Here’s what we covered:
- How Linda got her start in blogging (0:00)
- What is Elastic Path? (1:20)
- How she grew the Get Elastic subscriber base (3:45)
- How she thinks about converting blog traffic into customers (6:00)
- How she uses blog content to educate customers (8:29)
- How she stays up to date with topics in the online marketing world (10:15)
- What strategies & tactics online retailers should be paying attention to (12:00)
- The role of personalization in Ecommerce (17:00)
- The implications of personalization relative to online privacy (19:00)
- Cookie law and how it could impact the online marketing industry in North America (22:00)
- Who Linda recommends following in the Ecommerce & CRO world (26:00)
- Full transcript after the break..
MA: Today we are talking to Linda Bustos, the Director of E-commerce research at Elastic Path. Linda is an award winning blogger and she is responsible for much of the awesome content on ElasticPath.com. Let’s go talk to her.
MA: So, let’s start with what is Elastic Path? And how did you get your start there?
Elastic Path Background
Linda Bustos : Elastic Path is an e-commerce platform. The company has evolved over the last 5 years that I have been there, from e-commerce platform for traditional retail & physical goods to specializing in digital goods. It is actually quite a different world even though it’s all e-commerce. [With] digital products there is no inventory, warehousing, shipping, etc. It’s not the typical add to cart, checkout, and you’re done. Often times with digital products and digital experiences, like say a video game or owning an e-book, there is more to it, the product itself has what we call “entitlements,” Which is like, “can somebody access this on all devices?” Or “how long does the DRM last”? “How many people can access it?” That kind of thing. We really are moving the platform to that segment which is a little bit different than (traditional) retail.
I have been with Elastic Path for five years, this month actually. And, I started as a guest poster for the blog when it was just getting started and then that quickly moved into a full time role. We tried it out and that seemed to work.
MA: So you mentioned that Elastic Path is a platform – is it specific to selling digital products, and is it everything from helping them build their site to managing payments? What is included in the platform?
LB : We’ve got the regular nuts and bolts of a platform to get your site up and running. We do still have retail customers from our previous versions. Basically, it’s just like any kind of ecommerce platform but we also have special things that are specific to this market [digital goods]. For example, subscription billing capabilities and entitlements, and our newest piece of this which can also be a standalone product is DCAPI, which is an acronym for Digital Commerce API. So, this API can help you actually expose different services and pieces of the platform quickly and easily into a social network app or a data app or remixing different parts of your data into a something new. So, it’s kind of like a traditional platform with a few extra things that are very tailored to digital commerce.
Growing Get Elastic
MA: Got it. So, you mentioned you started with Elastic Path as a guest blogger and, just from the initial research that I did, it seemed like you’ve had some great success growing that blog. I think I read from a few hundred to 5,000 [subscribers] in one year. So, could you talk a little bit about how you sort of transitioned from just doing guest blogs to growing such a huge subscriber base?
LB : Well, I would say that the number one thing for any business, if you really want your blog to grow – Number one – we didn’t talk about our company a whole lot. It was really about getting information out there and being vendor neutral. Even though we did mention our company and who we were in some posts, and if we had a big announcement we would do that, but, really, it was not so much company-centric as it was industry-centric. We had a separate domain and a separate brand. But, the second piece was writing very frequently. So, me coming on as a full time writer versus if you’re trying to get a blog up and running while somebody has regular responsibilities at a company. They’re supposed to find time to blog twice a month or twice a week. It’s a lot harder to pick up steam. So I think that’s when it started growing fast because Elastic Path decided they wanted to have somebody that was writing all the time.
LB : That’s how it grew. It was also at a time when RSS subscription was probably at its height. Right now that’s dying down a little bit because we’ve got Twitter and we’ve got all these new social sharing tools and everybody is kind of overwhelmed with various kinds of social media.
Turning Content into Customers
MA: So, it’s interesting. I think it’s one thing to be able to generate a lot of traffic and have people who are interested in subscribing to what you’re writing, but, one thing I’ve always struggled with is how do you turn great blog content into actual orders? In your case, how do you get people from your blog to actually go and try your product? Is that a goal for you guys? Are you trying to get people over from the blog into the product or is it more of a branding exercise? How do you guys think about that?
