October 17, 2014

Q&A: TurnTo CEO George Eberstadt Talks Assisted Shopping

This interview was originally posted by StellaService’s Happy Customer Blog on October 8th, 2014 located here!

Happy Customer is always on the lookout for innovative approaches to customer service. We recently visited with TurnTo Networks CEO George Eberstadt about his company’s approach to “Assisted Shopping.” Retailers using TurnTo’s technology include Saks Fifth Avenue, Newegg and Sur La Table.

What is “Assisted Shopping” and how is it different from live chat?

The difference is in the approach. Both share the vision of taking the customer experience that a shopper gets with a primo in-store associate and bringing it to the web: the shopper can ask questions in her own words and get the information she needs back quickly. Live chat takes a very literal approach: make the associate available to the web shopper by putting her on the other end of a chat line. “Assisted Shopping”, on the other hand, says: use ALL the resources that the web makes available to get shoppers the fastest possible answers from the best sources, whatever the question. That includes tapping into the wisdom of fellow customers, going beyond the associate to the merchandise category manager (who probably wrote the training materials for the associate!), reaching out to the manufacturer, tapping into all the content in the store’s FAQs or help center.  And, yes, even involving the store associate – not just the one in the call center, but the one who covers that category at the nearest store. Also, Assisted Shopping can be faster than live chat much of the time by enabling instant answers from a continuously-learning knowledge base. Studies show shoppers often prefer self-help. And when a live chat is needed, Assisted Shopping provides a seamless escalation path.

What sort of results can online merchants expect from this type of solution?

There are many value-levers for stores using this technology: Conversion lift, SEO, reducing call center load, reducing returns, increasing loyalty, and gaining merchandising insights.

  • Conversion lift: Shoppers who interact with tools like these convert at 3-7X the rate of those who don’t.  Further control group testing shows that about 25% of this lift is causal (ie not just cherry-picking shoppers who were going to buy anyway).  That’s a big effect.
  • SEO: The community aspect of Assisted Shopping – enabling shoppers to get questions answered by fellow customers who already own the products they are considering — produces 2-4 times more user-generated content (UGC) than customer reviews do.  UGC is one of the most effective strategies for SEO, so more is better.  Stores have reported increases in organic traffic of 20% from this tool.
  • Reducing call center load:  Shopper questions that get answered by the community or from the knowledge base never end up in the call center.  That’s faster, better answers for the shopper, and less work for the store staff – depending on the category, up to 30% less.
  • Reducing returns: fashion and apparel businesses, in particular, can reduce returns by enabling shoppers to get authentic feedback from past customers who have experience with the products.  Assisted Shopping systems work with sizing charts and fitting tools to help online shoppers get it right the first time.
  • Increasing loyalty:  Fast, authentic answers from the best source for the question are part of a great online shopping experience and have been measured to increase repeat purchase rates 15-40%.
  • Merchandising insights:  Assisted Shopping tools make it easy to see what causes shoppers to hesitate before buying, what information they need but aren’t getting, or unexpected ways they plan to use their purchases.  That’s great insight for optimizing merchandising, and it starts to build up from the very first day an item goes on sale.

Is this just a pre-sales tool, or is there a post-sales support application?

Although we call it Assisted Shopping, there’s no reason the assistance needs to stop at the sale. All the same resources work post-purchase, making content from the help center or community forums, as well as the experience of customers who own the product, easily accessible for trouble-shooting. One exciting application is the post-purchase question solicitation email, which works particularly well when combined with the review solicitation email. In effect, it says: “Ready to review your recent purchase, click here. Need help getting the most from it, click here instead.”  Not only does this improve customer satisfaction, but it can turn what would have been negative reviews into positive ones.

Can Assisted Shopping work in physical stores, too?

The vision of bringing the deep content available on the web into the store aisle has been around for a while.  But there have been two major obstacles.  One is easily identifying the items on the shelf, the other is easily retrieving the relevant information. QR codes and scanners were supposed to solve the first challenge but turned out to have limited scope. A new generation of solutions that combine native mobile apps with scanners, or perhaps beacons, now appear likely to solve this challenge at scale.  There’s still a second problem: too much information to be easily retrieved on a small screen by a shopper standing in a store aisle. That’s where Assisted Shopping comes in. By making asking a question as easy as writing a text, these systems make nearly limitless resources instantly and easily available to the in-store shopper.

Is this a tool for brand manufacturers as well as for retailers?

There are multiple ways manufacturers can benefit from Assisted Shopping tools (in addition to deploying them on their own online storefronts). An easy one is to participate in answering shopper questions from the merchants that stock their products. With features like “instant answers”, this can be efficient as well as effective, as each answer becomes a resource for future shoppers with the same question, too. And the insights that come from seeing what questions shoppers have at the point of purchase can be highly valuable for manufacturers. Even more powerful is the ability for manufacturers to use these tools to extend all the rich content they provide about their products on their own site out to their channels. Now detailed product info and rich media that a merchant might not make available on their product pages can be accessed by any shopper in response to a question. By breaking the trade-off between extensive information and clutter, Assisted Shopping tools enable manufacturers to deliver all the information that will help close a sale while enabling merchants to maintain a streamlined shopping experience and consistent templates.

