Digital channels continue to evolve rapidly and with them consumer expectations. To keep up with the fast pace of change, businesses need agile commerce solutions that can help them adapt and flex at speed in a cost-effective manner.
Partners Monstarlab and Contentful brought together Ben Pounsett, senior product manager at digital experience consultancy Monstarlab, and David Baldry, senior solutions engineer at digital content platform Contentful, to discuss the benefits, challenges and future of agile commerce.
Firstly, thank you Ben and David for taking time out of your busy schedules to share your expert insights. For those who may be unfamiliar with the term agile ecommerce, how would you describe it? Is it a reality today and how is it different to legacy ecommerce?
David Baldry: The old-school legacy commerce systems are very inflexible. They were implemented many years ago and they delivered the use that they were meant to deliver. But they're now rigid and the world around them is changing. Businesses are selling in different ways and a lot of these legacy technologies just can't react quickly enough to new use cases and the changing demands that are being put on them. Agile solutions work natively across multiple channels. They integrate with other technologies much easier than legacy tools and they allow new use cases to be delivered much more easily and more quickly than in the past. Would you agree, Ben?
Ben Pounsett: Definitely. Agile ecommerce makes transformation and transition much easier for retailers. We've made huge leaps forward in our ability to produce visual prototypes and technical prototypes for ecommerce. It’s so much easier to test concepts with real users.
DB: In recent years there has been a shift in thinking. People are willing to try something and if it doesn't work, just iterate on it or scrap the idea altogether. That is perfectly acceptable now, whereas in the old days you'd spend a lot of money on an ecommerce solution, and you were scared of failure.
BP: Absolutely, and not only can you test one idea, but a variety of ideas. Companies now have the opportunity to explore their prospective niche with a much lower cost of running the experiment. What these technologies allow now is an easy and consistent method to maintain your back office giving you more scope to iterate on your customer-facing interfaces focused on testing different user experiences. The headless technology model accelerates and frees the frontend by offering a consistent backend contract and allowing us to focus on the value-creating moment for the end user.
That willingness to experiment, to iterate and to fail is interesting. When you’re talking to potential customers or clients, is that something in reality that businesses support?
DB: Some modern-day tools allow you to try new things. When working in an agile way, you can do this within a sprint or two sprints, which means that within about a two- to four-week interval you can get there. This may not lead to a totally viable product straightaway, but you can get close to that. Then you can get user involvement very quickly, get their reactions to it, and work out whether it's something to progress or not progress.
There's a mentality change. You're allowed to do that testing and failing because there's an understanding that you can iterate quickly, you can try something else and move much more quickly than you could do.
BP: When I talk to clients about failure, I make sure we talk about failure within context. Experiencing failure in a context that doesn't allow us the opportunity to learn is objective failure. Experiencing failure in a context where we have understood the assumptions made that the failure provides data for is often the gold-dust moment that leads to discovery. Learning that comes as a consequence of failure is really valuable. It's much more palatable for a client if failure is recognized as having a quid pro quo about it, that there is value derived from it, but in exchange we must adapt and accept it.
In your experience, are legacy systems the main challenge that customers come to Contentful to solve?
DB: Whether it's ecommerce or whether it's content management, there are a lot of legacy systems out there that people are unhappy with. The end-user experience is often suboptimal with a lot of these products. And the technical people are also typically unhappy, because the products constrain what they can do. It constricts their ability to produce wonderfully sexy websites at the frontend, or the system just doesn't operate in a way that the modern developer wants to work with them.
They want an agile world, a headless world, where they can just use the tools they want, to deliver whatever web experience or whatever digital travel experience they want to produce.
A few legacy vendors tried to move into the headless world by just bolting on things on top of what they have today, but that is just putting lipstick on a pig. You've still got the backend that is incredibly inflexible, and what they've bolted on is typically badly thought out, badly documented, and difficult to use. It doesn't really solve any of the problems. The best way of solving these problems is by making the big move, getting rid of that old legacy and moving to native lightweight microservices-based architectures.
A lot of companies ask: “Do we do the commerce platform first or do we do the content piece first?” What are your views on that?
BP: I am always biased toward speed to market and in my experience, product catalogs are more readily available than approved representative content. Unless your proposition is defined by the content presented, I would say ecommerce comes first, purely because it sits closest to the value creation moment for the end user. Breadth of content means that you can chase down a lot of different ways of engaging, but the vast majority of clients will talk about there being one key interaction between a customer and the business, and it is normally a purchase.
DB: With high-value products, there is more content focus. If you've got a smaller product line, a more expensive kind of product line, then content has a slightly higher priority, because you're trying to inspire and get people to buy into your brand.
