When to jump on the bandwagon – and when to go it alone

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The old adage came to mind last Wednesday, as headlines about Amazon’s Prime Day sales event peppered news feeds and email inboxes were full of discount offers — and not just from Amazon itself. While the competing sale offered by Wal-Mart grabbed most of the media attention, dozens of retailers calendared deep discounts and free shipping days to coincide with Prime Day in an effort to ride Amazon’s coattails to a revenue high.

These sales events, while competing with Amazon for shopping dollars on the big day, were at the same time tacit endorsements of the mega-merchant’s power — “allowing Amazon to wag the Internet,” as one analyst put it. The world’s top Internet merchant, in effect, created a sales event out of nowhere, and achieved Black Friday-like revenue results.

Third-party marketplace merchants on Amazon also enjoyed a bounce, with sales 93% higher than the comparable date last year. Other merchants who jumped on the bandwagon may have seen their boat rise with the tide — or they may have inadvertently reminded their customers to check out Amazon’s event instead.

The question of whether to join forces with big players or to go it alone is relevant beyond Prime Day. In fact, with the ultra-competitive holiday season on the horizon, it may be more crucial than ever.

In our opinion, merchants who engage with their larger competitors via marketplaces and other tactics stand to gain visibility and new audiences they would otherwise be unable to achieve. The key is to strike a balance and, moving beyond the initial sale, to engage those shoppers to interact directly with their own brands. Among our recommendations for when to jump on the bandwagon — and when not to:

When to join:

  • Gain mobile visibility via social networks. Mobile is now the default touchpoint for social networking, with some 71% of social traffic now originating on mobile devices; and the latest crop of fast-growing social sites, such as Instagram and social-messaging services such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, are designed primarily for mobile users. As a result, merchants with brand outposts on social networks have another avenue for reaching shoppers via their mobile devices — one they can capitalize on by ensuring that relevant customer service and content links are fully integrated in the social environment and by stimulating connections with brand-owned resources. And with the new spate of “buy” buttons debuting on social networks, the time may soon come when those social pathways lead even directly to purchase.
  • Leverage mobile payment options. Use of mobile wallets is forecast to rise steeply in the next few years, rising from 3% of U.S. shoppers today to 18-20% by 2018. So merchants would do well to assess which payment provider is the best potential partner, track whether third-party marketplaces are offering integrated mobile payments, and survey customers to understand their interest in and usage of mobile payments.

When to go solo:

  • There’s no substitute for native mobile prowess. While merchants can partner their way to increased mobile visibility, that heightened consumer awareness will lead nowhere unless brand sites are usable and offer a seamless transition from device to screen to physical store location. If they haven’t already, merchants should invest in fully optimizing their mobile Web sites, whether through responsive design or as a standalone offering, and devise the means to track meaningful mobile performance data.
  • Give loyal customers a home in a brand-owned community. While social networking on the leading sites such as Facebook and Instagram is a good way to attract a new audience and invite existing followers to take action, ultimately merchants should establish direct relationships with their best customers — and feature their contributions — within the walls of their own brand’s flagship site. Such “owned” communities aren’t subject to the vagaries of social networks’ algorithm changes, privacy policy revisions or functionality upgrades. Loyalty club content and perks can be incorporated into the community to encourage members to use the site, alongside expert content and user-submitted video and/or images. Offering discussion forums and the ability to vote on ideas for improvement gives the floor to consumers in a meaningful way.

Fitness company and MarketLive merchant Beachbody provides customers with a comprehensive community that offers training support, recipes, and more for those who aim to get in shape. Content such as customer testimonials and tips are cross-posted to Facebook, but valuable lookup tools for finding workout trainers and partners are exclusive to the brand’s site — as is content from the message boards and direct-messaging capability.

Cmmunity example from Beachbody

How are you leveraging partnerships with big players, and what areas does your brand “own”? And why?

How to focus holiday priorities (and the input to ignore)

With the Fourth of July in the rearview mirror, it’s time to realistically assess the status of new features merchants planned to roll out before the holidays, and to put the final touches on holiday campaigns. Choosing the right priorities for the remaining weeks before holiday kickoff is crucial — and too often, merchants are looking in all the wrong places for guidance.

The stakes are higher than ever when it comes to holiday sales. Online holiday sales accounted for more than 16% of all retail sales in 2014, according to the National Retail Federation. With double-digit eCommerce growth once again expected for the holidays in 2015, merchants stand to win big — or to suffer repercussions for missteps.

