Learn from the mistakes of others – Nine tips for a successful e-commerce project
Over the last few years I have been involved in several projects where the aim was to build a new online store or portal. Considering my profession, my own role and approach has naturally revolved around the integration of product information from our PIM system to the online store, but I have also observed many other aspects of these projects. Also, in my private life, we are embarking upon a housebuilding project. When doing research for that project, I found that there are many similarities with e-commerce projects, even though the end products are very different.
Here are some of my observations – I hope some people facing similar challenges will find them helpful!
1. Know what you want and be prepared to measure your success
- If you don’t have a clear vision about what it is you’re looking for and why you have started the project in the first place, it will be difficult to achieve satisfactory results. Therefore, you should start by clearly outlining your main goals as well as the reasons for wanting to achieve them. For instance, if your objective is to double your e-commerce revenue, multiplying the amount of products sold in your web store, or improving the customer experience, it is advisable to think about ways to measure these results after the project is completed.
- Defining the project should be done at this early stage – write down your requirements for the new online shop prior to launching the project. The better your understanding is of what you require from your web store (or even your new house) before you start the bidding process, the more accurate and comparable the quotations you receive will be. This preparation is also directly correlated with the amount of surprises you will have on the way.
2. If you are not yourself an expert, hire a reliable consultant
- Building a new web store sounds like it’s not supposed to be rocket science, and this may even be true in principle. However, ecom solutions can be tricky in the sense that they often require one, two or even three integrations. Some seemingly small things can become surprisingly large problems, especially when they emerge in the middle of the project.
- Therefore, before you start your first round of bidding, you should always try to find an expert, preferably a neutral third party who can help you define the project and request quotations. No matter how well you do your homework, a layperson will find it difficult to grasp all the relevant knowledge, particularly in a bit of a rush. A good consultant can help you get on the right track from the start and define the project, which helps you avoid expensive surprises in the final stages. You may end up paying “extra” to a consultant, but in reality this is likely to save you both time and money.
3. Buying a pre-fabricated ‘turnkey’ solution does not mean that you don’t have to do any work yourself
- Many web store builders (and house-builders, I’ve heard) are surprised by the amount of work required, even if you aren’t coding a single line or hammering any nails into the wall yourself. Therefore, it is important to be mentally prepared and to have the necessary resources, clearly defined roles, and realistic deadlines. An e-commerce project will require at least one internal project manager (who may well spend half of his or hers working hours on the project), IT support for designing interfaces and data flow, and probably some product management support in cases where the data content as such does not support the vision.
4. Have a solid foundation
- Make sure that your background systems such as ERP/PLM and PIM can support the new e-commerce. It is particularly important to check the quality of product information prior to starting the project. If you want your online store to have the world’s greatest (or even average) search features and filters, as well as comprehensive product information, the data has to be structurally sound and checked in advance. Many people find out only after the e-commerce project is launched that a large portion of their time is spent cleaning up and making sense of old data, as this has to be done if product information is to be presented in a sharp manner. In this stage, at the very latest, you should consider incorporating a Product Information Management (PIM) system, because ERP and the web store are very rarely sufficient if the goal is to have a functioning product information process and comprehensive product information.
5. Invite bids
- Just like building a house, a new e-commerce solution is an expensive project, and I can’t think of any good reason not have a bidding process. Squeezing the budget is sensible, if not for any other reason than to gain an understanding of the price range and the various implementation options from different suppliers. You might need to spend a bit more time than you would if you gave the project to the first vendor with an impressive sales pitch, but in my experience this is a worthwhile investment.
- On the other hand, a bidding process will not amount to anything if you don’t know what you want. In the worst case scenario, the quotes you receive won’t be comparable to one another because the definition of the project was too narrow or too ambiguous. Therefore, it is important to focus on the definition now if you haven’t already. A coherent project definition requires that you have completed the steps in Section 1 and that you know what you want and can express it in a coherent and detailed manner. The more detailed the description of your requirements is, the easier it will be to compare bids and to get on with the project.
