How you can overcome the biggest future challenges of ecommerce

13 December, 2016

Okay, it’s time.

It’s time to let go.

Santa is busy sorting out all those orders you’ve taken.

Or at least that is every online store owner’s Christmas wish.

Wouldn’t it be great if some plump old Norweigan dude actually offered to magically manage the fulfilment of all of your Christmas sales!

Thanks, old boy.

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The week before December 25 signals the impending end of the online silly season mayhem (well, until the madness of Boxing Day Sales).

There’s not much you can do now. It’s time to let that crippling anxiety fade. Take a deep breath, send the last batch of those arrive-by-Christmas-Eve orders, and pour yourself a well-earned festive beverage.

Just take it easy, though. You don’t need this kind of ecommerce post-Christmas sales hangover…

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As December draws to a close, you have done all you can to maximise your biggest period of the retail year.

It’s time to change your focus to a brand spankin’ new year of online retail possibilities (and the future challenges of ecommerce as well).

While your competitors and their teams are busy chomping down on turkey, gorging out on pudding, and drowning in festive Champagne – I want to help you start the new year as a lean, mean, repeat-sales-generating machine.

To get you a head-start on the rest, I’ve rounded up 10 ecommerce industry experts and asked them all to pinpoint the biggest challenges facing online retailers in the next 12 months, and what you need to do to make next year the best one yet.

Short On Time? Your Skim-Read Summary:

Too busy to read the whole thing? We get it: logistics, synergies, KPI’s – all that stuff. Here’s the skim read version. You really should read the whole article though…

You can click on the dot point that takes your fancy and head straight to the relevant section.

CATALIN ZORZINI

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Founder – Mostash Content Agency

Owner – Ecommerce Platforms

“The evolving customer profile is one of the biggest challenges most ecommerce managers are going to encounter in 2017 and will continue to be for years to come.

Customers are well informed, and they receive information from various sources. Retailers can’t convince someone to buy a product without the customer opening up a few comparisons and reviews. They can also go into brick and mortar stores to test, compare, view pricing and even scan product bar codes to see the best offerings throughout the entire internet.

In addition, most customers want everything served to them on a silver platter. If you’re selling online, your customers expect cheap (or free) shipping, constant availability and fast delivery. With the daily deal and Amazon world in full effect, people think it’s silly to pay full price for anything. This will affect your margins if you’re not able to develop a hardcore group of loyal repeat customers.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

You need to embrace the competitive landscape of your niche. Be the brand that helps your customer research, compare and contrast. Find a way to earn the trust of your customers.

GAI LE ROY

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Director Of Research – IAB Australia

“The biggest challenges today & past 2016 are still found in attracting, teaching and keeping the right people. Finding qualified staff that you can retain is so difficult in the current environment, and the ecommerce industry will stop for nobody.

Marketers in most industries, particularly in ecommerce, share the huge challenges of straddling more roles, & needing more skills than ever before.

A strong ecommerce marketer needs a high level of knowledge about brand, customer, data, user experience, the global marketplace & technology.

These employees are exceptionally difficult to find. And they don’t come cheap. If you want to retain an ecommerce pro for any length of time, a strong workplace culture and structured training and development programs are a must.

You need to continually re-skill and keep up to date with changing trends. A reverse mentoring program makes so much sense for an online retailer. You and your team can learn new skills from your specialist team members, and they develop managerial and leadership skills in return.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Be proactive with recruitment. If you find a superstar ecommerce digital pro that fits your culture, do whatever you can to get them on board, and design a plan to keep them (even if you don’t have an existing role set, these people are rare – you can’t miss out).

BRIAN GOULET

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Co-founder and CEO – Goulet Pens

“Competition is fierce in all forms of business, but the rate at which large-scale e-commerce discount retailers are coming about is concerning.

As Seth Godin says, “The problem with the race to the bottom is you just might win.”

If you focus on commodities, discounting, promotions and other easily copied ways of doing business, someone (Amazon, Massdrop, Jet, and a slew of others) will undercut you every time, and steal away your customers if there isn’t any established loyalty.

