Tactics to one-up competitors on eCommerce during COVID-19

ECommerce has undoubtedly surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, with consumers practising social distancing. While that might be a good sign for brands in general, this also means they are required to work doubly hard to capture consumers' eyeballs. With the pandemic not showing signs of slowing down, brands are required to continue adapting with the uncertain times.

According to a recent report by Reprise Digital titled "Coronavirus Disruption: 10 Ways Brands Can Succeed in eCommerce", three long-term lessons that brands can take away from SARS and implement during this period are the importance of online and offline integration, supplementing a short-term plan with a long-term strategy, as well as preparing for a surge in demand post-pandemic. To ensure they do not get left behind, here are 10 steps brands can take to succeed in eCommerce.

1. Don't go dark

Brands that are considering reducing ad spend should not act on it just yet. While the spending habits of consumers might have shifted, they are still spending, and the report said they are still planning future spending. 

Shutting down advertising creates a void, which allows competitors to jump in and fill it. According to the report, this is particularly the case for small, nimble challenger brands which are continuously evaluating category and competitor keywords, and moving at speed when there is a gap they can fill.

At a time when consumers are shifting their shopping habits, these challenger brands are ensuring they are being found by doubling or even tripling budgets.

As such, it is important for brands to keep up on their branded SEM and "avoid letting competitors own their sponsored ad placements". Likewise, it is also crucial to maintain a strong presence in category terms, so that brands can defend themselves against feisty, nimble challengers. 

2. Don't get caught in the negative flywheel

In general, all eCommerce marketplaces have their own algorithm which plays a crucial role in serving consumers the products those marketplaces think they are most likely to buy for the keywords searched. The algorithm uses product sales history to generate organic search results. Brands can kick off this process by sending traffic to their product pages, the report said. 

With more traffic comes an increase in page views, higher conversion, and more revenue. These will in turn lead to higher organic ranking, which means more page views and more revenue, creating a feedback loop.

When a product goes dark, it is breaking this system. Instead of working on the algorithm, it is working against it.

Although the algorithm is still monitoring product history, there are now fewer click-throughs and less revenue. This leads to a decline in organic search ranking and "the product is now in a negative death spiral". While this happens, competitors start to rise.

3. Move your spend to e-retail

With a dip in footfall during the COVID-19 pandemic, brands are encouraged to shift their focus to e-retail. Evaluate where consumers have been searching for the product and split their spend accordingly. According to the report, doing so will allow brands to maintain share and move ahead of competitors that have been letting panic drive their media decisions.

The report added that consumers have "a high degree of trust" in large marketplaces as they seek stability in this uncertain economy. Consumers also believe that the marketplaces' scale makes it more likely that they will receive orders in a timely manner. Additionally, consumers are also visiting these large marketplaces to stock up on necessary supplies. As such, non-essential brands should aim to be part of the baskets of necessities consumers are increasingly purchasing.

Brands should take advantage of this and direct traffic generated by Google Ads and social campaigns to e-retail platforms.

4. Determine how your assets can support eCommerce

Besides increasing spend, brands are also encouraged to allocate additional, alternate resources into eCommerce, taking a page out of China's book. Citing cosmetics company Lin Qingxuan as an example, the report said the brand was forced to close 40% of its outlets during the pandemic, including all of its stores in Wuhan. However, it redeployed over 100 beauty advisors from these stores to become online influencers who made use of digital tools, such as WeChat, to virtually engage consumers and obtain sales. This resulted in sales for Wuhan growing 200% compared to the previous year.

5. Don't forget about your D2C consumers

This is a good time to also leverage on the following you have built among your D2C followers by running marketplace campaigns through demand-side platforms (DSPs) such as Amazon and Flipkart. The report explained that these DSPs allow the creation of persona clusters, audience matching and exclusions. This helps brands drive consumers with an existing D2C relationship to the brand's website, and consumers without the relationship to e-retailers.

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6. Create a war room mentality

Brands should create a war room with meetings designed to increase collaboration between media and sales teams. KPIs and metrics that were previously only looked at weekly or monthly now have to be monitored and acted upon daily. The report added that all hands need to be on deck in order for brands to come out stronger post-pandemic.

In order to do so, the three metrics that brands can look at are revenue, search ranking, and pricing. When it comes to revenue, brands must track their change in revenue compared to other channels. As soon as point-of-sale data is available, brands should figure out their year-on-year change for each channel. Also, brands should also calculate the eCommerce share for omni-channel retailers.

Brands should be paying very close attention to both paid and organic search ranking during this period. Steps to take include carefully monitoring priority keywords.

Your organic ranking should be steady to improving. Importantly, your paid coverage should not be declining.

Also, if other brands are encroaching into your territory, brands should know who they are and how they are doing. "Your largest competitors are likely increasing spend, but some may be stepping off the gas, allowing you to capitalize on their missteps. Meanwhile, those challenger brands are definitely trying to make a splash right now," the report added.

Category instability can result in unusual pricing steps and brands should keep an eye on this. Competitors might create oddly priced products or individual e-retailers may make large swings. Staying on top of this will enable brands to maintain an equilibrium in the times of price volatility.

Brands need to monitor these changes and determine how they can work with the retailers to steady the prices and keep consumer loyalty and trust.

7. Stay ahead of stock

Media needs to be adjusted accordingly when products go in and out of stock. In several cases, this means shifting spend from one e-retailer to another as one goes out of stock, including changing which e-retailer is receiving traffic from external sources. Beyond this, brands may need to rapidly shift which products are being featured in Sponsored Ads, for example. If a core product goes out of stock, brands need a plan for which products step up in priority.

Money spent driving products consumers cannot buy, or can only buy from unauthorised sellers is a wasted budget.

Brands can maintain efficiency when they have a fluid stock situation, the report added.

8. Delist out-of-stock products to maintain ranking

Close the listing as soon as a product goes out of stock. This can be done in seller central in all of the marketplaces, which allows brands to temporarily shut down a product listing. Brands can then reactivate it when the stock is back, with all the data remaining. However, brands should not close a listing longer than seven days as it can negatively impact the algorithm. 

9. Manage hybrid marketplace accounts

It is important for brands to have a hybrid approach combining both first and third-party fulfilment, reducing the risk of search ads being paused when first-party fulfilment cannot be achieved. When implementing a hybrid approach, brands should partner with complementary brands for distribution and save money. 

They should also transition slowly over a number of stock keeping units to ensure that the transition happens over a period of months rather than weeks. Brands should also closely monitor the data, especially customer feedback on delivery. Brands should also closely monitor the buy box as they might have less control and AI platforms such as bGenius can help with this. 

10. Develop a robust eCommerce specific content strategy

Content needs to be sensitive to the situation and provide correct information. Brands that have embraced this approach have great affinity post-pandemic. Focus on store pages and push the limitations of rich media. Online marketplaces are becoming a destination and brands are choosing to drive traffic directly there. On platforms such as Lazada, product ranking is highly dependent upon the product content. This makes content strategy really important to help customers discover your products.

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