6. Choose your partner carefully
- When building my own house, I have obviously collected advice from friends who have already built theirs plus read through various online forums, and this research has helped in eliminating at least a few suppliers – the same can probably be done with e-commerce providers. In my experience, a large supplier is not the best match for a smaller client because a large company is not always interested in devoting resources to a small client, and therefore the project might be poorly managed. For a smaller company each new client is important and your project will receive their full attention. Therefore, you should choose a provider that is similar in size to your business.
7. Demand documentation
- Just like constructing a house, it is critical for the future maintenance of the online store to know what has been installed, when and where. If you want to make changes to the presentation of information or your integrations, it’s like taking down a wall in your house: you would want to know how things were built and where the electrical wiring is without having to tear down the entire house to find out.
- Often people get the feeling in the implementation stage of the project that the supplier will take care of things according to your specifications and you can just monitor their progress from the sidelines. However, according to my experience, it is important to stay alert in this stage and demand that all agreed upon actions are properly documented. Anything that is not written in ink does not officially exist, and you are dependent on the good will of the supplier. Often this good will works just fine, but to ensure peace of mind and the ease of future maintenance work, it’s important to demand proper documentation, no matter how tedious this may be.
8. Testing, testing and more testing
- It would be great if everything went according to plan and the first version was perfect, but unfortunately you can’t count on this. Both software and houses come with some guarantees, but it’s usually easier (and cheaper) to fix issues if they are detected at an early stage. In this stage you should also seriously consider hiring a consultant if you are at all unsure about your own expertise. This will probably save you both time and money (and some nerves).
9. When the project is completed, take good care of maintenance processes and internal role assignments
- Yes! The project is completed and now we can sit back and relax! Unfortunately not quite – when you finish building your house or your online shop, you should be self-sufficient and capable of getting the best possible returns for your investment. In this stage your own internal division of labour becomes critical – you have to decide who within your organisation is responsible for the proper maintenance of your store (or house) and for making sure that it responds to changes. This may require less work than the development stage, but you should not underestimate the amount of resources you need to devote to it. In addition to these resources, technology is changing so fast that you should also have a budget for constant minor development work to avoid your online shop becoming outdated.
I came across McKinsey’s article about the importance of consistency in customer experience. I couldn’t agree more. I have been studying customer experiences from the product experience point of view. Way too often companies focus on creating a great customer experience on a single customer touchpoint but don’t pay too much attention to ten others.
I guess it is very natural that this should happen. After all, companies are usually organised in such a way that different people (and quite often different functions) oversee product experiences in different channels, even within sales and marketing: an ad agency creates content for social media, marketing creates product content for the website, product organisation creates product data sheets and the sales make their own PowerPoint presentations. In this setup, it is very unlikely that the product experience will be consistent across all the sales channels.
I believe the reason why consistency is not appreciated so much in companies is humane. First, consistency sounds boring and secondly, it requires a process that people from different sides of the organisation are willing to stick to. In other words, it requires management. Luckily, there is a technology that can help us there. It is called Product Information Management, PIM in short.
In Product Information Management people from different sides of the organisation maintain all the product related information in a common system called PIM. From PIM, the product information is published to all the sales channels that need it. The product master data in PIM may come from ERP or other such system which is used in internal processes, but PIM is used as a common platform to enrich product data to be used in all the customer touchpoints.
In PIM: ad agencies can add the copy text to promote the products, marketing can add product marketing texts, product organisation can maintain all the technical details and sales can bring in their input from the field. This is beginning to sound like collaboration, isn’t it? And the outcome of this way of working is consistent customer experience. Worth a try, don’t you think?
And as for being boring, I would argue that too. I can think of nothing more boring than copy-pasting content from one place to another. With PIM you can get rid of that altogether. Once you have shared your product information in PIM, it is available for automated publishing in all the sales channels that might need it without any copy-pasting.
Good search features create an excellent customer experience in online stores and services. For example, conversion in online stores can be significantly affected by the search function of the service. Some studies have shown the conversion rate to be up to 50% higher among site search users. By investing in search functions and making them easily available, conversion can be increased significantly.
Search engine optimization (SEO) involves trying to affect which products are easily found through organic searches, like Google. On the other hand, by developing site searching the ease with which products can be found within a service can be influenced.
