May 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: Technology investment for now and the future

Today and tomorrow

Retailers look for technologies that create a quick return now and position them for growth when the economy recovers

E-retailing may be outperforming other retail sales, but online retailers still need to create a satisfying site experience to drive traffic and boost conversions. To achieve this goal, retailers must consider upgrading key areas of their technology platform to differentiate their brand, attract new customers and engender customer loyalty.

Some of the platform components retailers need to consider upgrading are search marketing, site design and navigation, personalization, and content. In addition, retailers ought to reevaluate performance metrics to reflect changes in how the applications that make up a web site are delivered over the Internet to a shopper’s browser. Retailers that upgrade any or all of these core platform applications will be in the best position to lead the market, not only now but also when the economy rebounds.

“Now is the time for retailers to return to the basics of e-retailing technology and fix the foundation of their platforms,” says Jay Heavilon, president of content management and analytics provider ARS Interactive. “Prior to the recession there was a lot of focus on adding the bells and whistles that put retailers on the cutting edge technologically, but didn’t necessarily enhance the value of the online shopping experience or boost conversion. Retailers that make the investment now to fix their technology foundation will be better positioned for near- and long-term growth.”

First step: Nab the searchers

The first step in the process is to address search marketing. This includes both paid search and organic search campaigns since both are excellent ways to attract customers.

“Unless a retailer has an established, well-known brand, organic and paid search marketing are the best ways for retailers to extend the reach of their brand online and enable new customers to find them on the web,” says Bernardine Wu, CEO of consulting firm FitForCommerce. “Outreach marketing programs, like e-mail, are going to attract about 20% of new shoppers; the other 80% are going to come from organic and paid search, so retailers need to be sure shoppers can find their site when they search for a product.”

One way to boost organic search results is for retailers to gather reports from search engines about specific and generic keywords shoppers use to search for merchandise on their sites and then weave those keywords into their site content.

Web site design firm Americaneagle.com, for example, is creating a new site for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League that places more emphasis on including actual keywords and terms entered by shoppers on search engines when looking for Bears merchandise. The goal is to make certain the Bears site ranks either first or second for any product search of Bears-related merchandise.

“There are sports retailers that carry Bears apparel, but there is no reason they should rank higher than the team’s official site, which should always rank first and no lower than second for any search related to Bears merchandise,” says Mike Svanascini, COO of Americaneagle.com. “Incorporating keywords and terms shoppers actually use to search for products makes the site platform more search engine-friendly.”

Retailers can also gain insights into search terms shoppers use through their own site search engines and customer reviews. “The site search engine and customer reviews are excellent sources for gaining insights into how shoppers actually refer to a product and which keywords should be purchased in paid search campaigns or woven into the site’s content,” says Suzy Sandberg, president of Internet marketing firm PM Digital.

Identify the non-brand words

Identifying non-branded keywords used in search descriptions, such as “short, white, summer dress,” can help significantly boost paid search conversion results if the keyword purchased is a good match for what someone is actually searching for.

“Non-brand keywords also generate a large amount of new customers to a merchant’s brand as opposed to those shoppers that use paid search to search for the merchandiser specifically,” says Sandberg.

In addition to search marketing, retailers can extend their reach to consumers through online banner and display ads placed on other sites. Rather than take a mass marketing approach, banner ads can be personalized. Taking information gathered from shopping behavior and purchases can help retailers identify what types of ads to place in front of the shopper on third-party sites.

“Personalizing ads based on what a retailer knows about their customers can drive incremental sales, improve the performance of ad campaigns, and reduce the waste in the ad budget by eliminating ad clutter,” says Pedro Santos, chief strategist, e-commerce, for Akamai Technologies Inc., provider of content and application delivery services. “The goal is to put the right ad in front of the right consumer at the right time so the ad is not viewed as noise.”

Akamai enhanced its ability to place more relevant ads in front of shoppers through its acquisition last October of Acerno, an online retail co-operative. Acerno operated an ad network of several hundred retailers. Retailers participating in the network can place ads on third-party sites in the network. Anonymous shopping data is used to determine when to show a specific ad to a consumer. “Serving up more relevant ads increases conversions,” adds Santos.

Using personalization applications to attract customers to the site represents only a portion of how retailers can effectively use the technology. Once a shopper arrives at a retailer’s site, the shopper needs to feel as though the retailer understands her needs by making product recommendations geared to her personal preferences.

Leverage information

“The goal of personalization is to leverage information from every interaction with the customer to create a shopping experience that best matches their wants and needs, because margins are getting squeezed from stiffer competition in a lot of retail categories, especially electronics and games, which tend to be more price-sensitive,” says Bob Cell, CEO of MyBuys Inc., provider of personalized product recommendation services.

Information that can be used to personalize the shopping experience includes product categories and pages viewed, price points, and navigation paths the shopper takes across the site. “Once retailers have this type of information, they can show a deeper knowledge of the customer’s preferences and make recommendations accordingly,” Cell says.

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