October 3, 2014

How Saks Fifth Avenue is Using TurnTo Q&A

Saks Fifth Avenue’s Senior Director of Product Management Jordan Lustig sat down with our CEO George recently to discuss how Saks is using TurnTo Q&A.

Saks is always looking for ways to improve their customer experience. They have a fact-based, customer first culture. Content plays an integral part in crafting a great shopping environment, and Saks recognizes that the customer has a voice and wants to use it.

Jordan began the conversation with TurnTo as a way to:

  • Increase the amount of user generated content on the Saks website
  • Create more relevant content
  • Fill in the gaps of product categories that were low in product reviews

jordan screenshot

It was important to Saks for customers to get their questions answered while in the purchase funnel. TurnTo Q&A is able to get shoppers those answers immediately without any staff involvement (through Community Q&A).

In this video, Jordan talks about how impressed he is by the speed of the answers and ability to post those responses in real time.  TurnTo is crowd sourced and reactive, so there is no burden on the Saks staff. And customers love it because they get a quick, informed response to their question that is much more relevant than reviews that can be overly general and time consuming to read.

Saks has seen tremendous success with the program; in fact TurnTo emails drive one of the highest conversion rates across all marketing initiatives. And that lift has not only been from people asking questions, but also those shoppers who are answering and browsing the Q&A content.

An additional benefit to Saks has been the merchandising insights delivered by TurnTo, which Saks credits with bridging product content gaps and uncovering user experience issues.

 

 

Posted in Blog

August 19, 2014

QVC post-purchase videos are part of a broader trend in support

Mobile Commerce Daily has a nice article summing up the comments from Todd Sprinkle, VP, Content & Platform Innovation at QVC, at eTail East about how QVC is using video for post-purchase support.  They explain,

QVC initially tested a post-purchase email to customers with follow-up on content on how to use or assemble certain items, especially particularly complicated ones. When returns decreased, the company broadened its thinking on the post-purchase experience to include video on how to use, how to wear and how to love something.

QVC’s strategy makes sense on many levels: decreasing support costs, deepening brand engagement, increasing customer satisfaction, and encouraging repeat purchase.  It’s also interesting that while QVC started with a focus on complex items, they’ve broadened out to apparel as well (most of which you won’t normally put in the “complex” category).

Another powerful way to achieve the same benefits – without all the work of video production – is to leverage community Q&A.  Shortly after an order is delivered, send an email offering the purchaser the opportunity to ask questions of customers who previously bought the same item.  Customers will reliably help each other resolve their issues, and the direct shopper-to-shopper engagement you’ve provided will do more to strengthen their relationship with your brand than interaction with your staff would have.  (Of course, your staff will also monitor these questions and provide additional resources where needed.)  QVC could combine the offer to ask a question with their video email to double the effect.  Another great place to extend the offer to ask a question is in the email where you solicit a review, since it enables customers who are having difficulties to get them resolved before they write a critical review.  It’s also powerful to put a tear sheet in the box with the order pointing the buyer towards the Q&A utility, if they have any questions, or to printing that info on the receipt or the return instructions; those are great ways to head off returns and improve your c-sat scores.

QVC’s innovations are pointing the way toward a larger post-purchase support trend where we expect to see a lot of investment and creativity over the next few years.  Tip-of-the-hat to them.

July 8, 2014

Can I Help You?

Our friends at Internet Retailer just released a thought-provoking article about best practices in online customer support. “Can I Help You?” discusses trends in pre-and post-purchase support, including chat, proactive engagement, self-service and visitor monitoring.

TurnTo’s CEO and Founder, George Eberstadt shares his thoughts:

Yes, there’s a lot of room to improve the customer support experience for online shopping, both pre and post purchase.  But “better chat” isn’t the answer.  Real shoppers want input from peers who actually own the products.  Real shoppers want to hear from merchandise managers and category experts, not from CSRs looking up answers in a database.  And if the answer is already in a database, they want it delivered instantly, not just “live” chat fast.

That’s why Community Q&A is the essential backbone of a first-class Assisted Shopping experience.  Community Q&A is also highly effective post-purchase.  Just include a link in your review-request email, saying “We want to make sure you get the most out of your recent purchase.  Need help or have a question?  Click here to get fast answers from fellow customers who bought this, our own product experts, and our complete knowledge base”…Community Q&A is a fast, easy way to improve conversion rates, drive up customer satisfaction, drive down returns, and learn a lot about what your shoppers really care about.

April 10, 2014

Jeff Bezos considers Community Q&A important enough for his annual shareholder letter

We are beaming!  No, Jeff Bezos didn’t mention us by name.  But this is just as good.  In his annual letter to shareholders, Bezos devotes an entire section to the success Amazon has had with their Community Q&A feature:

One recent success is our new feature called “Ask an owner”. It was many years ago that we pioneered the idea of online customer reviews – customers sharing their opinion on a product to help other customers make an informed purchase decision. “Ask” is in that same tradition. From a product page, customers can ask any question related to the product. Is the product compatible with my TV/Stereo/PC? Is it easy to assemble? How long does the battery last? We then route these questions to owners of the product. As is the case with reviews, customers are happy to share their knowledge to directly help other customers. Millions of questions have already been asked and answered.