That’s why, when it comes to paring down the final list of holiday to-dos, we advise merchants to focus squarely on their own unique business needs, and to tune out hype and conjecture in favor of solid data. To determine which priorities are worth pursuing, merchants should:

Mine the right analytics data for guidance on site tweaks. Site usage data can be a gold mine of actionable information on what shoppers seek and where sites need further improvement to resonate. Among the data to study:

  • On-site search logs. “Zero results” logs can reveal gaps in content and discrepancies between merchant and shopper terminology. Searches for specific brand names and product types can suggest new categories to create or at least attributes to tag for guided search. And searches for customer service-related terms can suggest what service content to elevate and highlight throughout the path to purchase.
  • Mobile vs. desktop discrepancies. Comparing popular site paths, fallout analyses and product page performance reports on mobile and desktop sites can illuminate where mobile versions are falling short and need further optimization — and where it can be useful to encourage (or at least support) screen switching with features such as “save for later” or “save cart”.
  • Usage of online/offline features. Identifying where shoppers hesitate when using features such as “buy online, pick up in-store” or even registration for in-store events can help merchants smooth the transition from screen to store. And close analysis of how shoppers access content promoted within stores on mobile devices — and what actions they choose to take after viewing that content — can give merchants a more complete picture of cross-touchpoint activity.

Double down on social networks with engaged followers. While merchants should be prepared to provide responsive service via all the brand’s social outposts, they should focus their most creative holiday efforts on the networks where followers are more likely to actively respond, share and contribute their own content, versus passively scrolling past brand offerings. In addition, merchants should use their attribution model of choice to determine which networks drive the most direct revenue and consider experimenting with new “buy” buttons to further motivate purchasing.

Consult store staff for online content gaps. Amidst the chatter about beacons, facial recognition, dynamic shelf tags and other whiz-bang technology surrounding the digital store, we’re fans of old-fashioned human interaction and believe store staff are the most important asset for supporting online/offline brand interactions. Not only can store associates help shoppers navigate online resources and complete transactions, but they can gauge consumer sentiment and identify gaps in brand content, whether for products or for services such as in-store pickup or ship-to-store. Merchants should find the means to tap these valuable front-line information sources and act on their recommendations.

Invite existing customers to drive holiday promotions. For guidance on promotional strategies, merchants should look to customers themselves — whether by studying purchase patterns of loyal buyers and loyalty club members or by explicitly asking shoppers to choose which items they’d like to see featured on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, as Target did during “March Madness”. Users of the Target Cartwheel app could vote on which items to discount for the basketball tourney’s kickoff weekend.

Example of voting on a promotion from Target

And just as these sources can provide reliable guidance, there’s plenty of input that merchants should ignore. Two of the biggies:

What the competition does isn’t relevant. This advice may seem counterintuitive. On one level, it’s useful to know what other merchants in the industry are offering shoppers.  But merchants shouldn’t strive to keep up with the features another site offers without knowing whether those strategies are actually delivering results. Even if they have access to such intelligence, merchants should recognize that even within industry sectors, differences between individual brands’ audience demographics, product offerings and price points, and the number and locations of stores, among other factors, mean that a true “apples to apples” comparison simply does not apply.

That hot new social network doesn’t matter. With the ROI of even established sites like Facebook being difficult to justify for most merchants, they should be leery of jumping on the bandwagon of the latest social network just for the sake of “being there” — especially during the holidays, when consumers are likely to have heightened expectations for responsive and savvy customer service on social outposts. With the number of social networks proliferating, merchants should select social opportunities based on where their audience already gathers — or where a specific target audience can be tapped, such as for new international markets — rather than launching new outposts willy nilly.

How are you prioritizing holiday strategies, and what will you forgo?

4 ways to stay visible in Facebook’s news feed

For many brands, Facebook is the default anchor of their social media strategy. But as with all social media, the direct ROI for Facebook has been difficult to prove — and with visibility via “organic” news feed posts on the decline, merchants must work harder than ever to reach their followers.

Facebook is popular with merchants largely due to its sheer critical mass. Some 71% of U.S. online adults use it, more than any other social network. Facebook is the site of choice for 79% of those who use only one social network, and of the 52% of online adults who use multiple networks, Facebook is in the mix for the vast majority of them: more than 85% of Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest users say they’re also on Facebook.

But Facebook has become increasingly problematic as the visibility has steadily dropped for unpaid business Page posts. Partly, the difficulty is a byproduct of Facebook’s massive popularity; as more brands join the social network and post ever more frequently, competition for news feed visibility has risen precipitously. The number of branded posts is up 31% in the first quarter of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to the Adobe Digital Index.

Partly in response to this growth, Facebook has taken two significant steps to prioritize non-commercial content. In mid-January, Facebook downgraded content deemed “too promotional”, including posts pushing purchases, downloads or sweepstakes entries and posts that mimicked ad content verbatim. Then, following an April announcement that coincided with with Google’s “mobilegeddon” update, Facebook gave top priority to original status updates from friends versus Pages, and, furthermore, downgraded notifications showing friend activity such as liking or commenting on other posts.

