Online merchants hoping to grow revenue and deepen customer loyalty in 2014 are finding the ground shifting beneath their feet. Their customers are increasingly coming from new locations, such as social media sites, using new devices, such as tablets, and are expecting to be greeted by content and offers relevant to their lives.
With the landscape changing so quickly, only those retailers who abandon static, top-down strategies in favor of agile organizations committed to customer-centric commerce will thrive.
The good-faith efforts many merchants have taken to date to keep up with the changes buffeting the industry have often fallen short. Brands’ mobile offerings attract traffic, but yield low engagement; social campaigns attract followers, but struggle to achieve ROI; and transitioning among in-store, mobile and desktop activities is often clunky at best.
To keep up with consumers’ expectations and compete with the biggest online brands, it’s more important than ever for merchants to master two key principles: giving consumers what they want, where they want it.
The “what” means providing shoppers content and offers relevant to them, whether they’re loyal customers or browsers. The “where” means allowing them to seamlessly access that content and complete purchases from whatever touchpoint they choose, whether smart phone, tablet, desktop or brick and mortar stores.
Five years ago, in the distant era we might call ecommerce 1.0, Web sites were primarily product catalogs, with images and copy often literally pulled from printed materials and reposted. Shoppers discovered these sites either through offline knowledge or online search, signed up for email alerts they received on a desktop computer, and when they were ready to purchase reached for a credit card or headed to a brand’s physical store.
The mobile and social media revolutions have upended that model, rendering it as obsolete as a museum piece. As consumers have shifted their browsing and buying habits, the traditional “ecommerce funnel” has exploded into a galaxy of connections that provide the opportunity for an unending cycle of interaction between shoppers and brands. That has made it vital for merchants to find innovative ways to provide the content and offers shoppers want. Merchants must become lifestyle publishers for their own brands, providing specialized content that distinguishes them from the rest.
Modern ecommerce sites offer no shortage of product content — rich imaging, zoom, detailed descriptions, features that spotlight exceptional attributes, customer reviews, and product demonstration videos, along with savvy buying guides and expert advice to support the purchase process. But to take their sites to the next level, merchants need to provide shoppers with a tailored mix of products, content and offers that anticipates the information customers want and need to make purchasing decisions and proactively provides it.
Building sought-after customer service into the content experience is one way to accomplish this. Many sites still proudly display on text-heavy “About Us” pages. But it’s not about them anymore, it’s about the customers. Merchants should find ways to better incorporate information customers want throughout the shopping experience. Frequently-asked questions that provide compelling answers can not only encourage purchases but reduce future customer service costs.
Customer-driven Question and Answer content can be another valuable resource to help shoppers to find relevant information. In addition to deepening shoppers’ product knowledge, showcasing user-contributed content – both on eCommere and social media sites like Facebook– helps merchants demonstrate a willingness to let followers help shape brand identity.
Product videos are proving more popular than ever. Half of consumers saying they consult videos as part of their consideration process, according to research from the E-Tailing Group. Given that YouTube is currently the Internet’s second-largest search engine, merchants with libraries of helpful videos will benefit from increased brand visibility.
Merchants also need to find ways to personalize products, content and offers to the fullest extent possible. Both awareness and appreciation of personalized offers are on the rise among consumers, with 44% saying they value brands more when tailored product recommendations are offered. Ever-more-affordable technology now puts personalization within reach for even small- to mid-sized merchants.
But it’s important not to limit efforts to customers who register, which can be a high hurdle. Find ways to do it from the get-go, such as by letting shoppers manually set preferences or displaying product selection based on past visits or browsing. Merchants can also base content on information delivered by the browser. L’Oreal Paris’ home page, for example, automatically displays a shopper’s local weather with a beauty tip related to the climate.
If relevant content is key to giving customers what they want, allowing them to shop wherever they want is equally important.
While small- to mid-sized merchants are unlikely to have the resources to match the advanced features and functionality of the largest online brands, every seller should enact common-sense strategies that create a unified brand experience for all customers regardless of how they approach you. Gone are the days when retailers can get away with a rudimentary mobile platform that’s little more than a shrunken version of their desktop site.
That doesn’t mean they necessarily need to launch expensive new apps, but it does mean they need to invest in initiatives that move them closer to the goal of seamless, responsive mobile commerce.
Transitioning to responsive design is critical, but it has to be done right. Adopting a single base of code capable of delivering appropriate design, content and functionality to multiple devices can be tricky, and risks affecting site speed. But with smartphone and tablet shopping only set to grow, and further devices sure to be introduced in the future, merchants must begin to experiment.
Merchants have long worked to drive online traffic into brick-and-mortar stores. But with a few straightforward in-store changes, they can make great strides toward reversing that trend and in the process further knitting together online and offline shopping experiences.
Using e-receipts is one way to invite further customer interaction and entice offline shoppers to browse the ecommerce site. Sellers should also explore making all that new content more accessible to shoppers on the sales floor. QR codes on signage that link store shoppers with relevant information and sales staff wielding tablets with the same goal can both build trust and credibility.
In short, shoppers are demanding more control over their shopping experiences than ever before, and merchants who find innovative ways to give it to them will win their business and their loyalty.
Ken Burke is CEO and Founder of MarketLive.