Reimagine the Shopping UX with Mobile Notifications and Network Thinking

Brands and retailers, at long last, have the tools at their disposal to rethink the shopping experience around the consumer. It may come as a surprise, but the vehicle for change comes in the form of mobile phone notifications. While the notifications on their own are simple snippets of text, the revolution in the shopping experience is driven by an automated, rule-driven intelligence behind the scenes. It's the creation of this "brand brain" that requires the attention of brands and retailers.

Beyond enabling the intelligence to support an optimized shopping experience, brands and retailers will also need to develop network thinking. So many marketing and merchandising decisions today are made in a discrete silo - not taking into account the fact that the shopping experience is a continuum - including social media, email, catalogs, fashion shows, store displays, merchandise, sales associate interactions, product tags, and so on.

Today's shopping experience is a network of digital touchpoints. Network thinking refers to this idea - and implies an understanding of the need to invest in touchpoint monitoring, as well as the notion that brands must ultimately take ownership of and be responsible for the totality of the shopping experience.

While ecommerce sites are familiar with optimizing digital touchpoints, it's only recently that store-based retailers have been able to do the same. The opportunity here is immense, as It should come as no surprise that consumers are both spending more time on their smartphones, and bringing these devices into the store more often.

Recent data from Nielsen's Q1 2014 Cross-Platform Report indicate that consumers are spending 7 more hours per month (more than 38 hours per month total) on their phones compared to just last year (2013). Deloitte Digital's 2013 shopper journey survey noted that more than one third of shoppers are using digital devices in-store to aid in shopping.

It's only logical that brands and retailers take advantage of the fact that shoppers are already using mobile devices before, during, and after the shopping journey.

For larger retailers, mobile notifications are already emerging as something akin to a brand-owned ad network that is reinventing the shopping (and selling) experience. This is especially true for retailers that have found that traditional marketing investments – such as TV and print – no longer reach their target.

Notifications can be delivered through many different means – brand-owned mobile apps, desktop or mobile browsers, cellular networks (SMS/MMS), third party voice/messaging applications (OTT), among others – and to just about any consumer device.

They're messages, but they're really a manifestation of the retailer's actual intelligence about the shopper. These notifications are how the much discussed, but not particularly well understood notion of Big Data is having and will have a significant impact on the shopping experience.

Until now, the challenge for marketers has been one that's familiar to everyone – it's hard to gather all of the right data in the right place – both the analytics about the shopper (web pages viewed, stores visited, ads clicked through), as well as the actual content experienced (product images, store maps, ad creative).

What's changed? There's a familiar, but newly enabled technology workhorse that makes it possible to bring all of this data together: Search.

New, powerful, and fast search engines, many available through open source projects, are what's required. Search engines, when combined with nearly unlimited, cloud-based data stores, make it possible to evaluate numerous disparate data sources, process a series of personalization or contextualization rules, and then serve up results. Really fast.

So, once you have the right data in the right place, how do you use it to reach the consumer and reinvent the shopping experience?

By developing notifications that are both individualized and contextualized.

Individualized notifications are just like they sound – personalized messages to each individual shopper. In other words, notifications can be developed for individual shoppers, delivered potentially only to one person out of millions, and directing that shopper to content chosen (manually, programmatically, or both) just for her.

Keep in mind that the individualization goes beyond simple triggers, such as you purchased product X in the past, so we're going to promote the same product today. In this instance, individualization exists across the totality of individual level data, such as, because you purchased this item, visited this store, and then tapped through an inline mobile ad on Facebook, then you'll receive this notification on your next store or site visit.

Contextualized notifications take into account the context of the shopper – her behavior over a period of time – as well as a limitless number of external factors (weather, location, time spent, inventory on hand). For most retailers, the notion of context is largely foreign, mostly because of the challenge of monitoring shopper behavior before, during, and after an actual shopping session. Currently, the primary tools for measuring shopper behavior, either store-based or ecommerce analytics, aren't tuned to individuals so much as to aggregates.

Thanks to the arrival of smartphones, as well as a range of location-based tools (proximity sensors such as iBeacons, geofences, or GPS), retailers can monitor individual level context – both instore and online.

So with all of the intelligence powering this "ad network" of notifications at every stage of the shopping journey, how does a retailer use this capability to create the optimal shopping experience?

The answer is network optimization. Today's retail experience is largely unoptimized. Instead of learning and adjusting based on what works and what doesn't – most retailers are in the unfortunate position of moving to the next shelf set or to the next season's look. When you think about it, nearly everything the retailer does, whether it's online or in-store, could benefit from optimization.

By embracing notifications, retailers are really getting an additional benefit beyond the surprise and delight of personalization and contextualization. Retailers are also buying into the power behind every ad network – even Google's search ads: the power of optimization.

Notifications generate their own analytics and their own virtuous learning loop to get smarter over time. There are entirely new domains of learning that simply haven't been possible before now. The ability to focus on the segment of one means that the brand's "brain" behind the scenes can gather information that's highly specific – and leads to both a better experience and better sales over time.

From merchandising, to promotions, to pricing, and even extending to simple greetings – the new world of personalized, contextual notifications really can enable the optimal shopping experience.

Tom Klein is the CEO of Digital Scientists - a digital innovation company in Alpharetta, Ga., the former executive director of strategy for Chanel Asia and Americas and the co-author of Enterprise Marketing Management: The New Science of Marketing (Wiley: 2003). 
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