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How a Great Plan Can Prepare You for the Worst
To those who navigate and live within the world of ecommerce, adapting to change is nothing new. However, if the last few years have taught merchants anything, it’s that staying in business, let alone growth, is only possible when overcoming such changes.
Helen Trendell, Co-Founder and Managing Director of ThoughtShift, knows better than most how to help ecommerce merchants grow their business—all through cohesive marketing strategies.
While the best-laid plans can go awry, those without any plans are almost guaranteed to fail. Many merchants may feel confident simply going with the flow. However, this flexibility can be put to the test—and broken—in the wake of world-changing developments.
We asked Helen all about marketing strategies, how she perceives big changes in ecommerce, and ultimately what merchants can do to prepare themselves for the worst.
Can you tell us a bit more about what you do and how specifically you’re helping ecommerce merchants?
Helen Trendell: Absolutely. So, ThoughtShift is celebrating being established for 10 years this year. During the last decade, the ThoughtShift team has worked with over a hundred different e-commerce brands from traditional retailers. We’re always looking to grow multichannel sales, with brands like The Body Shop, Oliver bonus, and Marine Superstore, to independent direct-to-consumer brands, such as Musketeers Montezuma’s chocolates and GoPro.
We’re lucky enough to be a multi-award-winning digital marketing agency. We won the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Marketing Excellence Award for Digital Marketing twice. Once for our work with Calumet Photographic, we helping them grow from 3 million to 11 million ecommerce turnover within the first 12 months.
That was through a combination of transforming their previous focus on their Google Ad spend to really focus on a lot of text-based ads to shifting the strategy. This was to diversify across a number of channels—particularly Google shopping, Facebook ads, and organic search. The result of that was we ended up increasing the return on ad spend from around three times, return on ad spend into double figures.
So they were getting around $10,000 back for every $1000 of spend. So that’s very much where we’ve kind of taken that process of integrating. Paid search, paid social, and SEO together to drive up ongoing revenue and return on investment for e-commerce brands. We love seeing those numbers get extra notes on them—that’s one of our favorite things to do well.
With all of this experience that you’ve had with ThoughtShift and within the ecommerce industry, you’ve got over a decade working with these online merchants. What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
Helen Trendell: I’m thinking back to when my co-founder, AJ Coutts, and I started ThoughtShift with the vision to change the world. But we thought, well, how can we, as marketers, change the world? We thought, “The only way we know how to do anything is marketing, so that’s how we’re going to go about changing the world.”
We wanted to do things differently. We could see that there were brands out there that have meaning and purpose in people’s lives, and they need those products. They help to drive purpose-driven brands forward. So a couple of years ago, we kind of realigned our strategic vision to really work with those purpose-driven brands.
My advice would be to really trust your human instincts. You might not be for everybody, and your approach might not change the entire world, but if you really stick to your ethics, you’ll attract a sort of community of like-minded team members, partners, and clients that are really great to work with.
The advice would be: don’t be afraid to be different. Also, for people just starting out, don’t be afraid when your head starts to hurt from cramming in so much knowledge, because it’s a really steep learning curve.
The more you know, the more you find you don’t know lots of things. It’s the one piece of advice that I always give to all of our team members when they’re first starting on their digital journey as well, that the learning curve is steep. But once you get there, after you’ve done the first kind of six months, it gets easier.
I’m still learning. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and there are things that surprise me every day, which is why it’s such a great area to work in, as well.
The Failure to Plan: Ecommerce Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make
Keeping up to date with how your industry is changing is one of the most important ways merchants can keep on their toes. Learning how to adapt, change, and improve isn’t something any merchant should stop doing—something Helen makes very clear.
We explored this notion further by not only asking Helen about ways to improve, but mistakes to avoid. No one is perfect, but those that see their imperfections and work on them will inevitably find more success than those who don’t.
With this in mind, we spoke to Helen about common mistakes, implementing better practices, and seeing how much time and effort merchants should put into their planning.
What’s the biggest mistake or the mistake that you see the most frequently among, among like e-commerce merchants?
