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On today’s episode, we will be talking to Ross Beyeler from Growth Spark. This is Ecommerce Marketing Podcast, episode fifteen. Welcome to the Ecommerce Marketing Podcast, Ross, how are you doing?
Ross: Doing great, Robert. Thank you very much for having me.
Robert: If you can actually please first tell us what you do and about Growth Spark?
Ross: Sure, absolutely. So I run an agency called Growth Spark in Cambridge, Mass, and we focus specifically on helping ecommerce companies, as we like to say, make more money. That’s primarily through helping them craft their strategy as a business, helping them design their websites and other interactive elements, and then the development of those sites and integrating those with others that that run their business. So we tend to work with a lot of apparel brands, food and beverage brands, consumer product goods, a lot of boutique retailers. We specialize primarily in the Shopify platform, but we do work with a number of different technologies.
Robert: Okay. And for today’s topic, we are actually going to be talking about how to retain customers. We’ll be looking at some strategies that ecommerce businesses can use to retain customers. Can you please share why it’s important for us to look at this strategy?
Ross: Yeah, absolutely. There’s actually one client—can’t really jump any name—but one client does come to mind, for us, that we’ve worked with for a while. And they, like every business, have experimented with a number of different channels for acquiring customers. They have both an online and a retail presence, so they have both of those sales channels going, and they’ve experimented with paid ads, they’ve done a lot in social media space. And over the years, what they’ve actually found is that one of the most successful, most profitable channels for them in both driving new sales as well as retaining customers is email. They’ve actually found that over the last couple of years, it’s become a third of all their sales are just driven by their email management.
What’s interesting too is they’ve had the chance to experiment with a bunch of different approached to email. Do they focus just on product promoting, do they focus on content stories? And they’ve actually even found things like sending the same email twice and very odd little email hacks have helped drive repeat sales that they just wouldn’t even expect. Things on that side. Now it’s something that they put at the forefront of all their marketing, because it’s continually bringing in new business for them.
Robert: Okay, and when it comes to retaining customers at Growth Spark, I know you guys focus a lot on creating—or paying attention to the customer profile that you guys sometimes call the “customer hub.” Can you talk about that and what the hub is and why businesses need to start paying attention to that?
Ross: Absolutely. Yeah, so when we look at ecommerce strategy as a whole, we like to look at the relationship that an ecommerce brand has with their customer across what we like to call every touch point that customer has with the brand throughout the entire experience they have working with them. So that’s from the first piece of marketing that they get, whether it’s through social media or seeing an ad or some piece of content through the site experience, through the actual packaging experience when they actually receive a product. And of course the post purchase experience. What is it like to interact with a brand after the fact?
And what we found to be most helpful in being able to kind of optimize the experience that your customers have across these different touch points is to start by building a profile of your customers. We like to call it the customer hub, just to be sort of agnostic of terminology. And in this customer hub, the idea is simply to create an individual profile for each customer and aggregate as much data as you can from each of those different touch points into one destination so you can start to look at a customer and now just say “Okay, this is Ross Beyeler. He lives in Cambridge, Mass. This is his email address,” but actually build a richer profile that actually get into the demographics, that gets into how they interact with social media, how do they interact with onside elements, what’s their purchase history, what’s their support history, how do they interact with email. And really started to build out a rich understanding of who your customers are.
Obviously, it’s gonna help on an individual customer basis. Each customer, you have a really deep picture, which is great when it comes to how you handle cases on a customer by customer basis. But what becomes even more interesting when you start to analyze that and see the aggregate view and start to populate or identify trends that are occurring—from those trends you’re seeing, you can actually segment your customers into different groups, and use that segmentation, which we can talk about a little bit later on, in some of your content strategies and some of your email marketing strategies and so on.
Robert: Okay, so how do you create this hub? Is there a specific tool that businesses need to be using to create this hub or how do you put all those touch points together to get that big picture of that customer?
