Marketing research firm MarketingSherpa interviewed 47 executives who attended IRCE in June 2015. Three e-retailer strategies stood out to Daniel Burstein, who conducted many of the interviews.

Revenue coach Kristin Zhivago teaches marketers how to interview their customers to gain business intelligence. She says that after five or six interviews, some patterns start to emerge, and you get a good sense of what really matters to that group.

So while I didn’t talk to every single attendee at IRCE 2015, the world’s e-commerce event, after Courtney Eckerle and I interviewed 47 speakers and attendees in the MarketingSherpa Media Center at IRCE (Internet Retailer Conference + Exhibition), a few key patterns started to emerge that likely represent how many successful e-commerce leaders are driving their companies.

Takeaway #1: The customer (service) is king

At MarketingSherpa, our focus is producing case studies and sharing data based on the premises of customer-first marketing. So I’m naturally always looking for these types of stories.

But I was pleasantly surprised that – in conversation after conversation – the key lessons always came back to the customer. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be, after all, the reason we teach customer-first marketing is because it is the key to sustainable results).

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This was especially true when it came to customer service. If you read pop culture media, or listen to stand-up comedians, or ever pay attention to viral social media topics, you would assume companies are underinvesting in customer service and failing customers left and right.

But that isn’t the case in e-commerce. According to recent Forrester research, e-commerce retailers are better at serving customers than their brick-and-mortar brethren. While only 31% of consumers said that online retailer customer service agents couldn’t answer their questions, almost half (47%) of customers couldn’t get satisfying answers to their questions from employees at offline stores.

For e-commerce leaders I talked to, customer service was crucial to their success. And for good reason. Never before has the customer been more empowered. For companies that sell on marketplaces – like Amazon, eBay, or Newegg – negative customer reviews will kill sales.

For companies that sell directly through their own e-commerce sites, social media, seller ratings on price comparison engines, and even good old-fashioned word of mouth can make or break a business.

While e-commerce has come far in the past few years, customers still experience more anxiety buying from a faceless website than a brick-and-mortar location customers can walk into and talk face-to-face. Even though the data shows customer service is worse in physical stores, bricks and mortar convey more of a perception of solidity than bits and bytes. E-commerce retailers need to overcorrect for that anxiety, and show how they stand behind the product.

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So smart e-commerce retailers are investing in customer service and using the feedback they receive through customer service to improve their products. Companies in a range of industries, from Medical Supply Depot to Jomashop to Tech Armor discussed making and increasing investments in customer service.

“We really built our brand around service and support,” Joseph Jaconi, General Manager, Tech Armor told me. “We’re a small company, but over 60% of our human resources is dedicated to customer service and support … that’s including sales, marketing and everything we’re doing.”

“At the end of the day, we try to be a company that we would want to buy from ourselves. So put yourself in your customers’ shoes,” Jaconi advised.

Takeaway #2: Mobile experience isn’t just about usability

Or things rendering properly.

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When we hear about mobile websites, much of the talk tends to center around mobile design. Or concerns about Google’s algorithm updates that will affect organic search traffic on mobile devices (“Ah! Mobilegeddon is here. The end is nigh!”)

Don’t get me wrong. Usability is crucial. Even back at MarketingSherpa Email Summit 2013, I remember talking to Laura Velasquez, Marketing Program Manager, REI, about the retailer’s mobile marketing. The team had well-designed mobile emails…that then sent customers to bloated category pages with dozens of products.

Not the best example of usability.

REI was working diligently to improve this experience. And simply creating a mobile-optimized website is quite difficult, and a lot of work for marketing departments that are also working on many other things.

But it’s only table stakes.

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The leading e-commerce retailers are looking beyond simply being mobile friendly to creating a true experience.

For example, Gregory Casey, User Experience Designer and Experience Architect, eBags, told me how he was introducing gamification into the mobile experience for customers shopping for purses.

Instead of simply having an efficient search function so shoppers could immediately find and purchase products they already knew they wanted on a site that rendered well on their device and facilitated purchases, Casey created a fun way to interact with the products by creating an adaptive mobile experience called eBags Obsession. Shoppers were presented with different purses, and could swipe on their mobile devices to express pleasure or displeasure with each product.

