Vicki Cantrell, SVP of Communities at the National Retail Federation and Executive Director of Shop.org, has had a front row seat for observing the myriad ways technology impacts retail.
Before joining the NRF, Vicki worked at world-leading brands like Tory Burch, where she served as COO and CIO, as well as Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Party City and JCPenney. She was named one of the most prominent women IT executives by Executive Technology Magazine.
Vicki is speaking at the Shop.org Digital Summit in Dallas, TX later this month, where more than 5,000 retail professionals will come together to network and discover the latest in digital retail. Several of my colleagues from the Sidecar team will be in attendance, helping e-commerce pros get more from their Google Shopping and Facebook Dynamic Ad campaigns.
Last week, Vicki and I connected for a Shop.org 2016 preview podcast. Our chat is the perfect appetizer for Shop.org, but it’s a must listen for anyone working in e-commerce.
We discussed what’s on tap at this year’s Shop.org, new ways to think about mobile, social media’s ongoing evolution, and skills retailers need to win in today’s e-commerce landscape.
You can listen to the complete interview here or read the transcript (edited for brevity and clarity) below. And stay tuned to our blog and social channels for more updates on Shop.org!
1:00 What topics will be most discussed at this year’s Shop.org Digital Summit?
2:53 We’ve been hearing a lot about how important mobile is for years now. What’s hype and what really matters to e-commerce marketers today?
5:20 How are retailers measuring that broader picture of engagement versus just conversions?
6:46 How have you seen technology’s role in retail evolve? And what role does technology play in retail today?
10:19 What digital marketing tactics or skills are most vital to meeting shoppers’ expectations in 2016?
12:25 What is small data, and how is it different from Big Data?
13:30 What new opportunities and challenges do you see on the horizon for e-commerce marketers?
Rob DePersia: To start off, what topics do you think will be most discussed at this year’s Digital Summit?
Vicki Cantrell: Well, based on the size of the Digital Summit, we really do have several areas that we’re going to be able to cover. We’re going to be digging into a lot of the startups and how they relate to our world — and how retailers adopt some of the new technologies.
We’ll definitely get into tactics; tactics are always critical and well-covered at the Digital Summit. When I say tactics, those are likely to include many things, but principally acquisition, mobile, marketplaces. We’re gonna hear a lot from the large retailers and their ongoing transformation to digital – it’s a work in progress all the time.
We’ll have a lot to say about the tech titans because they certainly impact the industry.
We have some of the great big brands. We’ll hear from Toys “R” Us and Lands’ End, JC Penney, etc.
And upcoming trends will be very important at the Summit. We’re doing a lot on the fast track of AR and VR, social, and how you interpret social influence.
Then, of course, we’re gonna always keep our pulse on the tech titans and their impact, not only Amazon, but we have a breakfast, and our guests are Google and Pinterest, and Facebook, etc. So, we’ll have a lot to say about the tech titans because they certainly impact the industry.
RD: We’ve been hearing a lot about how important mobile is for years now. In your opinion, what’s hype and what really matters to e-commerce marketers today?
VC: I think that mobile obviously continues to be really critical. There is no hype, I think. Anything that you can do in your mobile activities is really important for the company and the consumer.
There is one difference that I see just on the evolution of how people are doing [mobile]. First of all, some of the table stakes continue to be true. Email marketing’s still really critical; being able to deal with email marketing on a mobile device is really critical and does not go away. What is continuously being worked on is the ease of conversion — it’s really important.
Always thinking “mobile first” is really how the change is happening inside these retailers. By that, I mean not just marketing or not just the person in digital who’s responsible for mobile. We see a big change in how mobile is looked at across the organization. When you’re thinking “mobile first,” it gets a different lens as far as all of the opportunities that you can capitalize on.
Anything that you can do in your mobile activities is really important for the company and the consumer.
Now, let me give you a couple of examples: You have a company strategy; You have a company culture; You have philanthropy; You have your employees who are all very socially and mobilely engaged. And I think there’s a lot of great opportunities, mostly with mobile personalization, where you could talk about engagement with your customer rather than conversion because you can tie in those other aspects of your company.
Whereas optimization and conversion are still really critical, I think tying in your bigger story, your bigger brand story, is a great new kind of landscape for mobile.
RD: How are retailers measuring those kinds of things — that broader picture of engagement versus just conversions?
VC: Well, how they’re measuring them leads to obviously the other critical aspect of do you have the right analytics on your team? Do you have the right way to understand what your data is telling you? You can’t really separate social and mobile, obviously.
When you’re thinking “mobile first,” it gets a different lens as far as all of the opportunities that you can capitalize on.
When you talk about social, I think the big change there is how quickly social changes. Not only do you get new platforms, but how the consumer uses the platforms, how shopping is becoming more important on those platforms, how to pay attention to the social aspect, and how the consumer is using social based on your brand. Of course, it’s going to be different for different people.
RD: I imagine that’s gonna be different for different brands, too.
VC: Yes, exactly. That’s really what I mean. You’re not going to have the same social strategies depending upon who your consumer is, what you’re trying to say to them, and how you want to communicate to them and when.
RD: Mobile and social and some other things you mentioned are all wrapped up in this bigger story of technology. How have you seen technology’s role in retail evolve? And what role does technology play in retail today?
VC: Yes, I have seen a lot as far as technology changes. I love retail. I’ve been doing this for a long time. What I’ve seen is that retailers, obviously, they’ve had to convert to a customer first mindset and still pay attention to their product. And so, instead of product and brand first, it’s customer first.