Ross: That’s a great question. So, depending on the ecommerce platform that you’re using, you will be able to aggregate some data around your customers just directly within your shopping cart. What we typically find, though, is it’s not quite enough, especially as you start to pull in some of these other channels. A lot of companies will look to using their email provider as a way to build this customer hub. And in the space of email marketing tools, there are those that kind of skew more towards what I call the newsletter management side—the Mail Chimps and Constant Contacts, even though they have expanded their features quite a bit—and there are those that kind of skew more towards the marketing automation side, which has more focus on the segmentation, profiling, behavior analyses and automation of your email.
So platforms like Klaviyo, for instance, which we do a lot of work with bigger companies like Exact Target. Where they’ve built not just an email management tool, but one that is driven by segmentation, driven by logic, and things like that.
So that’s often what we find works best for our clients. We’ve also seen clients use more traditional CRM tools like SalesForce and kind of retrofitting those to act as a customer hub. And of course, there are new, even more specialized platforms coming out all the time that focus on ecommerce specifically.
Robert: Okay, and when it comes to retaining customers, what factors are you going to be looking for in the customer hub? Like are there some indicators that people should be looking out for or watching so that they can better engage the customer or save that customer before they just stop using the service?
Ross: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, step one is you find your platform to use as your customer hub so you get that set up. Step two is you customize it so you start to pull in the data from the different sources that you guys have. So let’s say you’ve got your website, your shopping cart, you’ve got your support management tool, you’ve got your email marketing tool—maybe it’s the same one as the marketing hub. Maybe you have some downloadables, other third party tools that you use for landing page management, for instance. So the next step is kind of plugging those all into one space.
Once you have your hub and you have your data sources coming in and populating those profiles, the next and really most important aspect is doing what we call the segmentation. So looking at your customers and trying to figure out as many ways to segment them based on a variety of properties. So this could be what was the original acquisition channel? Did they come from SEO, did they come from search, did they come from social? Looking at things like demographic profiles—where are they located? What’s their gender? If you can get more robust information than that—what are their spending levels or income levels? What are their interests? That kind of stuff. Some social graphing tools out there allow you to get that kind of data. But other things too like when was the last time they purchased? What’s the volume that they typically purchase at?
So you can use the segmenting rules to create different groups. So you might have a group like VIP Customers. They purchase more than five times a year or they purchase at least a thousand dollars a year. You can have the flight risk customers, customers who haven’t purchased for ninety days or a hundred and twenty days or something like that. so you kinda go through a little bit of a mental exercise, based on the data you have access to, to figure out how you might be able to segment these customers into different groups like that.
Robert: Okay. And once you’ve segmented these customers in the customer hub, how do you start engaging them? What are some of the ways you should be engaging them?
Ross: Great question. So there are sort of three or four primary channels that we look at when it comes to customer retention. The first one is actually customer support. So thinking about how to create a fantastic experience for your customers after they’ve made their purchase. You don’t want buyer’s regret. You don’t want people to negate from giving referrals or giving bad reviews around your business. So really putting an emphasis on customer support is absolutely a top priority.
And that comes in a couple different ways: Number one, making sure that support is easily accessible, whether that’s through email or live chat or phone or having a dedicated support ticketing system like a Zendesk or Help Scouts—those can really be helpful. Making sure you have the manpower available to answer questions and answer cases and handle returns and things like that, so prioritizing the people aspect of your business around someone owning the customer support aspect, whether it’s you as a single entrepreneur or a dedicated team in a larger organization.
So that’s really key, building out the communication channel when it comes to support. Making that channel readily accessible, making your policies really transparent. But others things too. It doesn’t have to be a reactive support, which is kind of the default. But you can do proactive support. You can reach out and ask “What was your experience like?” You can send out surveys, you can send out emails asking them to review your product. Things like this can be really, really powerful.
You can use the segmenting rules that you have to kind of trigger these events. So if someone hasn’t purchased in ninety days, maybe it’s a good time for you to ask “How has your experience been with the brand so far?” Maybe that’s too long of a period, maybe a month. But experimenting with triggering some of your emails based on the customer support profile of your individual customers.
Robert: Okay. And what’s the second way to retain customers?
