Are retailers losing control of the customer journey to pervasive social platforms?

Are retailers losing control of the customer journey to pervasive social platforms?
Graham Cooke is chief executive officer at Qubit, a builder of technology that enables companies to offer personalization at scale. In 2010, after five years at Google, he founded Qubit to help companies develop intelligent understanding of their website visitors, with technology that matches visitors with the widest range of personalization experiences, and influence behavior to significantly drive revenue growth. Graham also is a strategic partner and counsel to leading e-commerce businesses as well as governments on AI, personalization and the future of commerce. Under his leadership, Qubit's platform influences over $2.4 billion in sales and 28 billion individual user experiences every month across 300 brands including Ulta Beauty, ColourPop, Topshop, UNIQLO, NET-A-PORTER, Diane von Furstenberg and more.

The capabilities that social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest etc.) provide to retail brands today has far extended likes, comments or shares. Through these platforms online visitors can discover more of a retailer’s product catalogue through a curated feed of suggestions based on the user’s browsing and intent behaviour. But with that comes its own challenges for overstretched e-commerce managers and brands, not least because it means visitors are now discovering a brand outside of the control of the retailer themselves. 

There is a lot of uncertainty around how to effectively use social media sites but what is not up for debate is their popularity. The photo and video social sharing site Instagram – still in its infancy at just seven years old – recently introduced a ‘Shopping’ feature which has transformed users’ scrolling experience into an ecommerce influenced one. Modern retail brands have flocked to social media sites like Instagram to test the actual impact this could have on sales, and with the addition of Snapchat’s shoppable AR lenses, more will likely follow suit. 

Slow on the uptake

Surely such shoppable posts, that give customers an even greater opportunity to connect with the brands they love, should be the mutually beneficial e-commerce platform UK retailers have been dreaming of, right? Not exactly. The UK market has been slow in its uptake, with just under 8% of UK retailers choosing to sell through Instagram Shopping.

Of the brands that became early adopters of social e-commerce, many are reported to be seeing increased traffic from Instagram as a result of the tagging capability, and the platform shows no signs of halting its social e-commerce function yet. In fact, its shoppable tags will now be available in Instagram Stories – a function used by around 300 million people every day. Instagram has also made in-app purchases possible as well. 

‘Social shopping’ is not entirely new this year, and two platforms in particular – Facebook and Instagram – have been dominating the space for a while. However, brands must weigh up the trade-off of improving product discovery versus a major concern… the lack of sole access and control to customer data within these platforms.

Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and now Snapchat are redefining what people expect from brands when it comes to onsite experiences. They’re beginning to encroach on e-commerce revenues, and when customers choose to buy via these platforms, suddenly e-commerce managers lose control of the user experience and the associated customer insights. Effectively the third-party platform reaps all the benefits.

So how can retailers emulate social design – visual-first, easy search-ability and personalised content – and combine them with a wholly owned web channel?

The power of data

First off, online retail competition is fierce and consumers will typically shop from between one and five websites. One of those is likely to be Amazon, so it’s a tough fight to be one of the other four, especially with the likes of Instagram and Facebook encroaching on the space.

Data is at the heart of how to win this fight. Knowing your customers means you can build loyalty. But customer data is one of the biggest and most complex areas companies have to handle because of the volume of interactions involved, with behavioral, intent, quantitative and qualitative information all streaming in at speed.

However, by using machine learning, brands can uncover insights, act immediately and importantly do it at scale. Machine learning allows for data to be processed in real-time, so that a customer experience can be created that is geared solely towards the user; exactly like on social media. This processing is achieved through an intelligent data layer – the mechanism by which your data is collected and then analysed. Get this right and you allow for a truly personalised buyer experience where you serve up content that is unique to the segment they fall into at any particular time. Brands like Diane von Furstenburg, which is using machine learning-based personalisation tech on mobile, have seen 2.5x more product views with engaged users converting 80% more often.

By using data to create experiences that invoke the curated ones of social media, retailers can give consumers the experience they crave, boosting loyalty, sales and the bottom line.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about the Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) international event series, arriving in Amsterdam from September 19-20 and New York from November 7-8.

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