What does a good search look like?
A good site search function consists of several things. First, the search function should be easily available for users to use it. Use should be easy, logical and fast.
It is worth using suggestive logic in the search field. Suggestive search works by the service suggesting suitable products when the user has only entered part of the search term. Further typing focuses the search and narrows suggested options. Another much talked-about approach is semantic searching, where the search engine attempts to recognize the user’s intentions and context, thus producing more relevant search results. For the search ‘Men’s work pants 50 black’, for example, the search engine can pinpoint what products the user is looking for – instead of showing all products for men and all work pants.
Faceted classification uses product property information to categorize search results, allowing the user to easily filter products based on their features. A good search engine will offer faceted categories and make using them easy and quick.
It is always worth using product images in searches. The impact of a product image in product presentation and conversion creation generally is very big. When an image is already displayed in the search results, the customer quickly gets a reliable understanding of the product. Product images should also not be forgotten in suggestive searching.
Utilizing searches in product range management and targeting
Site searches should also be saved and analyzed. For example, product contents and keywords, as well as the range of products, can be developed by analyzing how users interact with the search. Search analysis can also be used to support other marketing channels, and results exploited for targeting or personalization of marketing, for example.
Searches and product information are firmly interlinked
Product information, its scope, and its quality significantly affect how site searches work and how relevant results they deliver. The structure of product information, level of classification, and atomicity determine, among other things, what kind of faceted categorization can be created. The search “Show all products from brand X” provides a simple example – searching by brand is not possible without classified product information.
Product information can be fetched automatically from background systems through interfaces. A product information system can also offer the entire search engine as part of a product information interface, which means everything to do with online store searches, for example, does not need to be done within the online store.
In summary, it is worth investing in good search functions. Today’s technology offers appropriate solutions which make constructing a search that benefits all parties effortless. For designing the search logic itself, it is worth consulting someone with experience in building functional searches. Even small actions can significantly improve user experiences and data utilizability.Hyvät hakuominaisuudet luovat verkkokaupoissa ja verkkopalveluissa loistavan käyttäjäkokemuksen. Esimerkiksi verkkokaupan konversioon voi palvelun haulla olla merkittäväkin vaikutus. Joidenkin tutkimusten mukaan sivustohakua käyttävien käyttäjien kohdalla konversio on jopa 50 % suurempi. Eli panostaminen hakutoimintoihin ja tuomalla ne helposti saataville voidaan konversiota nostaa merkittävästikin.
Product communications are at a turning point. Due to the change in purchasing behaviour and the explosive growth in the array of channels, product communications has a more diverse role compared to what it was before: product communications are a form of customer service that is always up to date and suitable for each usage situation. For the execution of this, the product information management and distribution automation of today offer many tools that product managers and the marketing department could previously only dream of.
Over the last few years, the markets have become clearly more customer-oriented. It can be said that in commerce the power has shifted to the customer. This applies in B2C just as it does in B2B. Customers buy what, where and when they like. This leaves the role of the seller to offer what the customer needs, where and when they need it.
In order to serve their customers, companies have to listen to the wishes of the buyers and identify the quiet signals of the markets in time. In order to cope in the competition, you must be able to react in an agile way to changing needs and meet the customers at the right time in the right channels, with the right contents. Indeed, it’s possible to say that with the help of product communications we want to create even more effective multi-channel product experiences at all meeting points.
So how are these effective multi-channel product experiences created? Here are five tips:
1. Centralising product information management
The favourite saying of data consultants “you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out” is also true with regard to product contents. Good product communications experiences are based on quality content. When there are many distribution channels, it is impossible to produce channel-specific content management with a high level of quality. In many channels, we come up against rubbish or at least product information that is imprecise or out of date. When product information management is centralised in one place from which all contents are produced for all distribution channels, content management becomes significantly easier. Of course it’s still important that only high-quality contents are entered into the centralised product information management, but good work done once is available for use straightaway in all distribution channels, without forgetting about the channels of the future, for which the contents are already ‘in the bank’.
