Evaluating Web platform systems

So you’re shopping around for vendors, software and services to replace your current Web platform. Several questions no doubt go through your mind.

What are the features and functions we need? How can we use social media? Should we investigate SaaS or acquire a license and host our own solution? Or should we use a service to host?

What will the cost be? What are the due diligence steps we need to take with the vendor to make a sound decision?

Before you get hung up on the technology, consider some top-level issues key to the decision. Sure, features and function sets are nice, but other factors, such as how much the vendor will increase your company’s marketing expertise, and whether the platform will increase your sales, may be more important in your analysis.

First off, you have to understand how acquiring the vendor’s software and services will build your sales. This should be a requirement for any new Web platform. Here are a few examples:

  • Is the proposed platform SEO oriented? Just as important, how will the change in platform affect your SEO rankings both short term and longer term?
  • How strong is the platform’s internal search functionality? Can the customer easily find product, price points, etc.?
  • Does the vendor have the ability to split test offers, promotions, pages?
  • Can the platform send triggered e-mails? For example, after the first order, can you send a thank-you message and a special discounted offer within a certain specified time frame?
  • For abandoned carts, can you send e-mails that feature products in the same categories?
  • Can you send out e-mails based on pages visited or products searched?
  • Can the vendor set up microsites for landing pages to improve SEO and SEM?

Large and diverse product assortments may achieve a higher search engine ranking by featuring major product categories on specialized sites.

Ask your prospective vendors for hard, tangible facts about how their applications have increased other companies’ sales and conversion rates. During your reference checking before the purchase, ask the client companies for practical examples. Does one vendor have a clear advantage over another?

Here are a few other points to consider when shopping for a Web platform system.

AIM TO improve the customer shopping experience.

This is typically the top objective for our clients when we’re working with them on replacing Websites. Here are some of the main issues they look to resolve:

  • Ease of use for the customer
  • Minimal clicks to find product
  • Search engine optimization
  • One-page checkout
  • Customer self-serve for the majority of transactions

LOOK FOR a leader in Internet marketing.

What is the marketing expertise of the individuals who own the company and the people you will be working with? For smaller multichannel marketers, the Web provider may also act de facto as the e-commerce marketing department.

Are you acquiring an updated technological platform? Or are you expecting to have a partner that will improve your Internet marketing and recommend best practices?

Many of the Internet professionals are self-taught and may not have a broad range of marketing skills. Will you be drawing on practical marketing expertise with these channels or an adaptation of the technology only?

ASSESS THE marketing analysis capabilities.

You have to determine how the new platform will improve your analysis of what promotions are truly generating orders and which are cost effective. For many companies, measuring the Website response to promotions is flawed in that the data does not flow down into the order management system.

We have seen competing channel managers attribute response in ways that are unfounded and actually overstate demand by a considerable percentage of the demand booked in the order management system. Will analysis from the Web platform to order management system to promotional analysis be improved and have data integrity?

What’s more, do you accurately allocate costs to promotions and Internet media considering the various internal and external resources used? Many businesses are now taking a closer look at this cost analysis as the total cost of Internet marketing increases.

CHECK THE stability of the vendor.

Several order management vendors that also hosted Websites for clients exited from the business this past year. In the Internet space, where everyone is racing to provide the latest and greatest, we may see a similar fallout.

Quite a few small vendors provide services and platforms to small and moderate-size businesses. Perform your due diligence and make sure you know the financial strength of the vendors you will be counting on.

SHOP FOR best-of-breed functions.

The software marketplace has been changing in recent years. Web providers are trying to add order management functionality; order management systems vendors are selling Web platform solutions they or other vendors have developed.

Remember that vendors are always looking to increase sales and market share. If a provider can offer a single-source solution for both, are you getting the two best systems you can afford? Or are there shortcomings in the combined offering?

Here’s an example. One of the leading Web platform providers also sells an order management system. While the Web platform can accept Amazon and Google checkout, the order management system can’t accept it as a payment type.

To get this functionality, you’d have to fund the modification. There are lots of examples when you look at combined functionality.

PUSH FOR a product development strategy.

What’s the product development plan your prospective developers have for their systems? Ask them for the 10 most significant things they have added to the platform in the past year.

What are the five most beneficial features or services the provider will offer in the next 12 months? Which vendor will keep your business moving ahead?

SORT OUT the system’s security and audit ability.

There are a host of issues here, from compliance with the Payment Application Data Security Standard (PA-DSS) to how auditable the Web applications are. Has the potential Web platform provider achieved certification through a third-party PA-DSS certification process? Do not overlook this in your selection process! (For more on PA-DSS, see “Security standards update” on page 47.)

What audit trails do the Web platform applications you are considering have? Other commercial applications went through enhancements to meet stringent data security and audit standards by external auditors and management. Be sure your new Web platform meets these as well.

DETERMINE THE total cost of ownership.

Whatever platform options you look at, be sure you understand the total cost of ownership. In this age when different apps come from different sources and vendors don’t necessarily sell both the hardware and software, it’s much harder to be sure of the investment.

And when you’re trying to compare, for example, SaaS (on demand) models vs. license and hosting models, it gets even more complex. Challenge your staff and your prospective vendors to help you create the total resources required and the multiyear cost and justification model.

Advantages of the SaaS model are that users gain new Website functionality quickly, as well as lower operating costs, reduced dependence on internal IT staff, vendor-provided IT security and administration, PCI-Compliance and continuous upgrades.

What are the advantages you want from an inhouse developed site? Is it control and flexibility? Do you expect costs to be lower? When you look at an inhouse developed system, either internal or externally hosted, are you creating an “apples-to-apples” comparison of costs and benefits?

Another aspect of the financial analysis is looking at it on a multiyear basis; don’t consider just the initial start-up costs. This analysis will give a truer picture of the support costs, growth required through increases in sales, support of various marketing programs, and so on.

Many merchants consider the open system platforms to be less expensive. But don’t assume that. Develop estimates in total considering equipment, staffing, add-on applications required, support costs, etc. Do you have a true comparison in terms of costs and advantages?

There are many considerations that go into selecting a Web platform system, and it’s no easy task. So do your homework, choose carefully and remember that the right system stands to improve your business considerably.

Curt Barry (cbarry@fcbco.com) is president of F. Curtis Barry & Co., a multichannel operations and fulfillment consulting firm.

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