Why read this? : It can be hard to know where to start with e-Commerce insight. We share what we learned the first time we did an e-Commerce insights project. Learn the information sources and processes we used to answer our research questions. Read this for ideas on how to find and use e-Commerce insights to drive more sales.
When your first start selling online, you need to understand your customers.
You need to understand what they need and why they buy to build your e-Commerce plan.
For this you need to find and use e-Commerce insights. Specific understanding of what drives purchase decisions with your customers.
But where to start? How do you know what research questions to ask? And how do you find out what customers need or want from online shopping?
Nobody starts e-Commerce as an expert. We thought it’d be useful to share how we found and applied insights from our first ever e-Commerce market research project. What worked, what didn’t and what we did with the e-Commerce insights. (We also refer to this project in our articles on e-Commerce learnings from the magpie, and the barriers to e-Commerce).
Case study - business context
As context, this case study is more than 5 years old. We were working with an established business, but they’d only just started doing e-Commerce.
It was the first time they’d put resources – people, time and budget – into selling online.
They sold to retailers who sold online. But they saw e-Commerce sales as the same as listing products in retailer catalogues.
They saw online as a promotional channel, not a selling channel.
Price discounting in-store was matched online. There was no e-Commerce strategy or insights to work with. No understanding of why shoppers went online. Or how they decided what to buy.
Where to start with e-Commerce insights
We needed to work out our e-Commerce plan.
A plan would help us identify who to target and how. That would help us prioritise which e-Commerce channels and activities to go after.
But we needed e-Commerce insights to get that plan started.
Though the business understood shoppers in traditional channels, we needed e-Commerce insights to understand what made how online shopping different.
We started with the sales team. The Account and Category Managers worked closely with each retailer. From supplier meetings, they could tell us where e-Commerce fitted into the retailer’s plans. That told us where they saw opportunities.
Though these plans weren’t specific to our category, it was still a good start. We learned what retailers planned to do to attract online shoppers. This made it clear how we needed to work with them. But it also showed us where there might be gaps for us to do something different.
Brand marketing team
Next, the brand marketing team.
They shared insights about how customers researched the category online. Search terms they used. Sites they visited.
There was little specific to e-Commerce. But we got some insights which shaped our thinking about the path to purchase – what shoppers did before making an online purchase.
We identified product review sites, blogs and brand sites where customers researched the category.
Global team / other markets
Then we reached out to the business’s global sales team. Plus some contacts in other markets who’d already started doing e-Commerce.
This gave us e-Commerce insights from other markets. Though not specific to Australian shoppers, the research questions helped us plan what research we needed to do here.
How and why people shop online is remarkably similar across the world. It’s only where they shop and what for that differs.
Secondary research - search
Finally, we also did some secondary research.
We used tools like Google Autocomplete and Google Ads Keyword research to identify popular terms with our target online shoppers. (beyond the broad category terms the brand team shared).
This gave us ideas about more specific online shopper needs, and how we could solve them.
We also ran an e-Commerce audit on all the retailers in the category.
Secondary research - published
Finally, we searched online, and found some generic e-Commerce reports full of insights about Australian online shopping.
Finding things out quickly and for free
As we gathered information, it was clear you can find some things out quickly and for free. You just had to be creative in where and how you look.
Think about who you know who already does e-Commerce. Get good at searching online. While it didn’t tell us everything, we got ideas and information which helped us define what e-Commerce insights to look for.
We became more confident taking the next step which was market research with customers.
Market research with customers - The research brief
We also summarised the secondary research and added it as an appendix.
We had 3 core research questions :-
- What would make (the target audience) buy (the category) products for the first time, and repeatedly, from specific customers/channels online?
- How do we connect and differentiate e-customer positioning to brand positioning?
- How should we connect influencers and recommenders in to the e-Commerce ecosystem?
Clarify the research questions
With the benefit of hindsight, the question topics still make sense. However, the wording could be clearer.
For example, there’s 4 separate elements in that first question – first time buyers, repeat buyers, (trade) customers and channels. Trade channels meant bricks and clicks, pure players and direct to consumer in case that wasn’t clear. (see our guide to e-Commerce planning).
Clearer would be something like what drives decisions at each stage of the path to purchase?
The second question tried to match the different competitive strategies of the brands we sold – e.g. cost leaders versus premium differentiated brands – with the competitive strategies of the retailers. But calling it positioning was confusing. Positioning can also refer to positioning statements.
The last question was clearer. But it made a big assumption about the role of influencers and recommenders. This may not have been true. It also used the word “ecosystem”, which now sounds too buzzwordy.
If writing those key research questions today, we’d edit them to read something like this :-
- What drives the decision for (the target audience) to buy (the category) products at each stage of their path to purchase?
- How do online shoppers perceive the experience of each online retailer and how do brands perform within each channel?
- Who are the key influencers / recommenders for online (category) shopping and what’s their role?
Responses from the research companies
At the same time, we also asked another market research company to pitch. We hadn’t worked with them before, but they had a good reputation for e-Commerce research.
All 3 companies got the same brief for a combined qualitative and quantitative research project.
Picking a market research company
All 3 came back with proposals which showed how they’d answer the research questions.
But the qualitative led company claimed they needed more budget than was in the brief.
The new research company showed their strong e-Commerce knowledge, but hadn’t really grasped the dynamics of our category.
So the quantitative led company won the pitch. They were on budget and showed they understood both e-Commerce and the category.
