So, say your agency offers you the services of an E-commerce Strategist –
sounds like spending money to be told the obvious: “Matty says having a
new website will make us richer and improve our sex life”, no?

Well, no. The role of an e-commerce strategist is to define the direction, experience, functionality & supporting services of either a new or existing online offering. They will assist your various team members in achieving their goals: The Marketing Manager wants to move away from a reliance on brand search to an awareness campaign? Choose from paid content, PR, Social & non-voucher affiliates. Your Analyst saying lag to purchase too long? implement Retargeting, Critical Lag Emails or Product Aggregation.

The e-commerce consultant will bring a depth of experience that would otherwise take a lot of expensive trial and error. They’ll be able to derive, based upon your audience & brand, what is a sound investment and what’s akin to running through the streets throwing fivers in the air.

Over the past few months, I’ve written a
articles on e-commerce
, which while OK in isolation, don’t give a holistic view of
how a clearly defined strategy can help your business.

Let’s look at a classic e-commerce team organogram.Ecommerce team organogram

Now of course, a lot of businesses run a hell of a lot leaner than this, which is why agencies are so popular. Most companies don’t hire someone to handle platform development, release schedules & hosting administration. This is perfectly fine and rational when your development cycles aren’t continuous enough to warrant it.

The question is – where in this organogram is the strategy defined? You would suggest at the Head of E-commerce level, however you need to remember that this is still an industry in its infancy.

Heads of E-commerce are historically from marketing, or possibly, from tech, and so the personality of the department tends to reflect the individual interests or skill sets that come from those backgrounds.

The importance, if ecommerce is to be approached holistically, is to bring in someone who can guide the offering from a higher perspective. So let’s look at all the aspects that this role will have to touch upon.

  • Information Architecture – Base functionality, user personas & goals and objectives.
  • User Experience – interface & design, usability, ethnographics & content strategy, conversion optimization and journey mapping.
  • Platform – Infrastructure & hosting, selection & implementation and solution architecture.
  • Marketing – Selection of the marketing mix, brand alignment, message and campaign execution, merchandising strategy & platform and most importantly, campaign review.
  • Analytics – Selection & implementation of the analytics platforms, customer & business intelligence & KPI reporting.
  • Data – Interface & schema design, 3rd Party selection & integration.
  • Multichannel – Loyalty, promotion, in-store, stock, service & delivery integration.

Wow, that was a lot in a little time, which demonstrates that there is an awful lot more to the business that “build it and they will come, payment at the ready”. By the way, if there’s anything here you’d like me to focus on, then let me know in the comments.

However, this sounds rather operational, rather than strategic. The purpose of an e-commerce strategist is to propose how this wide gamut of marketing & technology can best achieve your business objectives, to assist with presenting to your board, finding facts and figures, understanding your business model, what affects your net margin, the dynamics of your team and any skill gaps within.

Often for a business the drive to go online is so strong, the development is either pushed to the functional “tick the boxes” end of e-commerce, or the superficial, Flash heavy practically-brochureware we see so often.

Without taking the time to properly scope the strategy of the online business, it will frequently fall under the remit of the solution architects, leading to a solid if ordinary site (see Selfridges) or abandoned altogether with a “cross our fingers and hope for the best” attitude – leading to something schizophrenic, unbalanced and impossible to realign (there’s so many examples here, but let’s just pick Whistles for fun).

One of my personal bugbears is how often luxury e-commerce falls flat, mostly because I can see the process that has been gone through in its construction.

A strategist, brought in at the start of the project, would look at the user personas, business and customer objectives, multichannel capabilities, current technical infrastructure and brand positioning to define a solution.

This solution would combine a feature-rich engine offering premium delivery channels, VIP recognition and services, platform flexibility that allows individual branding and customisation for each label, a product taxonomy that encourages exploration, teasing & tempting, and an interface incorporating the three rules of User Treats – Personal, Relevant & Unexpected experience events.

But it just doesn’t happen, at least not yet.

And you can sort of understand why – without understanding the remit, it does sound like an unnecessary position. It’s very easy to think, “Well, I’m a member of Econsultancy, I can do all this myself”.

When Plumbing Goes BadLet’s look at this another way – why do so many e-commerce shops outsource development?

Knowledge – It requires specialist capabilities, a certain mindset and a recognised methodology.

Resource – Having a full-time Dev on the payroll often isn’t necessary.

Recruitment – Recruiting development talent takes time & is costly.

Training – Devs must be continuously retrained to keep up with the latest technologies.

So why do we feel we can handle strategy ourselves? It’s a specialism, it’s not a resource that is permanently needed, and the strategist must continuously keep up to date on technologies, trends and capabilities.

Why do people hire plumbers? It’s the training, the experience, and whilst you can certainly bleed a radiator or with some research fit a new valve, performing anything more complicated can lead to disaster. When you find yourself having to make a strategic decision regarding your e-commerce site, you should call a strategist.