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Q&A: Essential Ecommerce Functionalities to Boost Revenue

woman with red ribbon browsing ecommerce business via phone and laptop

Running an ecommerce site is increasingly competitive. In a tough economy, you can’t afford to miss any potential revenue or conversions.

The president of Coalition Technologies, Jordan Brannon, sat down with BWG to discuss the essential functionalities ecommerce sites must implement to boost revenue and stand out above the competition. 

 

Questions

  1. Q: What is the #1 functionality that ecommerce businesses can do to increase sales, especially in a tough economy?
  2. Q: How can I expand my communication base for message marketing?
  3. Q: Can SMS marketing integrations move outside of younger audiences and D2C companies?
  4. Q: Is there anything more ecommerce brands should be doing with email?
  5. Q: What sort of functionality should brands key in on with email?
  6. Q. Beyond email and SMS, what are some more effective message marketing opportunities for ecommerce brands?
  7. Q: What are some ways to improve UGC functionality so that it drives more sales?
  8. Q: How important is onsite search to site sales performance?
  9. Q: Why is a site search feature so often neglected?
  10. Q: What is search filtering, and why is it important for ecommerce?
  11. Q: What value do progressive web applications (PWAs) have for ecommerce sales performance?
  12. Q: When would you recommend looking at a headless build for ecommerce brands?
  13. Q: What are some functionality investments that you don’t think brands should be making?
  14. Q: Any final functionality recommendations?

 

Q: What is the #1 functionality that ecommerce businesses can do to increase sales, especially in a tough economy?

A: Message marketing. 

Text, email, chat, messenger-type marketing integrations just are underwhelming for most ecommerce merchants.

Most ecommerce merchants have integrated some kind of generic modal, a footer subscription form, and some tie-in at the order or customer account level. They then leverage those for pretty formulaic sends and follow-ups.

There is a lot of rich opportunity to be had in improving on the message marketing front and the ability to integrate these types of comms into your ecommerce site has gotten a lot easier. 

 

Q: How can I expand my communication base for message marketing?

A: Email and SMS can really easily help address each of those points.

Text messages are probably where most merchants need to start, since a surprisingly large number of businesses don’t yet use SMS. SMS has significantly outperformed email for almost all of our clients, whether in a D2C or B2B category, and across almost all demographic groups.

A lot of merchants view SMS as a millennial and Gen Z communication tool, failing to realize that it’s been in common use by baby boomers and Gen Xers for longer than most Gen Zers have been alive. 

It’s also much more mature in technology support and vendor options than it used to be, so there are fewer barriers to integrating it into your ecommerce experience now. 

Finally, it has some favorable efficiency trade-offs with email. Due to its format and content, it tends to be easier to develop messaging and a communication cadence around than email, and can often be turned around or stood up on a shorter time frame. 

And since this is a functionality conversation, there are a number of pre-built apps and software solutions, some that are bundled with email marketing solutions, that allow you to start capturing mobile numbers, get the proper opt-ins, and also begin working on segmentation and automation for future sends. 

You’ll want to start sooner, because as with email lists, the better your segments and the larger your lists, the more yield you’ll have come holiday season.

 

Q: Can SMS marketing integrations move outside of younger audiences and D2C companies?

A: Our B2B, millennial, Gen X, and baby boomers all tend to have better performance metrics with SMS than email. There is some decline as we see the audience age increase, BUT open rates and engagement are still a lot higher than what you’d see in a typical email marketing campaign

For B2B merchants, especially those where the target audience is a small business owner or decision-maker, the differences between a D2C and B2B campaign in terms of performance can be negligible to non-existent. 

Getting into a simple cadence of trigger-based messages, scheduled sends, and even UGC targeted sends is a great starting point and quite accessible for most merchants.

 

Q: Is there anything more ecommerce brands should be doing with email?

A: Frankly, most brands can get pretty lazy about email. And surprisingly, there are a lot of brands that aren’t even doing email. The mindset ranges from, “I wouldn’t want another promo email in my inbox, so no one else will,” to “I don’t have the time to tackle this.”

On both those counts, I’d argue the ROI for email continues to show that it’s well worth the effort. People may not want another promo email in their inbox, but they will make purchases based off of it. 

And for those that do email, most just have a pretty habitual series of email sends on a recurring basis, use marginally optimized lists, and may have an abandoned cart saver type email drip setup. 

 

Q: What sort of functionality should brands key in on with email?

A: Keeping an eye on ecommerce functionality, I’d (a) make sure you have a working abandoned cart or abandoned interaction and (b) I’d make sure you’re working on improving its outcomes.