As the pioneers of the Active Outreach(TM) mechanism for getting fast answers to shopper questions from real product owners, we were flattered a year ago when Amazon first rolled out this feature to see them following our model so closely.  Now, we’ve received the only bigger compliment we could have wished for: this approach has been the same smashing success for Amazon that it has been for the >100 stores that use TurnTo for Community Q&A.

Of course, we haven’t been sitting around waiting for Amazon to catch up.  Our newest version introduces great capabilities Amazon hasn’t got to yet: instant answers, FAQs, category and topic Q&A, a magnificent new user experience, mobile capabilities designed for the omni-channel world, and lots more.  So, Amazon shoppers, keep your eyes open; we’ve got a pretty good idea what you’ll be seeing next, and it’s fabulous!

And if you sell online and are tired of eating Amazon dust, give us a shout.  We’ll show you what the future looks like, too.

October 25, 2013

Google has Created an Important New SEO Opportunity for Online Stores

Scott Anderson of Iterate Studio sent me an internal memo he wrote last week on the implications of Google’s movement towards semantic search.  It’s interesting and important, and he offered that I could share it.  So here it is:

I pulled the attached article from my favorite SEO/SEM site. It gets into “semantic search” which is the big new thing at Google as evidenced by Knowledge Graph, which is a meager step 1 down a path to answering complex questions for searchers.

Since Google wants to be the place that dishes up answers to questions, the clear SEO implication for ecommerce sites (well, any site for that matter) is to dish up more and more quality answers to relevant questions.

This frankly makes TurnTo an even more strategic solution provider. Using customers to ask and answer questions in their own words for SEO is actually a main reason we adopted it at Vitamin Shoppe.

Of particular interest given Google’s increasing focus on complex questions is the product’s support for category-level questions, which are more likely to be asked on Google than the very detailed product questions.  Again, it’s user generated content so there isn’t a burden on the retailer’s overworked staff.

While TurnTo’s mission is to lower customer support costs and humanize the user experience, the content getting generated is right in the bullseye of what Google wants to see.

Traditional SEO practices will remain essential, but the future is already here.

Promoting the idea of Q&A on eCommerce sites at the category (or “topic”) level the last couple of years has felt a lot like pushing a rock uphill.  On the whole, our customers have been focused on the traffic and conversion benefits to the product detail page.  So at first I thought it was coincidence that we’ve recently had a number of our customers come to us to begin implementation of category-level Q&A.  But what’s really happening has become clear:  businesses are figuring out that more general topic discussion and Q&A content is increasingly important to their organic traffic strategy.  And they are realizing that hosting this sort of discussion on their category pages is a great way to generate it.

September 25, 2013

Your personalization engine needs to include human-power

Automated personalization and recommendation tools are great at helping shoppers and increasing sales, up to a point.  These tools can make it easy for shoppers to find alternative items that may fit their needs a bit better.  They can propose complementary products that help raise average order value.  They can adjust the selection of items from a catalog that are presented to each shopper to highlight those most likely to be of interest.

But often, shoppers have needs or preferences that can’t be inferred from their browsing history or the profile data you can collect on them.  There’s no way a personalization engine can know that, this time, I’m shopping for a present for my mom, not for me.  And if I was shopping for a present for mom last time I was here, the engine may easily think I’m an 85 year old grandmother rather than a 47 year old guy.  But even if I’m just shopping for me, how is a personalization engine going to guess that our coffee machine is dying and it’s time for a new one?  Or that I’ve just become interested in sous vide cooking?  Or that I had a bad experience with customer service from a particular brand a while back and I’d rather not give them my business?  How do you personalize the shopping experience for these visitors?

That’s where humans come in.  There’s still no substitute for the dialog that happens between a shopper and a great sales associate.  The shopper articulates her needs, and the associate suggests a targeted, creative selection of products to solve them.   That’s personalization!  Sure, it’s old-school, but it’s still the gold standard.

However, this sort of human-powered personalization is expensive to provide – online as well as in stores.  Further, not every sales associate has deep product knowledge or the gift of making that knowledge really useful to shoppers.  The things you can do to improve the performance of associates – higher pay to reduce turn-over and training to increase knowledge – make the cost problem worse.  Provide fewer associates and the customer experience declines – whether it’s live chat or in a store, shoppers don’t like to wait.  And then there are the challenges of addressing spikes in demand, like the holidays.

The solution lies in a hybrid approach to recommendations that combines the ability of humans to come up with creative suggestions with the ability of technology to re-use that expertise and deliver it economically:

  • First let your shoppers express their needs by submitting questions on your site.  “I’m looking for a birthday gift for my 85 year old mom.  Here’s some info about her.  What would you suggest?”  “We need a new coffee machine.  Here are some things we want from it, and here are some things we want to avoid.  Which ones should we consider?”  “I’ve narrowed down to 3 sous vide cookers.  Which is going to work best for me?”  (This means your system needs to support multi-item comparison questions!)
  • Then get those questions answered from the most appropriate sources for the question -  past customers with relevant experience, your in-house experts, manufacturer reps, and independent experts.  Provide the broadest possible range of answers and opinions, and make it clear what the perspective and background is of each person answering.  And be sure you deliver those answers fast – that keeps the person who asked happy, and it also makes other visitors a lot more likely to ask their own questions.
  • Finally – and here’s the key ingredient – put that Q&A dialog in a knowledge base and connect that knowledge base to your question submission form so that the next time a shopper has a similar question, they will immediately see if their question has already been asked and answered.  Those future shoppers will receive INSTANT answers to their questions, and that is accomplished with zero additional work for your staff.

