The Ever-Changing Digital Landscape: What E-commerce Businesses Need to Know

Originally published in Retail Customer Experience.

Whereoware’s Chief Revenue Officer Joe Harris.

Keeping up with all the emerging trends and technology in the e-commerce world is no easy feat. AI, machine learning, chatbots, micro feedback… a lot of e-commerce managers tell me they’re not sure where or how they should invest their time and resources. My advice is simple: focus wholly on your customer.

Today’s consumers want engaging and memorable brand experiences. How can your e-commerce website help your brand meet those expectations? If we consider all investments through that lens, below are the five most important things e-commerce managers need to know.

Not all communications go through a website

For a long time the e-commerce side of the house was treated as a separate entity from the rest of the business, sometimes acting in ways that competed with the merchandising and sales strategies of other channels. But that’s not how consumers experience your brand. They use your site for multiple purposes: making purchases, learning about their options, and choosing what’s right for them.

Your e-commerce site needs to serve all their needs. It’s an informational resource that understands the customer and can leverage that insight to provide relevant information. Often it needs to pick up where other channels — social media, pay-per-click, tradeshows, billboards — leave off. In other words, what does this consumer already know about your brand? What will they want to do next, and how can you meet those expectations?

Customers don’t think of your e-commerce site as a separate entity from a brick-and-mortar retail outlet or  your social media profiles. To them, your brand is your brand. They may begin their purchase journey in your e-commerce site, but for one reason or another, opt to buy it somewhere else or via another channel. And that’s ok.

From a customer experience standpoint, your website needs to support the goal that drove the customer’s visit at that point in time, whether that’s to place an order or gather information.

People buy experiences, not just things

Consumers live in a world where hundreds — if not thousands — of websites offer the same products. In many sectors, homogeneity is a fact of life, so unless you sell a product line that is wholly unique to the market, you can’t rely on products alone to capture the customer’s attention.

Experience matters, which is why so many direct-to-consumer brands are so successful. Take Equal Parts, a new cooking brand website that seeks to do more than sell pots and chef knives; it’s goal is to help busy people slow down and spend more quality time with family and friends through home cooking. Customers can text a chef whenever they need urgent advice!

Your homepage is the gateway to your brand, and it will drive your customers’ buying journey. Good descriptions, great imagery, and videos are essential, but they may not be enough to stand out from all the other sites selling the same product. Does your brand voice come through on every page? Is it contributing to a great experience?

Customize the experience

Customers make snap decisions as to whether an e-commerce site is relevant to them. Although it may take some effort on your part, customization delivers rich rewards. According to Epsilon, 80% of consumers say they’re likely to do business with a company if it offers a personalized experience, and 90% say they find personalization appealing.

The most impactful way to customize the e-commerce experience is through content and product recommendations. Collect data from every interaction, across every touch point—whether it’s online, on social media, or in-store. If a customer likes a particular product on Facebook, highlight that product on his or her next visit to your site.

Personas can help you scale customization. For instance, create separate personas for first-time visitors, customers who’ve shopped in the past but haven’t visited in a while, and for your diehard fans. Personas should drive your messaging strategy. Ask first-time visitors to answer a few simple questions so that the site can guide them to the most relevant pages.

AI and machine learning are important factors right now

I realize AI is overhyped at the moment, promising fantastical capabilities, but when it comes to e-commerce, the benefits are very real. When consumers browse a site, they want to see product recommendations based on their online behavior and overall historic profile. Product recommendation engines that are powered by machine learning can do just that.

We work with some B2B companies where just 10 to 15% of sales are from their e-commerce site, yet their web content and product recommendations reflect sales from every platform. You might not know why an established customer arrives on your site, but you need to know their entire history in order to provide a bespoke experience.

There are several tools that marry content and recommendations on the market. We use Episerver, a CMS and commerce platform that allows you to leverage all of your content, from your general product information to your product catalog. We also use the marketing automation tool Acoustic Campaign, which allows retailers to collect personalized data from their users to ensure a consistent experience across all channels and devices.

It’s a mobile first world

As 5G rolls out, mobile is on its way to becoming the exclusive device for many customers. Most people already read email on their phones, and if they’re interested in a product featured in the message, they’ll tap on the link right then and there. As a retailer, it’s important to optimize the entire customer experience, meaning, your email content, call to action, and web experience all must be mobile friendly.

This is an honest estimate of what you need to think about now. This time next year it may very well change, thanks to that ever-changing digital landscape. But change is good, right?