Live from ACC: Power Forum Packs a Punch

Orlando, FL–Multichannel marketers gained a wealth of insights and practical techniques yesterday at the Annual Catalog Conference’s Power Forum and brunch, moderated by MULTICHANNEL MERCHANT editorial director Sherry Chiger.

Today’s retailers, catalogers, and e-merchants face an online landscape far different from that of even a couple of years ago, in Chiger’s view. The most important issue they contend with is accountability, she said. “It’s no longer enough to assume that certain functions, features, and marketing methods are working–you’ve got to be able to prove it with figures and metrics. Tied into that is ROI. The Web is much more closely tied in with all the other channels. Now we’re seeing better integration of campaigns, more complementary merchandising, and a use of rich media not for the sake of rich media but to actually serve a purpose, which is especially important now that broadband penetration is so much greater.”

This strategic use of the Internet calls for a far higher level of sophistication on the part of marketers. One of the biggest problems multichannel merchants confront is information overload, said Power Forum panelist Stephan Spencer, founder and president of Web agency Netconcepts. “Catalogers need to understand how to get beyond data smog, quickly and painlessly.” He suggested that direct marketers use alternative channels such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) to better merchandise themselves online.

Echoing the need for change was panelist Ken Burke, president/CEO of Market Live, an e-commerce platform provider. “Stagnators die,” Burke declared. “The protected industry of the catalog market is changing. Look at what retailers and brand manufacturers are doing. They get direct faster.”

An important change to make is to hire adequate staff for Internet operations, Burke said. “If you have 30%-50% of your business online, you can’t have two people in your Internet department.”

According to Amy Africa, president of Creative Results, a strategic direct marketing agency, conversion is the top issue for multichannel marketers. The majority of companies have more traffic than they can handle, she said–they would be better off concentrating on the entry page, search and navigation, and e-mail programs, critical areas that show high abandonment rates.

Effective navigation is a key tactic to boost online sales, Spencer said, adding that marketers should focus on organic rather than paid search and strengthen content: “Quantity is not the game here, it’s quality.”

The panelists agreed that adroit use of Web analytics can significantly reduce abandonment rates. The first thing to do, however, is to monitor when and where the abandonment occurs. “Home-page abandonment is a key area,” said Spencer. “Then there’s shopping-cart abandonment. We don’t even know where we’re losing people.”

One method of tracking this, said Africa, is to monitor active–as opposed to average–user sessions. “Keep track of drills, page views, exit pages, entry pages. Look at the referring URL–where they were last.”

Africa said the number of repeat visitors to a site is an often-overlooked metric. “You should have 40%-50% repeat customers,” she said. “On the Internet, you’re hot or a dud. If you’re hot, they’re going to come back within eight days.”

The panelists suggested numerous tactics to increase conversion. Africa recommended capturing e-mail addresses in as many ways as possible; sending out e-mails to shoppers after a failed search; and scrutinizing the text search function for the words that people use to find the site. “Providing more than one way to find something is the key,” she said.

One way to engage site visitors, Burke said, is to use theme-, activity-, or event-based navigation. His recommendations to reduce abandonment were to supply helpful links throughout the site and emphasize the transaction’s security. Spencer noted that gaining customers’ confidence goes beyond ensuring security of information to establishing trust–which can be done only by establishing the company’s humanity. “People buy from people,” he said. “Blog on your site. Try to personalize even your shopping-cart abandonment e-mails.”

Africa weighed in with more ideas on reducing abandonment: Put the company’s phone number on every page; place a perpetual cart on the upper right corner of the page; send a coordinated series of e-mails reminding shoppers to either buy or remove items from the cart; and allow users to e-mail shopping carts to themselves so that they can purchase at their convenience. Looking at abandonments more carefully, she said, “could double your sales this year.”