Investors are seemingly just now becoming excited about Amazon’s ability to grow its ad business. BMO Capital recently increased its Amazon target price to $1,600 per share based in large part on this expected growth. Another analyst wrote, “I think Amazon will do retail search and take Google to the cleaners on retail search using their estate.” Which, when put through the business-to-English translator, seems to mean, “Watch out, Google.”
From an investor standpoint, this is a reasonable point of view, as Amazon still has a great deal of work to do to fully monetize its service as an ad network (with the not unreasonable belief that advertising will become the most profitable component of the Amazon portfolio). But from the perspective of either a manufacturer selling products online or a consumer looking to make a digital purchase, Amazon is already hands down the most influential ad network.
It’s estimated that Amazon in 2017 captured approximately 4% of retail sales, a significant proportion to be sure though much smaller than Walmart, and 44% of e-commerce sales (making them the dominant player in the space). But sales only tell part of the story.
From research conducted by Market Track, three-quarters of consumers start their digital product search efforts via an online retailer (including 58% beginning their search at Amazon.com alone). That makes optimizing the digital shelf arguably the single most important element of a manufacturer’s online brand presence—more important than traditional advertising efforts, more important than their own website, more important even than Google.
For brands, the obvious implication is that to effectively sell products online they must get their Amazon strategy right. The less obvious implication is that Amazon is product marketing ground zero no matter where shoppers intend to make a purchase. Whether someone wants to buy now with 1-click ordering off the Amazon site or is standing in the middle of Best Buy trying to figure out which TV to take home with them, Amazon is the number one source for product information. To treat the site as only a platform for conversion is to seriously handicap a brand’s marketing efforts.
Whether focused on discovery or conversion, most brands recognize the importance of being in the first row or the first three positions on the page on Amazon’s (or any retailer’s) digital shelf. If they’re not, the chances of making the sale decline dramatically. Good placement is a cost of entry on the digital shelf, where companies talk about the “long tail” as if referring to the thousandth product on a list when actually it probably starts somewhere between the tenth and twentieth product.
But just improving product placement ignores the utility role of the digital shelf in the path to purchase. For a shopper prepared to make a low-involvement online purchase, the digital shelf might represent the entire acquisition process—from awareness to consideration to conversion to evaluation. For a higher involvement purchase, such as the television example cited previously, it may only play a small role within that consumer journey.
Whether the first step in the research process, an opportunity to see feedback given by others, or simply a pricing exercise prior to making a brick-and-mortar purchase, the digital shelf becomes the one messaging vehicle a manufacturer can use to literally do it all. But to handle every component well, the digital shelf needs to be viewed through a broad (as opposed to narrow) lens.
Taking control of the digital shelf certainly means tracking all the marketing components—from search placement to product descriptions to price changes to in-stock status to product reviews. But it also means applying the same category management principles to the digital environment that are typically applied in brick-and-mortar stores, customized for the nuances of online sales.
These principles include:
- Enhancing retailer partnerships by monitoring key performance indicators and leveraging trade promotion dollars to fill in the gaps
- Correlating digital activities to sales outcomes, including the relationships between changes in placement, price, and ratings and reviews
- Effectively identifying and resolving problems on the shelf, whether creating a clear path to resolution for bad reviews and out-of-stocks or developing an open line of communication with the online retailer
Ultimately, the brands that win are the ones with a bias toward action, often committing resources to managing the digital shelf beyond what their current sales might indicate. Because looping back to the original thesis, the digital shelf is about more than conversion, and Amazon is already the most powerful digital ad network for products. The brands that view it as both the start and the end of the shopper journey have the opportunity to create distance between themselves and their competitors, drive omnichannel sales, and control not just the end of the shopper journey, but the start as well.
Market Track provides subscription-based advertising, brand and pricing intelligence services in North America.