Ross: So another thing we like to look at is sort of what we call loyalty or referral programs. So sometimes customers need a little extra push to make a purchase, they want to be incentivized. And discount codes and promotions and things like that are certainly great ways to incentivize people to make a purchase, but a loyalty program where you actually incentivize customers to take specific actions, typically through a points based system, and then allowing those customers to use those points as a discount or a free product or free content or free promotion down the line can be a really powerful way to insight action.
And this might be beyond just purchasing. So you can say “Hey, you get 100 points for setting up an account with us or joining our email list. You get 200 points for sharing a product on Twitter or on Facebook.” Finding a way to kind of incentivize engagement with your customers, certainly on the purchase side, but even on just the contest side. So there are really great tools out there. One that we’ve used that we really like is called Sweet Tooth which makes setting up a loyalty program pretty easy. And a lot of these platforms will handle two sides of that. So one is the incentivization of taking your own action, but then the other is the incentivization of you referring a product to someone else. So getting a unique referral code or referral link so that if you share it on Facebook and your friends purchase it, you get some sort of credit or point system based on that action that other people took.
Robert: Okay. And the third strategy that you can use for retaining customers?
Ross: Third one—and this is one that I think really kind of spans across a few of these. We’ve already hinted at the segmenting of customer hubs and how you’re addressing customer support issues. The third is email marketing. Really thinking about it beyond the once a month sending an email to everyone on your mailing list that’s just promoting a product. That’s a very old school perspective on email marketing. Nowadays, with marketing automation tools and embracing this concept of the customer hub, there’s so much more you can do beyond just these once a month newsletter.
So going back to that idea of segmenting your customers into different groups and thinking about what type of content would be most relevant for them based on the segment that they’re in. so if you have someone who just made a purchase last week, they don’t necessarily want an email coming at them that you exist. They want something that is asking about their experience. Maybe you’re requesting them to review a product or offering them a discount code since they just made a purchase or offering them the opportunity to sign up for your referral program. Think about things that are much targeted to that particular segment.
Someone who maybe purchases all the time, VIP customer, you’re not necessarily going to be offering them discounts for the sake of discounts, you’re gonna look at what are their buying trends. Are they always buying in a specific category? Can you make their experience even greater by offering them first access to a new product in a particular product category?
So really thinking through how you can tailor your messaging to the different segments that you have. The more comprehensive your segmentation is, the more comprehensive your campaigns can be. And, of course, once we have your segments and campaigns figured out, a lot of the basics around well-designed emails, emails that are responsive across devices, keeping your call to action very simple, very clear, keeping your content visually driven—sort of standard practices you’d expect.
Robert: So at first we talked about creating the customer hub, then second we talked about how to engage the customers in the customer hub. And now for the third thing, we actually are going to be talking about content. So how does content play into retaining customers?
Ross: Yeah, so content is—it’s one of those things that can work both on the retention side and on the acquisition side. We like to look at content beyond the sort of standard “Let’s create this interesting piece of content that’s going to rank well for SEO.” That’s certainly a great strategy on the acquisition side. You also, obviously, want content that educates customers around what your products are—features, benefits. Kind of the standard stuff, brand history.
One of the areas in content that we think is most promising is the idea of what we like to call merchandising. Very old school tactic that’s used in traditional retail environments where you’re curating specific collections of products and putting them on a table. When someone enters a store, right away, the first table they see is the “spring collection” of whatever goods you guys might happen to sell. Or maybe it’s a particular brand and sort of a curated collection of that brand. Or maybe it’s a mannequin or a window set. Things like that where you’re very consciously and thematically creating a unique set of products that have some level of story behind them.
We like to think of that as sort of the centerpiece to how you create your content, and especially how you’re kind of promoting your content through channels like email marketing, which are focused on retention. So we like to ask the question of “How can you think of your products and organize your products in ways that extent beyond their basic attributes?” Beyond the brand, the product type, the price, the size, the color. All the standard attributes. How can you look at products and sort of say “Okay, where’s there a story behind a collection of products?” Maybe it’s products that are good for a certain holiday. Or maybe it’s products that a particular employee likes. Or maybe it’s products that are inspired by a particular movie character.
