the Web. With online offerings set to play a role in more than half of all transactions, merchants must integrate touchpoints so that shoppers have a unified view of the brand and its products as they switch devices and channels.

If the sheer size of the opportunity weren’t enough, there’s also evidence that shoppers’ expectations are growing ever higher for responsive, context-aware interactions with brands. Connecting to the Internet multiple times per day via multiple devices in multiple locations is quickly becoming the norm, with 37% of U.S. consumers doing so in 2011 and 42% in 2012 — and Forrester predicts the percentage will top 50% by year’s end. This “always-addressable” audience, as Forrester calls it, which can tap the Internet wherever and whenever a shopping need arises, is ill-served by campaigns that assume a linear path to purchase from a single interaction point; to demonstrate relevance, brands must personalize and adapt offerings to fit the individual situation.

But surprisingly given this increasingly urgent mandate, many merchants have yet to prioritize multi-touchpoint commerce. While many merchants stated they wish to “enhance the customer experience across channels or touchpoints,” investments are still geared toward mass campaigns. For example, just 29% will boost 2014 investment in behavioral or CRM-based web site targeting, while fully 58% plan to increase spending in untargeted mass advertising, according to research from Forrester commissioned by marketing services firm Responsys.

Data from Responsys on marketing investment priorities

While reordering investments to reflect the need for cross-touchpoint cohesion may seem a massive and therefore daunting undertaking, it’s important for merchants to start now building the connections between touchpoints that will make for a seamless brand experience down the road. Among the starting points to consider:

Forging strong connections between online and offline interactions. Merchants with physical store locations must do their utmost to connect shoppers as they move among touchpoints. Tactics to consider:

  • Embrace “showrooming” with prominent links to comprehensive online content. As we’ve discussed previously, store shoppers who consult online information via smartphone are actually more likely to make purchases — not less. So merchants should supply these researchers and comparison shoppers with in-depth product content and buying guides that store shelf talkers simply can’t accommodate.

  • Connect store customers with online resources post-purchase. Creation of a unified customer record to link activities across touchpoints is the holy grail of cross-channel marketing for many merchants — but it’s also a formidable task. Merchants can focus their initial efforts on engaging those shoppers who’ve proven themselves potential brand enthusiasts by completing purchases, using the point-of-sale interaction in physical stores to make the link. By collecting an email address, merchants can begin a dialog with customers that includes:

    • Sending an e-receipt

    • Providing post-purchase product information, such as how-to manuals, user guides, maintenance reminders and, if necessary, recall alerts.

    • Inviting the customer to submit an online review.

All of these post-transaction interactions should entice customers to subscribe to email marketing updates, friend and follow the brand on social networks, and re-engage offline through store events.

Old Navy’s e-receipt features links to social outposts, as well as promotional slots for sister brands and global navigation to entice offline shoppers to browse the eCommerce site.

e-receipt from Old Navy

Make mobile the connector hub for all other touchpoints. With smartphones serving consumers shopping information on the go and tablets increasingly dominating at-home leisure browsing, merchants must cater to a wide array of behaviors on their mobile sites. In addition to providing the link between online research and in-store trying and buying, mobile offerings must also support purchasing, post-purchase order management, perusal of email campaigns and social connections. To focus the task list, merchants should consider prioritizing:

  • Persistent cart functionality between device and desktop. While sales from smartphone and tablet shopping are on the rise, fully 85% of eCommerce revenue is still driven from desktop browsers, according to the MarketLive Performance Index. Therefore, it’s crucial to provide technology that enables shoppers to pick up where they left off and access via the desktop browser the products they’ve already selected when browsing on mobile devices.

  • Make social interactions mobile-friendly. With 71% of mobile users connecting to social networks via their devices, merchants should optimize social content offerings for viewing on smartphones and tablets. While they can’t control how Facebook or Instagram’s apps operate, merchants can ensure that the content they post is mobile friendly — from images that are still comprehensible in downsized mobile formats to links that take social followers to mobile-optimized pages.

