With 2017 now clearly in the rear view mirror and all the latest stats pointing to a very healthy holiday season, many etailers are setting their sites for greater growth in 2018.
According to the US National Retail Federation, overall online holiday sales reached $138.4 billion, up 11.5% from 2016. Research by Adobe also confirmed very healthy stats across the various channels including:
- Organic and paid search drove the lion share of visits during the 2017 holiday season with 23.5% and 21.3% of all ecommerce traffic respectively
- Traffic from email accounted for 20% of all holiday site visits
- 2017 Black Friday sales in the US increased 16.9% to 5.03 billion across the top 100 largest web retailers
- Sales across mobile devicles accounted for 36.9% of all sales (compared to 54.3% of al site visits)
And if 2018 is anything like 2017, competition in the traditional retail market is going to continue to suffer with more store closings and bankruptcies sure to follow. So what can pure play ecommerce companies and hybrid brick and click retailers do today to help give them an edge in 2018?
Here are a eight ecommerce strategies to make 2018 a year to remember:
1. Unite your Data
The terms data-driven marketing and marketing automation have been a part of the marketing lexicon for years, yet only the largest organisations were able to benefit from the technology and resources to truly unit their data.
Most companies, including many etailers were buried in data from disparate sources. Just keeping ones head above water has been more than a challenge for most. Forget about trying to analyse and find insights in the data that can be applied back to the campaigns. Unless all of your campaign data was flowing through a single platform like Salesforce, Marketo or Hubspot, it was difficult to have a single view and make decisions on the fly.
However, the days of importing and aligning data from different sources into spreadsheets, applying pivots to join tables, analyse and then copy charts into presentations for the team should be numbered for savvy marketers. And for those operators who prefer not to have all their eggs tied to a single tool the good news is a better view of all your data is here today.
With new and easy to use tools to connect, wrangle, store and analyse data there’s no excuse to rely on Excel for your reporting needs. Tools like the Keboola Connector, a data preparation platform takes over the heavy lifting of extracting, combining and cleansing data sources, allowing marketers to import data from a CRM, integrate it with another data source such as email and then push it back to the original source all in a matter of minutes.
They also have apps that simplify the process of adding machine learning to basket analysis and next order predictions to maximise sales from your existing traffic.
And when it comes to analysis, Los Angeles based Looker makes the process of building dashboards and custom reports across the business child’s play. Users can view real time data in custom reports or dig down through Explore mode (excel on steroids) to uncover the data they really need. And if it’s not there, there’s no need to use up valuable development resources to find it. Rather anyone with rudimentary SQL skills can assist to get the report just the way you need it.
Finally, if you’re squarely in the Google camp, the Google Data Studio allows you to tie together data from from your favourite Google tools such as Adwords, Analytics, the Search Console, DoubleClick, BigQuery and a host of other campaign providers including Criteo, AdRoll, Amazon Sales, MailChimp, Twitter, Facebook and more.
In 2018 there are no more excuses to ignore your data. As you become better data stewarts, making new data connections between sales, advertising and inventory management for example will allow you to maximise dynamic pricing based on inventory levels, periods of peak demand and budgets to drive more incremental revenue.
The rest is money in the bank.
2. Take Email Personalisation to the Next Level
When it comes to your email strategy in 2018, it’s time to move beyond simple personalisation. While using your recipient’s name was once good enough to get their attention (many emails I get still don’t even get that right), today at the very minimal you need to customise the contents and subject line to keep your audience clicking and buying.
In fact, if you’ve been sending out the same type of emails for the past few years, it’s time to mix it up and make your email list work harder. While many pundits continue to claim the death of email, the fact is for many etailers, email is still the greatest asset you own, especially when it’s done right.
Today, platforms like SmartMail.io allow you send out emails to those potential customers who visited a certain category or product page or added product to their cart and then left before checking out. Campaigns for cart abandonment can easily be designed to plug the gaps in your funnel.
Other key tactics to utilise your customer base include past and post purchase emails, as well as cross sell, and win back messages if a customer hasn’t purchases in a certain time frame. If you sell a subscription based product or a product that needs to be replenished from time to time, a replenishment message can act as a helpful reminder that a customer needs to update their supply.
Thanks to machine learning and artificial intelligence, companies of all sizes are able to raise the personalisation bar. Today, platforms like SmartMail, Dotmailer and Klaviyo integrate seamlessly with popular ecommerce platforms and can populate campaigns with data driven recommendations using their algorithms to match the right campaign and personalise each email experience for the individuals in ways that were only available to the big girls and boys just a few years ago.
So, if you want to raise the sales bar in 2018, now’s the time to revisit your email strategy to ensure you have the right mix of content personalisation with the right frequency to increase sales.
3. Turn Customer Service into a Differentiator
For the longest time, the number one differentiator in retail was location, location, location. Whether it was the location of the store or the location of the product placement inside the store, success was largely dependent on where you were and what else was around you.