With this approach, you can quickly build up a knowledge base that incorporates the combined wisdom of your customer community and your own product experts, delivering the benefits of true human-powered recommendations with the scalability and cost-effectiveness of automated systems.  You’ll also find that you have  created a valuable resource for your internal customer support team.  And you’ll have the foundation for providing automated, self-service customer support on mobile devices and kiosks.

So don’t limit your personalization and recommendations strategy to automated systems, and don’t give up on human-powered recommendations just because it’s expensive.  Take a hybrid, Q&A-based approach to deliver the best of both worlds.

July 30, 2013

Social Commerce Webinar: Clarins Enhances Online Shopping with Social Q&A

Han Wen, VP, Digital & E-Commerce Americas at Clarins, joined TurnTo for a webinar (below) to discuss how they use Social Q&A to enhance their online shopping experience.   She also discussed how Clarins uses Social Q&A to gain valuable product insights and touched on what initiatives they have in store for the near future.

Watch the webinar now:

June 26, 2013

TurnTo Interview at Internet Retailer 2013

While at IRCE 2013, George Eberstadt, CEO and Founder of TurnTo, was interviewed by Website Magazine for their Video Spotlight about our social question-and-answer utility for online retailers (Social Q&A). George also shared his thoughts on what e-commerce changes we can expect in the future. Watch the interview below:

Posted in Blog

May 30, 2013

The Facebook challenge for merchants

I was talking recently to a customer frustrated by his inability to drive meaningful revenue out of Facebook, despite substantial efforts.  The conversation got me to revisit this by now well-discussed topic.

The conventional wisdom is that selling on Facebook doesn’t work because it’s like trying to sell to people drinking at a bar.  (Ref 1Ref 2.)  Certainly context matters, but I think this metaphor is misleading.  The same logic could be used to argue that advertising in a newspaper shouldn’t work because it’s like selling to people reading at a library.  Or that advertising on TV shouldn’t work because it’s like selling to people watching a movie.  Or that shops at airports shouldn’t work because they’re like selling to people, um, in the middle of a painful surgical procedure (an experiment on the effects of stress on rats, maybe?).

I’d propose that a lot of the frustration about the difficulty stores have in monetizing Facebook comes from misunderstanding where Facebook fits into the purchase intent cycle.

Purchase intent comes from many sources.  A lot of intent comes from non-commercial sources.  If someone has a baby, they’re going to need a crib.  Trying to create purchase intent for a crib absent a baby is pretty tough.  For discretionary purchases, intent is often sparked by direct experience.  You see something that looks good on someone walking by and you decided you want one, too.  And, of course, purchase intent is sparked by friends.  (One among a gadzillion studies showing this.)  To the degree that purchase intent can be engineered, that’s generally the job of brands, rather than stores.  If a brand can get a consumer to want the thing they – and only they – make, then they are going to make a sale, regardless of the channel in which the consumer chooses to purchase.  Stores generally don’t invest much in intent-generation because of the risk that the money they spend on intent generation comes to nothing when the customer goes elsewhere to buy.  It’s much safer for stores to invest at the intent fulfillment stage.  Thus the success of search engine marketing, which is all about ensuring shoppers who already have purchase intent chose your store for the purchase.  This is also why Sunday circular inserts from merchants generally contain offers on such a large number of products.  The store isn’t trying to convince the reader to want something they don’t already want; they are fishing for intent that already exists – hoping that one of those many special offers will match up with an existing customer need.

So back to Facebook.  I’d argue that Facebook is a pretty good environment for intent generation, and a pretty bad one for intent fulfillment.  This applies both to the organic side of Facebook (friend sharing) as well as the paid side.  This means that Facebook is going to more easily deliver value to brands than stores, and that that value is going to be best measured through traditional advertising metrics like awareness rates and control population studies rather than through online metrics like click-throughs.  It’s possible that with Facebook’s continually improving tools for micro-targeting, they will get to the point of being an economical vehicle for intent-harvesters , but this capability will arrive for some product categories long before others, so sellers should be careful to evaluate the relevance to their particular category before plunging in.

Because Facebook is primarily an intent generation environment, higher-level brand messaging will succeed better than the sort of late-funnel, fulfillment-oriented messaging that works for intent harvesting.  For example, one pet supplies store is having success by sharing cute animal photos that get widely distributed.  The click-throughs are low, but they view this campaign as awareness-building and see the results in site visitor counts and conversion rates over the long run.  Pinboards filled with positive-sentiment checkout comments are also appropriate on Facebook as a tool for intent generation.  Here’s a nice example.  On the other hand, some types of content that are very important for conversion late in the purchase funnel – like customer reviews – are totally out of place in Facebook’s early-funnel, intent generation environment; a product review is just spam to someone who has no interest in the product.

