How COVID-19 is Impacting the eCommerce World with Luke Carthy

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Want to make sure your consumers are buying your products? Luke Carthy is an eCommerce consultant, SEO, and CRO specialist dedicated to helping online stores succeed. He’s got a twelve-year track record of success helping companies audit and optimize their strategies so they can improve their bottom lines.

He recently joined Garrett to chat about the ways COVID has impacted the eCommerce space. That impact is not as straightforward as you might think! 

The highlights: 

  • (1:48) The right and wrong ways for eCommerce stores to advertise during this crisis.
  • (3:59) Examples of good and bad messaging.
  • (6:28) Big brands transitioning into eCommerce.
  • (9:04) The number one thing companies need if they’re going to make a successful pivot to digital.
  • (11:34) The right way to talk to the two types of teams that agencies engage with.
  • (15:30) The biggest challenges eCommerce is dealing with.
  • (18:02) Making the choice to be more transparent.
  • (20:20) How eCommerce brands should handle reviews.
  • (24:20) Luke’s causes.

Just want the quick rundown of the biggest takeaways? Like your favorite eCommerce brands, we’re happy to deliver.

Advertising during a pandemic

“There are right ways and wrong ways for brands to engage on this,” says Luke, who admits he has already seen some cringe-worthy advertising campaigns from eCommerce brands.
“To use an example, using a 10% or 20% off promo code to run a ‘COVID Bananza’ is a no. It just seems so bad. So desperate.”
Luke had more specific “do and don’t” examples to share, examples from real brands who are struggling to find their message during this pandemic. 

A good example of contextual advertising

Kit and Ace

Kit and Ace is a Canadian luxury Men’s and Women’s clothing brand. 

“They’ve jumped out going, hey, we know the world needs masks. You can’t make enough masks right now. But they’ve also added their Kit and Ace brand and spin on it.”

Kit-ace
Their masks include SILVADUR™ antimicrobial technology meant to help the mask stay fresh and to prevent odors. They’re also 100% silk for breathability and include adjustable nose clips that have a customizable fit.
“They’ve made a luxury face mask with genuine scientific kudos. It’s really quite cool. They could have gone away and coined in, just gone and bought a box of PPE from somewhere and started selling it, but they found a way to break away from that and make it part of their brand.”

A bad example of contextual advertising

“Supermarkets,” says Luke, while kindly declining to call out any brand in particular. “Some, in the UK at least, have been really bad. I was watching the TV one evening and remember just screaming at the screen, saying, you can’t say that! It was coming close to Easter Sunday, and they’re doing all these ads with these massive families around tables with giant joints of lamb! I’m like hey, no man, not cool. 

So immediately there are negative connotations with that brand. Even if it’s purely unintentional, even if you’re just trying to spread a good message, you gotta be really careful.”

One good starting place, from this example alone, would be to make sure your ads and your messaging reflect what is, not what was. Even binge-watching Netflix can be hard these days, just because it’s so jarring to see people shaking hands or getting on a plane, let alone gathering for big family dinners.

Imagine how it feels when someone brings that cognitive dissonance to an advertisement. Ditch ads referencing sporting events and concerts and find some B-roll of people having a Zoom meeting to take its place.

How are companies transitioning to eCommerce?

Transitioning to eCommerce has been a big part of the global pivot that’s helping companies stay profitable during the COVID crisis. Some brands you wouldn’t expect are even doing it, even if you might think they’d never do it, or wouldn’t need to.  Even Luke didn’t see some of these brands coming.
“All those corporate businesses are slow, but Heinz has done it. One of the largest foodstuff brands in the world, recognized everywhere, in a couple of months knocked up together the Heinz-to-Home eCommerce fulfillment model.”
Available only in the UK:
heinz
“Could you imagine,” Luke says, “being in a board room six months ago saying, hey, can we set up a direct-to-consumer Heinz website to start selling stuff? You’d be laughed out of the boardroom. But two months into COVID, boom. Online eCommerce. I did not see that coming, everyone switching things up as quick as they have.”
Pepsi’s doing it too, with PantryShop.com and Snacks.com
pepsi pantry kits
snacks

Sites like these could honestly be a lifesaver for people who don’t have access to Instacart or Amazon Prime Now. They could vastly reduce the number of trips someone who is in that situation has to make to the grocery store. 

If enough brands did this you could even potentially see the ability to grab everything but the staples from the store. Given there are other online groceries who could deliver the rice, beans, and flour to, and you start to see why these alternatives are important…and why using digital marketing to make sure people know about them is equally important. 

What's the number one thing companies need if they're going to make a successful pivot to digital?

“It all comes down to the will for change,” says Luke.

As it happens, this is a major criterion that Luke uses when deciding whether he’s going to work with a company or not.

“I’ve been to companies before where they’re like, hey, we know we need digital, but meh. We’re not going to prioritize it until X,Y, or Z. And normally X, Y, or Z is like twelve months after you’ve had that conversation.”