Today, whether you run a pure play ecommerce store or omni channel operation, a key differentiator is service. When it’s as easy to leave your site in a single click you need to ensure that your customers have more reasons to shop with you over your competitor.
Customer service is the new competitive battleground and a contemporary customer is a demanding one. Businesses that manage to exceed their customers’ expectations become leaders in their industries. Those that create unique, long lasting positive experiences become the champions of the modern customer.
One of my favourite examples of going above and beyond is Shoes of Prey, a startup out of out Sydney, Australia providing custom made shoes for women. From the very start, the founders focused on the little things to get customers to take notice including a personal note attached to every pair of shoes purchased. Outside of the note and the packaging of the shoes, the SoP team is relentless when it comes to following up issues. A quick review of their reviews on ProductReview.com shows mostly 5 stars, but what jumps out on the few negative reviews is the way SoP responds. They don’t just say sorry, they actively work with each customer to find an amicable solution. And in cases when they can’t help, the breakups are amicable with some of the customers apologize for breaking up. Tell me the last time you saw this.
Obviously, sending a personal note to each customer doesn’t scale well and may not be practical for many companies. Although this particular tactic may not work, it’s this type of thinking outside the box mentality, that will help your company create a brand that stands out from the crowd.
Today, for brick and click operations, nailing the buy-online/pick-up in store and return to store options is more critical than ever and a huge differentiator over your etail competition. Get it right right and you will continue to win new business. Get it wrong; and you may be joining the long list of businesses closing their doors.
4. Make Mobile Usability a Priority
Although the days of ignoring how your site performs across mobile should be long gone, many companies still do not create ideal experiences for mobile users. With mobile usage now at 50% plus in North America and a lot higher elsewhere, there should be no excuses for ensuring site users can easily find product information and seamlessly be able to complete an order on their smartphone.
Though it’s easy to come up with excuses about why your site has a low conversion rate on mobile such as “our product is complicated” or “the smartphone isn’t big enough for us to show off all of the great benefits” the real reason is likely because you haven’t done enough to optimise for the mobile experience.
To add to the urgency in 2018, Google is finally making pagespeed a ranking factor across mobile search results pushing slower sites to the back of the line. If your site isn’t optimised for mobile today, you risk missing out on a growing source of traffic and lower conversion rates from the traffic that does visit.
Google provides a host of resources, accessible through the Search Console as well their through their development site. PageSpeed Insights grades your site and pages across both mobile and desktop and provides relevant documentation to fix any issues that arise.
Outside of speed, the real focus should be on the UX to ensure there’s no clutter preventing a visitor from getting to a point of sale. With less screen space, less is more, and any unnecessary extra steps is going to prevent your audience from becoming customers.
Tools such as Hotjar, an all in one provider of heat map, funnel analysis, form analysis and surveying tools allows you to optimise the experience across devices and more importantly helps you identify and remove the hurdles impacting your conversions across mobile. While tools like Clicktale, Crazyegg, and Survey Monkey have existed for years, the team over at Hotjar have done an excellent job of combining many of these same apps into a single platform.
5. Extend the Conversation
Growing an active audience is challenging at the best of times and once you have them it’s important to keep the conversation going. Today, retargeting your audience through Google Adwords, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is a must.
New tools like, RetargetLinks.com provide new ways to target your social feed externally even when you’re promoting someone else’s content. This tactic allows you to extend your social network and expand your audience pool, regardless of whether you wrote the piece or are just promoting another great article that you know your audience will love.
Once the audience is retargeted, then it’s all about extending the conversation through offers or product news via display ads to drive them to your own site and turn them into a customer.
Other tools like SmartMail, also connect retargeting with email so you can gently nudge visitors to return to your site to complete the purchase. Built in rules allow you to sequence the triggers that initiate the emails and the time in between the last visit, first email and then any follow up emails with incentives to encourage them to act.
Whether it’s RetargetLinks though or more general website retargeting with Facebook or AdRoll, it’s important not to overdo it. Far too often, I find myself the recipient of being bombarded with too many ads long after I’ve l left the site and moved on.
Whether it’s with existing platforms or new players like RetargetLinks, nailing your retargeting strategy will help make the difference between driving more sales versus appearing like an annoying stalker.
If you’re smart about the overall strategy though retargeting is a great way to drive incremental revenue but how you target them is almost as important as targeting them. Obviously if they’ve shown interest in a product, you want to show them similar product or other products that might drive them back to the website to complete a purchase. If the last visit was a few weeks ago, you may want to retarget them with the latest special or new offering to tweak their interest without giving them that stalking feeling.
6. Don’t Give up on Google
While it might be almost impossible to create an entirely new business off the back of inexpensive organic search results like companies could 15 years ago, there are still opportunities for small and large ecommerce businesses to own the piece of Google that represents your products and brand.
