Merchants who sell goods and services online face a bewildering array of competing priorities. Should their brands be on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram or all three? Should dollars go toward optimizing site content for high rankings in unpaid "natural" search results or in paid search ads? Is video a good investment? And should tablets or smartphones take precedence when planning mobile strategy?
Thankfully, sellers have a reliable guide to help them sort through the options: the customers themselves. By thoroughly understanding their target audience, merchants can focus on the online touchpoints and sales strategies that will resonate most effectively - and earn sales.
While the details may vary from merchant to merchant, three major consumer trends that are shaping online commerce across the board should form the backbone of brands' online strategies:
Build content for the visual web.
As merchants sift through options for how to build their content offerings, they should give precedence to building libraries of videos and photos for use across touchpoints. Numerous data points prove that visual content engages consumers more effectively than text: Twitter posts with pictures earn more replies, retweets or mentions by far than other types of content, for example, while 44% of consumers say they buy more from sites that feature product videos. Additionally, YouTube's central role as the Internet's second-largest search engine and the rise of image-oriented social platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram and WhatsApp give merchants compelling reasons to justify their investments in rich visual content.
MarketLive merchant Brickhouse Security positions video prominently, showcasing how-to demonstrations, buying guides and even press clips, such as this product's mention on The Today Show. The branded content feeds an information-rich YouTube channel with playlists on various consumer security topics and boasts more than 4,500 followers.
Evolve from mobile presence to mobile competence.
By all counts, mobile devices now play a central role in the online shopping experience: A full 80% of smartphone users conduct shopping research on their devices; smartphones and tablets now own the majority of minutes consumers spend interacting with retail brands; and by some counts, close to two-thirds of all email is opened first on mobile devices. By and large, though, merchants need to catch up to consumer behaviors with engaging mobile shopping experiences that lead to speedy and frictionless mobile transactions.
Merchants should prioritize developing mobile content that builds brand identity, while simultaneously applying usability best practices to smooth the path to purchase with services such as alternative payments. MarketLive merchant Helzberg Diamonds has done just that, with a "Proposal Pro" app that offers a comprehensive resource about popping the question, along with integrated product links. Shoppers can schedule appointments in local stores from the mobile site or proceed directly to purchasing via alternative payment options and/or a streamlined checkout.
Find the right social media niche for superior service.
Gone are the days of serial social network popularity, when Friendster was succeeded by MySpace, which in turn was eclipsed by Facebook. Now, while Facebook continues to be the dominant social network, used by 71% of all U.S. online adults, the frequency and location of usage varies significantly depending on the audience. Among teens, for example, blogging site Tumblr is more popular than Facebook, which decreased 9% in popularity between 2012 and 2013, while more than 500 million photos are exchanged daily via mobile messaging service WhatsApp - 150 million more than Facebook and several orders of magnitude more than on Instagram.
The only way for merchants to make sense of this chaotic environment is not to attempt to cover every emerging site, scattershot-fashion, but to follow the customer's lead and establish outposts on the social networks that are most relevant to their audiences. Merchants can then capitalize on this customer-driven social strategy by using social outposts to proactively address shoppers' questions and invite authentic interactions. MarketLive merchant Figi's anchors a link to customer service information at the top of its Facebook timeline page, providing users of the social network direct access to a searchable set of frequently asked questions, along with the ability to ask a question directly online.
By prioritizing investment in online strategies that reflect changing consumer attitudes and behaviors, merchants can establish credibility for their brand, engage new visitors and win sales.
Ken Burke is the CEO, Chairman, Founder, of MarketLive, Inc. Ken founded the company as Multimedia Live in 1995 with only $500 in start-up money, and under his guidance it has grown into a leading Total Commerce solution provider. Inspired by strategies and business methods from the cataloging and direct marketing world, Burke masterminded the creation of the MarketLive® Intelligent Selling® System, MarketLive's enterprise-class e-commerce application designed to optimize all selling opportunities, build solid relationships with customers, and give merchants complete control over their online merchandising. A recognized e-commerce industry pioneer and visionary, Ken hosts frequent thought leadership events and is often quoted in Internet Retailer and other industry publications. A dynamic and popular speaker, he is a regular contributor at retail and direct marketing events. Ken is also the author of the book Intelligent Selling®: The Art & Science of Selling Online. He studied multimedia and the Internet at the University of Southern California, where he completed a BA in Marketing and earned honors as an MBA graduate in Venture Management and Entrepreneurship.