How are you tackling the integration challenge?

Last-minute free shipping tweaks for the holidays

If there’s one promotion merchants bank on to make their holiday season a success, it’s the free shipping offer. After all, free shipping tops the list of consumers’ favorite promotions, with 91% saying they’re likely to take advantage of free delivery with no threshold and nearly one in two saying they’d make enough purchases to qualify for a free shipping threshold, according to the MarketLive/e-tailing group Consumer Shopping Survey.

But new research suggests that merchants don’t do enough to promote their free shipping offerings. For one, just 26% of the largest online merchants devote significant home page space to free shipping promotions with medium or large-sized banners, according to Forrester Research — and fully one in five merchants don’t flag free shipping with any banner at all. Free shipping promotions are scarcer still on product pages, in the global cart and main shopping cart page, all of which are opportunities to remind shoppers of the opportunity for savings — not to mention on other touchpoints such as social media outposts and mobile sites.

This is an oversight there is still time to rectify with timely messaging that can help merchants stand out from the crowd. Among the tactics to consider:

Message with your competition in mind — starting with Amazon. Amazon.com gifted other merchants early this season with its recent announcement of a higher free shipping threshold for shoppers who aren’t members of its Prime subscription service. The 40% jump still only raises the threshold to $35, but the move is a boon for those merchants who can match or better that amount.

Beyond Amazon, merchants should also be aware of what their competitors are offering and what industry standards are for thresholds. Some averages, according to the Forrester report:

Average free shipping thresholds from Forrester

Armed with this knowledge, merchants needn’t rush to change their policies, but rather should fine-tune their messaging. Merchants who can match Amazon or offer a lower threshold than their competitors should play up the price point prominently; those whose threshold is higher than average should tout special service offerings, product guarantees, and easy returns to compensate. MarketLive merchant dELiA*s supplements its $75 free shipping deal with a $25 coupon toward the next purchase — an offer that sweetens the deal for consumers while also encouraging repeat purchases.

Free shipping offer from dEliA*s

Don’t forget mobile users. Too often, merchants focus their free shipping messaging on the eCommerce site and email promotions, without creating corresponding promotions on the mobile site. That’s a mistake, as mobile shoppers are especially apt to be using their devices for research and price comparison. Sixty-four percent of smartphone owners say they plan to use their devices to check for sales and discounts, while more than one in two say they’ll seek out competitive pricing, according to the MarketLive survey.

While mobile sites need to be streamlined for maximum efficiency, merchants should still dedicate screen real estate to free shipping offers throughout the path to purchase, as well as linking to information about any free in-store pickup options available. Piperlime anchors in the global header of its mobile site a promotion of its “free shipping both ways” offer with no threshold, prominently calling attention to its competitive policy.

Free shipping offer for mobile users from Piperlime

Incorporate messaging into triggered emails.  Promotion of free shipping offers shouldn’t be limited to email campaigns sent to existing subscribers. Merchants should also incorporate the offers into triggered emails to alert cart abandoners, potential replenishment candidates and even recipients of immediate post-purchase notifications about the opportunity to earn free shipping. Such incentives could spur re-engagement with the brand, recouping potentially lost sales or earning repeat business. Macy’s promotes its free shipping offer with a $99 threshold in welcome emails to new subscribers, alerting them to the policy with a banner below the header navigation.

Free shipping notice in triggered email from Macy's

How are you positioning and promoting your holiday free shipping offers?

Webinar recap: 3 reasons to be optimistic this holiday season

There was a plethora of information in Wednesday’s webinar reviewing the results of the 2013 MarketLive/E-Tailing Group Holiday Shopping Survey. While we’ll cover specific themes and tactics in the weeks to come, we thought it worthwhile to set the tone for the holidays with some uplifting news: this year has plenty of potential to reap great rewards for merchants.