LB : Well, it is both. I think it probably leans towards a branding exercise. And we do definitely use it as a broadcast medium rather than a lead generation form. So what I mean by that is that we’ve definitely had some customers that have come through and it was the blog that won the customer but that’s usually more on the consulting side. Something were talking about on the blog, we were addressing a specific problem that a client had and they came to us asking “Hey, can you do this for us?” Whereas the bread and butter business of Elastic Path is an e-commerce platform, which has a very long sales cycle. It is typically 9 months to a year to make a decision on a platform and they might be spending half a million to 3 million dollars on the project.
So you wouldn’t say that the blog did all of the selling or was a big draw for that. I would hope that it would get people to remember us. If they did come and land on the Elastic Path site they might go to the blog and subscribe to keep that conversation going. We use it internally to announce our webinars so we can get people back to the site to find out more information. And, also our sales people can go through the blog. I often get an email from someone saying, “Hey, you know, we’ve got, I’m talking to a customer and these are their main pain points. Have you written anything that kind of speaks to this that I can send to them?” and, yeah, sure, we’ve got this and that, so even the archive can be useful in those situations.
In-house vs. Consulting
MA: Got it. So, I’m going to deviate from our questions here a little bit. I thought it was really interesting – you’re actually taking insight from your client services team or the people on the service side of your business and you’re translating; you’re using the insight from those types of projects and translating those directly into blog content. So, my question is, have you been on both sides of the coin both as a blogger and as a part of the services team at Elastic Path?
LB : Yeah, and I would say it’s not always that I take blog inspiration from client projects. I think it has happened a few times. Often times we’ve used it the opposite way, where someone has a problem that we’ve written about before so what we’ve written we can kind of forwarded it on that way. But, we also have some consulting offerings for our customers so, in a consulting engagement, which I have been on the services side with consulting projects so its 100% just client-facing, preparing the recommendations and things like that and I don’t post those things on the blog for obvious reasons.
Staying On Top of Trends
MA: Well one thing that has amazed me about what you have built on your blog is the wide array and breadth of online marketing topics that you write about. And for me, as somebody who has been working on building a product and trying to build a blog at the same time, it’s been really impressive to me the depth and detail with which you write about topics in the e-commerce world. So, a question for you is, how best do you keep up on with trends? How do you find yourself learning about new online market topics? Where do you go – is it conferences, is it blogs? Just generally, how do you keep yourself up to date?
LB : Definitely subscribing to as many blogs – and really what reading blogs is, is listening, right? So, if you keep listening, listen to your colleagues, listen to the blogs that you’re reading, can be conferences, can be podcasts, can be your own clients. Overall, you will accumulate a backlog of knowledge and ideas and that kind of thing. And, the second part is to be really curious and think through problems yourself. So, I definitely read a lot of blogs and then when I’m formulating lot of blog topics and if I want to do a deeper dive I’ll either do more research on that topic or I can turn to other industry sources and that sort of thing. So, part of it is being fed – being fed updates on what’s going on. And, I subscribe to different types of blogs. So, you’ve got blogs that give tips and tricks, kind of like our blog or eConsultancy or BryanEisenberg.com, and then you’ve got blogs that are like industry news and like Marketing Pilgirm and Techcrunch … and Mashable. They give the updates on what is going on in the industry. So, you kind of need to balance like where are we now, what’s going on now, and what are best practices
MA: What should online retailers really be paying attention to right now?
LB : Hot topics in terms of strategies and tactics or just what’s going on in the industry?
MA: Yeah, strategies and tactics.
Strategies & Tactics for Retailers
LB : Personalization is definitely something that we’re not quite there in realizing the full potential of. Obviously, we know that the more you can personalize an experience the more likely you are to do the right targeting and close more deals. However, we also know there are a lot of false positives that can occur with personalization. Technology is not perfect. There’s often times we can be looking at something but that doesn’t mean you want to buy it, or it was for you, or maybe you bought it elsewhere and technologies aren’t able to update themselves without that knowledge.
