what’s next in retail from etail

The sessions at eTail, the conference for multi-channel and online retailers, were chock full of new perspectives and new technologies.

The title for this year’s event, held last month in Palm Springs, was:  “The Future Is Now: Managing ‘What’s Next’ While Remaining Focused on Today’s Brand Experience.

I learned a lot from my time at eTail — since my work focuses primarily on the strategy and operations of brand experience, while the content of this conference was much more about the tactics and techniques.  I took particular note of 5 ideas about the business and marketing of retail which emerged from all of the presentations I sat in on:

1. “Facebook ‘likes’ are the new email addresses”

This point, made by Mark Pierce, CEO, Marketlive, was reinforced by several speakers who expressed concerned about how companies’ eagerness to accumulate “likes” on Facebook is reminiscent of the pursuit for email addresses a few years back. Back then, CRM was the shiny new object which companies clamored for and many rushed to amass a large database of email addresses.  But they soon found that the value of a CRM database lies less in its size and more in its usage.

Today the phenomenon is repeating, as many companies are focusing on getting a lot of people to “like” them on Facebook. Most aren’t doing or offering anything to prompt a “like” other than asking for it — and they have no plan for following up on the “likes” they get.

It all seems rather pointless unless you use “likes” as part of an engagement strategy.  And it would be so much more impactful for companies to instead focus on doing something that people like so much they decide all by themselves to tell their friends.

2. the impact of mobile extends beyond commerce

With only a very small percentage of retail transactions happening through mobile devices, it might be tempting to write mobile off as a passing fad or perhaps a nascent behavior with little consequence today.  But mobile has broad and influential impact on retail.

Pedro Santos, Chief Strategist, eCommerce, at Akamai painted a clear picture of this impact with some stats:  87% of mobile owners use their devices to locate stores, 75% use them to compare prices, and 38% use them to access product reviews.  We may never see the incidence of mobile commerce top 10%, but mobile is already radically transforming the retail experience.

3. joining existing communities and conversations may be better than starting new ones

In a talk about content marketing, Deanna Brown, Federated Media’s President and COO, encouraged attendees to leverage the power of conversation to engage customers in meaningful relationships.  But she clarified that we shouldn’t simply default to initiating the conversations.  Joining existing ones – through forums, Twitter hashtags, and related parties’ blogs — may be easier and more valuable to customers.

Forrester analyst Diane Clarkson furthered the sentiment, pointing out that building a community is resource intensive — so participating (vs. hosting) a conversation may make sense despite the trade-off of more limited opportunities.

4. mobile has upped the competition for people’s attention

Limelight Networks Chairman and CEO Jeff Lunsford reminded marketers that their biggest competition may be Angry Birds, the mobile game with broad appeal and addictive qualities.  To capture the attention of today’s “hyper connected customer,” we must offer engaging, seamless experiences and use rich media and personalization.

When customers use their mobile devices, they behave very differently. On the plus side, they’re available and on-the-go and so the laws of inertia work in retailers’ favor:  a body in motion tends to stay in motion, so a visit is more likely if you reach someone who is “in the neighborhood.”  But at the same time mobile users are often distracted and have short attention spans, so the call to action needs to be persuasive and urgent.

Ultimately, Akamai’s Santos explained, “E-marketers need to shift their website optimization from simply shortening page load times to creating branded experiences.

5. new technologies should be used for more than marketing

The marketing applications of new technologies like mobile search and social sharing are obvious – but marketing leverages only a fraction of their value.  Customer service can be greatly enhanced by the new sites, tools, and capabilities.

Tracy Benson, Sr. Director, Best Buy Marketing, explained how her company has placed a priority on using technology to redefine customer service.  She highlighted Twelpforce, Best Buy’s Twitter-fueled program through which employees respond to customer inquiries and issues directly.  She also talked about facilitating knowledge sharing among customers and introduced the idea that, between reviews, forums, and social Q&A, “Friends are now problem solving tools.

Forrester’s Clarkson gave an entire talk on “Customer Service Is the New Social Marketing.”  She outlined how social media can meet customer service objectives by:
– facilitating – helping people help others
resolving – using direct and immediate communication tools to solve people’s problems
redirecting – directing people to other channels where they can be better helped

I’ll be posting an interview with Diane soon, so check back to hear more about how, in her own words, “Social media and customer service are no longer flirting.

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