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Where do you start with e-Commerce insights?

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Why read this? : We look at how to start looking for e-Commerce insights. Learn the information sources and processes which got us through our first e-Commerce insights project. Read this to learn how to find and use e-Commerce insights.

Understanding customers is crucial when you first start selling online. 

You have to understand what they need and why they buy to build your e-Commerce plan. 

That means finding and using e-Commerce insights. Specific understanding of what drives customer purchase decisions.

But where do you start? What research questions do you ask? How do you find out what online customers need or want

No one starts e-Commerce as an expert. You learn as you go. This article shares lessons from our first e-Commerce market research project. What worked. What didn’t. And what we did with the e-Commerce insights we found. (Also covered in our e-Commerce learnings and barriers to e-Commerce articles). 

Case study - business context

As context, we did that project 5+ years ago. It was with an established business, but they’d only just started with e-Commerce.

It was the first time they’d put resources – people, time and budget – into selling online.

Their existing retailers had started selling online. But they saw e-Commerce as the same as listing products in catalogues. Online was a promotional channel, not a selling channel for them. 

Hand holding a VISA card in front of a laptop

So, the category team uploaded images and copy to the retailers’ product information management systems. And that was about it for e-Commerce. No digital media. No SEO. Nothing specific to e-Commerce.  

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.

This would help us identify who to target and how. From that, we could prioritise which e-Commerce channels and activities to go after.

But we needed e-Commerce insights to start the planning process.

Beyond understanding how traditional shopping worked, we needed these insights to understand how online shopping decisions worked.

Arrow shaped sign on a brick wall saying entry

Sales team

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 should work with them. But it also showed us where there might be gaps to do something different. 

Brand marketing team

Next, the brand marketing team. 

They shared insights about how customers researched the category online. Search keywords 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 i.e. what shoppers did before making an online purchase.

We identified product review sites, blogs and brand sites where customers researched the category.

Large sign on a white brick wall saying "Welcome to marketing"

Global team / other markets

Then we reached out to the business’s global sales team. Plus 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, these inputs helped us plan what research questions we should ask here.

How and why people shop online is remarkably similar across the world. It’s only where they shop and what for that differs.

Globe showing Africa and Indian Ocean towards the camera sat on a wooden table in a dimly lit room

Secondary research - search

Finally, we also did some secondary research.

We did keyword research using tools like Google Autocomplete and Google Ads to find terms popular with our target 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.

Google hmne page on a Samsung phone lores

For example, we reviewed the category information on their websites. We looked at bestseller lists, and how they ranked products by popularity. We looked at the strengths and weaknesses of their order to delivery process. And we looked at how they did sales promotions and special offers.

Secondary research - published

Finally, we searched online and found some generic e-Commerce reports full of insights about Australian online shopping. 

Those reports are now well out of date. But as we put this article together we dug around and found similar, but more recent, e-Commerce insights reports from Australia Post and IAB.

Finding things out quickly and for free

As we gathered information, it became clear you can find some things out quickly and for free. You just have to be creative in where and how you look. 

For example, think about who you know 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 in taking the next step and doing the research. 

Person holding light bulb with blurred out light effect in the background

Market research with customers - The research brief

After this secondary research, we wrote a business case to get money to run qualitative and quantitative research. 

As per the market research process, we then wrote a market research brief. This set out the objectives, the key research questions and what we needed the research to do. 

We also summarised the secondary research and added it as an appendix.

We had 3 core research questions :-

Market research process - Flow diagram showing define the business problem - the research brief - the research plan - do the research - analysis an action plan
  • 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 into 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 are 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 e-Commerce planning guide). 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 retailers’ competitive strategies. But calling it positioning was confusing. Positioning can also refer to positioning statements.

The last question was clearer. However, 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 is a bit cringe 

If writing those questions today, we’d put them 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

This was the first time the company had done e-Commerce research. The company had 2 preferred research companies. One for qualitative and one for quantitative. We asked both to pitch for the project. 

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

They all came back with proposals which showed how they’d answer the research questions. 

But the qual company claimed they needed more budget than was in the brief. 

The new research company showed good e-Commerce knowledge but hadn’t fully grasped the category dynamics. 

So the quant company won the pitch. They were on budget and showed they understood both e-Commerce and the category.

Close up of two hands in a handshake

Their pitch also had an added bonus. They ran an annual national survey of what online shoppers wanted across all categories. They normally charged a large fee to access its results. But they offered to ask our customers the same questions as their national study and benchmark our category against the national survey results.

For example, we could benchmark our category shoppers on how they valued specific e-Commerce benefits like ease and convenience, range or price comparisons. Very helpful to know how your category compares when dealing with online retailers.

The Market Research Proposal

The winning proposal turned our brief into a clear qualitative and quantitative research plan.

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 every day. They were more regular users of social media and were heavily influenced by what they saw online. 

The word yes writing into sand

They were also more likely to publish and comment on online content. This segment was the most attractive from an e-Commerce point 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.

E-Commerce insights

The research results presentation was 50+ pages long. Clearly, that’s too much to share. So to keep it brief, we’ll look at 3 examples of the types of e-Commerce insights we got. 

Example 1 - Frequent users of social media

These shoppers liked social media. 86% used it compared to the national average of 70%. Social media clearly had to be part of our media plan.

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 YouTube for entertainment and information-based content. Use of other social media was low. So we focused our digital media budget on these 2 channels. 

On Facebook, they were more likely to engage with brand contentlike 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 sales copy guide 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 had 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 touchpoints 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 what online shoppers want article) that convenience was by far their favourite benefit. 

A subscription model box branded with three-brains on a doorstep

Makes life easier”, “saves time” and “available 24/7” were their most popular reasons for shopping online. For our e-Commerce strategy, we therefore prioritised the idea of convenience in our advertising and customer experience

The next desired benefit was credible and independent information. Customers wanted fact-based, rational information about the products. They want to make up their own mind about what to buy and where to buy it. 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 market research in the marketing plan guide, you have to do something with those insights. You use them in your marketing plan to improve brand activation and the customer experience.

But what did we actually do, and how did we go about it?

Man leaping between two cliff edges with signs for planning on one edge and action on the other edge

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. 

We generated ideas which then went into creating our digital marketing mix. 

The 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 which was new at the time). It also identified the opportunity to set up our own D2C store.

The 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 should 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. There was a knowledge gap we couldn’t get past without research. Showing this 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 (which only market researchers care about). 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

Customer needs define what online shopping benefits to offer. Those lead you to your e-Commerce positioning, your competitive strategy and your competitive advantage

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

You use e-Commerce insights to build your e-Commerce strategy, plan and positioning.

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 from making decisions and building your plans?

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

Speak to customers. Work out the ideal customer experience. Build e-Commerce insights. This helps you set up your e-Commerce plan to best meet customer needs.

Check out our market research and e-Commerce dashboards guides for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help with your own e-Commerce insights. 

Photo credits

Marketing Dashboard : Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

Visa card and laptop : Photo by Anastasiia Ostapovych on Unsplash

Entry : Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Welcome to Marketing (adapted) : Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Globe : Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Google Samsung Phone : Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels

Person holding light bulb : Photo by Fachy Marín on Unsplash

Handshake : Cytonn Photography on Pexels 

Social media and facebook : Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Doorstep delivery : Photo by MealPro on Unsplash

Man leaping planning to action (adaped) :  Photo by Walker Fenton on Unsplash

Woman with mug reading : Photo by Alexandra Fuller on Unsplash

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