While the effects of Facebook’s April update have yet to be quantified, data for the first quarter shows that the January algorithm change alone has accounted for a significant drop in “organic” traffic to business Pages. Unpaid impressions for brand posts overall dropped a whopping 35% for the first quarter of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to the Adobe Digital Index. Specifically within retail, the rate of interaction with branded posts dropped 12% to 4.1%.

Given Facebook’s dominance, the changes are likely behind falling referrals to eCommerce sites from social media overall. In Q1, visits driven by social media dropped to 1%, down from 3% in the prior quarter and 2% a year ago, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.

index_socialcontribution_2015june

In our view, renewed skepticism toward Facebook is a healthy reaction to these new challenges. The key is to act on that impulse by analyzing the behaviors that lead to strong brand connections — and to determine whether and how Facebook can support those behaviors. Among the tactics to consider:

Smart segmentation for paid Facebook posts. In a way, Facebook’s changes suggests that merchants should undertake a similar shift to the one that’s already occurred in search engine marketing, where merchants have increasingly dropped their obsession with keyword-driven organic rankings and upped investment in paid search campaigns in response to Google’s algorithm changes.

Similarly, merchants may want to consider paid Facebook placements, with or without “buy” buttons attached, to make up for lost organic visibility — but, as with search, the key to ad effectiveness is to target relentlessly. Merchants undertaking paid Facebook ads should integrate social campaigns with data from Web analytics and CRM systems to connect followers (and would-be followers) with social ads tailored to their situations. Browse and cart abandonment remarketing, post-purchase promotion of complementary or replenishment items, and loyalty or membership club promotions can be effective social advertising strategies using Facebook’s Custom Audiences tool.

Activation of influential followers. With the most recent news feed adjustment, even followers’ “likes” of and comments on brand posts may not be enough to make the content show up in their friends’ feeds. So merchants need to go further to spur individuals to post their own original content about brands. A good place to start is with existing advocates — those brand followers who already “like” posts, share and pin products, write reviews and otherwise take an active role in social media. Engaging those individuals on a one-to-one basis and inviting them to up their involvement can result in the kind of traction that boost brand visibility in news feeds across the network.

MarketLive merchant Francesca’s uses its Facebook page to give props to style bloggers, who, in turn, give visibility to Francesca’s page and products in their coverage. Francesca’s own post featuring the blogger HapaGirl garnered 28 “likes”, while her own post and link to further blog coverage received more than 450 “likes” from her audience of more than 70,000.

Social example from Francesca's

Social example from Francesca's

Empowering customer service. We’ve touched before on the crucial role customer service plays in building brand reputation on social networks and beyond. Merchants should both promote stellar service on Facebook and promote examples of above-and-beyond care along with customer service offerings such as personal shoppers and free returns. Service-oriented content both reinforces followers’ allegiance and provides fodder for their own posts about the brand.

Integrate user-generated content everywhere. By featuring the customer voice throughout the shopping experience, not just on Facebook, merchants give followers incentive to use Facebook to link to eCommerce site content or to branded community resources they’ve helped build. MarketLive merchant Beachbody features the Beachbody Challenge, which rewards customers who submit testimonials with cash prizes, on its eCommerce site and on a dedicated Facebook page. Contestants are encouraged to solicit votes as part of the process, thereby creating a popularity contest that drives traffic to both the brand’s Facebook and eCommerce sites.

bbodychallenge2

How is your brand faring in the Facebook news feed? What strategies have proven successful for engaging followers and their friends?

Checklist: making the most of user-generated social content

User-generated content on branded social media outposts is highly valued — but for many merchants, the reasons why remain murky. Often, the utility of endorsements, photo submissions and home-made video clips starts and ends with nebulous terms such as “engagement” and “credibility,” as merchants struggle to articulate the concrete value of letting shoppers articulate in their own words and images how brand offerings meet their needs.

Less than a third of merchants use social content curation tools to parse incoming feeds; of those, just 5% cite revenue generation as a primary goal of social curation efforts, versus the 50% who say they use the tools to generate customer insights, according to technology researcher Forrester.

But by now, merchants can — and should — have directly-attributable sales within their sights when it comes to user-generated social content. Brands that have connected user contributions with relevant offers and products leading to the “buy” button have boosted sales significantly; New Balance’s #hknd photo campaign, for example, led to a 39% increase in sales for the duration of the campaign, according to Forrester.

Harnessing the power of user-generated social content is even more important in the runup to the all-important year-end sales push, when shoppers turn to social media for gift inspiration. Close to half of shoppers prior to the 2014 holidays said they would both look to social networks for gift ideas and heed referrals from family and friends, according to the MarketLive/E-Tailing Group 2014 Consumer Shopping Survey.

