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What to look for in an e-Commerce agency

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Why read this? : We go through the types of services an e-Commerce agency can offer you. Learn how they can help you build a strategy and support your action plan. We also show how an interagency approach is often the best option in e-Commerce. Read this for tips on what to look for in an e-Commerce agency.

E-Commerce can be a tricky area to find the right type of agency. It covers such a wide variety of skills. It’s hard to find one agency who can do everything you need. You need to build a strategy and plan. Work with retailers. And if you set up your own store, you’ve got to create and manage the whole D2C experience from start to finish. 

You need to be a bit of a digital decathlete to get all this done. That’s not what most e-Commerce agencies offer. They tend to specialise in one or two areas, rather than do a bit of everything. 

Plus it’s still a new area in terms of agency support model. You know what you’ll get from a market research or media agency. But with an e-Commerce agency, it’s much less clear. 

The different service offers that e-Commerce consultants, digital agencies and start-up gurus make can be confusing. That’s why this week, we look at how to work out what you need in an e-Commerce agency to help you cut though that confusion.

Why not just Google e-Commerce agency?

Of course, you could just jump in at the deep end and google “e-Commerce agency”. But chances are, you’ll end up more confused than before you started.

Consultants who use a lot of buzzwords and jargon. But who don’t seem to offer practical support.

Or digital marketing agencies who “do a bit of e-Commerce”, whatever the means.

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

Google hone page on a Samsung phone lores

You need 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 your crazy with their over-promising and under-delivery.

For us, the process of finding the right e-Commerce agency starts with working out where you are in the e-Commerce planning process.

E-Commerce planning process

E-Commerce planning starts with the opportunity

The opportunity comes from finding a customer need. You craft an e-Commerce strategy which shows how you can meet that need better than anyone else. That becomes the basis for your business case and plan. You show the potential return from going after the opportunity. You show how you’ll do it. And those unlock the resources to then go “do” e-Commerce.

You can do all these things on your own. But often, you’ll look for agency help help you at different stages of this e-Commerce planning. 

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’re often not as clever as they think they are. And they often get too hung up on the process of strategy, and forget that strategy needs to drive practical actions. 

That aside though, you do need some sort of process to help your thinking. And if you decide to ask for outside help, e-Commerce planning support normally comes from one of 3 areas :-

  • 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 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 for help with your e-Commerce planning.

However, this option won’t work for everyone. Yes, you’ll get some quality thinking (and Powerpoint slides) from them. But they’re often less strong on the practical implementation side of e-Commerce. Plus, they can be expensive. And comparatively slow versus the other options you have. 

Digital marketing agencies

Next option is to use a digital marketing agency to run the process. These types of agencies 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 though. 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

Last up, you can use 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 needs to fit together.

Some specialise in pure strategy. Others will also offer to run your e-Commerce operations. Their websites and social posts should give you an idea of what they do. They should explain their services in clear and understandable terms. If they use a lot of buzzwords and jargon, that’s usually not a good sign.

Their previous experience is usually what helps you decide if they’re a good e-Commerce planning support option. And that experience should match what it is you actually need them to do. 

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 :-

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 present themselves in many different ways. 

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. You need it to be specific to help you validate it. 

Validate the opportunity - market research

To do that, first you need to understand 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.

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

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 to build. A good e-Commerce agency will help you build a clear capability plan. 

That plan will cover many different areas. 

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 decide to set up your own online store

There’s a cost to all of 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 in resources you need.

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 out of all these strategy elements.

Channel planning

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.

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 bring in an e-Commerce agency to 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

A good e-Commerce agency can help you build a category and channel 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 :- 

(see our e-Commerce capability article for more on this topic).

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 can work 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 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.

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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 look and feel of the store. 
  • 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 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 check you comply with relevant rules and 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.

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 other 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. 

Customer service

If you sell direct, you’re responsible for fixing any issues with payments or deliveries. That means you need a clear and 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

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 manage 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 your e-Commerce agency teams into a “front of house” team and a “back of house” team. 

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.

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

You make sure each agency is clear on the role they play 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 need 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. 
Marketing agency evaluation - an informal checklist

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 need 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 needs to be good at dealing with changeability.  

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 need to be able to evolve their processes to meet changing market conditions. They need 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 needs to be someone you like working with. Someone you trust.

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

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 need to identify and validate the e-Commerce opportunity and have a clear channel plan. What you’re going to sell. Who you’ll see 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 the different steps needed here. The market research. The business case. And the value proposition you need to get past this stage. 

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 you want. So, in most cases, it’s about putting 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 topic. Or contact us, if you need help 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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