That’s why content is so important. If you prove to your community that you know your stuff, you care about them, and you serve them well, they will support you through thick and thin because you’re looking out for their interest in the long-term.

If you’re in a niche industry like I am (fountain pens), this is crucial. The big discounters don’t care if they’re selling pens, diapers, or alarm clocks, as long as they move product.

If you’re niche, you have to play by different rules than the big guys do. What’s the one thing that Amazon will never have? Me, my team, our skills. Building upon our personal brand and efforts, we’ve created loyalty that feels personal and unique, because it is.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Play the long game. Create content that establishes your authority as the #1 in your niche.

NATHAN MANNING

Nm

Co-founder and Tribal Elder – Gorilla 360

“There’s too many options! You need to work out the best way to spend your time.

As the landscape continues to evolve, you need to be constantly aware of the biggest impact a marketer can make with the smallest amount of effort. There are so many different marketing and promotional tactics available to an ecommerce brand. The best professionals prioritise the highest value areas that maximise the company’s internal resources.

Experiment and play without devoting huge costs. Testing, strong consumer connections, and data analysis will offer huge opportunities to those continually focussed on innovation.

Those businesses most willing to adapt to change, innovate and grow quickly will succeed.

We need to find more innovative ways to do retail. Continual analysis and re-invention of your service offering, supply chain, and marketing channels will deliver agile organisations huge opportunities.

The dominance of global players like Amazon, Alibaba, eBay and your industry’s big box equivalent often set the agenda for the market at large, and because the online environment changes so swiftly, unforeseen things are now the norm. You need an appropriate culture to adapt to this change.

This is often easier with smaller, newer companies, but it’s just as important for larger corporates to position themselves for the future.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Focus on fewer activities and find the highest priority marketing tactics that will drive the most revenue. Don’t get caught up in the bright lights of the shiny new acronyms and jargon. The next big thing in social media, virtual reality, or video marketing can be a big, expensive, wasteful distraction from the most important thing for any growing ecommerce business. Engaging customers and generating/nurturing interest in products, services and experiences is where you need to invest your time and effort.

ERIC BANDHOLZ

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Founder and CEO – Beardbrand

“The world is a crowded place and in a matter of months, there can be new competition popping up.

Granted – every business is different, but to stay ahead of your competition, you need to build barriers and walls. Those barriers are intimate relationships with your customers which have been built on a foundation of trust.

Trust is developed by delivering on expectations, educating the customer, and building intangible bonds that can’t always be tracked. The intangible bonds are all part of your branding. The more you deliver for the customer, the higher the barrier is – and the less likely your customers are to shop around.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Loyal customer relationships are your sustainable competitive advantage. Established trust is your most valuable competitor barricade.

BRIAN DEAN

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Founder – Backlinko

“The biggest challenge?

Dominating social media.

If you look at ecommerce sites that are defying the odds and beating Amazon, they usually have a huge social media presence (and most importantly) following.

Just look at Grace & Lace, who appeared on Shark Tank last year. In 2013 they did $2.8 million in sales. Their secret? They crush is on Pinterest.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Focus on one social media channel and dominate it. Then bring your audience back to your site.

ANDREW YOUDERIAN

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Founder – eCommerce Fuel

“You need to know how to get people excited about your product and position it in a way that generates genuine interest and word-of-mouth buzz.

It’s an old concept, but the best marketing is word-of-mouth referrals from trusted friends and family.

As attention gets harder to earn/buy online, being able to foster trusted referrals will be crucial for future ecommerce success.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Find a way to activate and deploy your loyal customers as recruiters. Social proof is both inexpensive and effective.

TODD ATKINS

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Australian Sales manager – Braintree Payments

“Providing a frictionless purchasing experience is critically linked to increasing conversions.

If you can reduce and condense the checkout ‘experience’ to make it seamless, you have a simple and sustainable way to ensure you’re maximising sales.

The technology is ready and available to help us improve the checkout experience right now. Specifically – consider creating e-wallets, or at least give repeat customers the chance to save their payment details securely for a frictionless purchase experience.