To begin syncing users’ social content with concrete commerce opportunities, merchants should:

Lay the privacy and permission groundwork. The ability to repurpose user-generated content into promotional campaign material starts with securing the permission to do so. Merchants should be transparent about their intent when it comes to gathering user submissions via social media contests and hashtag campaigns, and include a prominent disclaimer — not one buried deep in contest rules or the privacy policy — about their reserving the right to use images for promotional purposes.

In addition to crafting blanket usage policies for contests and hashtags, merchants should also seek explicit permission from individual users for images and content they plan to repurpose extensively. Birch Lane uses vendor Piqora to solicit opt-in permission for re-use of images from Instagram with the hashtag #yesbirchlane.

Permission example from Birch Lane

Align user-submitted content with call-to-action pages. Integration of user-submitted social content with actionable product information is the foundation on which monetizing social media is built. Merchants must develop the means to link social followers smoothly and seamlessly to products and transactional capabilities — whether using the new generation of built-in “buy” buttons developing a custom feed of user contributions for display on eCommerce product pages, or inserting product links into streams of user-generated content, as MarketLive merchant Armani Exchange does in The Credits. The eCommerce site content area features meticulously-curated endorsements and “as seen in” magazine editorial citations mixed with candid social media photos. Product links are displayed beneath the image caption and credit; when clicked, a separate window opens the full product page for the item in question.

The Credits from Armani Exchange

User submission from Armani Exchange's The Credits

Even without a sophisticated method for integrating social content and eCommerce product information, merchants can go a long way toward driving social commerce with savvy linking policies that prioritize product promotion. MarketLive merchant Francesca’s showcases fashion bloggers’ stylings on its Facebook page, using the platform’s tagging mechanism to gain visibility on the bloggers’ timelines while pointing the URL within the post to the featured product on the Francesca’s eCommerce site.

Francesca's Facebook exampleConnect to events IRL. Merchants should invite social submissions in connection with in-store and other offline events, which have a built-in audience of potential contributors. Showcasing the content they generate can both inspire other social followers to explore the products and topics the event featured, and can give contributors an opportunity to check back for ongoing follow-up information and relevant offers.

Throttle user-submitted vs. brand lifestyle content to achieve critical mass. While some brands have legions of committed and active social followers to fuel campaigns, most merchants will achieve critical mass more quickly, at least at the outset, by creating a blended environment that features the best of user-submitted content alongside brand expertise and product promotions. MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet has built a series of robust communities focused on individual sports and recreational activities, showcasing user-contributed social content, learning videos and expert profiles interwoven with featured products.

Community example from Sport Chalet

How are you integrating user-generated social content with sales opportunities?

 

 

“Buy Now,” “Buy Now” everywhere, but no customers to gain?

The rumor that Google is preparing to debut a “buy” button for search ads on mobile devices has set off a flurry of speculation and recommendations for merchants. But the search giant is just the latest big online player to join the race to provide a shortcut on the path to purchase. Merchants should not only evaluate the options and prepare to experiment; they should acknowledge that these initiatives send clear messages about the shortcomings of their own commerce offerings.

Like Google, Pinterest is rumored to have a “buy” button in the works, while Facebook and Twitter both officially announced initiatives in the past year. Both are still in limited release, with Facebook “buy” buttons popping up occasionally and Twitter’s offering most often seen for event ticketing so far.

Buy button example from Facebook

As merchants evaluate these new options, they should keep in mind the balancing act required to successfully sell on marketplaces without undermining their brands, and determine:

  • What customer information, if any, the host of the “buy” button will share with merchants
  • Which entity conducts the financial transaction
  • What branding elements, if any, will be displayed with the product and transactional content
  • How they’ll pay the “buy” button host. Google is rumored to be integrating the “buy” button into its pay per click search ads, thereby raising the prospect of intense bidding wars to own the “buy” button for popular terms.

But over and above the immediate strategic concerns, the dash to roll out “buy” buttons has other repercussions. Tech titans Google and Facebook are likely using the initiatives, in part, to vie for total Internet dominance, with Amazon and eBay in their sights; and all three social networks are likely scurrying for the “buy” button as a means of demonstrating concretely the ROI of social media.

But there’s a still larger message for merchants to ponder, which is how their own offerings have fallen short and created the void Google and others now seek to fill. While few foresaw just how quickly mobile changed the shopping landscape, merchants’ past decisions to silo eCommerce as just another sales channel alongside — but not integrated with — retail or catalog operations rendered their organizations less nimble when the time came to adapt. With more than 40% of retail traffic to eCommerce sites now coming from mobile devices, but generating barely more than a quarter of online retail revenue, according to the MarketLive Performance Index, the gap was too large for tech giants to ignore.

