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Lessons from Zulily's mobile transformation

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By: Bryan Pearson |

Posted on October 10, 2018

From avocados to refrigerators, a lot of purchases are funneled through our smartphones, thanks to the magic of e-commerce. But is the actual experience of buying via mobile going down the tube?

With smartphones projected to generate one-third of retail sales in 2018, shoppers are increasingly expecting one-to-one experiences — the younger ones innately. Yet many retailers are still just in the process of updating their digital presences to accommodate word fonts, colors and related smartphone format issues.

Personalized shopper experiences also should be integral to the mobile presence, advises Kevin Saliba, senior vice president of marketing at Zulily, the deals-focused retail site: “There’s no question mobile is a must,” Saliba said in an email. “As reported by Forrester, smartphones will be used in $1 trillion of total retail sales in 2018 alone.”

Closely following that “must” comes the “how.” Saliba shared some tips for maximizing the retail mobile experience and answered common questions retailers might ask, based on Zulily’s own online participation. Edited excerpts follow.


Q: What is the biggest challenge to mobile retail?


Mobile is a channel in which the work is never finished. The approach and experience must continuously be refined and improved.

The challenge can be evaluated differently dependent on where in the funnel you’re focused. First, retailers must take a step back and understand their mobile goals and reconcile them against long-term strategies and in consideration of the resources they have to accomplish that goal.

Second, the mobile storefront must be optimized for small screens and short attention spans. Retailers need to ensure the experience works seamlessly and ask questions throughout the customer’s touchpoints: Can the customer see the products and understand what they are (and do so easily) in the context of their lives? Is the content curated and captivating to stop a thumb among those few precious scrolls?

Then it’s about cart conversion. Does the checkout experience allow for a purchase without friction? Have you invested in the mobile payment platforms that enable a seamless transaction?


Q: How does Zulily overcome the challenges?


We start with tailored email marketing — entertaining and inspiring content that could include exclusives, app-only offers and/or brands a shopper might want to discover.

In 2018, Zulily rebuilt its mobile push notification program to include highly personalized content and localized send-time changes, ensuring each customer receives relevant push notifications. The result: a 49% year-over-year increase in revenue in the first quarter of 2018.

Finally, we leverage both paid and organic social media platforms to reach more than 5 million fans across Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. We also invested in Facebook Messenger for customer service, product discovery and as another way to shop. From 2016 to 2017 alone, our Messenger traffic grew year-over-year by 57%.


Q: What was the biggest surprise revealed by shoppers of Zulily?


We found that video can be used as an effective tactic for acquiring customers via direct response ads. When marketers traditionally think of video on mobile, they think of brand-building and entertainment, with goals that involve measuring view time. At Zulily, we found success that goes against that assumption.

We have a real-time feedback loop with our customers, which allows us to iterate and innovate with more specificity to serve them better. For context, earlier this year we realized we needed to focus more on Facebook video ads as that algorithm evolved. We tested and learned what made for successful video ads and high-value customers, working with our machine-learning and data-science teams. We found the most effective ads were dynamic, simple and had a clear call to action.

Our technology has allowed us to increase speed and take advantage of “in the moment” ad opportunities. It’s a critical factor in our ability to scale, especially in video creative, and as a result we’ve seen a 20% improvement in ad spending efficiency and a 67% decrease in the time spent making ads, which allows us to spend more time on channel deployment, efficiencies and optimization.


Q: What are the missed opportunities?


The biggest missed opportunity is not empowering individual team members to make a positive impact in the business.

My marketing team is comprised of six different functions: brand marketing, creative, acquisition, analytics, lifecycle marketing and customer experience — and all are focused on knowing what our customer wants and needs and how to communicate with her in her channel of choice.

The entire team has access to the latest data to drive strategic insights and business decisions. By democratizing the analytics process, these team members are empowered to evolve, improving efficiencies at the quick pace that our business needs to evolve and change.


Q: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in the coming years?


The biggest opportunity for retailers is to capture new generations of shoppers who are increasingly leveraging mobile to build relationships with brands. Gen Z is beginning to have significant buying power as they now number 2 billion globally; it’s imperative that retailers invest in understanding how this generation differs in needs and expectations from millennials, who are simultaneously aging.

Additionally, there is a tremendous opportunity for retailers to reinvent themselves and to create experiences that blur the line between entertainment and commerce. We’re already starting to see social platforms spur changes in buying behavior, but there’s an opportunity to expand and create experiences that are tailor-made for — and could even predict — customer needs and wants.


Q: What essential pieces of advice would you give a retailer to improve its mobile shopping experience?


Once retailers prioritize for mobile, there are three musts:

1) Understand where your customers are and how they want to engage with your brand.

2) Ensure you’re investing in the right technology to serve your customers in their channels of choice in truly personalized ways.

3) Democratize data by breaking down silos and providing your entire team with access to data and insights that fuel real-time strategic decision-making.

Put another way, with $1 trillion in spending coming through our smartphones, retail’s success in mobile hinges on this question: How do you create magic moments?


Bryan Pearson a Featured Contributor to The Wise Marketer and is the President of LoyaltyOne, where he has been leveraging the knowledge of 120 million customer relationships over 20 years to create relevant communications and enhanced shopper experiences. 

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Be sure to follow Bryan on Facebook and Twitter for more on retail, loyalty and the customer experience.