What that means, from a technology standpoint, is retailers are reacting faster than they ever have before. It’s important. They kind of woke up and said, “Okay, we can’t take as long as it takes to do this.” It doesn’t mean it isn’t an always work in progress — you have Moore’s law and things are changing faster than you can assimilate. Retailers have to respond faster than any other industry to customer first.
When you talk about social, I think the big change there is how quickly social changes … and how shopping is becoming more important on those platforms.
How has it changed? I would say that the tools that are available to retailers enable them to respond faster, and I mean that across the board. With great technologies, you can figure out what works faster. You can get much more into a testing mentality. It doesn’t take months and months to determine, “Is this working, is it not?”
That’s where I really see technology changing [retail]. You can quickly implement new tools across the organization.
Technology used to reside in IT. Obviously, now the marketer and the digital areas within a company are so tied in and responsible for what the new tools are — they don’t work in a vacuum.
As organizations are changing, their structure and people are starting to work much more seamlessly across silos. This is how they’re able to take advantage of what technologies they can put in and how fast to do it. Acquisition and data analytics are two key, key areas.
RD: It’s almost as if marketers themselves need to be technologists today.
VC: They absolutely do, but I would also point out, think about the UI and the ease of use. Yes, you have to be a technologist to know what’s coming your way, but consumer tech is critical. How do you get your brand involved in consumers’ offline lives? And when I say that, I really mean when they’re not interacting specifically with your brand.
Think about Pokemon. Think about gaming. It’s really changed the landscape. Retailers were quick to capitalize on how they could incorporate these new trends and new fads as quickly as possible.
RD: What digital marketing tactics or skills are most vital to meeting shoppers’ expectations in 2016?
VC: I really do think the big buckets are social and analytics. Really, when you talk tactics and skills, you’re really talking about talent.
Talent continues to be a key focus and a key challenge for retailers. You really need somebody who understands the social landscape. And when I say that, it’s because of the changes. Google will change their algorithm. What the social channels are doing to increase their shopability via video and/or interaction, etc. is really engaging consumers in a very fast changing way.
How do you get your brand involved in consumers’ offline lives?
So the most vital skill is to really understand social and then analyze the activity that you have between your social channels. What works for you? How do you utilize Snapchat?
We haven’t talked about this yet, but think about who your demographic is. It’s very different if your demographic is a Millennial, a Boomer or a Gen Z as to what you’re going to use. Understanding which to use and when, and using your data even if you go into what we call small data to help determine your social strategy.
RD: When you say small data, what are you referring to there and how’s that different from Big Data?
VC: When I say small data — we did a think tank paper on this — it’s really pulling out and capitalizing on some specific KPIs that you want to track. People are daunted by Big Data. They aren’t quite sure how to start the process of understanding what’s important.
But, if you go with some key KPIs for your organization and drill down into the data based on your specific challenges, whether it be a particular market or a particular product or a particular launch, whatever is pertinent to your business, take a few of those KPIs, really drill down into the data, you’ll get some meaningful results from it.
RD: Finally, looking ahead, what new opportunities and challenges do you see on the horizon for e-commerce marketers?
VC: I think that challenges and opportunities are kind of the same thing. I’ll talk about it in the way of challenges and opportunities, but you’ll see the similarities across many of them.
So, I think that the biggest challenge for retailers right now still is their internal organizations. How you are structured inside your organization is really critical to be able to respond to business challenges.
When I say that, you know that there’s a ton of changes in structures: Where does digital report? How do you deal with a combination of marketing, IT, and digital? In addition, how do you communicate inside the organization that the customer’s first? Do you have a strategy officer, a customer officer, etc.?
Your strategies for acquisition two months ago…or even a year ago… might be different than your strategies now because the new customer is more visually oriented.
So, the organization changes that either are happening, which leads to some confusion and change management, or that should happen and understanding what those are for your organization are really critical.
Another challenge I see is speed, pace of change. I know that sounds kind of trite because it’s so obvious, but when you have your internal ability to react to change plus, for example, maybe Google changing their algorithm, how you can keep up with that pace inside your organization? It is a challenge. You have to be looking outside and inside at the same time.
Another challenge I see is acquisition. Obviously, this has been an ongoing challenge, but the customer’s changing. So, your strategies for acquisition two months ago…or even a year ago… might be different than your strategies now because the new customer is more visually oriented. What if that isn’t playing into your road map or your plan? You have to always be looking at your acquisition strategy and make sure it’s reacting to what happens.
There’s a lot of opportunities. First of all, all those challenges make for opportunities. But, the other opportunity is you really can marry your company culture, your strategy, your philanthropy to the customer?
When you think of this theme of how you interact with the customer without them interrupting their life, this leads to great opportunities.
You’re looking for acquisition and a long term relationship. How do you do that? You determine how to engage with them. What is most important to them? How do you build long term loyalty? And again, how do you find ways to interact with them at a time when they’re not thinking about you?
Very specifically, I was cooking and my can opener broke. I was able to talk to my Amazon Echo and tell Alexa to order me a can opener. And she told me what was available and said should I place the order, and I said, “Yes,” and I never once stopped cooking.
I didn’t go near my mobile device. I didn’t go near my computer. And I placed an order without stopping what I was doing. When you think of this theme of how you interact with the customer without them interrupting their life, this leads to great opportunities.
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