So while it’s unrealistic to forgo experimenting with the new slew of “buy” buttons, merchants should simultaneously tend to their own brand offerings. Specifically, they should:

Go responsive — in the code and beyond. Merchants should consider responsive design techniques as the best current solution to standardizing the purchase experience across touchpoints, including sharing the alternative-payment options that could rival the convenience of being able to pay with Google. But beyond committing to the design and programming investment responsive design entails, merchants should also adopt a nimble mindset for their businesses that endeavors to break down barriers between online and offline operations so that future changes can be taken in stride.

Evaluate what success on social media looks like for their unique brand, and act accordingly.  While the lack of revenue directly attributable to social media has long been problematic for merchants, that doesn’t mean they should automatically begin plastering Facebook “buy” buttons on all their product promotions. After all, with the convenience of in-Facebook purchasing comes a loss in direct connection with the customer, which should be balanced in the equation. And merchants should recall that early “f-commerce” attempts by large brands such as J.C. Penney, Gamestop and The Gap were all shuttered within a year due to lackluster results.

Former f-commerce experiment by JCPWhether shoppers are now more apt to buy via social media, and whether the improved efficiency of having payment data stored by Facebook will spur sales, remains to be seen. Before merchants enact “buy” buttons, they should gauge the degree of engagement of their brands’ social followers and whether they’re inclined to try the new service in the first place.

Develop online “express lanes” for returning customers. While lifestyle content, product imagery and videos, and comprehensive product information are all invaluable, merchants should also devise ways to enable ultra-efficient reordering for those customers who already know what they want and just want to get it, without paging through a lot of additional information. Merchants should consider offering automated replenishment or subscription services; use social login to speed access to stored account information; and even enable shoppers to pre-set how they’d like to handle refills to speed future orders, in the style of Amazon’s new Dash button. The gizmo is receiving mixed reviews in its limited release so far, but enables Amazon Prime members to customize recurring orders of products from participating manufacturers and make those purchases without using a screen at all.

Amazon dash promo video

Optimize paid search spending now for targeted “buy” button bids in the future. With paid search spending on the rise, spurred largely by product listing ads, merchants are already in competition to win prime spots on mobile devices for top keywords — a contest that may only intensify once “buy” buttons are added to the mix. Merchants should do their utmost to target paid search campaigns so that they can easily add or subtract the “buy” button to segmented product groups.

Which new “buy” buttons have you tried, if any — and why? How are they performing?

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

In our previous post reviewing first-quarter results from the MarketLive Performance Index, we discussed the performance impact of mobile’s exponential growth and showed how it’s worth taking a deeper dive into the numbers before blaming mobile for lagging KPIs.

While in that post we specifically addressed engagement metrics, the mobile performance gap that’s most widely lamented is cart abandonment. While the 70.6% cart abandonment rate achieved via computer browsers isn’t ideal, it’s far lower than on smartphones, at 84.6%. As a result, the overall Index abandonment rate rose 1.4% year over year to 76.0% — an all-time high.

mlpi_abandonmenttrend

It’s easy to blame these disheartening results on the growing share of shopping visits attributed to mobile phones. But, as is the case with engagement, a closer look reveals that there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

The bad news: cart abandonment may never drop, regardless of how much optimization merchants undertake.  The good news: if handled right, abandonment can become a mere detour on the path to purchase, not an irredeemable disaster.

While the shift to mobile is an underlying factor, the rise in cart abandonment rate reflects a larger trend in consumer behavior. As increasingly-savvy consumers do more research for online and offline purchases, and as they continue to shop across a growing array of digital and offline touchpoints, their journey to purchase has become more circuitous. At one time, high shipping costs far outranked all the other reasons why shoppers left items in the shopping cart. Now, while shipping costs remain the top hurdle to purchase, causing 58% of shoppers to abandon sales, that percentage is followed closely by the 57% of shoppers who use the cart to research total order costs, and the 55% who say they just wanted to save items for later.   Indeed, a whopping three quarters of those who’ve abandoned carts say they actually intend to return to the same site to complete purchases.

Closing the gap between that intent and action is merchants’ new challenge, and one that’s formidable in its own right. In this light, optimizing sites to the utmost remains crucial, but as a way to facilitate — rather than prevent — come-and-go activity, and to ensure that once ready, consumers encounter no obstacles to closing the sale.

Among the measures to deploy:

Support researchers with “save” tools. Given the rising rates at which shoppers use the cart as a research tool, merchants should adopt an “if you can beat them, join them” mentality and ensure that potential customers can easily pick up where they left off, across devices. Easing the wish list creation and sharing process can potentially divert would-be abandoners into using an alternate tool for saving items of interest. But merchants should also consider implementing an explicit “save cart” feature within the shopping cart itself, tying it to a painless signup process — ideally featuring social login — that presents a swift way to access saved items later via mobile or computer.  “Email cart” and “print cart” functions can provide further alternatives for shoppers to store and retrieve product information.