Helen Trendell: The biggest mistake I see merchants making is waiting for a new product or video asset to launch before they consider promoting it. Normally, merchants are obsessed with their products, especially if they’re direct-to-consumer brands.
That’s awesome because we know that we’re really great at working with those types of brands. But if they could just be a bit more proactive with thinking about the marketing of those products, they would absolutely increase their sales and their customers.
A classic thing that we see is new products go onto the website, and then we’re then asked to optimize those products. It’s so much better if we can be involved in the product development process.
With some of our longer-term clients, where we’ve really gotten into working with their new product development teams, we can do keyword research. This helps identify the current popular terms that people are searching for that we can inherently include in the product name. We can also look at keyword trends and where growth areas are happening, which can really help buying teams.
This is hugely important to do as soon and as early as possible, probably three to six months before the products are going to be launching on the site—and the benefits are huge. Having a keyword in the language that actual customers are using in the product title of your products means that you will naturally improve your organic visibility—especially if it’s a growing trend.
You’ll have that keyword in the title, in the metadata, and in the URL. So every time people link to it, it’s also going to help to improve your authority for the brand being associated with that product term. Then in addition to that, if that’s not enough, you can also reduce your Google Ads cost per click because you’ll improve your quality score by having the keywords.
In the headline in the metadata, in the URL, you’ll pay less per click, you’ll appear in a higher-up position. You’ll improve your return on ad spend, and you’ll probably convert more customers as well because it’s what they’re looking for. They’re not like, “Hmm. Is that more of a jumpsuit or is that more of a playsuit?”
Take, for example, these types of keywords maybe for a fashion brand. They will help them to increase the conversion rate, drive more sales, and get more new customers. Of course, it will also enable more re-targeting, particularly for email marketing. This is because once you’ve got that initial customer, you can then market to them with all your other products as they launch as well.
If I could share one kind of best practice for clients, it would be to get your digital marketing team involved with your new product and new video assets at least three-to-six months before you’re planning on launching them and get that keyword research done early on. That will also mean that all of your other campaigns around promotions can all be coordinated. The more we can integrate, the bigger the impact will be—and it will be like a compound impact. It can be the difference between being a six- or seven-figure business or being a seven- or eight-figure business.
If there’s one best practice that you wish more merchants were doing, what would that be?
Helen Trendell: I think it would be reviewing the digital marketing strategy on a rolling, ongoing basis. Plan for the next six to 12 months, then review every six to 12 months.
It depends on the size of your business and the resources. Not only that, it depends on the different channels that you have. The more channels you have and the more sources of revenue you have is likely the more products and campaigns and assets that you have. You definitely want to be looking at that every six months—potentially every three months.
For more established businesses and startups, put together a robust 12-month strategy of what the plan is for all of your different channel activities. Have a monthly email campaign as a starter and scale up as you go.
It might be that you’ve got numerous email campaigns. You’ve got marketing automation that’s essential to really deliver the value of any kind of acquisition activity that you’re doing.
If you’re spending on paid social, paid ads, SEO, we want to be able to remarket to them. The same is true of all the customers that you don’t capture and the brand new customers that have never heard of your brand. If you don’t have your email data capture set up, and you’re not taking advantage of being able to keep in touch with either first-time purchases or people that aren’t quite ready to buy yet, you need to get them set up.
That is all how all these different channels need to work together.
It’s much easier and much less stressful if you just plan it on paper first, it’s like my top tip. It’s super easy. You don’t need anything fancy. I personally love an Excel spreadsheet for everything.Helen Trendell, Co-Founder & Managing Director, ThoughtShift
I like to have each channel and each month in a column and just pop in there: what is the plan for that channel for that month? Once you’ve got that for 12 months, then at the start of each month, you can say “Right, this is the plan for this month.”
Of course, putting together when you’ve got your product launches happening, then during that six months before the product launch, that’s when you want to start doing your SEO work.
