Following a mixed Christmas - overall gloom leavened by the occasional boom - 2014 is shaping up to be a year of radical change for the digital retail industry. More so than ever, those who can't adapt won't survive the lean Q1 months ahead, so what changes lie in-store now that the tinsel's down and the profit warnings are looming?
We surveyed over 200 Heads of eCommerce and Heads of Social from across Europe and the United States to gauge their top strategic priorities for 2014. What changes will they be making? How will they be spending their budgets? What are their goals for the year ahead? Below are their top three responses: smarter promotions, innovative customer acquisition and generating real ROI from social. But, first, here are a few surprises from the survey.
Is this the end for old social? In previous years, we’d have expected to see lots of digital retailers and marketers focusing on growing their social audiences by adding 'Likes' and followers. But our survey indicated that only 4% of respondents regarded this as critical goal for the coming year, with the emphasis shifting towards monetisation of that audience instead (see below).
Money talks. Two percent of respondents said they were prioritising whether they can accept payment in bitcoin rather than traditional currencies - something none of them would have dreamed of asking only 12 months ago.
Interestingly, fewer than 8% of respondents listed mobile as one of their top three priorities, suggesting that last year’s big trend has become this year’s ‘business as usual’.
Those were some of the surprises from further down our survey results. But these, in reverse order, are the outright winners - digital retail’s key objectives for the year ahead:
3. Smarter promotions (26%)
Inspired by the manner in which brands including John Lewis, Next and Ryman protected their margins by resisting discounting until after Christmas, digital retailers are looking for ways to grow share of wallet while avoiding generic price cuts which decimate the bottom-line and undermine price perception. 26% of our survey respondents cited reinventing the traditional discount as one of their top three priorities for the year ahead. One told us: “Everything’s 30% off this, 50% off that - after a while, it’s all just noise. We’re investigating ways of staging attention-grabbing events, things which will ignite the public’s imagination, but which don’t cut so deeply into our margins.” Another respondent added that he was focused on rewarding customers for promoting his brand online, rather than discounting across-the-board. "User generated content, cheap user data & increased profits. Wins all round!"
2. Innovative customer acquisition (32%)
Last year, digital retailers placed considerable emphasis on bolstering their SEO by commissioning bespoke editorial content for their online stores. While there appears to be an ongoing commitment to the content arms-race, 32% of the survey respondents indicated that they were now prioritising new opportunities for customer acquisition beyond organic search traffic, supplemented by paid advertising across the web and on social. "Historically, the high street thrived on word of mouth," said the Director of eCommerce at a UK fashion brand, "but we've failed to translate that to digital. We know that, once a customer transacts with us, they love the experience and keep coming back for more, so we're exploring tools which will help inspire our existing customers to engage their networks - the online equivalent of bringing your friends along to a cool new boutique you've discovered. For us, that's not about bribery or paying anyone off with £5 welcome vouchers, it's about offering an enhanced experience for everyone concerned. We're excited about where this might lead and it's a big priority for the year ahead."
1. Generating real ROI from social (37%)
As we enter 2014, the average top retailer has almost 1.8 million Facebook fans and over 140k Twitter followers. That's a lot of people, and it's also a lot of work. "Two years ago, we were all about collecting 'Likes' and follows," says the Head of Social for a European stationery retailer. "Last year, we adapted our mission from one of growth to one of engagement - minimal attrition, maximum attention. But, as the big social networks put the squeeze on earned media, engagement gets harder and harder to achieve without spending a fortune on advertising or chasing the latest fad - and we quickly learned that talking about royal babies might get lots of shares and comments but it simply doesn't sell printer cartridges. If we're going to see a return on our massive investment in social, we absolutely need to find ways to engage that audience around our core offering, which is retail not chit-chat."
She's not alone. A massive 37% of the eCommerce and social marketing professionals who responded to our survey cited monetising social as one of their top three strategic priorities for 2014. For some, that means cutting back on agency outsourcing and bringing social customer service back in-house. For others, that constitutes a paring down of their social communities to strip away people who have never and will never purchase (serial competition entrants, etc) and refocusing on serving brand-relevant content to viable customers. But, for most, social monetisation means not just commercialising their social messages but fully integrating social into their commercial offerings.
"For a long time," explains one retail consultant who participated in the survey, "our clients regarded their eCommerce offering and their social offering as two separate entities. In 2014, the challenge is to bridge the two, so that social actually becomes a channel for trade and a revenue stream. That's what everyone's talking about right now."
The top 10 retail priorities in full
|Position||Priority||ataCited as a top priority (%)|
|1||Generating real ROI from social||37%|
|2||Innovative customer acquisition||32%|
|5||Same or next-day shipping||19%|
|7||Developing for mobile||8%|
|8||Unify stock tracking||6%|
|9||Grow social audience||4%|