Merchants who optimize their wish lists and shopping carts for researchers should promote the amped-up features — especially a few months from now, when the holiday season begins to ramp up. In 2014, MarketLive merchant Nancy’s Notions promoted wish list creation in an email that asked, “You know what you want. But does everyone else?” The message additionally highlighted top wish list picks — both encouraging shoppers to use the tool and displaying items they might want to add right away.

nancysnotions_wishlistpromo

Personalized remarketing email. Merchants are increasingly employing remarketing tactics to entice back shoppers who’ve left the site without completing purchases. In 2014, more than a third of merchants in the Internet Retailer Top 500 and Second 500 used abandoned cart emails to recover sales – a 36.7% increase over 2013, according to Listrak. These campaigns are effective, enjoying an average conversion rate of more than 20% — five times higher than a standard promotional campaign.

In order to maximize their effectiveness, abandoned cart notification emails should be as personalized as possible.  Messages that picture the exact item(s) left behind in the cart had a 25% higher transaction rate than those that merely employed a text link back to the brand site, according to Experian. If possible, merchants should include SKU specific images and product details, and personalize messaging further by letting shoppers know whether items are available at nearby outlets. Regardless of personalization capabilities, all merchants should use abandonment emails to message any free shipping offers or free site-to-store services, as well as customer service contact information and value-added content related to the product or the category.

Social media for retargeting. We’ve touched before on the effectiveness of retargeting campaigns that “follow” shoppers across the Internet after departing from a brand’s Web site. While there’s a tricky balance to achieve to avoid seeming creepy, these ads can be effective — and social media presents a low-pressure way to spur further engagement when shoppers are likely at leisure, catching up on the latest news from their feeds and receptive to reminders about shopping they have yet to finish. Although less than half of marketers currently use social retargeting, more than two-thirds say they plan to increase investments in the coming year, according to Marin Software.

MarketLive merchant Intermix invites past browsers to connect with the brand by displaying previously-browsed items and reinforcing brand messaging with text that promises followers will have access to “exclusive designer pieces.”

intermix_remarket_facebook

A relentless focus on lowering *checkout* abandonment. While reducing cart abandonment may not be possible, checkout abandonment is another matter altogether. After all, by entering checkout, shoppers are signaling a clear intent to purchase, and any deviation from the path merchants lay out for them should be studied closely. To ensure the order process is frictionless, merchants should give their analytics tools a workout by creating fallout reports by device to gain insight into which steps present hurdles on mobile devices as well as on computers. In their analysis they should include secondary checkout paths, such as those for registered users and those employing alternative payments.

As we’ve written previously, checkout is an area where mobile is, indeed, lagging. In the latest Performance Index, checkout abandonment on smartphones was a whopping 59%, compared with 36.6% on computer-based browsers — a significant gap. To improve, merchants should incorporate proven best practices into their mobile offerings, including guest checkout, alternative payments and ample customer service messaging, and do their utmost to streamline the number of steps and required text input fields. Using responsive design to deliver a uniform experience across touchpoints can help merchants significantly improve mobile checkout usability.

How are you combating abandonment?

Social media watch: Go visual or go home

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

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

socialgrowthranking

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

 

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

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

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

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

lrvisual

 

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

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

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

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

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

franootd

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

How are you maximizing the visual impact of social networks?

 

3 fundamental shifts merchants must make to meet customer expectations – MarketLive Summit Report

The MarketLive 2015 Summit opened Tuesday morning with a bracing challenge for attendees: stop thinking like eCommerce site owners. The morning’s keynote speakers, MarketLive founder and CEO Ken Burke and O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly, urged merchants to undertake fundamental shifts in perspective in order to continue serving shoppers with the relevant experiences that earn sales and loyalty.

Thanks to rapid technological innovation, consumers’ shopping behaviors and expectations are changing more quickly than merchants have so far been able to match, said Burke. The rapid rise of mobile has triggered demand for a new in-store experience that draws on the wealth of information available online, and in the process has laid bare inconsistencies and gaps between touchpoints. Mobile has also become the default access point for consumers to flit among a growing array of social networks; 52% of U.S. online adults use multiple social media sites, according to Pew Research.

social network data from Pew

O’Reilly described how technology is on the cusp of revolutionary change that will eliminate manual searching, browsing, and buying in favor of seamless interactions where consumption implies consent to purchase and transactions occur entirely behind the scenes. As an example of how existing modes of commerce are being upended, O’Reilly cited the driving service Uber, where riders provide payment information on signup and are automatically charged per ride, rather than having to dig in their wallets at the end of each trip. Other cutting-edge examples of frictionless commerce include Cover, which allows diners to skip waiting for the check at meal’s end, and Etup, whereby college students snap selfies to charge meals to their campus accounts.