I literally just plug all the activity in, and it helps everything to be much more efficient. You won’t forget things, and you’ll be super organized and proactive—and you won’t be doing Black Friday in November.
Adapting to Global Changes
While talking to Helen, the common agreement was that many marketers fall into a certain trap. It’s a common mistake, one that’s simple to make, and that’ over-relying on one plan and setting it in stone. Establishing a long-term plan for the whole year is all well good—unless they never look at it again.
To develop a great plan and prepare for the worse, you need to be able to dive in and question whether the plan is working, or whether it’s time to make a change—to optimize the plan and make it work better.
Worse yet, some merchants fall into a deeper, darker trap and have no plan at all. They try to take things as they come, which might work well for improv comedy and jazz, but can result in disastrous consequences. Case in point—COVID-19.
COVID was a worldwide collective trauma that the world experienced together. It provoked big changes in both large and small businesses alike, often having to see entire long-term plans either being wholly adapted or scrapped altogether. We asked Helen about her experience with the pandemic, and how it affected any plans she had created.
How did COVID-19 affect you at ThoughtShift, and how did it affect the merchants that you were working with specifically?
Helen Trendell: COVID had an immediate impact on ThoughtShift. I remember that day in March 2020 vividly. Within 24 hours of our sending our team home we were saying, “right, we’re going to work from home from the foreseeable future and see how this all pans out.”
Within 24 hours, our biggest client who we’d worked together for seven years pulled their global media spend and paused all their campaigns. By the end of the month, more than half of our monthly income was gone, it was just wiped off. It was a scary time. But we’re really fortunate that we have a really close-knit team, and we have some fantastic relationships with our clients.
The first thing that we did was made sure everyone in our team was okay. Then we did what we do best—we made a strategy. We got together and thought about what the impacts were going to be and which industries were going to be impacted.
We had literally done our annual review the month before. As ThoughtShift Marketing Leader, we’d come up with a plan to specialize in the travel sector. Luckily we haven’t gone full into that plan at that point. We simply wanted to add travel to our e-commerce experience.
We immediately thought, no, we’re obviously not going to go down that plan anymore. Our focus switched to go back to our roots—to think of the businesses that we can really help that need digital marketing strategies. Strategies that needed SEO, PPC, and paid social.
We spoke to our clients. We worked with them to help them to pause, switch, or reduce the services that they had— depending on how much they were impacted if their business couldn’t operate. For example, we worked with a nursery client for many years and their business was hugely impacted.
On the other hand, we had some meteoric growth happening with some other classes. One of our clients sold sheet plastic, cut to size. Everybody needed plastic screening in the country. It was absolutely crazy. We’d been working with them for 18 months. It was great to be able to work together, to help them.
Of course, there are other challenges that they were facing. We also thought about how we can continue to get new clients.
We’ve worked with a number of charities over the years. One of the things that we did for Blood Cancer UK back when they were called leukemia and lymphoma research was work on their ecommerce shop.
We want to spread the word so more people know this—if you’re a charity or non-profit, and you have a nonprofit or charity registered number, you can apply for $120,000 of free Google Ads per year.Helen Trendell, Co-Founder & Managing Director, ThoughtShift
Naturally, this is a huge spend for any business, let alone a charity, and they can use this money to drive ecommerce donations and shop sales. We thought this would be a great opportunity to spread the word about this grant that’s available for charities. After all, charities had been affected as well.
We put together a limited digital marketing strategy, special offer for a fixed fee. It’s about half the price of our usual fee. It was promptly snapped up by a fashion client and a charity client.
With some quick thinking, we were able to adapt and change our approach to help those industries. These were industries that were going to be experiencing a need for people to help them with their digital strategies. The retailers that have been traditionally selling through their shops were no longer able to do that—which was very much our focus as well.
Focusing on the Metrics that Matter: Future-Proofing at its Finest
It’s no secret that there have been a lot of changes in the past few years regarding consumer privacy. Here at Omnisend, we have been quite vocal about how these call for digital marketers to start thinking more creatively.
