December 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Behind the curtain

(Page 3 of 3)

“This year we are plotting to marry some of the technologies we already have-the ability to personalize, the ability to communicate externally, the ability to build microsites-and essentially use the social networking phenomenon to merchandise,” says MarketLive CEO Ken Burke. “Integrating customer reviews and ratings has been done. Bringing that to the next level is figuring out how to reach out and connect with individual social networks that exist out there, and hopefully automating that process.”

The idea is to make the online retailer a locus of people coming together, Burke says, a role bricks-and-mortar stores already serve. One MarketLive client, for example, is an automotive parts distributor that counts members of auto enthusiast clubs among its best customers. MarketLive is working on concepts that would enable the distributor to merchandise directly to those clubs and their members in a number of ways that connect back to the distributor. For instance, it could provide a toolkit, that the distributor could in turn make available to the clubs, containing tools the clubs could use on their own sites, like blogging or message boards, that allow members to communicate with each other.

“So you’d be providing them with a bit of an infrastructure, and then feeding product information back to the group that is personalized for them,” says Burke of how online retailers could merchandise to social networks under this scenario. “It leverages existing technology to get closer to those individuals.”

MarketLive also has its eye on another trend: the increasing demand among retailers for fast and easy site replication as another way to merchandise products. More merchants are saying they want to use the web to expand different product lines beyond what they have in other channels, but they need to be able to bring in enough web business to make it viable. A microsite that wraps additional content around those expanded product lines to create a whole brand identity online is one way to accomplish that, but building it internally from scratch could take a merchant six months or more, experts say. The one-click cloning concept now in development at MarketLive is a toolkit that automates the process.

Burke adds that several of MarketLive’s retailer clients are interested in microsites as a merchandising strategy around very specific product lines. As tools to easily launch microsites become more available, “I think you’ll see more and more of it,” he adds.

Baby steps
Because both consumers and retailers are just now beginning to understand new patterns in how shoppers interact with brands in a web world, the tools that could abruptly push those patterns in one direction or another are, for now, best left in development, some industry observers say. The upcoming generation of new online shopping tools, they add, takes a thoughtfully-conceived step in a new direction, offering more rich media, more ways to engage with the merchant and the merchandise, and more personalized content.

To start to take that step, forward-looking online retailers and the web developers they work with are today combining existing technologies in new ways and benefiting from a wave of consumer adoption that is making standing technologies available to a wider online audience.

“It’s actually the greater adoption of things such as broadband that’s made it more possible to use existing things like Flash and video and create more immersive experiences online,” says Gokiert. “Today it’s almost more about enabling what’s already out there.”

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