Retargeting is this hot thing that I’ve been looking at in the past year and as it’s growing and it’s not necessarily a new concept but it’s something that’s kind exploding in terms of companies stepping forward and saying this is something that’s really working for us.
Retargeting being display ads and search ads that are triggered by visits to your site or searches that are tap in through a cookie and then sent through your advertising network in order to serve up specific ads that match those queries or match the activities that someone has done on your site.
But there’s that question – how do you make someone not feel like you’re stalking them, or how do you not waste display ad spend on irrelevant impressions, and that kind of thing. So, these are not easy questions to answer. And it’s something that the ones who are stepping out, and actually working with retargeting find a constant struggle to try to optimize what’s the ideal, most efficient way to do this, and what isn’t going to hurt branding, and what isn’t going to go through budget really quickly. Other than that, I mean mobile and social are always going to be hot. Mobile devices are not going away. Right now, I think when retailers and brands and business of all types are still scratching their heads in saying what should we be doing with mobile? It’s still not the best user experience. It’s still not driving a lot of dollars. Yet, if you don’t have it, there’s some kind of missing user experience. There’s an expectation for it. And, it’s very hard to keep up with all the different devices, platforms, screen sizes, and features that come with the different phones and devices. And, it’s really complicated. So, take that to a couple of years ago when web designers were really concerned with, oh wow — “we’ve got three different browsers and now we’ve got thousands.” So, that’s really important. Responsive design. (that’s being able to serve up your web experience to whatever that visitor is using in their hand or at their desk.)
And, social. Obviously, Facebook is out to dominate the world. They’re almost going head to head with Google. They want to get into search. They’re already in advertising. They want to own everything that people do in their life whether that comes to communications or shopping or anything. They basically want to Facebook-ize everything that people do… whether that’s a good thing or not. And then we see these surprise social companies popping up like Pinterest. Who were they three, four, five months ago? And all of a sudden it’s the biggest thing and there are Pin-it buttons everywhere. Brands are scrambling to figure out how to squish that in with the Twitter and the Facebook and whatever other networks they’re doing. I expect it to change in six months. My answer would be different. But, it would still be under the umbrella of the personalization, and social, and mobile, those are the hot ones.
Personalization & Ecommerce
MA: Personalization is a big one of me, so if you don’t mind, I would love to go back to that one. I think it’s really interesting what’s happening in the space. I’ve seen a lot of companies out there who are doing interesting things. Call it big data from retailers but they’re combining multiple data sets. It could be information about what you’ve browsed in the past, or what you’ve bought in the past, or what categories you’ve looked at in the past. And they combine that with things like your geographic location, your gender, what information they can derive about your – what demographic information they can derive. Even, what is the weather outside where you are right now.
And I am seeing some merchants have some pretty incredible success executing campaigns like that. It begs the question – how long will it be before all retailers are able to run campaigns like this? Have you seen any examples out there of retailers or really anyone in the e-commerce world, have you seen any examples of anyone doing personalization really well?
LB : That’s a really good question. I’m not too familiar with what any individual retailers are doing. I kind of keep up more with the vendors than what they are doing. I know Amazon has been a real pioneer in actually building that technology and the folks that built their recommendations engine actually went off and started their own personalization company.
Personalization actually comes in various forms so it can be on-site personalization, it can be personalization for marketing campaigns or advertising, cross-channel, or in retail stores or off. I think the biggest challenge to really doing personalization well is the disconnect – when someone is on their phone versus on their laptop versus when they are going around and doing something offline.
I think for there to be that true integration there has to be some kind of a syncing between all devices and all contexts and a lot of feedback – feedback both positive and negative. Negative being that someone is no longer interested in this topic or this item. So I might be looking at baby products online – I might be going to a baby shower, I might be preparing for my own child. That person might lose their baby halfway through the pregnancy. It’s to the point of insulting to continue to send promotions, that can be a trigger. It can get really sensitive and really complicated.