Most abandoned cart emails are pretty crude, and are missing on some basic opportunities. First, they don’t offer any incentive to come back to visit the site and make the purchase. A lot of the message is pretty timid—“Oh hey, don’t mind us, but umm, we noticed you had some items in your cart, and we’re, um, wondering if, um, you maybe wanted to buy them, or something?”

We see more success for abandoned cart emails when you can get the open and engagement with the first one you send, so I’d recommend making sure your first one is impactful.

A few email functionality points that we’ve seen enhance those initial sends:

  1. Offer a one time, unique discount on the cart that’s not available publicly.
  2. Feature lower cost alternative products to the one they were browsing. A lot of shoppers naturally gravitate towards a high price point item and will then spend a lot of time trying to find a cheaper substitute. 
  3. Address common concerns or issues that may have led to cart abandonment. User reviews, photos, and testimonials can be especially powerful.

Most abandoned cart campaigns will improve with that bit of added functionality wrapped into it. 

 

Q:  Beyond email and SMS, what are some more effective message marketing opportunities for ecommerce brands?

A: Probably the three I’d highlight as next most important are site search, user-generated content (UGC), and upsells, cross-sells and product recommendation type improvements.

Of those three, functionality that increases the amount of UGC on your site and in more varied formats is likely going to be the most universal way to improve your sales. 

 

Q: What are some ways to improve UGC functionality so that it drives more sales?

The most basic form of UGC to be gathering is product and service reviews—that really is the ground floor level. If you’re not doing it, it’s inexcusable. 

Even for brands where their own ecommerce experience is on the horizon and not yet available, there are opportunities to gather reviews and testimonials from customers who are buying your products through other retailers or channels. 

Having some terms and conditions that let you use those reviews in marketing collateral ready to go, along with some basic follow up communications to ask the customer to share their experience elsewhere can be a good starting point.

Aside from that, for brands that are a bit more on it, we’re pushing to see UGC grow in the follow areas:

  1. Have functionality that supports gathering store or business-centric reviews either on-site or off-site through third parties like Google or Facebook. It’s important to have functionality outside of simply presenting product reviews, which tend to expire when an item is out of stock or discontinued. Reputation management in search engines is really about having a good number of places that your customers will find positive content about you, so there is some SEO benefit to this as well.
  2. Adopt technology that supports gathering photos and videos outside of Instagram so that they can be integrated into PDP experiences more meaningfully. Short form video is really taking off on product pages, and having users generating some of that for you can be a great way to get more content diversity faster. 
  3. Ensure part of your UGC offering includes opportunities for customers to help improve the customer service experience. Amazon’s FAQ section is a great example of that in action. Further it benefits the SEO and SEM performance of pages with more FAQ type interactions. Even if your site is just collecting customer generated questions, and you’re the one providing the response, you’ll usually see that have a positive impact on conversion rates. 

For most major ecommerce platforms, there are pre-existing apps to address all three of these. It’s also not too difficult to come up with simpler versions of these freely through some basic templates and development tasks. 

When our clients commit some resources to these three we usually see net uplift in conversion rates, engagement metrics, marketing outcomes, and more. 

shopify app on mobile phone

Q: How important is onsite search to site sales performance?

More important than you would think.

If site search is present on a site, customers who use the search tool tend to have higher across the board engagement metrics and are more likely to convert. 

Studies show that engagement with a solid site search tool increases the likelihood of a customer converting twofold. Coalition’s tests haven’t been quite as high, but usually, optimizations to on-site search tools do show improved conversion rates by as much as 50%. 

A lot of sites are starting to design these out, which I think is a mistake and is probably driven by lackluster performance by the shopping cart software itself.

 

Q: Why is a site search feature so often neglected?

A: Unfortunately, I think site search is still a big problem area. 

Part of the problem is the prevalence of Shopify stores in the ecommerce market as a whole. Without Shopify Plus, the native Shopify search experience is quite crude and even with Shopify Plus the tag driven filtering experience is also ho-hum. 

That often means that ecommerce brands on Shopify have to look at using expensive 3rd party solutions to try and increase the performance of both the text-based search functions on their site as well as the search filtering capabilities on their site. 

 

Q: What is search filtering, and why is it important for ecommerce?

Some people may call it faceted search. It’s usually presented as a narrow side column on a category or collection type page and allows people to narrow the product list based on size, color, how highly rated it is, pricing, and the like.

For sites with larger catalogs or larger categories, this really is a must have. Even for sites with a narrower product selection, it can be really helpful—just use fewer filters and adapt the design implementation accordingly. We have a few smaller fashion and beauty brands with a specialized product selection and we use filters to help narrow based on fit, promotional offers, inventory availability, skin type, et cetera.

