Why read this? : We look at the different ways an e-Commerce agency can support you. Learn about the services they offer, from strategy and planning to customer activation. We also cover the value of using an interagency approach in 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’s so many different jobs to do. You have to be a bit of an all-rounder in e-Commerce. A digital decathlete.
But most e-Commerce agencies tend to specialise in a few areas. It’s rare you find one agency who 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 use this article to help cut through the confusing claims and offers you get from e-Commerce agencies, consultants and start-up gurus.
Why not just Google e-Commerce agency?
Of course, you could just start by googling “e-Commerce agency”. But chances are, the results will leave you confused.
Consultants using lots of buzzwords and jargon. But who 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.
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, which comes from 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’ll 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 - 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 though, 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.
First, you can go down the management consultant route. Most of the big consultancy firms have some sort of e-Commerce practice. If you already use consultants for other parts of your business, it can make sense to ask them to help with your e-Commerce planning.
However, this option 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 can be expensive. And comparatively slow versus other options.
Digital marketing agencies
Next option is to use a digital marketing agency to run the process. They’ll have expertise in customer-facing activities like digital media and brand 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.
Last up, you can use an e-Commerce specialist agency or consultant. These are usually smaller businesses with direct experience in e-Commerce. They understand the different tasks involved. They understand 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. If they use a lot of buzzwords and jargon, that’s not a good sign.
Their previous 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 will help you identify where your e-Commerce growth will come from. And how you’ll go after it.
They’ll help you with all the planning tasks we cover in our online store strategy guide. Though that guide focuses mainly on launching a D2C store, the strategy and planning tasks it covers also apply at a total e-Commerce channel level.
There’s 3 main jobs to be done :-
- 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 out in 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, first 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 size of the opportunity.
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’ll need that for the next step, as not everyone’s a fan of e-Commerce.
Validate the opportunity - business case
The results of your research 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.
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’ll help you build a credible forecast and profit and loss to justify the investment.
E-Commerce value proposition
The final piece of the puzzle here 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. It’s also influenced by your choice of competitive strategy and competitive advantage.
A strong value proposition links back to your market research story and business case. A good e-Commerce agency will help you craft a simple, meaningful proposition from all these strategy elements.
Once the opportunity is validated, you next 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’s big differences in selling through online retailers versus selling direct. Most agencies specialise in one area or the other, but rarely in both.
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.
A good e-Commerce agency can help you build a category management plan for each retailer, for example. 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 :-
- uploading images and product copy to their product information management systems.
- buying digital media on their site.
- data gathering and analysis.
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’s 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 using 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.
First up is 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.
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.
This covers how you set up your payment gateway and also your refund system.
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 usually help you make sure you comply with relevant regulations such as PCI and data privacy.
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.
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’s also now a number of 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, it’s important you find suppliers who are reliable and efficient. They also need to offer good value so you can keep your delivery costs low.
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.
There are specialist companies who 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’s many different areas where you might need e-Commerce agency support. That’s why an interagency approach is often used.
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 though. 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.
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 to 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 their role in the e-Commerce journey, and how they connect to each other. Only a joined up customer experience will drive your e-Commerce growth.
Evaluate how an e-Commerce agency works
Up to now, we’ve mainly 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’s 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.
They understand finances
E-Commerce is about driving sales and profits. So, it’s important 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.
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 of which means, you really 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.
Your job is keeping your customers happy. Their job is keeping 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’s 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’re going to sell. Who you’ll sell it to. Where and when you’ll do this.
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’s 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 a 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.
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