There was this Target story that was in the news not long ago, where they were accurately able to predict pregnancy based on buying habits. So, if I had to pick someone who was doing it really, really well, I’d say anyone who is using these big data aggregators and pattern analysis to look at patterns of somebody who is starting to buy unscented hand lotion and all of the stuff and be able to reverse engineer someone who is going to have a baby. And it turned out to be a teenager, and they all of a sudden started sending coupons to this young woman’s home and her dad came out to the news and said, look they were so accurate. Target knew that person was going to have a baby before her father did. It really raised awareness. There is always going to be backlash around really, really good targeting and smart personalization because this is a little too close to home and a little too invasive. It comes with its challenges.
MA: You mentioned it on the display piece too. It’s a very fine line. You need to make sure that your campaigns are set up in a way that if people are getting sick of your display ads, there’s a way to opt out. If they come back and buy from you, you don’t show them ads for the item that they just bought. So, I think you’re right. But, also, on the flip side, I think people’s comfort level with that amount of personalization is also changing just as rapidly as the space. In a year or two, it might not be a big deal for people to have that kind of personalization happen.
LB : So, it needs to be opt-In, number one. It almost needs to be all-consuming because if you really want to do great personalization – somebody might indicate that they like something and then go and buy it on somebody else’s site and without that kind of feedback and maybe that becomes an opportunity for overseeing data collection that would be able to from all different points and be able to feed that back. To tell certain retailers, hey, you know this has already been bought on a different site, sorry for you, but why don’t you go and change your targeting to something else. I think that there is an opportunity for a company to emerge with that kind of offering.
It’s the same thing with going around on the web. So there’s number one and then two, when you need to get an opt-in, we know that with any type of conversion abandonment and any type of goal abandonment, you want to remove any type of friction, if possible. This is just introducing new friction.
It can also go even worse case scenario: it causes people to assume that something bad is going to happen by allowing the cookie, even though it’s going to be the opposite. It’s the same thing as asking for the three digit code on the back of a credit card. For some people, they’re going to take that in a card-not-present transaction as “now you want my password! And now you want the password to my email address!” if it came to that. Unless they understand that, no, we’re not going to store that special secret code and store it and pass it on to our employees and everything and go to town on it. But that’s the way that it presents because now you’re asking for more information, when it’s actually for the greater good, finishing the transaction and protecting the customer from an unauthorized use of the card, but it can be perceived as bad. But, I really hope it doesn’t come to North America. What we may see is the need for a new type of measurement tool that isn’t cookie based but is more traditional web analytics.
MA: It will be interesting to see what happens with that. That’s definitely something that we’ll be watching closely.
Experts to Follow
MA: As I mentioned earlier, for the purposes of our blog, we’re trying to interview as many great, smart people in e-commerce and the conversion rate optimization world as we can. What individuals out there do you look up to, do you subscribe to their blog, who should we interview next?
LB : I don’t want to make a few recommendations that I’m going to miss out on a lot of people, but I will give three of four. Definitely Bryan Eisenberg and his brother, Jeffery, were instrumental in bringing the concept of testing and website optimization to e-commerce. They’ve written several bestselling books on optimization. So, I think either, or both of them would be fantastic guests.
I think that Ann Holland, who is the founder of Marketing Sherpa would be great. She is also very much an advocate for online testing and landing page optimization. I think Tim Ash would be a good person to interview. So, I’ve given you three options for optimization but e-commerce is more than that. I think Dr. Flint McGlaughlin and I’m getting back into testing again — but Marketing Experiments which now has bought out Marketing Sherpa as well have such good training and if somebody really wants to get into e-commerce and optimizing web pages and really getting results they should follow them. And I’m trying to think of someone from e-commerce is Forrester Research’s Sucharita Mulpuru. She is the senior analyst on the retail side and she would have her finger on the pulse for anything to do with the business of e-commerce including optimization.
MA: Thank you for listening and make sure to head over to Rejoiner.com to listen to more exclusive conversion rate expert interviews.