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What to look for in an e-Commerce agency

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Why read this? : We explore the role of an e-Commerce agency. Learn about their services across strategy, planning and customer activation. We also cover the value of an interagency approach to e-Commerce. Read this to learn what to look for in an e-Commerce agency.

It can be hard to work out what type of agency you need in e-Commerce. There are so many different jobs to do. You have to be a bit of an all-rounder. A digital decathlete.

Most e-Commerce agencies specialise in a few areas. You rarely find one agency that can do it all. Who can help you craft a strategy and plan. Help you work with retailers. And if you set up your own store, help you create and manage a whole D2C experience from start to finish.

Plus, it’s still a new area in terms of agency support. You know what you’ll get from a market research or media agency. But it’s less clear with an e-Commerce agency. So, this article aims to cut through the confusing claims you get from e-Commerce agencies, consultants and start-up gurus.

Why not just Google e-Commerce agency?

Of course, you could just Google “e-Commerce agency”. But the results of that are usually confusing.

Consultants who use lots of buzzwords and jargon. But don’t offer practical support.

Digital marketing agencies who “do a bit of e-Commerce”. Whatever that means.

Or start-up gurus who guarantee you sales, before you’ve even told them your e-Commerce challenge. 

Google hmne page on a Samsung phone lores

You have to try and spot the diamonds in the rough among all that lot. The ones who’ll help drive your e-Commerce growth rather than drive you crazy with over-promises and under-delivery. You start by working out where you are in the e-Commerce planning process.

E-Commerce planning process

E-Commerce planning starts with the opportunity and finding a customer need.

You craft an e-Commerce strategy to show how you’ll meet that need better than anyone else. That drives your business case and plan. How much you need to go after it, and what the return on that investment will be. This sets out the resources you need to go “do” e-Commerce.

You can do all these things on your own. But often, you’d ask an agency to help with different stages of the planning process. 

e-commerce planning process - The 5 key steps of the e-commerce process

E-Commerce planning - agency support

We’re wary of people who call themselves strategists. They often get too hung up on the process of strategy. And forget strategy has to lead to action.

That aside, you do need some process to help your e-Commerce planning. And if you decide you need outside help, your main options are :-

  • management consultants.
  • digital marketing agencies.
  • e-Commerce specialists.
Board level view of a chessboard as you are playing black and your opponent is moving their white queen

Management consultants

First, you can go down the management consultant route. Most big consultancy firms have an e-Commerce practice. If you already use consultants in other areas, it can make sense to ask them to help with your e-Commerce planning.

However, this won’t work for everyone. On the plus side, you’ll get some quality thinking (and PowerPoint slides). But they’re often weaker on the practical implementation side of e-Commerce. Plus, they’re often more expensive and slower than other options. 

Digital marketing agencies

Next option is to use a digital marketing agency. They’ll have expertise in customer-facing activities like digital media, brand building and websites. However, those activities are only part of your e-Commerce plan. They come at the “develop experiences” stage of the planning process. 

Digital marketing agencies may not have the expertise to help you with other parts of the plan. Building your business model, for example. How you’ll work with online retailers. How your order to delivery system will work if you go D2C. And how you’ll manage the business longer-term.

E-Commerce specialists

Lastly, you can use an e-Commerce specialist agency or consultant. These are usually smaller businesses with direct e-Commerce experience. They understand the tasks involved, and how everything fits together.

Some specialise in pure strategy. Others will also offer to run your e-Commerce operations. Their websites and social posts should spell out what they do. They should explain their services in clear and understandable terms, not buzzwords and jargon.

Their experience should match what it is you need them to do. You want to work with someone who’s successfully gone through the process before. 

What do you need them to do?

What you need them to do in terms of planning is to help you identify and validate the opportunity.

A good agency planner helps you identify where your e-Commerce growth will come from. And how you’ll go after it. 

They help with all the planning tasks we cover in our online store strategy guide. Though that guide focuses on launching a D2C store, the strategy and planning tasks it covers also apply at a total e-Commerce channel level.  

There are 3 main jobs to be done :-

D2C Online Store Status dashboard - Four column headed strategy and plan, the store, order to delivery and operations
  • identify the opportunity.
  • validate the opportunity.
  • E-Commerce value proposition. 

Identify the opportunity

E-Commerce opportunities come in many different guises. 

Sometimes it’s just reading a headline about the scale of e-Commerce. How fast it’s growing. These can make you feel like you’re missing out on the e-Commerce opportunity. 

Other times, the opportunity comes from market research. Customer feedback tells you they like the convenience of shopping online. And that what you offer currently isn’t meeting their needs. 

Sometimes the opportunity appears during an idea generation session. Something like the Ansoff matrix suggests there’s a growth opportunity in selling via a new market like e-Commerce. 

A good e-Commerce agency helps you turn that broad idea into a more specific opportunity. It has to be specific for you to validate it.

Validate the opportunity - market research

To do that, you must work out what your customers want from online shopping

That means market research. Qualitative research to get direct feedback from customers. Quantitative research to quantify the opportunity size.

