February 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

Bright Ideas

(Page 2 of 2)

Colwin says an implementation has been developed as proof of concept for a retailer currently using conventional guided navigation, and it’s also being tested internally by a second retailer. The product has been deployed in the non-retail sector for more than a year. The company sees potential application of the product for any online seller of products associated with multiple specs and data fields, such as consumer electronics.

The e-email alternative

Overstuffed e-mail in-boxes have some marketers looking for additional means of customer communication beyond e-mail, and RSS has received attention as one alternative. Consumers subscribe to the content they wish to receive via RSS, in much the same way they register for e-mail, but though RSS skirts the e-mail channel, the technology poses a limitation for brand marketers: it delivers information in text instead of the richer communication possible directly on a site and through some e-mail.

Direct Message Lab has developed technology that targets that problem with a separate channel, outside of e-mail, that can deliver subscribed content directly to consumers’ desktops in a media-rich format. While RSS is an option on the platform, it’s just one component. “If I were Mattel, and I wanted to deliver information on new things that were happening with Barbie, delivering it through RSS is delivering a headline and a description. It doesn’t convey the brand in the way you want to,” say Steven Plous, CEO.

By contrast, the company’s Brand Channel can deliver rich content, with a branded look based on the brand’s preferences, directly to subscribed users through the window it opens on the subscriber’s desktop screen. The service has two parts: on the front end, an application that sits on the user’s desktop, which periodically reaches out to Direct Message Lab servers for requested content; and on the back end, a web-based administrative console that the brand marketer uses to create and deploy content requested by the user.

Plous says the channel is spam-proof. “The application goes only to Direct Message Lab servers and looks for messages appropriate to the user. So the only messages that can be delivered through the Brand Channel application are messages from our domain,” he says. The hosted service can deliver complex applications including e-commerce in the delivered message.

Three customers, including an online retailer, went live with a beta version of the Brand Channel in January. Plous views the Brand Channel as an application that, at least initially, marketers will use to target their best customers, who can be encouraged to register with incentives such as getting the first look at new merchandise. It’s those fans of the brand who are most likely to engage with the channel, he adds.

“Our goal is to improve purchases in the top 10% to 20% of your customers,” he says. “If we can do that, then we’ve done something spectacular.” Once a base for the channel has been established among those top customers, the channel has further use as a customer acquisition tool, he adds.

Evolution of e-catalogs

Enriching subscribed content is one way online marketers are seeking to keep an increasingly sophisticated online consumer engaged. One execution of that theme is an evolution of e-catalogs that puts the image-enhancing, information-grabbing and shopping cart functionality accessible on the rest of the web site right into the middle of the catalog page. Scene7 Inc. recently rolled out that new functionality, in development over the past year, at a number of e-retailers. It’s also scheduled to go live shortly at Amazon.com Inc. The tool, called Shop by Collection, is geared toward online merchants looking to move beyond an e-catalog to functionality more integrated into the web experience. “People launch e-catalogs because they love the lifestyle imagery. The challenge is that it’s a separate fork on your web site. It’s not really integrated into the web shopping experience,” says CEO Doug Mack.

Current e-catalog technology most often requires the shopper interested in several products in a lifestyle photo of a room setting, for example, to switch around among multiple product pages to find detail and shopping links for all the products. Shop by Collection incorporates what Mack describes as “next-generation user interfaces” around core dynamic imaging technology that will allow merchants to load all content related to all the products in the room setting into a template so as to provide a single-screen merchandising experience.

“So if I am looking at some lifestyle imagery and I hover over an item on the page, there’s a data feed that will then show the product in silhouette, with all product information such as price and dimensions,” he says. Shoppers who want to drill down for greater visual detail can from that page also implement zoom, color switching, and other imaging functionality for individual items in the lifestyle photo. From that page, shoppers can also drop the items in the photo into a cart.

“The idea is to move the web away from being a point, click and wait for a new page medium,” adds Mack.

Whether finding it online more easily with improved search, finding it more easily in a brick and mortar store with information gleaned online, or more easily plucking a single item from a room setting, getting to the desired product faster is a key driver in new and upcoming generations of online retail technology. Though the technology may be new, however, it replicates online an axiom already known by any store retailer that stacks the best deals at the end of an aisle and every cataloger that positions its most striking new merchandise at the front of the book: Shortening the distance between the customer and the right product is one of the best ways to shorten the distance to a sale.


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