Although it may seem a lot more difficult to penetrate Google’s top 10, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be visible on the first page of results.
In fact, with Google’s own organic listings pushed further down the page to make room for local listings, text ads, shopping ads and knowledge graph information, now provide multiple opportunities to buy your way into the listings for your top retail keywords and a few inexpensive ways to protect your brand.
If you think of a screen of search results like the front page of the newspaper, the more real estate you occupy, the less room there is for competitors and the more opportunities you have to capture your audience’s attention and win the click.
This example above for a search for atlantic luggage showcases how a single brand like Hudon’s Bay, owners of Saks on 5th Avenue can amplify the awareness rather than just relying on the number two organic ranking. By utilising Adwords and Google Shopping ads, the company is able to increase their awareness and compete more aggressively for the customer.
When it comes to your brand, there’s no excuse to allow a competitor to outbid. In fact, it’s critical that you not only advertise, but also ensure there is enough meta and review data accessible for Google to fill in their knowledge graph. This next result for an online course platform, Thinkific clearly showcases how the combination of an extended organic listing, ad and knowledge bar can be used to dominate the screen real estate.
Owning the knowledge bar is as easy as claiming your Google Business account, optimising the listing (adding open/close hours, photos, phone numbers, etc.) asking for reviews as well as enabling structured data on your site. Having an authoritative site coded with structured data, an active social network and strong references, from other sites, especially a wikipedia page will go a long way to helping you own your knowledge bar.
7. Join a Marketplace
Although it’s critical to have a strong presence of your own, it’s not the only avenue to a customer’s wallet. Today, marketplaces such as Amazon, Alibaba, Google Express and Walmart provide avenues for retailers of all sizes to sell their wares.
As competition has increased so have the acquisition costs to acquire new customers. While it’s important to invest in your own marketing and brand, there are cheaper alternatives and the marketplaces with their huge customer base can be a great way to reach a new market.
If you think of these new marketplaces like an outlet mall, they act as another channel, and if approached in the right manner, can provide access to a new source of customers without the acquisition costs to drive traffic to your own site.
There are challenges though. Amazon is a black box and outside of basic visit data and your own sales they can be a little difficult to deal with. However, they also attract the largest share of visits and online sales winning the 2017 holiday sales race by leaps over the competition (accounting for 79% of all US sales from Black Friday to Christmas in 2017).
If you think of Amazon as a mother of all ecommerce search engines, they present an opportunity to place your products in a large arena where customers are actively looking for your products.
If selling your entire product range through a goliath sounds too daunting or makes you feel like you’re just giving into their domination, alternatively, you can treat them as a discount channel, as a dumping ground for last year’s product at discounted prices.
For many large fashion brands, Amazon provides a clear separation point between the current and past season’s wares. With the right strategy in place, there’s no reason they can’t become today’s online version of a discounted strip mall and a great way to separate old from new.
Whatever the reason though, ignoring these marketplaces should not be taken lightly. At the very least it’s important to approach these marketplaces with an open mind and test to learn what works best for your products and brand. Doing so, might just open up a whole new channel of revenue and a banner year in 2018.
8. Invest in Conversational Search
While the SEO industry is excited and concerned about voice search and its impact on shopping, don’t panic, there’s still time to learn about how voice will affect your business. Not only are the AI’s behind the assistants still learning, but as humans we’re having to learn new skills and form new habits to interact with these devices. Often, using them can result in a bit of a shouting match until you finally figure out the right way to ask for what you want.
As the technology improves, we’ll meet in the middle. The assistants will get better at guessing or prompting for what we actually want while we’ll get better at asking for the right amount of product (there’s nothing worse than ordering a year’s supply of toilet paper).
While Amazon and Walmart (with Google Home) are making it easy for their customers to order products directly from them over the Amazon Echo or Google Home, voice shopping is not yet available to most other merchants.
With that said, just because you can’t sell, doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with voice AI today. Both Amazon and Google allow companies to develop skills that allow businesses to connect with customers through voice. While the direct connection through to your store is not yet there, there are ways to create new experiences to interact with your customers.
For example, a chocolatier like Purdy’s Chocolates could easily create a skill that accepts inputs from a person to find the perfect box of chocolates for their partner on Valentine’s day. Imagine a conversation that asks you for your partner’s likes, dislikes and any food allergies, how much you want to spend combined with a few of their personality traits. The end result, is a unique code that you use on their website to view and purchase the best box of chocolates customised especially for the partner of your dreams.
A flower store could create a personal flower assistant that helps you to choose the right type of flowers for the right occasion. Like the chocolate example, the flower site could offer a unique code for the user to enter on their phone or computer to complete the order or if they have an Amazon Show or one of the new third party Google Home screens they can view the flowers directly on the device and one day order from there.
Alternatively, a retailer like MEC could build and brand a skill or action that allows skiers and boarders to quickly retrieve the latest snow report for their local resort.