Social, mobile and other bright, shiny objects

It’s official. Social media and mobile commerce are this year’s bright, shiny objects. I recently attended a couple of industry conferences where those two topics dominated the agendas, and the trade mags and email newsletters are full of articles on everything social and mobile.

Heck, I’ve also written a white paper and blogged about social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I think social and mobile are important opportunities for us to improve our businesses. I just don’t think we should focus on them to the exclusion of some of the core aspects of our sites and businesses that still need a lot of work.

The level of our success with any of these new technologies is going to be limited by the effectiveness of our core site capabilities and constrained by any internal organizational challenges we might have.

Here are some topics I’d love to see get a little more press and conference content time:

  • Usability
    From my vantage point at ForeSee Results, where I can see customer perceptions at many different retailers, it’s clear that our sites have not come close to solving all of our usability issues. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying improving usability is the #1 way to increase conversion. I’m currently reading a book called “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. The book was written in the ’80s (I think) so there’s no mention of websites. Instead, he talks a lot about the design of doors, faucets and other everyday objects and, most interestingly, the psychology of we humans who interact with these things. The principles he discusses are absolutely relevant to web page design. Other books, such as “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug and anything by Jakob Nielsen are also great sources of knowledge. I’d sure love to see us cover these types of topics a little more in our conferences and trade mags. Also, how do different retailers approach find and solve usability issues? In the end, if the experiences we create aren’t usable our social and mobile strategies won’t reach their potential.
  • Organizational structure
    How often do we come back from a conference with great new ideas about implementing some new strategies (say, a new social media or mobile commerce strategy) only to run into competing agendas, lack of resources or organizational bureaucracies? Discussing and writing about organizational structure doesn’t have the panache of social media or other exciting new frontiers, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the structure of our organizations can make or break the success of our businesses. When we were first setting up the organization for the new Borders.com, we spent a LOT of time studying the structures of other companies learning about the pros and the cons from those who lived through different schemes. It was hugely useful and more interesting than you might think. Mark Fodor, CEO of Cross View, just wrote an excellent piece for Online Strategies magazine that discussed the hurdles involved in going cross-channel and included a very good discussion about the need for mindset shifts. I’d love to see these topics further explored in interactive environments at industry conferences.
  • Incentives
    Books like Freakonomics make strong cases for the fact that incentives drive our behaviors. I’d love to hear how other companies set up their internal incentive structures. And there are multiple types of incentives. Certainly, there are financial incentives that come in the form of bonuses. But there are also the sometimes more powerful social incentives. What gets talked about all the time? How do those topics of discussion influence people’s behaviors? How do all those incentives align with the needs generated by new strategies to maximize the power of social media or mobile commerce?
  • Data/analytics storytelling
    We have so much data available to us, and we all talk about being data driven. But how do we get the most from that data? How do we use that data to form our strategies, support our strategies and communicate our strategies. John Lovett of Web Analytics Desmystified wrote an excellent piece on telling stories with data recently. There are also several great blogs on analytics like MineThatData, Occam’s Razor, and the aforementioned Web Analytics Demystified. I’d love to see more discussions in trade mags and conferences about how to get the most from our data, both in analyzing it and relating the findings to others.
  • International expansion
    We used to talk a lot about international, but it doesn’t seem to be a big topic lately. Yet the opportunities to grow our businesses internationally are immense. So, too, are the challenges. Jim Okamura and Maris Daugherty at the JC Williams Group wrote an absolutely excellent white paper late last year on the prizes and perils of international expansion. Jim did have a breakout session at last year’s Shop.org Annual Summit, but I’d love to see more discussion from retailers who have gone or are going international to learn more. Or it would also be good to hear from those who simply ship internationally or those who have decided to stay domestic to learn more about their decision making processes.
  • Leadership
    Leading lots of people and convincing big, disparate groups to do new things is hard. I just read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. There are some amazing tips in that book about implementing change in organizations (and in other parts of life, for that matter). I would love to see more discussion of these types of leadership topics that help us all implement the changes we know we need to make to take advantage of new opportunities like social media and mobile commerce.

I know a lot of these topics are more business basics than retail or e-commerce specific. But the reality is we need to be our absolute best at these business basics in order to implement any of our new ideas and strategies. I personally always enjoy talking to other retailers about some of these basics, and I certainly never tire of reading books that expand my horizons. I’d love to see more about these topics in our conferences and trade mags.

But these are just my opinions. I’d really love to know what you think. As a member of the executive content committee for Shop.org, I’m actually in a position to influence some of the excellent content that my good friend Larry Joseloff regularly puts together. But I’d love to know if you agree or not before I start banging the drum. Would you mind dropping me a quick comment or an email letting me know if you agree or disagree. A simple “Right on” if you agree or a “You’re nuts” if you don’t is plenty sufficient; although, I certainly appreciate your expanded thoughts if you’d like to share them.

Please, let me know what you think of my little rant.