Viewing Facebook through this intent-cycle lens doesn’t produce any magical solutions for merchants to monetize Facebook.  But it does suggest what sort of investments are likely to pay off, and what sort of expectations are realistic. Facebook is going to continue to be a tough environment for merchants because of their focus on intent harvesting rather than intent generation.  And strategies aimed at clicks leading directly to purchases are likely to disappoint.  Stores which take that approach will indeed find themselves in the position of selling in a bar.  But those who find value in developing their store brand and are able to look at brand advertising metrics rather than direct web conversion metrics may yet find water in the Facebook well.

May 22, 2013

Social Commerce Webinar – North Shore Commercial Door Talks Success…

Matt O’Donnell, the President of North Shore Commercial Door, recently joined TurnTo for a webinar (below) to discuss the results he sees with Social Q&A on his site.  They’ve had much success, including increasing their user engagement and gaining valuable insight about their products, since implementing the Social Q&A in 2012.

Watch the webinar now:

April 26, 2013

Social Commerce Webinar – Vitamin Shoppe and Blinds.com Talk E-Commerce Tools

We recently hosted a webinar with Liveclicker, a provider of video commerce solutions, where we had the privilege to interview Karen Hansen, the Digital Product Manager for The Vitamin Shoppe and Robert Reed, the Video Producer for Blinds.com, regarding two leading e-commerce tools they recently adopted – social Q&A and video commerce.

In the webinar below, Karen and Robert discuss why they chose these tools and what results they’ve delivered.  Check it out!

February 26, 2013

Amazon’s New Customer Q&A Is Social Commerce Done Exactly Right

This post was first published as a guest article on Multichannel Merchant.

Where Amazon leads others follow. No one else has the resources or data that Amazon has to figure out what really works. So it’s a good idea to take notes when they introduce a major new element to the shopping experience.

Rolled out over the last few weeks, Amazon now offers true Social Q&A on most of their product pages. And it’s great. (Disclosure: I’m biased. It works just like the Social Q&A system that my company, TurnTo, provides. Hmm…) Amazon is not the first to introduce this, like they were with customer reviews. But they have leapfrogged the competition that uses customer-service-oriented Q&A with a beautiful execution of the Social Q&A concept. It is designed top-to-bottom for shopper-customer dialog about products; they say that they remove questions that are about shipping, availability, orders, and customer service. And they have built a powerful engine for ensuring that questions reliably get answered by past buyers, providing a great experience for shoppers without creating a massive support burden for Amazon.

The key to making Social Q&A work for eCommerce is speed, and Amazon has done all the right things to make their model fast:

  • The questions are accepted and appear immediately on the page when submitted. In the age of Facebook, this is what people expect from a social experience. Not a message that says “We’ll alert you if we decide to accept your question. It may take hours or days…”
  • The question is immediately emailed to a large selection of people who actually bought the product, not just people who reviewed it. I just used the system to ask questions about 2 items, one of which had only one review, the other had no reviews. And yet within 2 hours I received 4 answers to one and 5 to the other! There’s no way to do that if you don’t email the question to past customers, or limit the recipient list to reviewers.
  • The answers get sent immediately back to the asker. That provides fast reminders about the purchase the shopper was considering – while the shopper is still in the buying moment – and a smooth path back to the product detail page complete it. Plus, the answers appear immediately on the site for future shoppers to use and for the asker to review.
  • Askers can easily submit follow-up questions back to the answerers, or even just send thanks. That, too, is email enabled, so that it’s easy to have rapid, back-and-forth dialog about products that one person knows about the other needs to learn about.
  • To make the whole question-sending-answer-delivering cycle work as fast as this while still protecting their reputation and their customers, Amazon must be automating the moderation. “Optimistic moderation”, where content is moderated after posting, works fine for reviews, but not for Q&A where posts are emailed to real customers. And manual moderation doesn’t even come close to the speed needed, not to mention that it is too much work at any sort of scale.

The result of all these pieces working together is a system that finally realizes the promise of “social commerce”. In the lingo, it’s leveraging the “interest graph” rather than the “social graph”. Which means that the system enables total strangers to actually talk to each other about products in which they share an interest or experience. Customer reviews are great, of course. But they are not interactive. The 2-way dialog that Social Q&A enables – when it’s done right like this – delivers a level of user engagement far deeper than what reviews can provide.

Online shoppers are going to find this system incredibly useful. For example, those questions I asked this afternoon weren’t tests. I was buying a whiteboard and I needed to know whether the model I was considering erased cleanly or left a ghost image. I wasn’t going to trust the manufacturer’s claims, and the information I needed wasn’t in the reviews. Here’s one of the pages – check it out. The information I got back is far more informative for my question than what’s in the manufacturer’s description or what a customer service rep (who would not have had personal experience with the product) could have provided. And since I now know that answers come back fast, the next time I’ve got a question standing between me and a purchase, I won’t hesitate to ask.

The business significance of this utility is huge. It’s not just that shoppers are more likely to buy when they get the information they need. With a tool this powerful, Amazon has now given shoppers yet another reason to go straight to Amazon next time they are considering a purchase.

