A united front

Ken Burke of MarketLive contends retailers must provide consistent messaging across channels.

Ken Burke

Online merchants may be forgiven for feeling like there's always something new they have to master, and fast. Just when a merchant gets the hang of Facebook, there's a new kid on the social media block to figure out, like Pinterest. And just as merchants nail down how to personalize their e-mail campaigns, they're told social media has rendered e-mail passé.

It's understandable that a merchant's first response to the latest hype barrage would be to try the great new thing. But merely adding another uncoordinated effort to the mix is not the answer. Rather, to increase sales merchants must coordinate, optimize and orchestrate all elements to create a cohesive brand presence and ensure strong conversion rates.

That may sound like a tall order, given the proliferation of customer touchpoints merchants contend with these days—from physical stores to web sites to mobile apps and social networks—and most merchants readily acknowledge that their efforts lack integration. Coordinating all these touchpoints has become the cutting edge of e-commerce, and many merchants are struggling to keep up.

No matter how difficult, merchants must begin to effectively integrate the elements of their business. If they do not, they risk being left behind by consumers who now experience brands via a complex constellation of interactions.

To meet shoppers' increasingly sophisticated expectations for brands, merchants should focus their efforts on developing, integrating and optimizing efforts in several key areas.

Mobile – It is critical to devise a strategy for shoppers on the go. The good news is that you already have a roadmap for success. By adapting tried-and-true e-commerce tactics to the mobile medium, you can create effective, relevant mobile offerings. These tactics are to know your customer, offer multiple pathways to purchase, earn trust and bridge customer touchpoints.

Social Media – There's no denying that Facebook, with 1 billion users, is an environment merchants need to master to reach new shoppers and engage with existing customers. Twitter, Pinterest and Google+ bring additional opportunities to connect. From our experience, the best way to integrate social media into the mix is to cover the basics first: fulfill customers' goals, follow guiding principles and use analytics to measure and help advance your success.

E-mail – This marketing workhorse continues to be an effective tool for merchants, with low costs and growing capabilities to make messaging more relevant through personalization tools that deliver offers and product suggestions tailored to the individual. To make e-mail even more effective, make sure your trigger messages are immediately responsive to the shopper's browsing and purchasing behavior.

Site Search – A third of all visits to e-commerce web sites include use of an on-site search tool, and visitors who turn to the site's search box convert more often than visitors who don't, according to the MarketLive Performance Index, a service that tracks how MarketLive client e-retail sites perform quarterly. Optimizing site search can reap substantial gains. Start by making sure you offer such standard features as auto-correction for misspellings and automated suggestions for when a search garners zero or few results. Next, optimize site search by touchpoint to serve shoppers the most relevant results according to how they are contacting you. Returning search results that show which products are in stock at a nearby retail store, for example, may assist in a sale.

Customer Service – With consumers interacting with brands across multiple touchpoints, so too must merchants be ready to respond with fast, coordinated actions when something seems amiss. To do this, consider both user-initiated and auto-initiated live chat based on business rules such as initiating a chat session after two shopper-submitted searches return no relevant results. You should augment this with prominent global messaging about customer service.

Content – Producing original site content and making contributions to community sites, blogs and social media are all crucial for merchants on multiple levels. Not only can this content establish credibility with shoppers and help drive purchase decisions, it can improve natural search ranking.

In the planning phase, it is important to consider how you will deliver substantive content at every stage of the customer lifecycle. Armed with your plan, develop the right amount and type of content by paying attention to how new material achieves your content goals. Finally, analyze and update your content as needed to keep customers coming back again and again.

One example of optimization at work comes from Guitar Center. When considering how to make the content offerings of the music instrument retailer's e-commerce site more robust, Guitar Center executives decided to showcase a key asset: its store staff, which they believed made Guitar Center different from web-only competitors. Company executives knew people visited the store to ask advice of staff and purchased based on their recommendations, so they created a way for buyers to interact with staff online.

Store associates can now create individual profiles accessible via an "Experts" link under the Our Stores tab on the site's main navigation bar. Shoppers can browse profiles to find associates with interests similar to theirs, shop directly from associates' gear lists, and send direct messages to their preferred staffer. Staff members can reply with transaction-enabled e-mails that allow shoppers to click "add to cart" directly from their inboxes. Launched just before the 2011 holiday season, the profiles generated 12,000 sales leads during the holiday period, which boosted both online and offline business, Guitar Center says.

Beyond providing sales leads and authoritative content for the main e-commerce site, the staff profiles help boost the natural search ranking for the brand. Individual staff profiles now appear on page one of natural search results on Google for selected keyword terms.

Guitar Center is exploring ways to further integrate expert content across touchpoints, for example by displaying local experts based on the location of mobile shoppers. On the e-commerce site, shoppers already can sign up to receive e-mails from their preferred experts. By tapping a unique asset and optimizing accordingly, Guitar Center is poised to grow in new directions that enhance the identity of the brand.

Merchandising – As the universe of online commerce expands, it is more important than ever to coordinate elements that'll help you seal the sale. To improve your merchandising, develop content that reinforces your value proposition. When possible, personalize the experience based on a shopper's previous browsing and purchasing behavior, and the preferences they've indicated. This will give you a significant advantage, as many merchants have the data for successful merchandising but don't know what to do with it.

One retailer doing this well is women's apparel merchant Title Nine. The e-retailer and cataloger offers recreational clothing for active women, and one of the top paths to purchase on its e-commerce site is via its wide selection of sports and specialty bras. Based on that data, the Title Nine team developed a robust microsite, called Bounce, which focuses solely on bras. The microsite has several tools that help consumers find the right product in the right size—a key consideration given that apparel shoppers may hesitate to buy items without trying them on first. A bra finder, sizing tool, expert picks and customer reviews all help match shoppers with the right products. A return policy that's good for a year after purchase also helps move consumers through the checkout flow.

The Bounce microsite achieves a conversion rate 32% higher than the already successful main site. Bounce content also fuels a robust personalized e-mail program that sends targeted products to past buyers, delivering differently optimized messages to consumers reading e-mail on computers and mobile devices. Once again, deep knowledge of the brand's target audience has paid off in sales success.

As these retailer examples show, optimizing the online shopping experience means developing and adopting priorities that are unique to each business. The first step, though, is one all merchants share—to make an integrated brand experience across customer touchpoints a top priority.

Ken Burke is the founder and chairman of MarketLive Inc., an e-commerce platform and services provider.


November 2012 Magazine