Snapshot : Inspired by the curiosity of the magpie, we revisit 5 key e-Commerce lessons from our first ever online store project. More than 5 years on, we see how you can use those lessons to learn more about e-Commerce.
It’s currently magpie swooping season in Australia. Cue, headlines about swooping magpies freaking out kids (and adults) for getting too close to their nests and their newly laid eggs. It’s apparently such a problem, there’s even a whole website dedicated to swooping magpies.
Add that to the fact that magpies have a reputation for being thieves too, and you’d say the magpie are the troublemakers of the bird world.
And yet, they’re not. Not at all.
Because imagine a stranger running past your house and your newborn children. You’d get a bit defensive too, wouldn’t you? And the thieving thing is even more interesting.
Because it’s totally, untrue.
Curious and pick things up along the way
Magpies are in fact, just highly curious birds who pick up things along the way. And we feel a certain empathy with that.
Because, that’s what we do too.
Apparently they recognise faces by the way. We’ve never had any swooping issues, so we do like to think the local magpies who hang around Three-Brains HQ recognise us.
That they might see us as fellow curious souls.
So, magpies, their curiosity and picking things up along the way is what our initial inspiration was this week, when we wanted to write about how to learn more about e-Commerce.
But to be honest, it’s also because we recently stumbled across some notes we wrote after one of our first big e-Commerce projects, where we set up an online store.
This project took place more than 5 years ago now. And it’s kind of weird to think about it as “old”. Because e-Commerce doesn’t feel at all old. Because everyone we talk to about e-Commerce these days still seems to think of it as a “new” thing.
And it’s not “new”, at all.
So, with another 5 years experience behind us, we wanted to look back at those “old” learnings.
Partly to share them with you, our audience. Because we know our audience want to continue to learn more about e-Commerce.
But, also to reflect on how relevant, if at all, the learnings were today.
Online store context
We can’t share the name of the client. Though, anyone who knows us well can probably work it out.
This was a large multinational food manufacturer who had only just started on their e-Commerce journey.
Their e-Commerce plan at the time basically amounted to supplying product images and information to online retailers. In the same way they’d provide the same assets for the retailer’s catalogues. Online promotions were basically an extension of in-store promotions.
There was little to no direct contact with the retailer’s online team.
No sharing of digital data.
The only opportunities were to spend digital media money to ‘feature’ on the retailers sites. But this media spend was supported with very little data. And measurement was practically non-existent.
So, this company decided to take some control of the channel and launch their own D2C online store.
If you’re trying to guess the company, this narrows it down a lot. Because even now, 5 years later, there’s not that many manufacturers who’ve done that.
But you know what?
The company and category are not that relevant. Looking at the lessons again, we think they apply in any business that wants to continue to learn more about e-Commerce.
So, we presented these lessons to the senior management team at the end of the project. This was a broad cross-functional leadership team, who, if we’re honest liked the idea of “e-Commerce”. But, had little to no idea about what you needed to do to manage an online store.
Lesson 1 – Recognise the achievement in setting up an online store
In some ways, it is easy to set up an online store. But only, if you piggyback on someone else’s platform. Our Print on Demand stores that sit on Redbubble and Spreadshirt for example, take less than a day to set up.
But it helped that we had already created the brand assets you need to fill in their store templates. You can have an online store in a day with a logo, designs and some brand blurb if you really want.
But, those to be honest are like wearing someone else’s clothes.
It’ll do if there is no alternative. But pretty soon, it starts to feel uncomfortable.
Having a store where you can directly control ALL elements of the customer experience takes more than a day. This one took about four months all in. Because, there’s a lot of complexity and steps to do it properly.
And to do it well.
This was a simplified (yes, simplified) checklist of what you should really do before you open a “proper” online store.
Be very wary of anyone who promises you that opening an online store is easy.
If you want to do it well, it’s not easy.
Our experience since then, is that most business still don’t get this. They only see the outputs, and in particular, the store website.
And they assume because the online shopping experience is easy for the shopper, then the process to create the online shopping experience is also easy.
And that’s simply not true.
And recognising that it’s not easy, is what makes us want to continue to learn more about e-Commerce.
Lesson 2 – It’s easier to “say” test and learn, than to do it
Ah, if we had a dollar for every time we hear the phrase “test and learn” in the world of digital marketing.
It rolls off the tongue so easily. And it makes perfect sense, of course.
But saying it is way easier than doing it. It’s a hard concept to sell in most businesses.
As we cover in our article on creators, critics and coasters, most businesses are set up to be efficient. And efficiency is not a friend to the test and learn approach.