He created a true discovery process for these shoppers. Much like a customer might browse at a local boutique on Main Street, enjoying time spent checking out the latest fashions. Perhaps many times before a purchase even occurred.

How did Casey know this would resonate with his shoppers? He looked past the analytics. He looked past the data. He thought outside the box (of his office) and actually went into their homes. Like an anthropologist.

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He found that his customers weren’t on a laser-guided hunt for a product. They were looking for an experience. For example, after she put the kids to bed, one customer would pour a glass of red wine, grab her mobile device, and simply be interested in browsing through the latest purses.

While preparing for the interview, Casey told me, “The core lesson is that mobile offers a new context of engagement (both in its interaction conventions and the mental models of its users) which represents a great opportunity to create unexpected experiences that delight one’s customers and increases conversion rates.”

To your customers, it’s not only about the search for the right product. Truly seek to understand what type of experience your customers want on mobile device versus a desktop. Sometimes that means re-creating the in-store physical experience. In so doing, look past usability solely focused on getting that immediate conversion and discover what really matters to your customers.

Takeaway #3: Create something awesome

Let’s face it. Amazon is brutally efficient. And Wal-Mart, with its logistics prowess, is going to figure out and master this e-commerce game before too long.

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Selling on price, while staying profitable, is getting more and more difficult by the day.

“Differentiate yourself on something no one can compete with – not price. Someone will always be willing to make less money than you,” Marc Lobliner, CMO, Tigerfitness.com told me.

While cost will always be important, to truly create a sustainably successful e-commerce business you have to understand and serve your unique niche.

A key way to do that is to create awesome.

I know that sounds weird, but I couldn’t think of a better way to explain the multi-disciplinary tactics e-commerce marketers were telling me about. It’s a mixture of a lot of techniques you’ve been hearing about – building an audience, facilitating a community, creating dynamic content through video and emerging social channels, and above all else, delivering a product that your ideal customer will be fanatical for.

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It’s finding the right group of people and creating something awesome with and for them.

Your ideal customer could be part of an underserved niche (in which case, wink at them and say, “yeah, the masses might not get it, but we do.”)

Gregg Barclay of SparkFun Electronics showed me videos his team made to connect with his company’s ideal customers – “makers.” Videos like SparkFun LIDAR Lite Module and SparkFun Claw Machine! are in many ways product tutorials/demos.

But they’re more than that. They highlight company employees, and are that wink and nod that say, “Yeah, we’re like you.” And plus – they’re fun! As Barclay told me, fun is literally in the company’s name and they live up to it with every video they produce.

For Cambria Jacobs, VP of Marketing, Door to Door Organics, the something awesome they created was the product itself. She told me the “farm to table” organic produce boxes are almost viewed like gifts on Christmas morning when her customers receive them, part of the e-tailer’s mission – “Joy Delivered.”

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Because they created something awesome in the product, customers share it on social media, which the online grocery business then amplifies through the right social media channels to serve the right niche to feed the shopper relationship. The result – 2013 web sales grew 60% to $26 million.

Creating something awesome could be as small as the 6-second Vine videos Danny Gavin, VP and Director of Marketing, Brian Gavin Diamonds shared with me. Meant to entertain, not sell, these short-form videos have generated 416,000 loops (or viewings) and boosted website traffic. Vines like Happy Hanukkah!

Or creating something awesome can be as big as Reddit – the social news site with 7.5 billion page views. The awesome here was building a community for authentic discussions.

As Alexis Ohanian, Executive Chair and Co-Founder, Reddit explained to me when he stopped by the MarketingSherpa Media Center at IRCE for his interview – “In a world where consumers have more and more knowledge every day and more and more choice every day, that is the only way you will win.”

What is means for you

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So how can your company stick out among all of the choices consumers have? What’s your awesome? What mobile experience can your company create? And how can you best serve the customer before, during, and after the purchase? Answering these questions is the key to e-commerce success.

MarketingSherpa conducts research on marketing and produces related publications and conferences.

 

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