So thinking about how you can curate or merchandise a particular grouping of products, creating a story around that—visually, ideally with photos or video, certainly with written content—and then using that curated narrative and using that at the forefront of your email strategy, using that at the forefront of your social strategy, using that at the forefront of your site through landing pages, things like that. That’s a huge area that I think a lot of companies aren’t necessarily pushing hard enough when it comes to their content.
And one of the biggest aspects where you can relate this customer retention is the idea of getting your customers involved in creating your story. One thing we like to do is try and leverage content that’s being created through social media channels—so Instagram and Twitter and Pinterest and Facebook—and pull that content into our customers’ websites. So whether it’s customers taking photos of themselves wearing a particular product and then putting those photos on that product page, that’s something that we really think it has a lot of impact. Or taking customer reviews that appear on other sites and then pulling them in to your site, specifically. Or interviewing customers and talking about their experience through a third party channel that they might have and then pulling that back on the site.
So thinking about how you can create these unique stories around unique curated collections of content, and thinking about how you can get your customers involved and helping to create some of that content along the way.
Robert: Okay, Ross, thanks for sharing all this information. If listeners wanted to find you, where can they find you? Twitter, Facebook?
Ross: Yeah, absolutely. So on Twitter, I’m probably more active in my company profile. So if you reach out to me as @rbeyeler. You can also check out our company website, growthspark.com—G-R-O-W-T-H-S-P-A-R-K-dot-com. Definitely accessible through there. Always open to chatting to folks. We’re based in Boston, we’re pretty active in the ecommerce space here. We run a few community groups. So anyone interested, always down to chat.
Robert: Okay—actually, what are some of the groups?
Ross: Sure. So we run an event series called Managing an Ecommerce Business, and we have about three or four events a year where we bring in a panel of ecommerce entrepreneurs and service providers to talk about the challenges they have in running their ecommerce business. We usually get something between fifty to a hundred people, three to four panelists. Topics range from acquisition to customer conversation, fulfillment, so on and so forth.
Robert: And do you have—what is something that an ecommerce business can do today to start retaining more customers? Is there one thing—you’ve already shared a lot. You’ve already shared strategies that businesses can take, but is there something that you would suggest that somebody can actually do right now?
Ross: Yeah, I think one really easy—it might take a little bit of extra time, but I think low cost and a really easy strategy to start employing today is to focus on really the order experience. I think this is a huge area that people lack attention on. So the customer gets your product, if it’s in a generic cardboard box or polybag and they open it up and it’s got an order slip in it and it’s kind of shoved in there, it’s not a great experience. They spent all this time reading about your brand, reading about your story, researching your product, making a buying decision, going through the conversion funnel, going through that whole process, and all of a sudden, they get this very unloved product. It just sort of lacks luster.
I think by paying a little more attention to what that order receivement experience is like, whether it’s branded packaging—at least a cardboard box with your sticker on it—I think that’s a great step. I think including freebies can often times surprise and delight people. So maybe it’s a sticker or some sort of goody that your company gives them for free. Maybe it’s a discount code that included in the package or a referral code that’s included in the package.
I think one thing we’ve seen a couple customers do that have done quite well is handwritten notes. Maybe you can’t do that with everyone, but if you spend a little bit of time—especially maybe new customers or very, very high value customers—giving them that little extra love, little extra attention, if can go a long ways, especially when it comes to getting customers to review and refer your products, which is key to customer retention.
Robert: Okay. Any final thoughts?
Ross: I think that’s it. I think starting with building a better understand of your customers, this idea of a customer hub, and then looking at these different channels that you have, whether it’s support or email or loyalty programs or the order experience, trying to figure out how you can better address those through segmentation, and then finally just thinking about your content strategy and focus more on creating stories around your products and around your customers, as opposed to just talking about standard product features and attributes. I think that’s a huge change, a huge shift that can have a lot of positive impact for companies.
Robert: Okay, Ross, thanks for doing the Ecommerce Marketing Podcast.
Ross: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you so much, Robert.
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