The update essentially rendering open rates useless, which made us curious as to how experts like Helen have reacted to them. We asked how they would weather the coming storms, as well as whether they see other risks on the horizon.
What are your thoughts on these updates? What are your thoughts on no longer being able to use open rates for email tracking? Do you think any other metrics might be at risk in the future?
Helen Trendell: Yes, absolutely. I think privacy and the way the metrics that can be tracked are changing are inevitable.
Particularly for Apple—Apple has stood out on a limb to say they are the brand to trust when it comes to your privacy, especially in the fact that it helps to harm their biggest rivals, Google and Facebook with their ad-driven revenue model and that this data can’t be tracked.
Anticipate that Apple continues to go in this direction—more and more these metrics will not be able to be tracked. If they are from an Apple user, this is something that we’ve already seen in Google Analytics.
Ultimately, 96% of Google Analytics accounts are set up incorrectly. Apple updates are actually the least of any digital marketer’s worries.
Another factor is, as reported from Google, that it takes 11 interactions for a customer to complete a purchase. This is the amount of multichannel, multi-device, multi-browser activity that is happening—whether that’s online or offline.
But really the data that we have available shouldn’t be taken as absolute fact because, in reality, the data that we can really own and confirm is the actual sales data. The interactions in between with brand awareness, impressions, and engagement are only as good as the analytics that we have set up anyway.
The data that we have available shouldn’t be taken as absolute fact because, in reality, the data that we can really own and confirm is the actual sales data. The interactions in between with brand awareness, impressions, and engagement are only as good as the analytics that we have set up anyway.Helen Trendell, Co-Founder & Managing Director, ThoughtShift
They are not an exact science—particularly when we’re looking at cross-channel campaigns.
I would expect and anticipate that as digital gets even more complex and as we get more smart devices, more people are used to ordering their Amazon delivery from their fridge, and all kinds of sort of internet of things, technologies in the future. At that time, we will have more data than we have now. The percentage of it that is accurate and can be correctly attributed will be lower.
I would anticipate that as digital gets even more complex, we will have more data than we do now—and the percentage of it that’s accurate and can be correctly attributed will be lower.
More and more metrics will be at-risk in the future. Ultimately, we need to be more pragmatic when it comes to data analysis. Let’s say you’re running a marketing campaign and you weren’t running it before. Then you see an uplift in sales and that’s the purpose of the campaign—then you can potentially correlate that supporting that activity.
Interestingly, starting in digital 20 years ago, we didn’t have Google. We didn’t have this data. So it’s actually returning to the old school. Thinking about other ways to measure response like the old school direct marketing with response codes, promotional codes, and finding other alternative ways is the path forward.
Starting in digital 20 years ago, we didn’t have Google. We didn’t have this data. So thinking about other ways to measure response like the old school direct marketing and finding alternative ways is the path forward.Helen Trendell, Co-Founder & Managing Director, ThoughtShift
At ThoughtShift, we continue to look at how we can support our clients in this ongoing challenge. But one thing is certain—it will absolutely change in the future.
Is there a good way for marketers to future-proof their marketing strategies, or do you think it is better to remain as nimble and reactive as possible? With a lot of these third-party apps that are changing their product, do you think it is better to remain as nimble as possible?
Helen Trendell: Absolutely. There is one thing that is certain about the future, and that is it won’t be the same as it is today. So you can absolutely plan to future-proof your marketing.
As you say, it’s very difficult to future-proof a global pandemic. However, what we do have is a lot of data of how that would work if that happens again. What we recommend being ThoughtShift, being all about thinking and doing, is to have a combination of planning about 80% in advance.
You want to be proactive for about 80% of your plan, but leaving about 20%. Following the old Pareto Principle for being reactive and nimble because things will change. If nothing happens, and you’re able to get onto your plan for that particular month, then just start on the thing that you’ve planned for the following month sooner.
If you do need that time to be reactive and nimble, then you’ve got that planned into your budget on a monthly basis. The other thing to be really mindful of is just not to jump on every bandwagon as well, stick to a plan and go with the plan and see it into reality. You know, give it a chance.