Beyond the Buy Button: The Huge Additional Value of Retail Websites

Sometimes, I think we focus so intensely on the e-commerce sales of our sites that we miss the overwhelming additional value they bring to our businesses. Retail websites, particularly for multi-channel retailers, are more multi-dimensional than any other channel and any other brand vehicle. We fail to recognize the value of these sites beyond the buy button at our own peril.

Some are starting to see the additional value. During her presentation at the Retail Innovation and Marketing conference in San Francisco last week, Express Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Gavales talked about her epiphany surrounding Express.com’s value to the brand. It was Express.com’s traffic numbers that sparked the light bulb in her head. She realized that Express.com got as much traffic in a week as all of the Express stores combined. In other words, half of Express brand interactions were occurring on Express.com. Lisa immediately understood the marketing value of such high levels of engagements from Express’ customers. So much so, in fact, that she came to a conclusion she deemed controversial during her presentation — Express.com should be a marketing vehicle first and a direct sales channel second.

After the presentation, my good friend Scott Silverman, Shop.org’s Executive Director, asked me if I agreed with Lisa’s positioning of Express.com. I rambled on a bit before essentially saying “yes and no.” I’ll now take this space for what I hope is a more coherent answer.

I completely agree with Lisa that retail websites are much more valuable to the overall business than their direct sales indicate. Applying resources and strategic importance to sites based only on their percentage of sales is a mistake that could prove very costly in the long run. Customers use our sites for many reasons beyond direct transactions and our failure to highly prioritize those intentions is a disservice to our customers that will affect our bottom lines. But the value of our sites goes well beyond just marketing and direct sales and simply switching priorities is not enough. Furthermore, I worry that prioritizing marketing higher than everything else will lead to the types of conversion problems I previously discussed in my post “Conversion tip: Don’t block the product with window signs.

Let’s consider some of the many values a retail website provides for a multi-channel retailer:

  • Marketing vehicle
    As Lisa noted, the marketing value of our websites is immense. We are getting tons of traffic, and each engagement is an opportunity to enhance our brands. (Of course, if we’re not careful, the opposite is also true.) Websites are a highly efficient way to strengthen the Customer Engagement Cycle. Both online and offline marketing vehicles can direct customers to our sites to further enhance our messages. Our sites are also a great way to tell people about our stores on both a collective and an individual level.
  • Merchandising vehicle
    Customers come in droves to our sites to learn more about the products we sell, whether they intend to buy online, over the phone or in our stores. Our sites have to essentially be our best and most knowledgeable merchants. They have to lead customers to the right products for them and provide the right information for them to make a selection, regardless of the channel where the purchase takes place.  This is a huge, often untapped, opportunity for quality merchants to reach their customers and sell them the right products.
  • Customer research tool
    This is a bit of a double entendre. As mentioned above, our customers are certainly using our sites for their research. But we can also use our sites to learn more about our customers. There is a wealth of information to be had about what our customers are doing and what they desire. Not only can we see what they purchase, but we can also use web analytics to see what they look at. With tools like those provided by ForeSee Results (shameless plug), we can also know what they are thinking, what they are intending to do, and how they are perceiving our brands. All of this can be done fairly easily and inexpensively in ways that are either impossible or impossibly expensive in the physical world.
  • Customer relationship enabler
    We can continue to build relationships with our customers by applying what we’ve learned above to give them better experiences. The applied knowledge of our merchants combined with the long-lasting memory of our websites should allow us to constantly serve our customers better. As we focus on building those relationships with more personalized site experiences, more informed personal interactions via contact centers and in-store, and more relevant email and direct mail communications, we will build stronger loyalty with our customers.
  • Community builder
    Websites also give us ways to connect our customers with each other. Our brands can act as a central hub for like-minded customers to find each other and help each other find products that meet their needs or solve their problems. How great is that? We can make these connections both via our own sites and via social networks like Facebook. Either way, it’s another way for our brands to provide services for our customers. Our sites can also allow our brands to be more localized by providing additional vehicles for our stores to connect with their communities.
  • Sales driver — in-store and online
    And, of course, we can sell stuff. We can sell lots and lots of stuff online. Our sites are still not where they need to be for maximum usability, so we have plenty of opportunities to improve their ability to sell directly. But we also have lots and lots of opportunity to drive traffic into our stores. We can show inventory; we can let people buy or reserve online and pick up in-store; we can host coupons;  we can help people find a store close to them; we can provide reviews and recommendations to people standing in our stores (whether via kiosks or mobile phones). The possibilities are endless.

These site values are not mutually exclusive. Their value in combination is exponentially higher than any one individual value. Therefore, it’s critically important to consider our sites holistically when determining their place and priority in our strategic plans. We need to consider their combined value when we determine allocation of resources and organizational structure.

Too often, though, resources and executive attention are not apportioned to the site according to this additional value. And we often don’t even measure these additional value points (which might explain the lack of resources and executive attention). If our most important measures of our sites revolve solely around direct sales, we will continue to minimize the importance of all other values of our sites.

I believe the multichannel retailers with the brightest futures in this new decade will be those who fully embrace and leverage the multi-dimensional value of their websites.

What do you think? How is your site valued in your organization? What retailers do you think are most recognizing the additional value of their sites?


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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