If you run an online store, you need this functionality. It provides significant conversion lift, produces a mountain of user-generated content (which search engines love), and off-loads work from your customer service team. Plus, it builds loyalty! (Here’s some data we’ve collected on all these points.) You don’t need to let Amazon run away with yet one more reason for shoppers to buy there rather than at your store.

The best way to understand how Amazon’s Social Q&A works is to go there and try it out. But, for a shortcut, here are screenshots of the main elements.

 

A teaser link near the top of the page:

 

The main Q&A area embedded in the page:

 

The question email:

 And the answer email:

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 29, 2013

eCommerce IS Social Media – so step up to the plate

The essence of social media is that the content comes from users.  A social graph is important for some types of social sites, like Facebook, where posts tend to be of interest only to people who have a connection to the poster.  But it’s not essential.  I can lose myself quite happily in Pinterest without following or being followed by anyone.  It’s the UGC (user-generated content) that’s the key.

So by that definition, should eCommerce sites be considered social media?  Emphatically YES.  On many eCommerce sites, most of the content is user-generated.  On this page on Backcountry.com (I don’t know if it’s representative – it’s the first one I clicked on), the word count for reviews and Q&A is 1,125, while the combined Description and Technical Specs word count is 179.  On this page on Adorama.com, the word count for Social Q&A is 6,116.  The word count for customer reviews is 1,302.  And the combined word count for Overview, Features, and Tech Specs is 478.

And yet eCommerce sites rarely think of themselves as social media sites.  Most of the larger brands and stores we work with have separate teams for “site experience” and “social media marketing”.  That makes sense.  You want to organize your teams around the 80% of things they focus on uniquely, not the 20% of things where responsibilities overlap.  But a consequence of this way of organizing is that the social aspects of the site experience often get too little attention.  The site experience team needs to focus on page design and navigation and check-out and cross-sell/recommendation and branding and loads more; social interaction is just a small part of their mandate.  The social media team, on the other hand, has become the center for expertise on how the store interacts with its customers, and how to encourage customers to interact with each other and spread the good word.  But the social media team’s domain is everywhere on the web except the store site; that belongs to the site experience team.

With the social mojo focused off the brand/store website, and the store site team spread thin, it’s not surprising that the user experience on most store sites is not very social.  But just ’cause that’s how it is doesn’t mean that’s how it should be.  In fact, by ceding the social arena to the social media sites, most stores are missing huge opportunities to create value.  A different approach, which recognizes that eCommerce IS social media and makes social a high-priority responsibility of the site experience team, can address many of the toughest challenges that online stores face.

Challenge #1: Differentiation.

If other stores also sell the same products you sell, then your product detail pages probably look a lot like theirs.  Likely, you both get the same product descriptions from the manufacturer and use the same images.  Not only does this leave you competing solely on price (yuck), it means you have little chance of generating search engine traffic organically.  Whatever margin you have left is going out the SEM window.

But social content is unique.  Build social engagement on your storefront and you can generate content no other site has, increasing the value you bring to your shoppers as well as your performance with search engines.  (Jack Kiefer, CEO of BabyAge.com, has a great discussion of this point in this recent webinar.)

Challenge #2: Customer Support.

Pre- and post- sales, customers have questions.  Sometimes these questions get posted on social media sites.  But  more often, those customers come to your site, and one way or another (email, phone, livechat) they end up in your call center.  That costs you $, and it doesn’t always make your customer happy.  While many inquiries need your staff (e.g. “where’s my order?”), many others can be handled at least as well socially.  Past customers are often more accurate, faster, and more persuasive than your own team.  Really.  Here’s some hard data.

And here’s a little illustration:  I stumbled on a customer question recently at Overstock.com about a chair I had bought from them.  This person couldn’t figure out how to make it recline.  Since I sit in it all day long, I had a pretty good idea what the problem was.  AFTER I sent in my answer, customer service posted a vague “We want to help you…” non-answer.  Then, to my gratification, the asker wrote back that my post indeed solved the issue.  (See it here.)  Social (1), Customer Support (0).

Challenge #3: Loyalty

Shoppers who engage deeply with your site are more likely to direct-navigate back to your site the next time they need to buy something, rather than just typing the thing into Google and going where ever that leads. So what opportunities for deep engagement do you provide?  Social interaction is the most powerful tool you’ve got in the engagement tool kit.  In fact, in a recent study, we found that first-time buyers who interact with Social Q&A while shopping are 15-40% more likely to make a repeat purchase within a year than first-time buyers who don’t.  (Blog post on that coming up.)

Further, social gives you an opportunity to reach out to your past customers and invite them back to your site that is completely different from the usual promotional material you send.  For example, past customers click through on shopper question emails and return to the store site to answer at a 10% rate.  And the unsubscribe rate on these emails is typically ~ 0.2%.  Most stores using the TurnTo Social Q&A system tell us that, by these measures, this question email is one of the best performing marketing emails they send.  Period.  Not to mention that the purchase conversion rate for these past customers who come back to answer is 2-4X higher than that of normal shoppers.

With benefits like these, it’s time for site experience teams to recognize that eCommerce IS social media and start prioritizing projects that socialize the on-site experience.  Leaving social to the social media team is leaving money on the table.

