Venturers Club roundtable: driving success within e-commerce

The e-commerce space has seen substantial disruption over the past year, providing enhanced online customer experiences during the closing of bricks and mortar stores due to Covid-19, and beyond. With competition increasing, it’s vital that businesses operating online cut through the noise with unique marketing, as well as delivering products that meet their audience’s needs.

A recent virtual roundtable organised by Information Age, in partnership with Venturers Club, explored the perspectives of fast growth businesses in a number of different markets, and gauged what has worked for them, and the most prominent challenges that founders have encountered.

Generating and targeting traffic

One of the biggest challenges that e-commerce businesses face is generating and converting targeted traffic online. Just as physical high street stores need to attract passers-by inside to view their products, fast growth businesses need to bring Internet users to their online store to gain traction and increase their customer base. In e-commerce, this is commonly achieved via online advertising, and this sometimes needs to reach a niche audience.

For Tim Harrison, co-founder of designer watch vendor WatchPilot, “we found Google Ads to be the most effective source of traffic. This comes from shopping, search display and advertising.

“However, for the most effective results, this needs to be part of a multichannel strategy, together with raising awareness over social media, email and through affiliate marketing.”

Meanwhile, Jack Williams, CEO of fulfilment service Selazar, has found thought leadership articles in publications to be key to raising awareness of his brand. He commented: “It takes a long time, as well as lots of content and PR to make a sale, and there’s a need to build our narrative online.

“We like to dive deep into topics so readers can really understand them, giving value to the reader has worked well for us.”

“Good quality content that makes people trust your brand is vital, and you really have to be informative about what your brand’s about.”

Additionally, lessons that can be learned from driving traffic in the supplements market include the need to educate as well as sell the product, as explained by DR.VEGAN co-founder and managing director Gordon Lott: “Our passion isn’t just about providing ethical supplements, it’s also about inspiring and educating people in nutrition, food and their diet. To facilitate this, we work with expert nutritionists to deliver this content in a more engaging way.

“At least 20% of our monthly visitors are engaging in our nutrition content, and we’ve seen a huge amount of interest from people wanting to improve their wellbeing during the pandemic.”

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Digital competition

E-commerce brands must go to great lengths to cut through the noise of an increasingly bustling market, given the rise in online activity since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. When discussing how companies have stood out from competitors, the conversation returned to the use of influencers.

Natasha Frangos, head of creative, media & technology at haysmacintyre, shared her observations from a recent meeting with an e-commerce leader: “The range of consumers is broadening, and the company’s international footprint has expanded. These factors have meant an increased importance in the online customer experience.”

In terms of investment in improving online customer service, Keely Deininger, owner and managing director of girls’ designer clothing store Angel’s Face, commented: “We’ve designed and put together our own packaging, which will be out soon, and a new website is expected in August.

“We want to make everything quicker, and to meet the expectation that the whole process has to be beautiful — not just the garments that we’re selling.”

Coming in from the perspective of a company in the recipe box delivery space, which has particularly grown over the past year, The Cookaway CEO Sahil Verma said: “We’ve tried working with paid influencers with large followings, but this has almost never got us any returns, because the audience see this as a paid activity, rather than a genuine opinion on the brand.

“We’ve since switched our strategy to working with micro-influencers with 6,000-8,000 followers, and nine times out of ten we’ll get these from our customer log so we can use people who genuinely like our product.

“Audiences these days are looking for authenticity, and not paid marketing approaches.”

The importance of omnichannel

As the high street reopens, ecommerce brands may look to open physical stores to complement their online presence, if they haven’t already. This will call for a strong omnichannel strategy that caters to the needs of customers, wherever they are.

“As a company that strives to serve direct to consumer, this proved difficult six months in,” said Sarah Clark-Martin, co-founder of Fuarain Skincare, drawing from her background in beauty retail.

“Customers are telling us that all the touchpoints, from service to product, are bang on, but I probably underestimated how hard it is to start a new brand from scratch, getting awareness from zero in a crowded market.”

“Our plan is to go to bricks and clicks this year, with a retail presence as well as an online one, to get that reach we need.”

Jessica Kruger, founder of sustainable fashion brand LUXTRA, said: “The materials we work with are so new to people. The products themselves (bags and backpacks) may seem normal, but when we tell them it’s made out of pineapple leaves or cactus, they would never have guessed it. So for us, being online-only has its limitations, and we’re looking into establishing retail partnerships so people can touch and feel the pieces before they buy.”

Matt McNeill, director and co-founder of KLORIS CBD, oversaw a launch into retail last year, and said of the experience: “We’re present in Boots and Selfridges, but we’ve realised it’s important for people to experience the products.

“We’re now rolling out a spa programme to back up our retail presence. Because of the knowledge gap we’ve seen around CBD products, which is a large part of our product line, getting people to try the products is a big piece of the puzzle.

“Retail on its own isn’t enough because customers need that explanation as well.”

Fast growth business challenges

The final part of the roundtable explored the challenges that the participants have faced when it comes to running a fast growth business.

John Burke, co-founder of Craft Gin Club, explained: “What can be challenging as the company grows is passing on what you’ve learned about specific functions to the people you hire to professionalise those functions. It’s not until I hire someone that I realise how much information and process is stuck in my head and not formally on paper. Finding the right people means that they’ll build on what you’ve established whilst making the role their own, leaving you free to focus on the next growth phase.”

Mike Dobell, founder of men’s formalwear brand Dobell, commented: “Scaling up is the number one challenge. When starting out with a turnover of £0-5 million and a team of under 25 people, everyone’s in it together with a strong culture in place, but beyond that, scaling up with a different team has proved difficult.

“In football, for example, you need a different team in the Premier League than you do in League 2, and the mistake I made was not making that jump up in terms of talent sooner.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re in; if you don’t have the right people on the bus, that bus is not going.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.

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