Example of transactionless commerce - Etup

To position themselves for this new paradigm, merchants need to adopt new modes of thinking for 2015 and beyond, letting go of fundamental ecommerce tenets to make way for innovation. Among the necessary shifts:

It’s not (just) about the Web site. With two-thirds of consumers using a combination of mobile and desktop to interact with brands, and fully a third of 18-to-24-year-olds using mobile exclusively, merchants should adopt “mobile first” as their credo — not only in designing site experiences, but in how they themselves interact with brands and services online.

Moreover, by escaping the tethered web browser and exploring the unique blend of location data, social networking information and image tools mobile apps can draw on, merchants can move beyond segmentation and even personalization to deliver truly individualized commerce, said Burke. Rather than offering one-site-fits-all experiences, brands should take into account shoppers’ preferences and personal shopping histories, marrying disparate data points to deliver a wholly unique set of products and offers for each customer, Burke said.

Eliminate payments. As we’ve discussed previously, merchants should adopt alternative payments both to ease online transactions and to smooth potential offline-to-online purchases occurring in stores. But merchants should also begin mapping new modes of shopping that background transactions altogether. Automatic replenishment programs and subscription models such as the one used by O’Reilly Media (itself a MarketLive merchant) for digital books are only the beginning of the possibilities merchants should explore.

Subscription payment example from O'Reilly

They’re not customers; they’re community members. O’Reilly urged merchants to connect with consumers by identifying and serving their passions and demonstrating authentic expertise, saying that despite having a large social media following, his social contributions have at times been less effective than posts featuring lesser-known tech authors who nonetheless have an ardent following in the niches they cover.

Rather than focusing on individual social networks, brands should focus on telling the stories that resonate with their communities, and giving a platform to the voices that help tell that story. “By celebrating the people in your community, you actually create a social web,” said O’Reilly.

Sport Chalet, showcased during Summit as a MarketLive Merchant Award winner, has built a series of robust communities focused on individual sports and recreational activities, showcasing user-contributed social content, learning videos and expert profiles.

sportchalet

Watch the blog for more Summit recaps coming soon.

How to unlock video’s engagement potential

As online commerce matures and audiences grow more sophisticated, the challenge of engaging browsers and researchers so that they embark upon the path to purchase is becoming ever more acute. With the growing cacophony of social networks, close to 60% of shoppers reporting they delete email almost as quickly as it’s received, and merchants playing catch-up to consumer behavior on mobile devices, the ability to deliver a brand message that is truly arresting has become something of a holy grail.

Take the add-to-cart rate — the percentage of visits that result in items being placed in the shopping cart. Arguably, the cart plays a more important role than ever: as shoppers hop from touchpoint to touchpoint, the cart can serve as a repository for items they’ve researched and wished to access later, whether via a different device, in stores or on their computers once they get home. Data from the MarketLive Performance Index shows that the add-to-cart rate grew 1.5% year over year in Q4 2014, but still hovers below 10%, meaning that fewer than 1 in 10 shoppers are resonating with products enough even to want to save them — much less to buy them.

The main culprit behind the sluggish performance: smartphones, on which a mere 6%of shoppers added items to the cart.  And it’s not just the add-to-cart rate; pages per visit and time on site also lag on smartphones compared with the overall Index average, and the bounce rate, at 47%, is 30% higher than the overall average. These numbers are especially troubling given that smartphones are increasingly the key to mobile success, and given that mobile overall plays an increasingly crucial role in both online and offline sales.

To cut through the chatter and combat shopper ennui, merchants should take a close look at their video strategy. Since we last addressed the effectiveness of videos during the product consideration phase, more and more evidence has surfaced to demonstrate that video can be an effective engagement tool — including on mobile devices.

While the audience for brand videos is still relatively small, with around 10% of shoppers visiting pages with videos opting to view the content, that audience goes on to engage deeply and powerfully: not only do 70% of video viewers watch at least 80% of the video, but they’re 1.9 times as likely to make purchases after watching, according to video services firm and MarketLive Connect partner Invodo.

What’s more, fully a third of those video views occur on mobile devices, and mobile viewers are among the most engaged when it comes to promotional video content. Nielsen and AOL found that smartphone viewers were more likely to recall advertising content than desktop, tablet, or TV users, with 88% of smartphone users who watched ads without interruption remembering them. Even when distracted by their devices, 57% of smartphone users remembered ads, as opposed to just 23% of television viewers; when interrupted by a person, over a third of smartphone users remembered the ads, rivaling the recall of desktop computer users and trumping television by far.

In order to maximize the potential for videos to engage shoppers, merchants should:

Create and test different video content for different audiences. Rather than use a templated approach that shoehorns all their products into a single video format for shoppers across touchpoints, merchants should vary the length and content of video content — and track results religiously to tease out which combinations work best.

