In the early days of e-commerce people assumed that consumers wouldn't want to buy clothes online.
Along with big ticket items like beds and furniture it was thought that customers wanted to be able to go into a store and see the products first hand.
That assumption, while understandable, has proven to be totally incorrect and online fashion retailers are flourishing - but it is still a difficult business model to get right.
Boohoo.com has achieved success by selling affordable women's fashion while also providing customers with style and fashion content.
I sat down with COO Chris Bale at the E-commerce Futures Conference to find out what digital marketing tactics Boohoo uses to promote the brand and set itself apart from the competition...
What is different about your business model that has allowed you to succeed where others have failed?
It’s a combination of three things really. Boohoo.com was established on an existing wholesale business, so we had a solid supply chain in place.
Part of the success has been down to the fact that we are still able to buy in relatively low volumes with very short lead times of about four to six weeks from source to live on the site.
The second factor has been the way in which we bought media to promote the brand. We were founded when traditional above the line media was struggling to get billboards filled, so we were able to grab some good opportunities to buy ad space above the line.
And I think the third aspect is a focus on styling and trend information. Because we sell our own brand, we can’t use the collateral of a better-known brand to do some of that work for us so we’ve had to design the product in and around trends.
We spend a huge amount of time creating editorial and engaging pieces on the site to get that across.
Which digital marketing channels do you see as being most important for your particular industry?
For us, I think PPC still plays an important part and affiliates is still a huge part of the business, but the nature of the relationship with affiliates has changed.
When you want to establish yourself within a market, the types of affiliates who are very fashionable within a market are hugely important.
However, your dependence on them wains over time as your own brand gains recognition.
Do you run blogger outreach or community management programmes?
We probably hold three or four blogging events each year. We bring them in and give sneak peaks and previews of where we’re going with the ranges.
So, where we might be doing a complete change for our seasonal collections we’ll always engage with the blogging community.
The original content you have on your site must be good for search rankings. How much is the content about improving the brand versus the SEO benefits?
To be honest, we concentrate on the content being right first and then we build the SEO strategy around it. There are obviously other parts to the SEO strategy, such as link building, etc.
It’s more about being customer-centric, and we would never sacrifice customer experience to improve rankings.
In terms of customer experience, what tactics do you use to engage shoppers on the landing page and make sure they don’t bounce off?
Perhaps unlike our competitors, we do spend an awful lot of time and space on splash images. Because again, I think when you’re not a clothing brand with instant recognition, like a Levis for example, we rely very heavily on selling desire, and we do that by using emotive splash images.
So, rather than being seduced by including hero products or offers that naturally create journeys through the site, we prefer to have a really strong image, but also we make it easy for people to locate and browse the editorial content.
Shopping online these days is as much about entertainment as it is something that’s practical and required. It’s something that people do in their downtime.
We’re not worried about the site being almost magazine-like in its structure.
If people do bounce off the site, how much re-targeting do you do to encourage people to come back and complete the purchase?
We do it, but it’s not our favourite form of marketing.
Display re-targeting has a place, because there’s so many websites you can go to today that you can easily lose track of which ones you have seen, so a gentle reminder is ok.
I think when it starts to chase you round the internet and gets a little bit spooky, that’s where we draw the line. I would say we use it sparingly, and we’re always careful that we don’t re-target ads for a product that has then gone out of stock in the customer’s size.
We spend a great deal of time making sure that doesn’t happen as it just creates disappointment.
Abandoned basket re-targeting is another area we are sceptical about, such as begging the question: “Are you sure?”, because I’m pretty sure that there is always a valid reason for abandoning the basket in the first place.
Do you require customers to register or create an account before they can checkout?
Up until last week we didn’t, we allowed guest registration instead, but the problem with guest registration is that you don’t have an identity if you decide to return a product.
That means you can’t do an online return, and the great thing about online returns is that it expedites the whole process.
So, when it arrives back in the warehouse we already know there’s an inbound product and can speed the whole thing through and turn the refund around quicker.
Guest registration means there’s a lot more investigation to do to process a refund so when we looked at it, we had to decide what we were gaining by giving our customers anonymity and allowing them to shop without feeling we were tracking them.
When you look at it, most of our competitors don’t offer guest registration and the whole returns process was upsetting customers so it was something we had to address.
So we decided to make everyone register.
How important are customer reviews and do you have any ways of encouraging them on your site?
Absolutely. We have probably spent about 18 months building up a good customer review database. Now we want to take it a few steps further, as we like our customers to tell their friends about us because the most influential people are your peers.
Every email we send out requesting a customer review offers a discount if they complete the feedback form, and every so often we select one review and offer that customer a credit to go shopping on the site.
We also want to move towards video reviews, which we’ll place halfway between the haulers you see on YouTube and a simple straightforward textual review.
So it improves engagement as people get to appear on the site, but it also validates the whole process as you can see the customer endorsing the product.
At the moment you don’t have a mobile site. Is that something you’re looking to address?
We’ve actually decided to split our mobile strategy into three pieces, but we’ve been holding back to make sure we get it right and at the moment our mobile site is the main priority.
We didn’t want to go down the scraper site, which is the nice easy way to get your site converted, but it causes issues with the product catalogue and merchandising, which is hugely important to us.
The second part of our strategy will be our app. It won’t be about buying products, it is a magazine app that offers style and fashion information.
We don’t see any value in simply creating a shopping app when you can cater to that need with your mobile site.
And the third solution will be to put a new app out there every few months that is just for fun.
So it could be that you go to a festival and download a boohoo app that allows you to win a pair of wellies at the event.
It’s a bit of fun for a few weeks, but it’s also a simple marketing device that keeps the brand alive and hopefully should drive traffic to the magazine app and the mobile site.