Their pitch also had an added bonus. They ran an annual national survey of what shoppers really wanted online across all categories. They normally charged a large fee to access this information.
But as part of their pitch, they offered to ask our category customers the same questions as the national study. That meant we could benchmark our category against the national average.
We could benchmark our category shoppers on how they valued specific e-Commerce benefits like ease and convenience, range or price comparisons, for example. Very helpful to know how your category compares when dealing with online retailers.
The Market Research Proposal
It also shared conceptual models which helped us start to segment our category shoppers based on how influenced and how engaged they were by digital and e-Commerce.
So for example, high influence – high engagement shoppers relied heavily on digital day to day. They were more regular users of social media and heavily influenced by what they saw online.
They were also more likely to publish and comment on online content. This segment were the most attractive segment from an e-Commerce insight post of view.
Conversely, low influence – low engagement shoppers barely used social media and didn’t go online often. They relied on traditional media channels and were the least attractive segment.
The research results presentation was over 50 pages long. Clearly, that’s too much to share. So to keep it brief, we’ll focus on 3 examples of the types of e-Commerce insights we got.
Example 1 - Frequent users of social media
But the insight wasn’t just that they used social media, but where and why they used it.
They mostly used Facebook to connect with friends and family. And You Tube for entertainment and information-based content. Use of other social media was low. So we focussed our digital media budget in these 2 channels.
On Facebook, they were more likely to engage with brand content – like it, comment on it, or forward it. They were also more likely than average to read brand content (e.g. on websites or by signing up for CRM emails) and to read user reviews.
This made sense as the category had high information and engagement needs. (see our guide to sales copy for more on this). We prioritised social media over traditional advertising because of this.
Example 2 - Highly likely to research products before purchase
79% of customers researched products before buying them, compared to the national average of 45%. This showed the importance of product information on brand websites and on product pages. We needed to explain clearly to new customers what the product was. How it worked. And why they should buy it.
More revealing was when we asked what drove those customers to engage online with our category.
Information was seen as a key driver. The most frequently visited touchpoint was brand websites, followed by CRM based emails. Online stores came third as a place for customers to find out information. However, many of the other touchpoint we tested e.g. podcasts and display adverts barely registered with customers. (so, we knew not to use them).
Example 3 - Early adopters of e-Commerce
A massive 87% of customers in the category were already shopping online. However, online sales only accounted for 3% of category sales.
This helped us identify that “online shopping” itself wasn’t a barrier. There were many early adopters, even though at the time, many people didn’t trust online stores with their credit card details.
In fact, it was clear when asked about online shopping benefits (as per our article on what online shoppers want) that convenience was by far their favourite benefit.
“Makes life easier”, “saves time” and “available 24/7” were their most popular reasons for shopping online. For our e-Commerce strategy, we clearly needed to prioritise convenience in the customer experience, and in advertising.
The next desired benefit was credible and independent information. Customers wanted fact-based, rational information about the products. They want to make up their mind about which product to buy and where to buy it online. We built this benefit into our online sales copy.
From e-Commerce insights to e-Commerce actions
These e-Commerce insights give you a taste of what you can get from this sort of research.
But of course, we didn’t stop there.
As per our guide on market research in the marketing plan, you have do something with all those insights. You use them in your marketing plan to shape all your brand activation and improve the customer experience.
But what did we actually do, and how did we go about it?
Action after the research debrief
As we said earlier the research debrief was 50 pages long. It’s hard to action a 50 page document. Most of the pages were charts and raw data tables from the quantitative study.
After the debrief, we asked attendees to share their initial thoughts. What did they think stuck out the most? But then, we asked them to go away and read over the debrief again in their own time.
We got everyone back together in smaller group follow-up sessions, when they’d all had time to process the results properly.
The first session was with the digital and e-Commerce team. We looked back at the research brief and questions and checked the research answered those questions.
Next session was with the sales and category team. We used the insights to map out an overall e-Commerce plan. That included which existing online retailers we’d prioritise, and which new ones we’d contact (including Amazon who were new at the time). It also identified the opportunity to set up our own D2C store.
Final session was with the leadership team. They needed to understand how the e-Commerce insights would feed into the e-Commerce strategy, and what our resource requests would be.
Build a story
The big challenge with a deluge of “interesting” information is how to turn it into a compelling story.
It’s like getting all the individual chapters in a book. But none of the chapters are numbered.
You don’t know what order they need to be in to tell the story. And there may be extra chapters you don’t need to include.
On this project, the e-Commerce insights story started with a problem.The problem was not knowing the answers to the research questions.
We couldn’t do e-Commerce until we had those answers. These was a knowledge gap which was too big to get past without the research. Showing this knowledge gap explained why we did the research and what we’d do with the answers.
This was more interesting than how we did the research (as per our article on market researchers, only they are interested in methodology). The action of the story came from the insights – showing what customers needed and wanted, and what they did.
We found out X, and so we’re going to do Y.
That’s your basic e-Commerce insights story structure.
This really worked for us on this project. 3 years after the research, the company’s e-Commerce sales had tripled, with e-Commerce their fastest growing sales channel.
Conclusion - e-Commerce insights
Start by asking your network for advice. Use secondary research for ideas and information. And then go research your target audience.
What is it about online shopping in your category you really need to know?
What’s stopping you making decisions and building your plans?
Speak to customers. Work out the ideal customer experience. Build e-Commerce insights. This helps you set up your e-Commerce plan up to best meet customer needs.
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