2. Agreeing on the ownership of information
It’s important that a company has a consistent way of managing the product contents needed in the business. Everyone has to be able to rely on the quality of the information that is available and that it is up to date. It is good to define clearly both ownership of information and the responsibility for its upkeep. Who is responsible for technical product information, who for images, who for product information texts and who for prices? Usually the owners are fairly self-evident, but if ownership has not been agreed on mutually, it’s difficult to rely on all information types and their updating having been taken care of. By specifying ownerships, the risk of ‘rubbish’ ending up in some distribution channel can be minimised.
3. Connecting systems to each other
Marketing and communications are fascinating and full of new possibilities. Every day, we come across new handy, often almost free tools with which we can reach our potential customers with our product messages more effectively than before. The number of marketing systems has been said to have increased twentyfold during the last six years. However, underuse of systems is a common challenge in companies. This is understandable if the systems are disconnected and producing content for each one has to be done separately. So, it’s worth thinking about the architecture of marketing systems as a whole. That is, how the systems can be made to utilise shared data sources and how product information that has been enriched in one place can be used in all channels.
4. Making use of publishing automation tools
Marketing automation is a concept that is familiar to everyone, but less is spoken about publishing automation. In principle, it too is automation of marketing and communications. Publishing automation allows the synchronisation of information from one centralised system into all electronic distribution channels. Also related to publishing automation, there are the tools of sales, with which all the required sales materials from offers, customer-specific price lists and sales outlet materials are created. Correspondingly, the tools of marketing can be employed to automatedly fold product cards, data sheets and even catalogues containing thousands of products. Centralised product information management is utilised behind all of these too.
5. Involvement and facilitation
We are living through the rise of employee advocacy. Employees, partners and even customers are made use of more and more strongly in brand-building and communications. This requires easiness in order to succeed. People are happy to talk about a good product, as long as the necessary contents and channels are available to be used without effort.
All product contents with their language versions can be managed in a centralised way and provided for the use of interest groups, for example to be shared in the social media.
The product communications of today and the creation of more effective product experiences done with it, are easier than before by making use of technology. In fact, the key to success lies in how the technology is used. Even a good system does not help if people are not able to use it in accordance with the needs of the company. In this too, it’s worth turning to the experts. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel and it’s worth making use of practices that have been found to be good.
I have been working with database publishing and publishing automation for little over 10 years now, usually as a part of process development of our clients’ sales and marketing needs. Here are some of my thoughts in regards to the state of publishing automation in Finland currently.
First it’s good to note that despite long-standing transaction printing being based on mostly the same concepts and principles (data from multiple sources to one printer), I will not consider it a part of publishing automation here. Personally I see publishing automation in regards to how the (product) content is being published from one source to multiple channels or medias automatically. Read more on how Canter covers publishing automation here.
High quality data opens new opportunities for full-scale utilization of publishing automation
The use of publishing automation is Finland is very fragmented, and many applications with publishing process automation which could have lots of potential uses within companies do exist. The technology is constantly developing and making new and more modern solutions available.
In my view, the single biggest slowdown in spreading the solutions and getting the best out of the systems within companies is the poor quality of the data available. Typically this is the result of undeveloped information management practices and tools. Many of these companies still lack the understanding on how important a well-organized information management actually is. Luckily the digital tsunami has made many companies and management teams to understand how data and the quality of it are important for the entire business. Publishing automation is also based on high quality structured information, regardless of the channel it’s being used for.
Efficiency via publishing automation
I have noticed that in Finland many small companies have taken the process automation really far, which is quite natural when the business is being developed with small resources and efficiency is always in the center of everything. On the other hand there are also companies which do not think of these things at all, because the knowledge of technical solutions is lacking, or because a third party has always been in hired to supply printed catalogs and similar materials. Fortunately for SMEs, the range of solutions and expertise in the market has become more diverse. Solutions can be found in many price ranges, and every singe euro invested in the development will turn profits faster than before.
Renovation of information logistics is the lifeblood
Medium-sized companies are a mixed bag. There are companies which are still just starting up, and companies which have taken process automation really far. Industry-specific differences can also be significant. For example, many importers and wholesalers have found that maintaining information logistics is their lifeblood with intensifying and globalizing competition. The change in value chains can also be seen in how these companies have had to wake up to the development of information management and publishing automation.