Ultimately, I agree, you want the customer to click the “buy now” button and that's the objective of all of this. So what delivers the website? Is it an ecommerce tool delivering the actual website with Contentful feeding content into it? Or is it Contentful delivering the website and then having the ecommerce toward the buy-now button? Or is it a hybrid approach?
The great thing is that with all these modern tools, all those approaches are perfectly acceptable and perfectly doable, and which one to go for really depends on the mix of content and ecommerce.
The UK Ecommerce Association has highlighted the increase in personalisation as a key theme of 2022. Meanwhile, research from Gartner found that 63% of digital marketing leaders say they struggle with personalization. Can Contentful help create a more personalized experience?
DB: Contentful itself doesn't do personalization, but we integrate with vendors who do. Our role is to allow non-technical people to create content and then to mark that content up with signals for the personalization technology. All that content needs to be collected together and be tagged so that the personalization technology can make use of that data and deliver the right piece of content to them.
"Personalization technologies have to improve and know what to forget. Once I've bought a birthday present for my partner, then I've done that. I don't want to get personalized content based on that shopping experience, at least not until this time next year. We need to learn how to deal with people who are buying different things for different reasons at different points in time."
BP: Some of these platforms make it very easy, but only as long as you have an enriched data set and have got a lot of things right first. Then you can start delivering huge value on the back of that data.
DB: Indeed, personalization technologies need good data about who the visitor really is. Organizations may have a lot of data, but a lot of it is held in silos. Those silos have sometimes come about because of acquisitions, or just because they've been product-focused. For example, they have one database for their banking products, another for their insurance products, and so on. This means the data about a person are segmented within the organization and you need some sort of customer data platform to bring all that data together so that the personalization technology can make the best use of it.
That’s interesting, David, So is that your first bit of advice for a business — that they need to sort their data out?
DB: For Contentful, the people we talk to fall into one of two camps. The first is frustration from technical people that they can't do what they want. The second is frustration from a business that the technical people can't do what they want quickly enough.
We talk to the techies and we talk to the business, and sometimes they have a joined-up approach, but often it's not and we end up talking to separate parts of the same organization. It’s a cultural thing and we talk to some companies where there is a big challenge in understanding this new agile delivery and the whole world that comes with it.
Thanks. And Ben, what do you think is the biggest growth channel at the moment?
BP: Social networks have been, and will continue to be, an easy button to press! I think it has turned into a very viable marketplace now, whereas before it was an afterthought. I am now hearing a lot more about “omnichannel”. I think this is a sense from clients that they could be missing out by not being available in X, Y or Z channel.
Everyone is spoilt for choice, but just plugging in to everything is not a substitute for a marketing and content strategy. Production of content is always underestimated; just how complicated it is and just how much hard work is needed for good quality content. The user is more discerning. Brands that have got away with just throwing stuff out on Twitter for 10 years are now running out of road. The next growth channel is a moving target but the optimization of these channels is much more tangible and that is where I encourage my clients to focus. Find your customers and talk to them personally.
If you are a brand stuck in a rut, the temptation can be to jump on the latest innovations and not properly analyze if they are relevant for your business goals and audiences. Do you think new channels add something just because they are new? Does novelty delight customers? One example I am thinking of are the touch screens at McDonald's.
BP: Those McDonald's screens are a great example because not only is it an interesting and novel interface, but importantly, they are born out of utility. They are hugely practical for the customer and the business and that is why they are experiencing long-term success.
The absolute antithesis of this would be if fashion retailers put their physical stores’ proposition in the metaverse, with a 3D rendering of a bricks and mortar location. A virtual shop would be a shadow of an in-person experience, and offer no more utility than the experience it attempts to replicate. It would arguably be worse because shoppers couldn’t try on any clothes.
Novelty absolutely has its place, but ultimately these channels live and die by their intrinsic utility and value delivered to the users.
And to finish off, what do you think the future holds for agile ecommerce?
BP: I am not going to try to guess future innovations, but I will say that I think almost all product progress comes through sandboxes-style experimentation, where all constituent parts of a product can be tested and validated with real users. Sandboxes are themselves part of agile ecommerce. Reach out to us at MonstarLab and let's talk.
DB: It’s important to say that we don't know what the future will be. So, you need systems in place that are flexible enough to deal with that unknown future, as opposed to the legacy world where you know you're stuck with what you've got.
New ideas will happen over the next five to 10 years. Just make sure you have something in place that can deliver to those new channels via standard APIs.
Contentful’s API-first content platform is purpose-built for creating omnichannel digital experiences. The platform helps digital teams innovate, iterate and go to market faster with an agile, modern tech stack that integrates seamlessly with ecommerce tools. Visit the Contentful Marketplace to see these integrations, and read our customer use cases to learn more about how Contentful can help your organization grow its digital footprint.