A good e-Commerce agency will help you with the research brief. And you should definitely involve them in analysing the results.

They can help you build a good story out of the research. You need that for the next step, as not everyone’s a fan of e-Commerce.

Two people sitting at a table with coffee cups in front of them having a conversation

Validate the opportunity - business case

The research results drive your business case. You use them to show the size of the e-Commerce growth opportunity. 

Knowing the size of the opportunity helps justify the resources (people, time and budget) you need to go after it.

The business case also helps you define the different e-Commerce capabilities you need. A good e-Commerce agency will help you identify the different skills and systems you’ll need. 

Glass jar knocked over on floor with coins spilled out onto the floor

Digital media and digital marketing, for example. Account management if you work with online retailers. And all sorts of IT, supply chain and customer service skills if you set up your own online store

There’s a cost to all these. So, a good e-Commerce agency will also help you with the financial plan. They help you build a credible forecast and profit and loss to justify the investment.

E-Commerce value proposition

The final piece of the puzzle is your value proposition. This is a headline statement which tells people what you’re going to do for customers. 

It’s done after you decide on your target audience and positioning. Your choice of how you build your brand, plus your competitive strategy and advantage also influence it. 

A strong value proposition links to your market research story and business case. A good e-Commerce agency helps you craft a simple, meaningful proposition from all these strategy elements.

Channel planning

Once you validate the opportunity, you then drill down into more specifics on the e-Commerce channels you’ll use. 

You decide how much control you want over the selling process. And how much complexity you want to handle. 

This stage usually narrows down your choices in terms of the type of e-Commerce agency you need. 

There are big differences between selling through online retailers versus selling direct. Most agencies specialise in one area or the other, but rarely in both.

e-commerce 5 key channel options - on a x-y graph against level of complexity and control

Selling via online retailers

When you sell via marketplaces and Print on Demand you deal directly with the online retailer. Their processes are usually automated. The jobs to be done are relatively simple. 

You only ask an agency to help you with specific tasks you can’t do yourself. For example, you might ask them to help you with SEO, copywriting or graphic design support. 

You might also bring in an e-Commerce agency to work with your sales team. 

Screengrab of Amazon.com.au home page, headline says Join Now - Prime Video and shows image of The Test : A new era fro Australia's team and an image of Steve Smith

For example, a good e-Commerce agency can help you build a category management plan for each retailer. They can also advise on how best to activate e-Commerce with each retailer. 

The retailers may also specify you use their agencies for certain e-Commerce tasks. For example :- 

(See our e-Commerce capability article for more on these).

Selling direct-to-consumer (D2C)

Selling direct gives you the most control over what you do in e-Commerce. But it comes with a whole new level of complexity.

There are many different tasks to manage. So, it’s common to use multiple e-Commerce agencies to manage different parts of the D2C experience.

This is called an interagency approach.

Before we get into how that works though, let’s look at which jobs you might ask an e-Commerce agency to do for you in D2C. 

e-commerce planning process - 5 key steps in e-commerce experience

Digital media

First, digital media. That mainly involves search, social and display advertising. It’s how you tell customers your store exists and how to find you. 

If you already use a media agency, it can make sense to put your digital media through them.

You’ll get a more integrated media approach, and more bang for your media buck. 

However, there can also be benefits to putting your digital media through a digital agency.

That approach can make it easier to integrate the media with other digital activities like your website, SEO and social posts.

Facebook post originally on Instagram of woman wearing Three-brains Blue Controller Hoodie design

Shop website

You normally use a digital agency to set up and run the shop website.

They’ll have experience and expertise in the digital and technical skills needed to optimise how the front end of your store works. 

For example, they’ll provide support from  :- 

  • developers – to set up the platform and integrate it with other martech systems.
  • designers – to set up the store’s look and feel. 
  • experience development specialists – to create a good customer experience. For example, UX planners, copywriters and SEO specialists.
Screengrab of Three-brains Shop - headline says "merchandise to raise your game"

Payments

This covers how you set up your payment gateway, order processing and refund systems. 

You’ll usually need specialist IT and financial system management skills. Your e-Commerce agency should, but doesn’t always, have these. 

They’ll need to work with your IT and finance teams to set up the systems and processes correctly.

They can also help ensure you comply with relevant regulations such as PCI and data privacy.

Woman holding credit card near a macbook and typing in her details

Deliveries

If you already use a logistics company for warehousing and retailer deliveries, chances are you’ll stick with them for managing online orders. 

Selling through online retailers is usually just about extending your current systems. (Making sure it’s capable of surviving the last mile of an e-Commerce delivery).

Delivery gets trickier though if you go D2C. Or if there are specific delivery challenges in your category.

Food delivery cyclist on busy nighttime street

Small or new businesses would usually start with someone like Australia Post. They’d then look at more specialist logistics companies as their online business grows. Companies like DHL and LinFox, for example. There are also now many e-Commerce-specific logistics companies. Companies like Fulfilio and e-store logistics, for example. They offer to handle all your online delivery needs. 

