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Selecting Ecommerce personalisation software

10 practical recommendations for choosing the right retail personalisation service for your online store

Although ecommerce is now a relatively mature industry, the software solutions that underpin the industry are still very much evolving. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the personalisation field. Recommendation engines were perhaps the first tools to promote personalisation, but it is now a common feature espoused by many ecommerce tools, in systems designed for both marketers and online merchandisers, with each often having a very different take on what it means and the benefits it brings. If you’re in the process of selecting personalisation software where should you begin, what questions should you ask?

Personalisation

#1 KNOW YOUR GOALS

It may seem obvious, but knowing what you hope to achieve by selecting a personalisation solution is critical to selecting the right product. Although a ‘no brainer’, don’t fall into the trap of not explicitly stating your aims. Write them down, and be specific – ‘increasing sales’, ‘improving conversion’ or ‘improving the customer experience’ are not enough. They are laudable goals, but such high-level sentiments won’t help you in the selection process.

Do you need to increase product exposure, or increase product sales diversity? Are you looking to generate personalised alternative recommendations on product pages, or complementary recommendations? Do you want to increase ROI on your email marketing? By how much? Are some product categories more important to you than others?

Although on the surface many solutions may look the same, there’s usually a difference to be found somewhere. Some will be more suited to some tasks than others, and being clear about what you hope to achieve will help you recognise these differences when looking under the hood.

#2 KNOW YOUR ISSUES

In parallel to your objectives, it’s likely there are one or two issues within your business that you hope a personalisation solution can address or mitigate. As with your aims, it’s important to write them down, and be honest with your appraisal of the situation. Don’t sugar coat them, or ascribe tangential problems to root causes – this will only help cloud your assessment.

Perhaps your team is under-resourced, or lacking in some key capabilities or skills? Perhaps you have a data problem (with customer data or product data), or perhaps you’re not meeting your performance targets?

If there are some issues you hope to address through personalisation, it’s critical you understand what’s causing them. A personalisation solution will likely help mitigate resource or performance issues, but it’s doubtful it could solve a data issue. Be realistic about what each solution can likely achieve and don’t kid yourself that technology can solve all your woes. There are no silver bullets.

#3 ACT YOUR AGE

Are you (or more accurately your company) an old hand at ecommerce or green behind the ears? Are you looking to introduce or automate some new business processes, or are you looking to optimise some existing ones?

Where you sit on the maturity curve has implications on how you should conduct the selection process. If you’re new to the game then most systems will afford you most of the benefits, and therefore cost and expediency should probably be your watch words. You shouldn’t have to analyse each solution to the nth degree. But if you’re an old hand, looking to optimise an existing process, then you should take your time – don’t rush into selecting an alternative solution to the one you have. Be mindful of what your existing system or process does well, not just those areas in which you find it wanting. And be careful to balance the benefits of moving to a new solution against the total cost of change. Marginal benefits are easily lost.

#4 DON’T BITE OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW

Be realistic about your ability to integrate and use any new tool. No company has infinite resources, so it’s likely you’ll be weak in some areas…in capacity, capability, money or time.

Avoid selecting a technology partner who could exploit, or at the very least aggravate, your weaknesses. If you’re low on headcount, don’t pick a solution that requires a complex integration, or if you’re working to a tight budget perhaps leave the tier-one systems for another time. Most importantly, if you have pressures in both capacity and capability, avoid the solution with all the bells and whistles and look towards those that favour automation.

#5 ACCEPT EACH SUPPLIER FOR WHO THEY REALLY ARE

It’s vitally important you recognise (and accept) technology partners for who they are, and select one who will ARTICLE complement your business, not irritate it. Every supplier is different and has different strategic goals. Some aim to foster long-term relationships with their clients, others wish to expand their customer base as quickly as possible. Some look to grow profits primarily through licence agreements, others through post-contract services.

It usually doesn’t take much to get a picture for what each supplier is like, or aspires to be. Talk to as many of their staff as possible, managers and workers alike, and talk to their clients, but not just those that the supplier sends your way. You may like their technology, but that is that enough?

#6 RECOGNISE EACH TOOL’S PEDIGREE

No tool does everything, and no tool excels in every area. Most solutions started off performing one or two niche tasks well, and over time grew to include additional features, or, later in their development, were combined with other solutions through a merger or acquisition.

No tool does everything, and no tool excels in every area. Most solutions started off performing one or two niche tasks well, and over time grew to include additional features, or, later in their development, were combined with other solutions through a merger or acquisition.

Some tools have a marketing (customer acquisition) bias, and some a merchandising (product discovery) bias. Some present themselves as tools to be used, others as a route to automation or a means to increase team productivity.

Be mindful of each solution’s bias – don’t select a solution whose primary focus is not aligned to your objectives (re point #1).

#7 DEVISE A SCORECARD BEFORE YOU MEET SUPPLIERS

Scorecards are a common and useful tool for evaluating competing offerings. In fact, without a scorecard how else is one supposed to judge? Relying on personal opinion, be it your own or that of your peers, is clearly a bad idea.

But scorecards aren’t infallible, and you shouldn’t necessarily follow them to the letter – your opinion on what matters most will likely change as you learn more about what each solution can and can’t do. However, never leave the creation of your scorecard to the last minute, and try to capture the bulk of what you consider important before learning too much about each solution, else you run the risk of designing a scoring method to pre-determine an outcome. And should you find, during the process, your scorecard does need revising, apply the revised method fairly to those suppliers who’ve gone before, not just those you’ve yet to see. If possible, invite earlier presenters back for another bite of the cherry.

#8 GET UNDER THE SKIN OF WHAT MATTERS MOST, AND DON’T WORRY TOO MUCH ABOUT THE REST

There won’t be enough time for you to properly evaluate each criterion that you’ve identified, so review your objectives and focus on the most important. As stated above, your objectives should be specific and clearly defined, and as such it should be possible to devise means of testing each solution’s capabilities in relation to them.

If you’re a fashion retailer you’re perhaps looking to automate the creation of complementary items, creating personalised outfits that look good. If so, focus on this aspect. Ask each supplier how their system will achieve this and how they avoid ridiculous clothing combinations. Don’t be afraid of asking pointed questions and don’t rely on the answers of sales reps – ask to speak to the developers of the solution if necessary.

Checklist for evaluating personalisation software

  • Have you identified both the users of the future system and beneficiaries? Have you solicited their thoughts on what matters most?
  • Have you created a scorecard, before seeing suppliers or conducting too much research?
  • Do you know which flavour of system you’re looking to procure? Is your focus marketing (personalising messaging and campaigns) or online merchandising (personalising product assortments)?
  • Have you identified reference clients who have similar requirements to your own?
  • Have you sense-checked your requirements and selection criteria with a third-party?
  • If you find yourself revising your scorecard during the selection process, can you fairly apply the new criteria to all prospects, or do you need to restart the process?

Summary

For many of you these points may be self-evident, but the difficulty lies not in knowing what to do, but in scrupulously applying these principles, and not letting yourself be swayed by features and benefits that you don’t need or won’t realistically use.

One final piece of advice – get an external perspective. Whether you’re new and know little about the solutions you’re evaluating, or an old-hand who’s ‘been there, done that’, seek out a third party and discuss your plans. Outline your aims, your issues and proposed selection process and invite them to comment. The Achilles heel of any selection process is systematic bias. As the architect of the process you may be too close to see it, but often, for those outside of the process, the flaws can be easy to spot.

For more on selecting personalisation for retail, see our listing of Ecommerce personalisation services.

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