Among the manufacturing industry I still see much work left to do with these things. With export-oriented businesses language version management is a common challenge, which in itself often serves as a powerful driver for optimizing and automating content and publishing processes.
Many of the greatest domestic growth tales involve an aspect where stopping and thinking of internal processes and procedures did simply not happen because all the focus, energy and hands had been caught up in business development and growth control. And at some point it was seen that the scaling and stretching of people was no longer possible or rational.
Publishing automation as a continuation to product information management
At Canter we think that the source of the information in publishing automation is irrelevant, as modern solutions are able to access information from multiple sources. Quality and structure still largely dictate whether automation is rational, what level of automation could be realistic to achieve and what kind of outcome could be achieved. For this reason I see publishing automation as a continuation to product information management (PIM).
Typically the PIM system acts as a centralized publishing database, but sometimes it may also be justified to make separate intermediate storage for different channels and publishing processes. If necessary the information can also be obtained from the company’s partners’ systems. PIM is usually a part of other operative systems, such as enterprise resource planning systems, which provide data that can be further processed and enriched in the PIM system for distribution and publishing. In some instances the product process could be built in such a way that PIM serves as a source of information and as a so-called product master that distributes data controlledly to all systems in use.
Let’s use data from where it already exists
Customer information, as well as other customizable content and variable data needed for printing are not typically replicated to PIM, but are usually read directly from their own sources and connected to the process before printing.
Customization in B2B environments, such as the production of customer-specific contract pricing lists, is usually based on the content of the PIM and ERP systems – sometimes also in the CRM content. For example this includes customer specific product information, price information and contractual or customized product information.
To conclude, there are a number of companies in our country that make use of the publishing automation systems, thus gaining a significant competitive advantage. With publishing automation it is possible to significantly improve marketing processes and improve multi-channel customer experience. There are even more companies that have not yet made use of the opportunities offered by the publishing automation systems for their businesses. As part of marketing automation the use of publishing automation will surely grow in the next few years.
Often sales personnel spend a lot of their work time creating all sorts of discount leaflets and other product information catalogs. For example they might create or compile price lists, product cards or customer-specific listings as an attachment to offers, because the marketing department doesn’t have the time or the skills to help. The sales personnel get annoyed because this takes up lots of their time and because it is boring copy paste job they wouldn’t really have the time, know-how or correct tools for.
On the other hand the marketing department might receive requests from the sales department to create personalized price lists or lists – which should be ready preferably the same day, or at the very least tomorrow because the offer needs to be sent to the client. Or they get asked to tune the self-made, copy-and-paste leaflets because they didn’t turn out visually appealing. The marketing department gets annoyed because this creates more work than they are able to deal with, because of how boring it is and because the sales personnel do not consider the brand uniformity at all when they create the leaflets.
If everyone gets annoyed, the outcome at worst can be visually appalling and content-wise lacking leaflets which take up lots of work time. If the sales personnel start working as graphic designers, does it make any sense to begin with?
All the time they have to spend on something other than making sales shows up in the profits instantly. And then everyone gets annoyed even more.
Luckily, there is a solution. Sales Tool creates good looking product information leaflets automatically, allowing the sales personnel to personalize them a bit – and then Sales Tool handles the rest. The end result is a ready, brand-related offer leaflet which even the marketing department is pleased with. And now everyone is happier.
According to customer feedback, the use of Sales Tool has helped many of our clients to achieve better results. For example IKH resellers sent us the following message:
Plaudits and big thanks to you for the Sales Tool! It works great, and now our sales space looks great when all the price tags are uniform. This saves unbelievable amounts of our time!
In the video below you can see how IKH uses Sales Tool to create their price tags.
You can have a look at other customer solutions from here.
Should you also free your sales personnel back to sellin? Contact us!
Recently I ran across a Donald Duck pocketbook with a cover where Donald is staring at a chicken, eyes wide. The name of the book was “PIM! Hypnosis, mentalists and nonsense”. As much as I do believe in the power of meditation and even hypnosis, that is not what PIM stands for me. For me PIM is the exact opposite of all that: real information when needed, where needed.