 

It’s certainly true that merchants will face stiff competition and plenty of challenges this holiday season, as we reported in our recent post on holiday sales forecasts. The National Retail Federation’s predicted overall retail sales growth rate of 4.1% is almost 27% lower than the recent highs of 2010 and 2011, which both saw gains of 5.6%. And in Wednesday’s webinar, E-Tailing Group president Lauren Freedman said that 47% of merchants surveyed said they’re nervous about not meeting aggressive sales goals, while more than a third said they believed the year would result in flat sales growth at best.

But the webinar also pinpointed a number of areas where consumers themselves indicated they’re both ready to spend and receptive to merchant offerings. Here are three reasons to feel confident heading into the season — and three ways to translate the opportunities into tangible tactics:

Shoppers are willing to buy more, in more categories, than ever. Fully 40% of consumers said they planned to make more holiday purchases online this year than last year, and for almost every product category the percentage of shoppers planning purchases has risen significantly, indicating increased confidence in online buying and appreciation of the convenience, savings and selection on offer. And some of the most dramatic increases by category are in high-ticket items, such as jewelry and watches, which shows 86% growth in online purchase intent, and consumer electronics, at 53% growth.

E-Tailing Group/MarketLive survey data

Merchants should take advantage of consumers’ broad-mindedness by showcasing the broadest possible assortment of potential gift items via home page displays, gift guides and email creative that emphasize variety. MarketLive merchant Sundance Catalog used its 2012 gift guide to showcase categories from gift wrap to footwear to jewelry, increasing the likelihood that shoppers would spot items for recipients on their lists.

Gift guide example from Sundance Catalog

Shoppers are more willing to buy items at full price. While the survey showed that shoppers remain price-conscious and hungry for discounts (especially free shipping), the percentage of consumers who said they would never pay full price for an item dropped significantly compared with 2012. While more than a third of consumers last year said they would refuse to pay full price for items, 2013’s survey found that less than a quarter of shoppers now share the same sentiment — a 31% drop. Meantime, more consumers are willing to pay for unique finds that perfectly match gift recipients, for items that never go on sale and for hot-selling items difficult to source in physical stores. Rewards for purchasing, including free shipping and loyalty points, are further incentives to pay full price, participants said.

E-Tailing Group/MarketLive survey data

To capitalize on this opportunity, merchants should promote wish list creation and sharing, including Pinterest wish list boards — perhaps via a “win your wish list” or “pin it to win it” contest — as a means of encouraging consumers to self-identify ideal gift picks. Additionally, merchants should message prominently the uniqueness of their wares, spotlighting the craftsmanship and/or traditions behind the products. MarketLive merchant Simon Pearce devotes considerable content resources to detailing the painstaking craftsmanship, traditions and company heritage the brand represents, underscoring the uniqueness and value of the pieces on offer.

Content example from Simon Pearce

Shoppers are willing to buy on smartphones — yes, smartphones. Tablets have performed so strongly in the early going that much emphasis has been placed on their potential to make mobile commerce a viable reality. But the survey revealed that smartphones stand to make a significant impact this season as well. Given that all participants in the survey owned smartphones, fully 53% of them said they intended to use their devices to buy gifts, while research activities scored even higher.

E-Tailing Group/MarketLive survey data

This news should come as a relief to merchants who’ve invested in optimizing their mobile sites for transactions, not just browsing. While it’s too late to make major changes to mobile site design or functionality, merchants can still make meaningful adjustments to ensure maximum effectiveness for their mobile offerings. For starts, gift guides, gift card information and other holiday-centric site sections should all be featured prominently in mobile format. Customer service information is another key component to spotlight, including prominent access to live chat and the click-to-call 800 number, shipping cutoff dates, and order tracking as well as the store locator.

Finally, merchants should promote mobile functionality prominently and fully integrate mobile messaging into holiday campaigns, as Nordstrom did in 2012 with its “Giving Made Easy” email campaign. “Shop Our Site on the Go” is included in a comprehensive list of convenient and time-saving services, alerting recipients to the availability of mobile purchasing.

Mobile promotion example from Nordstrom

What’s your outlook for the 2013 holiday season, and what strategies do you forecast will be successful?

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