“A lot of brands get too caught up in just replicating what they see on Amazon with respect to filters instead of thinking how they can personalize the experience for their product and customer.”

One of the things we find in a lot of our conversion studies is that if you can get a customer to have one meaningful engagement with your site (usually represented by more interactions with the page or by higher dwell time), you’re going to increase the rate of conversion. Interactive features that help simplify the shopping or browsing experience and keep someone’s attention on your store go a long way towards improving your conversion rates. 

For both on-site search and search filtering, one thing most brands miss on is opportunity to improve the default of whatever they have implemented

Most ecommerce platforms give you some modicum of control over what things show up in what search results through tagging or keyword optimization or other back end controls. Don’t neglect spending some time on those. I like to work through common search queries from Google Analytics and what sorts of results they return on client sites and look at optimizing those findings with the merchants. 

 

Q: What value do progressive web applications (PWAs) have for ecommerce sales performance?

A: The basic idea is that companies can take advantage of certain features of devices that were previously only accessible if you had a mobile app, while using common web technologies like HTML, CSS, and Javascript. 

Generally speaking, PWAs are less expensive to maintain across platforms than native apps but potentially offer a richer user experience, especially on mobile devices. Some of the most common examples of PWAs usage in the wild are efforts to improve site speed and performance through caching or efforts to take advantage of end-user push notifications and other mobile interactions. 

Headless is becoming more well known, in part because ecommerce devs love to push shiny new objects, and in part because there can be real value. It has an unfortunately confusing name. I heard someone refer to it as a naming convention for developers, in that anyone who isn’t a dev will struggle to understand it, and anyone who is a developer won’t care that it makes no sense and will accept it. 

The idea is that the front end experience of a website is served from a Javascript application that connects to a more traditional CMS like WordPress, Magento, Shopify, or BigCommerce

I think the idea behind the name headless was that you’re disconnecting the front end of the website or the head from the rest of the body. It doesn’t make much sense because the traditional CMS is still acting as a brain, which needs a head to reside in, and the front end head still exists just in a new delivery method. Perhaps “faceless” would make more sense.

Both have some pretty high upside opportunities for ecommerce merchants, especially those starting to reach a scale where a smaller business focused platform like Shopify is proving restrictive to the mix of digital marketing, content, and performance goals your brand has. For smaller merchants, they probably are more buzz than is worth investigating or investing in now. 

The main near universal opportunity for both is the chance to really improve site performance and speed if architected correctly BUT you need to have an audience size such that an incremental gain is worth the added technical debt introduced by assuming a headless or PWA technology stack. 

They’re not something that I would push a lot of brands towards immediately, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for and looking for creative implementations. The cost to implement and the effectiveness of implementation in terms of improving sales is steadily improving. 

 

Q: When would you recommend looking at a headless build for ecommerce brands?

A: If you want to provide a really unique, content driven or interactive experience, headless is often going to be a great way to get there.

We’re all accustomed to the home page, collection or category page, product page, cart, then checkout navigation experience and most ecommerce sites follow that same path.

If you’re looking to break away from that, headless can be a great way to go. We’ve done headless projects that surface content experiences, whether they’re recipes, browser based games, or other interactive content in such a way that the ecommerce piece is more subtle and less in your face. Buzzfeed recently launched their own ecommerce offering and I would expect more publishing networks or influencers will look to headless as a way of bypassing a smaller cut of affiliate revenues for a larger cut as a pseudo dropshipper. 

For brands that are not totally on board for D2C ecommerce and are still primarily emphasizing their brand.com as a customer service and retailer support destination, a headless addition can help you maintain a seamless site navigation experience while starting to stand up a more meaningful ecommerce offering

 

Q: What are some functionality investments that you don’t think brands should be making?

A: I was cautionary above on PWA and headless. I love what they can do, but I’m not sure it’s right for everyone or that it’s the right time for everyone. As more entrants get into the market to streamline both for smaller and mid-sized brands, we’ll see some maturity of product offerings and some drop in costs. 

I would also highlight caution around subscription programs, recurring billing models, and rewards programs. 

While all three can have great upsides if executed well, they tend to be pretty challenging to really define the value of, maintain, and manage in a way that gives them longevity and sustained benefits. There are certain categories where that’s not true, especially for Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) and beauty, but for most other categories, I’d avoid jumping into these functionality offerings on your site without real clear drivers to do so. 

 

Q: Any final functionality recommendations?

Installment payments have almost always resulted in a boost in conversion rates. Short form video as part of the shopping experience has almost always resulted in a boost in conversion rates. 

If it’s relevant to you or your business, look at Buy Online, Pick-Up in Store (BOPIS) options. We also love in-stock notification functionality or back order offerings. 

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