There may also be options specific to deliveries in your category. Food delivery from restaurants such as via Uber Eats and Menulog, for example. Local area alcohol delivery through companies like Jimmy Brings

When you outsource delivery, you must find suppliers who are reliable and efficient. They also need to offer good value so you can keep your delivery costs low. 

Customer service

If you sell direct, you’re responsible for fixing any issues with payments or deliveries. That means you need an efficient customer service system. 

That will include both website content (FAQs and contact details) and staff to deal with direct enquiries from customers.

That’s answering phone calls. Responding to emails and instant messages. Plus monitoring and responding to comments and questions on your social channels. 

Customer service headset sitting on a desk next to a laptop

Specialist companies can do all this for you. But, in most cases, you handle it in-house. A good e-Commerce agency can help you set this up. Building the right systems and processes, for example. And training staff on how to handle enquiries. 

An interagency e-Commerce approach

Clearly, there are many different areas where you might need e-Commerce agency support. That’s why an interagency approach is so common.

You use different agencies based on their expertise areas to handle the different parts of the e-Commerce journey.

It can be a challenge to organise this. You need all the agency activities to line up smoothly. It’s often helpful to split the work up into “front of house” and “back of house” teams. 

Five people's hands side by side on a wooden table

The “front of house” team are digital media, digital marketing and IT focussed. They handle everything up to the point where the customer places an order. 

Your “back of house” team are your experts in order to delivery and customer service, plus IT again because of the martech challenges. They handle everything after the order is placed. 

You run the 2 teams separately on a day-to-day basis. They only connect if an issue affects both teams. But you also have regular review sessions where both teams share lessons and plan future activities. 

You make sure each agency is clear on its role in the e-Commerce journey, and how they should work together. Only a joined-up customer experience will drive your e-Commerce growth.

Evaluate how an e-Commerce agency works

Up to now, we’ve focussed on what you need an e-Commerce agency to do. But, you also have to think about how they work. And more importantly how you work with them. 

This is often where the best e-Commerce agencies stand out. There are many different ways you can evaluate agencies from a “how” perspective.

For us though, the 3 most important “how” factors for an e-Commerce agency are :- 

  • they understand finances.
  • they go above and beyond. 
  • you trust and like them. 
Marketing agency evaluation - an informal checklist

They understand finances

E-Commerce is about driving sales and profits. So, it’s vital your e-Commerce agency “gets” the finances of your business.

They have to support you with the right strategy and plan to drive sales. The right strategy and plan to manage costs. And the right strategy and plan to maximise profits

That means they need to be savvy on what it’s worth spending your money on. Savvy on what things cost. They should support you in using your e-Commerce dashboard to track performance.

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

Go above and beyond

E-Commerce is a channel where things can change fast. Your e-Commerce agency has to be good at dealing with change.

Responding to competitor activity, for example. Adapting to changes in digital media and marketing technology. Meeting the evolving needs of online retailers and individual customers. 

You want agility and flexibility from your e-Commerce agency. They have to be able to evolve their processes to meet changing market conditions. They have to go the extra mile to help you fix issues. The best ones go above and beyond to help you drive your e-Commerce growth.

You trust and like them

All this means that you need an e-Commerce agency you trust and like. One who tells you how it is. Who works with you through the good and the bad of e-Commerce.

Because there will be bad days. Challenges will come your way. There’s always going to be tough conversations when you sell online.

For that to work as a long-term relationship, your e-Commerce agency has to be someone you like working with. Someone you trust.

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

Your job is to keep your customers happy. Their job is to keep you happy making your customers happy. 

Conclusion - What to look for in an e-Commerce agency

E-Commerce can be complex. Agencies can help you manage that complexity. But finding a good e-Commerce agency isn’t easy. 

There are many different ways you can work with an agency in e-Commerce.

First, there’s your up-front strategy and planning. You have to identify and validate the e-Commerce opportunity and have a clear channel plan. What you’ll sell. Who you’ll sell it to. Where and when you’ll do this. 

Two men talking at desk - one man is writing notes, the other is explaining something with his hands

Different types of e-Commerce agency can help you with what’s needed to do the market research, business case and value proposition. 

Then, there are all the activation challenges. These depend on your channel choice. Selling through online retailers is the easier (though not easy) option. A good e-Commerce agency can help you get the most out of your retailer relationships. 

D2C is more of a challenge. You need e-Commerce agency support across all parts of the D2C experience. From digital media through to payment and delivery and beyond. 

One agency can rarely do everything. So, in most cases, you put together an interagency team. You use their collective expertise to drive your e-Commerce growth

Check out our online store strategy guide and agency types article for more on this. Or get in touch, if you need advice on finding an e-Commerce agency. 

Photo credits

Two men working together at a desk : Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Google Tablet : Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels

Chess : Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Conversation : Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Coins spilled from jar : Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Woman holding credit card near Macbook : Photo by Pickawood on Unsplash

Food delivery cyclist : Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Question Mark on Tree : Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Customer service headset near laptop : Photo by Petr Macháček on Unsplash

Hands : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Money on fire : Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Happy woman : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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