In general, shorter videos correlate with higher conversion rates, according to video services provider LiveClicker. (That doesn’t mean merchants should shy away from in-depth product demonstrations when they’re necessary, but they might want to experiment with multi-part tutorial rather than a single long segment.) When it comes to substance, video featured on smartphones should feature enough close-up content to render well on small screens; by contrast, finer details will be visible to desktop and laptop viewers.

Place video throughout the eCommerce site, not just on product pages. Merchants should give shoppers multiple pathways to access video content, including in content hubs where all videos are available to browse and on category pages. And like other forms of value-added content, relevant videos should be accessible via search results pages.

MarketLive merchant Brickhouse Security includes a link to its Video Center on the home page alongside blog and Q and A content, and a search for “nanny cams” brings up a featured video in addition to products.

Video promotion example from Brickhouse SecurityVideo promotion example from Brickhouse Security

 

Go native with social formats. In addition to experimenting with video content and length on their eCommerce sites, merchants should also use video content on social media — and not just by posting video links. Rather, merchants should take advantage of native social video formats, such as the micro-video Vine app for Twitter and Instagram’s mini-video feature. And with posts featuring video drawing heightened engagement from social followers,  there’s a benefit to porting over longer segments as well. Brands posting video on social platforms may even see a boost in visibility, as Facebook last fall altered its algorithm to favor video content using the Facebook player, as opposed to an external link to YouTube.

How do you plan to use video to maximize engagement in 2015?

 

Use social login to boost mobile engagement

We’ve discussed before the benefits of using social login to connect shoppers’ experiences on eCommerce sites with their social media profiles and to smooth the account creation process. Now there’s another compelling reason to bump social login up the priority list: It can be a powerful tool for enhancing the mobile shopping experience.

As outlined in our review of the latest Performance Index data and our 2015 trends outlook,  mobile commerce must remain at the forefront of merchant’s preoccupations — after all, it’s now shoppers’ primary point of contact with brands. Close to two-thirds of all minutes spent with retail brands now occur on mobile devices, according to measurement firm comScore – and for a third of millennials aged 18 to 24, mobile is the only online touchpoint used for shopping.

Given mobile’s swift ascent, and given the dismally low add-to-cart and conversion rates and high abandonment rates most brands are experiencing, merchants ought to be hungry for tools that can help boost mobile engagement and sales. Social login is well positioned to do so, because:

  • Acceptance and usage of social login is on the rise. More than half of Internet users have taken advantage of social login, and fully 88% are at least aware of the technology, according to a study by Blue research.
  • According to Merkle/RFG, the majority of social media usage now occurs on mobile devices. Shoppers are accustomed to using social tools on their phones and tablets and may be more willing to use a familiar login tool than to set up a discrete account on a merchant web site.
  • Finally, by using social login, merchants can piggyback on the innovations of leading companies such as Facebook and Google, improving their mobile experiences in the process.

As always, the devil is in the details; a poorly-executed social login implementation can cause more problems than it solves. To make the most of social login for mobile shoppers, merchants must:

Integrate completely. A quasi-integration with social media that still requires creation of a new password and even additional data entry in order to complete account registration will only frustrate shoppers. Instead, merchants should reward willingness to share social profiles with a minimalist signup process.

Additionally, merchants should connect social login with functions across the site, from wishlist creation to sharing products to saving cart contents for later reference — a crucial piece of functionality for mobile users who may want to revisit items in stores or on desktop computers.

MarketLive merchant Title Nine offers shoppers the ability to save cart contents, and enables social login that requires nothing beyond a username and password to activate.

Social login example from Title NineHeed privacy concerns. While merchants should take advantage of social login’s potential to unlock user profile information, they must also heed privacy concerns and proceed with caution. Shoppers are wary of surrendering too much information while exploring shopping’s digital frontier, with 88% saying “there are too many technologies tracking and analyzing our behavior”  and 86% saying “consumers have lost control of their privacy” — that’s 11% higher than the global average. Nearly three in four U.S. consumers say remarketing and personalized ads are “creepy”. And on mobile platforms, 42% of consumers say accessing their geographic location is an invasion of privacy.

To allay concerns about privacy, transparency should be the norm, and merchants should prioritize what data they need to track key metrics, versus “nice to have” information that might be interesting, but provide no actionable insights. Once they’ve convinced shoppers to engage as registered site users, merchants can request further information incrementally.

For further tips about social login, see MarketLive Founder and CEO Ken Burke’s recent article in Retail Online Integration titled “Why and How to Use Social Login to Win Customers.” And check out MarketLive’s recent whitepaper on analytics, “Connecting Data Points and KPIs in a Multi-Channel World,”  for further best practices on collecting mobile user information.

Are you using social login? Why or why not?