Luke contrasts this with companies who are ready to go and ready to devote resources to the project. “Yes you know you need it, but do you want it? Do you want it enough to give me the resources, the investment, the money, the team structures?”

He also says that brands have to be prepared to hear things they might not necessarily want to hear. “There’s things I’ve been employed to tell them they’ve done bad.”

He cautions company executives to check their egos. “Ego can be a huge factor. Where people just don’t want to move because of fear of feeling wrong or insecure in a decision. I can’t work with people like that.” 

Luke also hopes that coming out of COVID will make some of these conversations easier in the future. “It’s very much a case of right now, do or die. You either invest in digital or you don’t. And if you don’t, the consequence is you might not be here tomorrow.”

The right way to talk to the two types of teams that agencies deal with

Luke notes agencies typically deal with two types of teams. The first group are the doers: product teams and IT guys. The second is the C-suite: the strategic visionaries who have to sign off on dealing with any agency.

First, he says, you have to create some sort of trust. Luke likes to do this in a very hands-on way. 

“I love to go after the big-impact, small-investment things first. So things I can go and tweak. It could just be an error message. Something small that’s going to move the needle enough for them to go: you know what, this guy knows what he’s talking about.” 

He says this builds trust, and that trust leads to clients being willing to part with money and resources.

From there, developing a “bilingual” approach to these two teams is everything.

“The SEO speak, the cool acronyms, the analytics can all absolutely happen, but it’s got to happen with the product team, the SEO teams, the IT squad. When you’re talking to the C-suite, the people loosening the purse strings for you, that stuff can’t happen unless they of course have interest in it.”

He says it’s more common to find the C-suite asking five questions.

  1. What impact is this going to have?
  2. How much money is it going to make?
  3. How much cost is that going to save me?
  4. How long is it going to take?
  5. Why should I care?

Go in prepared to answer those questions and it will be easier to sign clients. It will also be easier to keep them.

The Biggest Challenge eCommerce is Dealing With

Right now, the biggest challenge that eCommerce is dealing with tends to be navigating around problems that are beyond their control. 
“You’ve got increased demand and reduced supply. Think about how much of the supply chain all centers around China. The supply chain is a beast of a problem, whether you sell your own branded products or whether you sell manufactured products.”
He also says human resources can become an issue.
“The risk of potentially having a warehouse lockdown or having half or even more of your staff off at any one time because symptoms break out. And you haven’t got enough space in your warehouse for proper social distancing. These sorts of things are tricky.”

To be transparent, or not to be – that is the question

99% of the time, Luke advises eCommerce stores to be as transparent as possible with their customers. 
“You’re going to irritate more customers by promising and not delivering than by saying, hey, you know, we’ve got ridiculously high demands, we’re struggling, lead times are 5-7 days.”
This can be a hard decision for brands, though. Some are afraid that if they’re transparent about the true delivery times they’ll lose the orders. They know if they take the order and then apologize they may get to keep the money, versus losing the business upfront. He says when making this evaluation you really have to think about the industry you’re in. 
“If you’re in medical supplies: face masks, pain relief…if people need that medication or if people need those masks for work, or for their kids for school, they might go elsewhere [if they don’t like your lead time], that’s just the way it is.”
But hobbies? Fashion? Luxury goods? While you might be tempted to avoid transparency, it’s likely to backfire. 
“When you start getting one-star reviews because people expected it in a few days and it was two weeks, it’s going to hurt. You can turn your reviews off in the short term, but it’s going to catch up with you eventually for sure.”

How eCommerce brands should handle product reviews

Product reviews are a big part of the eCommerce space. So Luke also shared some insights about how eCommerce brands are handling them. There’s a wrong way to do reviews:
“Using storewide reviews and slapping them on every single product. After two to three products you’re like: every item’s got 4.5 stars?”
Luke says sometimes eCommerce stores are tempted to do this because they don’t have the traffic or the audience to be able to capture so many reviews on a product level, to start displaying that. Yet if you can cultivate those reviews, you get a lot of benefits. 
“Popular queries, people submitting images, honest, open reviews. Plus it helps with your Google rankings and it helps [retailers] understand how to improve product content, because if you have a lot of people asking the same question you can include what’s missing from the content.”
He says when it comes to gathering reviews, quantity matters more than quality. 
“Having two 5-star reviews is a throwaway. It’s two people. Probably the retailer themselves and their mother, or something like that. If you’ve got 60 or 70 3.5 to 4-star reviews then that’s a heck of a lot more honest. It just seems more legit. More real.”

What’s your right now cause?

Luke urges everyone to support mental health causes that appeal to them. Lockdown is having a different impact on everyone – and he anticipates leaving lockdown may cause anxiety once it’s over. By supporting mental health, you give people what they need to remain strong no matter what happens. 

Connect with Luke Carthy

Want more from Luke? Check out his recent blog post on his thoughts on the foreseeable future of eCommerce. 

Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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