You can’t just expect to launch something brand-new today and get results from it tomorrow. The classic example of an update that’s coming, one that the ThoughtShift team has been planning for for four months, is Google’s upcoming Core Web Vitals algorithm update—which has been delayed since May 2021.
The great thing about the Core Web Vitals algorithm update is you can download Google Search Console, and you can get this data. It will tell you specifically, in the Core Web Vitals report, what Google recommends you need to do to improve the user experience of your website to get better to pass the Core Web Vitals tests—so that you’ll minimize the impact of this update.
There’s future-proofing and then there’s also a lot of the major players, Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, they release press releases and updates in advance of what their plans are so that you can absolutely anticipate that.
Using your time when you’re doing digital marketing strategy planning every six to 12 months to really take that longer-term view of what are the classic marketing PESTEL analysis of the exterior factors whether they’re political, economical, social, technological, or legal. What are the ramifications that are going to be?Helen Trendell, Co-Founder & Managing Director, ThoughtShift
Those ramifications will be potentially impacting your business and plan them into your strategy in advance. That’s how you can future-proof your strategy. If they keep an update secret and release it, then you’ve got that bit of reactive time that you can make a decision. Decide whether you need to act on it now, or whether you put it into next month’s plan and continue actioning the things that you’ve already got on your plan because actually, they’re going to be more important and make an impact now.
Do you have a go-to tool or an app that makes your life easier?
Helen Trendell: Well, it would have to be Google Page Insights and Google Search Console hand-in-hand because that tool, in particular, Google Page Speed Insights is just a super quick way for anybody to you just Google, Google page insights page speed insights. If you get the tool, you can put any URL into it.
It’ll tell you, basically, the speed score out of a hundred. If you’re 90 and above, it’s in the green and you know that it’s good. If it’s sort of below 50 or below 20, it’s going to be in considered amber or red. It will also tell you what you need to do with your website to improve the performance of that website and to help people to have faster loading sites.
When you are spending on marketing and you’re driving people to your website to convert to buy online, your site needs to be super-fast—whether you’re clicking through from an email campaign, or you’re coming through from a Google ad or a Facebook ad or a social post.
You’ve got less than a second to when that person, and if you could invest in anything, making your site faster is going to improve your conversion rates for all of your marketing.
Do you have any recommendations for a blog or a podcast, or maybe a social account that you would suggest people follow if they’re looking to grow?
Helen Trendell: I think the one that really stands out for me and is my go-to resource is a brand that I’ve been following since the early two thousands—trendwatching.com. They basically round up all the latest kinds of consumer trends. It’s so insightful and helpful for getting ahead and future-proofing your digital marketing strategy to be aware of these trends and have them delivered to your inbox.
Trend Watching is a publication that analyzes consumer behavior and predicts the future trends of consumers and where the future is going. So I think just like looking on their site at the moment, they’ve got one about conscious consumerism. What they do is they break down actual examples of brands that are doing really well.
Specifically, either the language that they’re using, the design that they’re using, and their approach for how they are embodying this trend. Then give suggestions of how you and your brand might be able to take on this trend and adapt it into your advertising, into your products, into your branding. It’s really useful for ecommerce merchants in particular when they’re thinking about products they’re going to buy, and the unique selling points that they have for the future and using it to really help with growth.
Over the past few years, consumers have been a lot more concerned about privacy. This shift is an inevitable truth, and focusing on the metrics that actually matter are what is going to be a more evergreen strategy for the future.
While focusing on the metrics that are the most actionable might work for privacy preparation, it’s far from the only event that might disrupt an industry. Helen’s advice that works for everyone in the world of ecommerce. After all, Google is only going to demand that sites be faster because that’s what customers demand as well.
However, industry giants aren’t the only ones you should worry about setting the tone for changes in ecommerce. It’s important to remember how you as a merchant can best handle what customers want and except—with an extensive and comprehensive plan being one of the best ways to do this.