Most “efficient” businesses are set up to control and protect the status quo. To minimise the risk of failure. And “test and learn” does not sit well with that.
When you do actually ‘test and learn’, by definition, some of those tests will fail. And failure is not efficient.
In fact, in many businesses, failure is a dirty word. More traditional management practices focus on planning and preparation, so that you don’t fail.
But here’s the thing. We’re not against market research or marketing plans. They’re important enough for us to write guides about them.
But remember, those types of high level strategic initiatives exist to help you set the long-term direction. They stop you veering off on weird tangents and wild goose chases.
But because they are long-term, they also take a long time to craft. And by the time you have crafted them, often circumstances may have changed. They are slow. And sometimes, you can’t afford to be slow.
When you have your own online store, you also have an opportunity to do many more smaller, faster activations. Try things out with a small group of customers.
If it works, brilliant. Do it again.
If it doesn’t, no big loss. Say f*ck it, and more on to the next small and fast test.
But not everyone get this. Some people get stuck on the fact it didn’t work. They point the finger. They use it to prevent something happening in the future. That’s unhelpful at best. And obstructive at worst.
No, these small failures (and successes) are a natural part of how e-Commerce stores work.
They are how you learn more about e-Commerce. From activities that you do with actual customers. And this is a big cultural shift in many businesses.
Which brings us to our next lesson.
Lesson 3 – To be successful in digital means a shift in culture
In our guide to creative thinking, we talk a lot about the importance of culture to help drive new ways of working. Setting up an online store is a great example of creative thinking. So the key areas of culture – people, leadership and environment – need to come in to play.
And what we most remember from that project five years plus ago, was this was the hardest part to do.
Because culture shifts take time.
And if you don’t have the right people, with the right mindset involved, then there’s no way to make it work.
Senior leaders who don’t have the open-mindedness or humility to say this is a new way of working that their previous experience hasn’t prepared them for. This is a cultural barrier.
Functional leaders who insist on standards and process that were developed with the existing business model in mind, being force-fitted to an entirely different business model. This, too, is a cultural barrier.
No, e-Commerce and in particular, setting up an online store is a big change driver in most businesses. It was definitely a big change driver in that particular business.
And there was a lot of resistance to what e-Commerce meant for the way the business operated. We’re saving some of those barriers for a future article
Lesson 4 – One step at a time, but the steps get faster over time
And so, when there is resistance to change, you really have two options.
The first one is to completely avoid it by heading in a different direction. One of our proposals at the time was to set the online store up as a separate legal entity. It would have its own operating rules and culture. But the leadership team didn’t have the vision to see how this could work.
So, they nixed it.
So, your other, if we’re honest more painful way, to work against resistance to change is to grind it down one day at a time.
That particular store was relatively low spec compared to other stores we’ve worked on since. But the simplicity and decisions taken were what was necessary to get it up and running at the time. These were about removing internal barriers like profit margin hurdles, supply chain efficiency targets and website maintenance protocols, that once the store went live, mysteriously faded away.
As part of the process to keep learning more about e-Commerce, it’s also worth noting that the first time you do anything will always be the hardest and slowest time you do it. Because you are having to learn and invent as you go.
But the next time you do it, it’s a little faster. Because, you’ve done it before.
And then then next time, faster still. Until you pick up pace and it becomes “normal”. Because that’s how you learn more about e-Commerce. You do it, and you do it again, and again.
Lesson 5 – Decision making by knowledge and not job title
And then to our last learning.
Even though our presentation is over 5 years old, e-Commerce is still a relatively new subject. Though there are some principles like the focus on the customer experience that seem to be universal for driving e-Commerce success, much still comes down to the context of what your target customers actually want.
So, that means successful e-Commerce businesses build up this knowledge base and make their decisions based on what customers want. And that’s a challenge in some business where the senior team hasn’t built a store before.
They have to park their egos and sense of entitlement due to their job title. They have to hand over decision making to the people who actually have e-Commerce knowledge. Those who have taken the time to learn more about e-Commerce.
Or basically, your online store is screwed.
When you work in e-Commerce, you know that there is no one golden answer. It’s the customer who ultimately decides if you are right or wrong. And that’s why and how you must continue to learn more about e-Commerce.
If you’re in a business, where you don’t realise that, then your online store is unlikely to be successful.
Like our friend the magpie, keep being curious. Pick up things as you go.
And maybe think about how to “protect your nest”. Maybe you need to find a way to swoop on those intruders who shouldn’t be anywhere near your online store.