Other features like social commerce, tokenization, stored payment methods, one-touch mobile payments and additional payment methods (Apple Pay, Bitcoin etc.) are one-off additions to your service that can make your customer’s shopping experience easier.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Don’t neglect the checkout experience. You can increase your conversion rate here dramatically with a few small changes. You need to make the most of these hot prospects before you invest in optimising other areas of the buyer journey.

HANNAH STACEY

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Marketing Manager – Ometria

“It might sound like a cliche, but for me, it’s saying the right thing at the right time. We’re still at a stage where most online retailers are sending the same, undifferentiated marketing messages to all of their customers and prospects, no matter where they’re at in their customer journey.

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when we know the most effective marketing is relevant to the customer’s current stage in the buying journey.

The great news – tech is becoming more democratised. The ability to gather data and segment your customers based on their purchasing and interaction data is available, and now the options for targeting them are expanding.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Personalise. Develop specific content experiences to help customers convert to the next stage of the buyer journey process. Explore the technology available that allows you to send the right message to the right customer at the right time.

ADRIAN WAKEHAM

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Business Development Manager – Power Retail

“This may be a little controversial, but in a world where more dollars are being shifted from traditional mass media into tightly managed, highly targeted digital campaigns with hard performance metrics in place – remember this all leads back to a human-to-human transaction in the end.

If you have a physical store, the majority of your online marketing efforts will result in the sale occurring in an offline environment.

My advice is nothing new: take the most holistic approach to your marketing your budgets will allow.

Remember, online impacts offline, and offline impacts online.

Understand where your customers both exist, and engage in conversation, and use complementary marketing channels to drive a better overall result.

For example, should you sell a mass commoditised product; despite the potential reach of online, nothing can beat network TV for quickly reaching a critical mass of customers.”

Your Strategic Ecommerce Advice for 2017

Online and offline retail are irresistibly intwined. One cannot be considered without the other. Don’t discount traditional marketing channels. If awareness is your goal, and you need it quick – paid advertising is still the best way to go.

What you need to do to stay ahead of the chasing ecommerce pack

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Create a best-in-class shopping experience or lose a price war to Amazon

We all understand the importance of customer service, but we are struggling to offer truly helpful, seamless and quality customer experiences online.

Now, more than ever, the customer is in control. They aren’t prepared to put up with difficulty – it’s just too easy to click through to a competitor’s site and buy elsewhere.

How do we improve ecommerce customer service?

The answer is not a generic automated helpdesk popup! It’s not!

It’s hard work. Retail marketing professionals have to get proactive and skill-up. Ecommerce marketing is a broad discipline, and while it’s still crucial to have specialist expertise in one area, you need to understand how blogging, SEO, social media, PPC, email and CRO work together in one integrated retail strategy.

To develop a truly excellent, best-in-class customer experience, we need to understand how to use the technology our audience prefers. That might mean taking a course, researching online, consulting a mentor, or attending new events and meetups to keep your brand, and your career, ahead of the fast-chasing pack.

More practice, continual testing, better education, and a cultural desire to change, experiment and innovate will get you there faster.

“Digital” doesn’t matter anymore

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Your target audience is what matters. What they care about is what matters. If your customers love to buy shoes, they love to buy ’em anywhere. Whether they decide to buy in store or online is becoming secondary.

The term ‘digital marketing’ is losing relevance. Digital stuff isn’t the shiny new thing that people under 30 can slot into their resume and give themselves an advantage. Let’s face it, in online retail – digital marketing is just marketing.

Your digital strategy?

That’s just your marketing strategy.

The gap between online and offline is closing – with ‘bricks and mortar’ brands becoming ‘clicks and mortar’ brands, and pureplay retailers beginning to experiment with print and physical experiences.

The marketing pro’s with the best understanding of marketing strategy are the most sought after. You need to learn how to understand, find, attract, convert, and retain a target audience.

If you can learn how to help an ecommerce company build a community of repeat customers, you’ll an invaluable asset for any brand’s marketing department.

