There are some basic concepts and strategies that online retailers need to know—even if they’re not technology specialists—that can be pivotal in keeping an e-commerce site running smoothly when traffic spikes.

When lifestyle brand Alex & Ani ran a TV ad during the 2014 Super Bowl, the company knew that the performance of its ecommerce-driven web site was key. Load times were especially crucial. “Every second costs money. For every second you add to the loading process, you’re reducing your conversion rate by 7%, and that adds up,” says Ryan Bonifacio, Alex & Ani vice president of digital strategy.

The Super Bowl ad brought 28,000 curious viewers to Alex & Ani’s web site. They all wanted the same thing—compelling content, great deals, and all of it delivered at blazing speeds. Fortunately, the site was set up to easily scale and meet the unprecedented demand.

Digital marketers work every day to drive traffic to web sites and yet, paradoxically, they sometimes fear sudden success. An unplanned spike in traffic can come from a casual company mention on a big talk show or unexpected product demand on Cyber Monday. But how do marketers and technologists work together to make sure that the brand’s site—its front door to the world—is always highly available, fast and ready for commerce?

Setting Your Web site Up for Success
There’s an old “analogue” expression—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It couldn’t be truer in the digital age when it comes to creating and managing robust web sites that can withstand all the traffic you can throw at them. Careful planning up front goes a long way.

A journey towards web success begins with solid alignment between the marketing and the technical folks. The technical advisors (web scale engineers, architects, developers and the like) may be in-house, external or a combination of the two. Wherever they are, they need to be in regular contact with the marketing decision markers so both sides understand all the functionality and potential design flaws in any web site plan. As with all things based in technology, there are often compromises. All that beautiful, dynamic rich content may have to be slimmed down for the sake of faster load times.

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Whether a site is being launched from scratch or re-platformed before a big campaign, an airtight project plan and a dedicated project manager is always a plus. Even if the project is being managed and run by an outside agency, a systems integrator or a hosting provider, you want to make sure all of the deliverables at your end are clearly identified. It’s no fun discovering a data issue or a rendering bug on the new platform a week before your Super Bowl ad airs. Good technical advisors should not only steer you towards the right configuration and architecture for your unique business case, but also flag the potential bumps in the road.

Why Digital Polygamy Can Be a Good Thing
A Google search may not be kind to the term polygamy, but it’s actually a valuable concept in the world of digital marketing. It suggests a diversity of partnerships that run across areas of functional responsibility—design, implementation, integration and infrastructure. For larger projects, we often see several partners, system integrators, and agencies all involved in a single project. Let’s say a brand is re-platforming their site on a hybris or Oracle ecommerce solution. There might be one systems integrator for the implementation, another for the Adobe or Sitecore WCM integration, another agency handling the front-end design, and Rackspace providing the infrastructure and support.

It’s a complex set of arrangements to navigate. But the good news for the brand is that they’re getting the absolute best set of specialized skills and expertise for each strand of their project. Just like renovating a house, a web site build or overhaul requires a team of trained experts with the right tools at their disposal. Navigating this ecosystem of partners and vendors is essential for the success of the project, and it’s why brands sometimes appoint a lead project manager at the center of it all.

What to Know About the Cloud and Scaling Your Site
Most marketers know that the cloud has enabled massive scalability and elasticity. In business terms, that means switching on more capacity as demand spikes and then tapering off when it subsides. It’s a beautiful thing. But of course the public cloud (multiple tenants sharing the same servers) doesn’t do everything well. So lots of brands use hybrid clouds, which offer them some dedicated servers (not shared) for specialized workloads, like PCI-compliant ecommerce transactions.

Marketers don’t need to know all about the intricacies of scaling a web site, but here are a few key technical concepts:

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  • Static vs. dynamic: Most web sites have a combination of static and dynamic content. The static content includes things like images and text while the dynamic content includes those things you customize for each viewer—a special offer based on previous visits to the site or a promo banner based on geographic location. Marketers need to be able to justify the value of longer-loading dynamic content.
  • Vertical vs. horizontal scaling: Vertical scaling means throwing more compute power, memory or storage space at the same server. The downfall with vertical scaling is that the server goes offline while it ramps up its resources. With horizontal scaling, additional servers are added to your configuration. In the cloud, that can happen automatically, based on demand. You only pay for what you use. Most sites use a combination of vertical and horizontal scaling. A big traffic event demands horizontal scaling and lots of it.
  • Caching: Whatever web content management system you’re using, it should allow for configuring caching. Caching tells the system to keep serving unchanged content in the same format, rather than having the page rebuilt millions of times.
  • Content Delivery Networks (CDNs): Allow for local delivery of content in each geographic region. Serving up graphics, media files and applications from the nearest data center obviously means a faster site, whether you’re viewing it in Sydney or Sedona.
  • Load balancers and database replication: A load balancer efficiently distributes web traffic, while database replication ensures data is always available.

Asking the Experts the Right Questions
Whatever mix of collaborators you use for a web site build or re-platform, be sure you understand the timeframe, deliverables and criteria for acceptance. You want to attend project meetings armed with pointed questions:

  • How many concurrent requests should the system be able to handle at maximum load?
  • What aspects of the site are consuming the most resources and therefore requiring the most scrutiny?
  • Which areas could be improved based on usability and load?
  • Is there code on the site that could be optimized or deleted?
  • Is there content that’s a good candidate for becoming static?

These kinds of questions will reveal potential weak points in the site design or infrastructure. No web site does everything equally well, but knowing your game plan as well as your strengths and weaknesses before playing in the Super Bowl is essential. In digital marketing, as in sports, the best-prepared team has the best chance of winning.

Rackspace is the leading provider of web hosting services to online retailers in the 2014 Top 500.

 

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