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360 Commerce March 15, 2019

Changing the digital mindset within e-commerce

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Traditional, boring, plain websites and web shops are becoming obsolete. Bold statement but it’s true. The platforms that many digital marketing agencies are spending so much time and energy building, which have been putting bread and butter on our clients’ tables, and that everyone thought would reconnect brands with their audiences and help them grow. You know which ones we’re talking about. Turns out, those platforms are not the key when heading into a digitally oriented future. But guess what, that’s a good thing!

Everything is Connected

Many newbies felt overwhelmed but energized at the amount of inspiration and information thrown at them at the SxSW Festival. After having a few days to ruminate and ponder the information, the main themes emerge. At the heart of this year’s conference, there was the principle of ‘connecting the dots’. In essence, all speakers and panelists seemed to tell the same story: don’t be afraid of complexity! Instead, gather as much information as you possibly can about your topic at hand as well as its adjacent fields (that’s important, don’t forget to not look only at what applies to your business), and derive fundamental, big-picture-insights. So, in the spirit of gathering information from multiple sources, let’s connect arguments from several SxSW panels with the main source being a presentation given by Alex Spinelli, CTO of a company called LivePerson.

A Digital Fortress

Alex Spinelli does not believe in the traditional, visual interfaces of webshops, sites, and apps. He describes them as “digital fortresses”, meaning that organizations tend to gather all information they think is relevant in one place and make it accessible to their audiences on their own terms. From the users’ point of view, these fortresses appear somewhat impenetrable. Access to the desired information is commonly restricted due to visual interfaces being one-way communication channels. Cluttered information architecture, unclear menus, and content elements, and the failure to flawlessly adapt to screen sizes and devices are just a few examples of how web designers struggle (and oftentimes fail) to offer a desirable service experience on these platforms. This leaves customers feeling frustrated and organizations missing out on crucial revenue.

During another keynote, Shanying Leung, Design-Director for Alipay and Ant-Financial explained how the Alibaba Corporation is currently standardizing digital and non-digital design templates and supplying them to small business owners in China. They automated this process to such an extent that all elements of these templates are created via AI. Based on a few parameters and some uploaded material, the algorithm defines colors, fonts, design elements, even copies, and creative claims. This process works so well that the customers are not able to tell that these experiences were created by a machine. This is obviously only the latest step in a development that describes the standardization of user interfaces through, among other things, Twitter Bootstrap, overflowing template libraries, smart CMS interfaces, etc.

The question is: if one-way-communication channels with visual interfaces are an inconvenient way for users to find and interact with an organization’s content, and if brands are having an increasingly hard time standing out of an ocean of standardized web-shops, sites, and apps, why do the majority of designers and brands still think in platforms?

Luckily, there were plenty of speakers at SxSW who were eager to describe a way forward. Take James Scott, a teacher at the University of Texas, who made the argument that AI technology was nothing new or fancy even. For centuries people have been trying to better understand the most relevant aspects of both their personal and work life in hopes of optimizing and automating them. This argument was best illustrated by Jeremy King, Executive Vice President and CTO of Walmart. He showcased how Walmart unlocks the benefits of digital technology by approaching it from two different angles: optimizing supply chain and storage processes through machine learning, blockchain technology, and extensive big data setups while at the same time creating integrated shopping experiences that provide an almost ridiculous level of convenience to their customers.

Unfortunately, Jeremy King didn’t elaborate on the struggles that Walmart surely encountered along the way of integrating all of these technologies. But Walmart is an exception to the rule, for many organizations, (re-)connecting with their customers is a bigger challenge.

Throwback

Some forty years ago, when people walked into their neighborhood stores, they experienced an entirely different customer experience than the one they would receive today. With a limited number of retail and transportation options, they would frequent stores that were in close proximity to them. The clerk probably knew them quite well and made their shopping experience personal – starting with the greeting and going all the way to tailor-made products or services. The experience was very personal. Over the past few years, however, these experiences have been reduced to next to nothing due to businesses becoming increasingly focused on making their supply chains and processes more efficient and cutting costs. Within those boundaries, and without the proper technology, individualization has become too expensive and too far off the radar.

Today, digitalization has evolved so much that it can replace the store clerk of forty years ago. Algorithms can collect, combine and process data and learn about customers and their individual needs. Based on these insights, bots can engage in in-depth conversations which can fool the consumer in thinking they are talking to another person. This is pretty much the gist of Alex Spinelli’s argument: shopping experiences used to be individually valuable, a virtue that got lost during this digital revolution. But it can now be reclaimed due to the latest technological developments (AI, especially).

This is an intriguing thought when applied to digital marketing agencies. Many approach e-commerce and platform projects with a focus on features and technological possibilities. People will debate about interface elements and teasers and the position of menus and which payment methods to integrate. In other words: they focus too much on building and shipping the tools when one should be imagining and enabling the interactions between brands and their customers. After all, it makes a lot more sense to envision the frame hanging on the wall, and afterward getting the tools needed to get it up there, than starting with improving the hammer and the nail we have just found in our basement.

Wrap – Up

The most interesting aspect of this thought? Making conversational information architecture/commerce a reality is not even about technology. It is about changing the mindset that digital agencies approach projects with. It is imperative to be familiar with the dialogue brands currently have with their consumer and how they wish to alter that, before throwing in how to integrate new platforms and technologies.

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