PIM is the side of marketing automation which is usually not talked about. According to Aberdeen Group it increases customer satisfaction by 45%, and adds the same to the profit margin, so this should really be something that every company should be interested in. And they are. A study conducted by RNR Market Research shows that product information market will triple in size over the next five years.
So what does PIM mean, really? PIM means tools and processes which are used to manage the product information for sales and marketing purposes. It’s different from Product Data Management (PDM) or Master Data Management (MDM), in essence the continuation for these two. It’s the step in product information management which guarantees great visibility and first-class purchasing experience.
While PIM is also used to give customers better service, it also adds to the employee experience. Study done by ATKearney shows that each year companies use 25 minutes per sales unit (SKU) to fix product information and creating better harmony within their channels. With PIM this need can be eradicated, since all the information can be sourced from one, centralized location. Employees generally do not enjoy fixing the same thing over and over in different channels.
But are there really that many different channels? Yes there are. I have seen a map with 130 different channels, with new ones coming in constantly. Consider where your company publishes all the product information: on product data sheets, on social media, on advertisements, on websites, on discussion forums, in customer reviews, in user manuals, in purchase systems, in QR-codes, in customer service, in shelf labels, in invoices, in training material… And I didn’t even mention the web store.
PIM is profitable, and even fun once you get into it. And there’s a drop of magic in there as well. When you launch a new product, you input all the relevant information into the product information management system and PIM! All the information shows up correctly and uniformly in dozens of channels.
In December we got some new blood in our team, when Outi joined us as a Support and Delivery Specialist. Her interest towards Canter spiked once Tuomas tipped her off about the open position, and after having worked at Canter for four months she has learned all sorts of new things to supplement her interest towards solving customers’ issues.
Before joining Canter this Kajaani-born engineer has worked at Ericsson, F-Secure and Synchronoss Technologies Finland in multiple positions. At Canter her job description is multifaceted, and being familiar with the technologies and people is of huge help.
Even in short time she has learned a lot:
I have learned lot about product information management, as well as where and how the information is used. My job has been diverse and I have been able to do lots of things.
Canter’s band, Kettle BEast, has also been able to strengthen themselves after Outi joined us.
Right off the bat I was accepted to the company band, Kettle Beast. It has helped me tremendously in adjusting to the workplace as we’ve been able to spend time together in a non-work fashion as well.
During her free time Outi hangs around horse stables and takes part in events as volunteer, and she says she’s enjoyed her time at Canter a lot.
Colleagues are happy and helpful, and the work has been pretty much what I expected them to be. At Canter people want to work as a team, and I feel that both colleagues and clients are really seen as people here. Sometimes it’s good to make sure that others are happy, even if that’s not expected of you.
1. Does your product information management process look something like this?
If the answer is yes, contact us and we will help you.
2. Do you want to provide the best possible customer experience?
In that case, the PIM system is a relevant part of the solution. Through centralized product information management, you will be able to provide high-quality, correct and up-to-date product information through one source to all of your channels and stakeholders – both customers and your own staff.
3. Do you want to boost your product marketing?
By using PIM and its automated publishing solutions you can publish campaign leaflets, product catalogues or cards, create catalogues or leaflets, posters, price lists or shelf labels for shops just by a few presses of a button. You can publish in formats such as PDF, Excel, PowerPoint, and InDesign. See examples of publication solutions here and here.
4. Do you want to be ready for fast, strategic changes?
If the foundation of your product information management is solid, expanding to new publishing channels, applications or new country or language versions is easy. Via PIM interfaces you can offer product information to e.g. your new retailer’s online store or website, to your customer’s purchasing system or any other channel that you wish to employ. There is no need reinvent the wheel every time.
5. Do you want to get rid of unnecessary manual work phases?
PIM allows you to automatize many routine tasks which would take a long time to do manually (and which often are the most tedious tasks as well). From PIM the product information is brought to the right stakeholders automatically. In addition, you can get rid of excessive copy pasting when you can rapidly produce e.g different Office or InDesign format product publications instead of requiring weeks’ worth of manual work.
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