If you focus on becoming an expert in any one channel or skill, you’ll still be a valuable commodity. But with the rapid change in ecommerce marketing, you need to add this big picture understanding to your specialist expertise if you want to future-proof your career development.

Get back to marketing basics

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Amidst all the buzzwords, acronyms and ‘gamechangers’, regardless of the new technologies and channels available, marketing hasn’t really changed.

The concepts and strategies that have worked for decades still hold true today.

It’s your customer’s needs and wants that have changed with the times.

Turn the focus around to your target audience. Identify your customer, divide them into segments, and zero in on your niche as much as possible. Only when you understand your target inside out should you think about selecting the best channels to reach them.

Don’t be afraid to change your strategy if it isn’t working. But don’t place your fate in the hands of your technology. Too many marketers waste their budgets on expensive add-on ecommerce technology, software and applications before optimising their customer’s experience. There’s no point paying more to bring more shoppers to a site that won’t convert.

Focus on creating every piece of content you need to turn a shopper from someone who knows absolutely nothing about your brand, into a loyal repeat customer. Once you’ve developed that customer journey, you can invest in technology that helps you attract, convert and retain more users to your repeat-customer-generating process.

Analytics matters

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If you do nothing else, make analytics and the information about your customers that you can derive from them a priority.

Whether it’s Google Analytics, your CMS provider or another analytics application, learn how to understand how to find and interpret key metrics.

Set conversion objectives specific to all of your content and make your decisions based on the result.

Regular data analysis allows you to monitor the progress and the performance of your website and other online channels, giving you a real insight into your audience’s behaviour. You need to optimise your ecommerce marketing based on real evidence.

Invest in quality online store software

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Over the next 12 months, many ecommerce will be looking at their outdated systems and technology and looking to upgrade – to avoid the situation our friend above finds himself in. It’s a daunting problem, filled with pangs of anxiety and crippling risk.

Unfortunately, your online store platform can be a make-or-break proposition. Some legacy systems (particularly custom built options) can handicap your growth potential. Even though the huge outlay on newer technology may seem hard to justify – you need to give yourself the best chance to achieve your goals and dreams.

While we recommend Neto, Shopify and Magento to our clients and partners (depending on their specific needs), there are a variety of software options available that could make your life and your ecommerce operations, so much easier.

If you’d like a more detailed comparison, we’ve prepared a quick snapshot in this article titled:

Ecommerce CMS comparison guide: How to choose the right platform for your online store

(You should also check out our contributor, Catalin Zorzini’s fantastic blog Ecommerce Platforms. His team are the ultimate resource on all things ecommerce technology.)

Not all ecommerce platforms are a good fit for you. The ‘best ecommerce platform’ is the one that helps you make the most profit.

For organisations with little or moderate technical expertise and limited budget, this choice is a big deal. Don’t be afraid to make the investment to update your site.

If it’s the right decision, make it. The costs will come back to you and more if you commit to the long term.

And one last piece of advice for your personal retail marketing career…

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Keep learning to develop all-round digital marketing skills

Take a course, read a book or download a video series. The best bit about the online marketing industry is the availability of easily affordable and accessible info.

User experience design is a particularly valuable skill for the modern marketer. Even an elementary knowledge of web design, coding and conversion rate optimisation will give you a massive strategic advantage.

Even if you aren’t on the ground floor implementing, you still need to be able to understand the possibilities open to you. If you don’t have a thorough grasp of the capabilities of the technology you are using, it will be more difficult to work with others to build a winning ecommerce strategy for your organisation.

The best online shopping experiences win out in the long term. Profitable market leaders have the best user experiences. If you understand how to improve your brand’s UX, you can implement valuable strategic change.

*** Okay, so I have one more little tip to help you future-proof your online store. You need to sign up and subscribe to Gorilla’s Ecommerce Jungle Gym Weekly Email Update. Every Tuesday you’ll find a neat little package of online retail wisdom delivered straight to your inbox door. There’s plenty more strategic insights where this article came from. So don’t miss out – subscribe now!

By James Dillon
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