January 24, 2013

Social Commerce Webinar – US-Mattress Talks Social Q&A

Yesterday John Swords (our VP of Product) joined Jamie Braxton, the Marketing Manager for US-Mattress and FurnitureCrate, for our webinar “US-Mattress Talks Social Q&A.”  During the webinar, Jamie and John discussed the social commerce goals and challenges Jamie faced on their sites, why Social Q&A was a solution and how it is working for them now.

Watch the full webinar here:

 

December 28, 2012

Engaging Shoppers with Information, not Opinion

Guest post by: Tim Kilroy

Tim Kilroy is a consultant who focuses on helping companies achieve dramatic growth through marketing and business development efforts. He has worked with high-growth companies like Wayfair, Karmaloop, The North Face and many, many more. You can learn more at www.timkilroy.com

I spend a lot of time thinking about growth. I help companies generate more traffic, generate more leads. I spend my days thinking about scale, share of voice, acceleration. I have worked in search, in display, in mobile, brand advertising, direct response advertising. I’ve been around the block a couple of dozen times. Someone that I was working with looked at the plans that we were putting together, and he said, “OK, so what do we do with all the traffic we are going to get?”

Nobody ever asks that question.

For many companies, how to treat your visitors is an entirely separate exercise from getting visitors. There are “Acquisition Managers” and “Site Experience Engineers” and “Director of Low Intent Consumer Engagement” (that is a real title, by the way). Each of these chops up the consumer experience into silos. But customers don’t perceive your efforts that way. Acquisition and engagement are part of a continuum for consumers.

So, as my client and I started to talk about ways to engage the new visitors that we were starting to drive. He immediately jumped to reviews as a method of engagement (and I can also share that they have a measurable impact on search engine visibility). And I think when I was an SEO guy, I would have stopped the conversation right there and dialed up PowerReviews. But my experience as a CMO of a $200mm fashion retailer tells me a different story. We had product level reviews on many of our 20,000 products. The SEO boost from those reviews was 1-2%. But we were redesigning our pages and were trying for simpler. So we started doing some multi-variate testing of the new page design. Amongst other things, on the new page, there were no reviews. At the end of the testing, we saw a meaningful difference in conversion on the cleaner page. And when we did all the math, removing the reviews resulted in about a 9% increase in conversion.

I, to put it mildly, was shocked. How could this be? Reviews are supposed to add the texture and nuance that drives consumer trust and conversion. In our case, it was the exact opposite. Why?

Our brand already had a high degree of trust with our consumers. We were the authority in our space. This is where math fails a little bit, because we couldn’t do a sophisticated sentiment analysis, but it was our opinion that reviews are too subjective. Products got bad reviews because they didn’t fit, or the color was not as expected, or the shipping was too expensive. Reviews tended to be experientially-based rather than product-based regardless of how they are written. And reviews are written by two kinds of folks – those with an axe to grind or those who are cheerleaders. And to be honest, neither is unbiased.

So, I started to reflect on my other experiences in online retail over the last two decades, and at the largest online furniture retailer, we tried to improve the customer experience by adding all of the product specific Q&A from our customer service department to the product page. We had questions like “How heavy is this item?”, “Will it fit through my door?”, “What is the seat depth?”. These aren’t sexy questions. But we saw real conversion lift with this tactic. But my client doesn’t have 200 call center employees with reams of data at their fingertips. What he does have is 7 years of customers who have experience with his product. They know the facts about his products. And by shaping the information that is asked for from those consumers by making them specific questions about the product (“Will it fit in a space X by Y?”, “Does it work in Europe?”, “How long is it from shoulder to cuff?”) it removes the subjective nature of experience into objective fact distillation.

It is the answers to questions that make you want to buy. It is the product as solution that justifies the purchase (honestly, shopping online isn’t all that much fun, so if you end up on a product page, the impulse to buy is probably pretty high). UGC does make me want to buy the product. It is the information that removes the reservation. But why doesn’t that work in the review space? Frankly, the review justifies what you want to hear. If you have enough reservations, inevitably, you will gravitate towards those reviews that make it easy to walk away. If you want to make the purchase, you will, of course, focus on the positive reviews. Product reviews can be self-reinforcing events. The cheerleaders hang out with the cheerleaders, and the axe-grinders hang out with the axe-grinders. Reviews are a self-reflexive lens.

I’ll share a personal holiday shopping anecdote – I bought a Chromebook for my kids for Christmas (shhhh…don’t tell them). I read a million reviews and they were all positive…but too high-level. I don’t actually care about processor power or inane memory specs, those things that professional reviewers care about. And the product reviews definitely fell into the “GOOGLE ROCKS – The Chromebook is the end of Apple!” or the “It isn’t as good as Windows because you can’t install a faster graphics chip, who would buy this….” And, truthfully, those reviews were just noise. I had one simple question – is there something like Skype for the Chromebook? That is what I needed to know. That was my point of reservation. I travel a lot, and I love to video chat with my kids while I am away. It is meaningful to me and them. So I asked that question on a product forum (NOT on the product page, mind you, but rather a forum that I had to search for…). As it turns out, it doesn’t do Skype, but someone was nice enough to tell me that you can do a private Google Hangout, and someone else told me that Skype was actively working on a browser only plug-in, so there would no need to download a client. These were objective answers to my objective question. And that single bit of information that was relevant to me, when answered, made the purchase decision simple.

