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August 26th, 2014

Three Ecommerce Essentials for a Great Holiday Customer Experience

October is approaching faster than a sugar-hungry Trick-or-Treater. Move over, Back to School, holiday shopping is on the way.

Is your ecommerce site ready?

Now is the time to make your improvements for the year’s busiest online retail season. We’ve identified three types of improvement – spanning marketing and IT – to deliver a better digital experience for your holiday customers, leading to more traffic, less abandonment, and more revenue.

  1. Use real-time analytics to display the most relevant offers.

Today’s best ecommerce sites give personalized product recommendations via targeted marketing messages. Start by tapping the data you own, your CRM data, to identify audience segments based on web behavior, purchasing history, geographic location and more.

Says Neustar’s Leslie Petry: “Having a better understanding about a customer’s preferences, and what is likely to influence the purchasing decision, is the advantage you gain from real-time analytics. By analyzing data to predict buyer intent, you can match these variables to the shopper who’s on your site right now and display banner and pop-up ads that appeal to her tastes and budget.”

It’s useful, for example, to know a customer’s spending threshold as that person browses. Says Leslie, “If someone is looking at a toy in the $50 price range, show her alternative products at or slightly above that level, versus something closer to $100.” You’re more likely to trigger a purchase while the customer is still on site.

When an unknown customer visits, your analytics engine can use the shopper’s location, the pages she views and the links she clicks to predict the right offers. With the data you have right now, you can make an immediate impact.

  1. Test your site to speed up page loads—and increase sales.

Faster sites mean happier customers who are more likely to spend. One easy way to boost speed (and site capacity) is to run load tests. They’re like self-inflicted DDoS attacks, where you bombard applications with higher and higher traffic to identify when they slow down or, worse, crash. Ideally, you’d test in June or July, but it’s not too late to test now, depending on your goals and your site’s complexity.

“It’s crucial for marketing and IT to communicate here,” says Neustar’s Joe Loveless. “The engineers need to know what promotions are planned for the holidays and the expected response. This enables them to develop realistic load-testing scenarios that can lift speed and performance.”

Though your deadlines will be tight, Joe counsels against a cookie-cutter approach to holiday testing.“Generic load-testing scenarios don’t necessarily reveal where the vulnerabilities lie from a performance standpoint,” he says Joe Loveless. “The holiday shopping season is an extended period with peak days scattered throughout it.”

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are obvious times for traffic spikes. But if you don’t know about a sale in, say, late October—when it hits, what it promotes and which pages may be stampeded—you can’t run the right test to guarantee a great experience.

Beyond testing and monitoring sites, retailers should have contingency plans for spikes that unexpectedly exceed server capacity. “It’s likely you’ll need to bring additional servers online during the holidays,” says Joe. “Any plans like that should be tested to be sure they work.” Without such preventive actions, today’s impatient shoppers will take their dollars elsewhere.

  1. Protect against DDoS attacks, or, make sure your site exists.

Not all traffic spikes are the friendly kind. The holiday season is DDoS season. With so much riding on Q4 revenues, distributed denial of service attacks—often launched for extortion or to cripple a competitor—tend to rise sharply. If one succeeds in knocking your ecommerce site offline, your losses could easily number in the millions.

“At a minimum, have a DDoS response plan and practice it,” says Neustar’s Susan Warner. “During an attack, especially in Q4, you don’t want to think twice about which technologies work best against which types of attacks. Whatever protection you have in house, be sure that someone on the IT team knows it inside-out, and has it tuned and ready to go when it matters most.” She adds that a good response plan includes communications with customers, vendors and employees.

But home-grown protection may not block today’s enormous attacks. It’s no longer rare for attacks to reach 100 Gbps or higher. “If you have enough revenue at risk, you’ll want to partner with a third-party DDoS protection specialist,” Susan says. “The best solutions blend hardware installed on your premises, to give you always-on protection, with a cloud-based solution to scale as attacks grow. An experienced DDoS responder, someone with years of experience, has the skill to use these technologies to block a wide array of attacks.”

As if downtime in December weren’t the ultimate ecommerce nightmare, a growing trend could make things even worse. Criminals now use DDoS to smokescreen malware installation, distracting security staff to steal credit card numbers and more.

For more ways to create a better online experience this year, download this holiday ecommerce guide created by Internet Retailer.

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