Consumers are looking for information, not opinion. Decision purchases are made on rationalized facts, not influence. Passion and emotion run high on the engagement end of things (Do I like the site? Is this a good price? Is my credit card safe? Will my friends laugh at me for buying this?) All of that happens before the decision to buy. What drives the “Add to Cart” button click is information that helps me make the decision.

And just like Detective Joe Friday, we all really just want the facts, ma’am.

Posted in Blog

November 26, 2012

Why Social Q&A Is Such an Effective Customer Service Tool

Your shoppers have questions that stand between them and a purchase. Doubt this?  In an article in Internet Retailer just a couple days ago, Stephen Gillett, President of Digital at Best Buy cites 3 top reasons why customers who come to their site don’t purchase, and the first of these was “needing more product information”.  (To put in context how important this is, the other two were “product wasn’t available” and “the price was too high”!)

So how do you ensure shopper questions get answered?  One remarkably simple strategy: let them ask!  Well, maybe it’s not so simple, because if you are going to invite your shoppers to submit questions, you have to be sure someone replies.

That’s where Social Q&A comes in.  By enabling your past customers to answer questions from your current shoppers, you can provide faster, more credible answers at lower cost than by relying on your customer service team.  To many organizations, this isn’t obvious; customer service teams are viewed as more expert than customers, faster to respond, and more likely to provide the positive sentiment that will close a sale.  But if Social Q&A is done right, the reality is often just the opposite.

To see why this is so, it’s helpful to group the sort of questions your shoppers have on a spectrum from most social to least social, where “social” means suitable for answering by your customers rather than your staff.  Here’s an illustration of this sociability spectrum:

 

On one end of the spectrum are questions related to peer opinions, tastes, or real-world experience with the product.  These questions really need a social answer; the asker expects an answer from a peer, and staff answers are viewed as useless at best and can even be seen as inappropriate. Without a system to reliably generate social answers, this entire category of shopper question will go unanswered.  In response, many stores just provide no way for shoppers to ask this sort of question.  But that doesn’t make the questions go away, it just means they go unasked instead of unanswered.

In the middle of the spectrum are fact-based questions about the product – specs, compatibility, intended usage.  These questions can be answered by either store (or brand) staff or by past customers.  Stores that lack a system to deliver social answers will, of course, go the staff answer route for this type of question. However, we have seen that when these questions are sent to past customers, the answers are often better than what the staff provides in 2 important ways:

  1. They arrive much faster.  While, in theory, store and brand staff could be standing by to answer the moment a question is submitted, in practice, most have their staff answer in batches on a schedule – typically once or twice a day.  As a result, staff response times rarely average under 2 hours, and for most stores the avg staff response time is significantly longer.  In contrast, with social Q&A, shopper questions are emailed simultaneously to a group of past customers who have bought the product.  Some of these people happen to be doing their email at just that moment.  The results: on average, across all the stores in the TurnTo network, the first social answer arrives in under 1 hour.  You can see examples in this study or this one or this one.
  2. They are often far more informative and contain far more positive sentiment.  Stores may be afraid that customer answers will be inaccurate or negative, but these fears are unfounded.  For one thing, most questions receive multiple answers from past customers, so shoppers can easily see if one stands out.  But more than that, we’ve found that while staff generally provide factual answers to  just the exact question asked with neutral sentiment, fellow customers tend to answer the question asked, provide additional information that they feel will help the shopper, and wrap it all in positive sentiment.  Here’s an example of a fact question about the brim on a fedora from a great hat shop called Hats in the Belfry.  The simple answer is “yes”, but these customers have added color to their answers that goes beyond what a staff member typically would (or could without sounding “salesy”).

And when customers can be counted on to answer shopper questions, the staff doesn’t have to, which reduces load on the call center.  That applies not only for the shopper who asked the question but for all future shoppers with the same question who can review the Q&A dialog posted on the product detail page.

Finally, there’s the 3rd category on the spectrum.  These are questions that past customers can’t answer.  They typically relate to policies and terms like shipping, availability, pricing, or returns, or, infrequently, support needs for individual orders.  Some stores in the TurnTo network allow shoppers to submit these questions and route them to their staff.  Others prefer to direct shoppers to their traditional support channels (live chat, phone, or email) or to online resources like FAQ or policy pages for these questions.

Now that we’ve divided up shopper questions into these 3 types, we can answer another important question: what % of shopper questions can be handled socially?

  • For stores that handle most fact-questions (the middle group) socially and deflect non-social questions (the 3rd group), our data show that over 80% of all the shopper questions asked can be handled by past customers!
  • For stores that handle most fact-questions socially and accept any type of question, including the non-social ones, over 60% of all questions asked can be handled by past customers.

So, in short, this is why Social Q&A is such an effective  customer support tool:

  • It enables shoppers to get credible answers to the whole category of peer-oriented questions where staff answers just won’t do
  • It delivers faster, more persuasive answers to product fact questions than staff can
  • And it handles most of the questions that shoppers ask automatically, which reduces call center load