3 Steps to Fostering Customer Engagement & Increasing Conversion Rates Online from Roy Hessel, EyeBuyDirect.com

For Roy Hessel, CEO, EyeBuyDirect.com, the biggest challenge when he launched the site, and perhaps still the biggest challenge, is what he calls the “product matching challenge.”

“We want to show people the right product at the right time at the right price,” he said.

As an online retailer of prescription eyeglasses, Roy is dealing with an already complex, high-involvement, highly personalized product, which demands a high level of customer engagement and a large data set in order to make sales. Not only are glasses an intimate product that consumers spend lots of time deciding on before purchasing, but the sale of prescription frames and lenses is contingent upon opticians. They hold potential customers’ prescriptions and are the gatekeepers to EyeBuyDirect.com’s customers, as Roy calls them.

In order to tackle this inherently challenging marketplace, when Roy and his team launched the company almost five years ago, they did extensive research at brick and mortar eyeglass retailers and surveyed the customer experience from the time they stepped into the door to the point of sale. They noticed that almost immediately after entering the store, a trained optician had approached them and could survey and determine what sort of frame they would be likely to purchase.

After all of this research, Roy his team came up with a set of three critical personalization data sets that retailers use in brick and mortar stores to convert customers:

1. Visual – The associate has a visual of the customers, s/he sees what customers are wearing, how they look, gets an idea of what they want.

2. Inferred – Data that is not directly communicated by the customer, but is collected by the store associate, such as what time the customer visited the store, whether s/he is conservative with his/her style, etc.

3. Communicated/Shared – What the customer has expressly relayed to the sales associate because of questions that have been directly asked to the customer such as: What are you looking for? What is your price range? What is your budget?

After compiling this data, it was not surprising that a trained optician at a brick and mortar retailer could get customers to convert, Roy said. So Roy thought about how he could apply these three points to ecommerce and thus get his own customers to convert. Here’s what he came up with:

1. Visual - Image of visitor. EyeBuyDirect.com created a visual platform called EyeTry where customers can “try on” glasses by using an image of a model that exists on the site or uploading an image of themselves.

2. Inferred - Analytics, tracking, cookies, etc.

3. Communicated/Shared – Contextual activity such as blog posts, customer service emails, phone calls to a call center, feedback analytics, and the “Wall of Frame,” a social media network the company created where users could share their ideas and impressions of frames as well as photos of each other in the frames.

In developing the first, visual, step, EyeBuyDirect.com quickly realized that the company couldn’t afford any existing solution so the company developed its own (a move Roy said turned out to be a great decision.)

“We learned that developing the technology and being able to mine technology was an invaluable asset,” he said. He described it as a data mining tool because the image of the visitor can be scanned and an outside vendor (Face.com) enables an almost automatic identification through the features of the image, skin tone and shape of the face, with close to 95 percent accuracy on identifying gender.

“Overnight our customers were personalized,” he said. The company started creating a semi-complete profile of its customers and was able to identify what they would want to buy. “Data mining is our core advantage. Our limited resources have forced us to be very aggressive with how we use the data. Everything is recorded and put into a personal profile.”

The last, but most important piece of the online customer engagement puzzle for EyeBuyDirect.com is The Wall of Frame. This on-site social network of prescription eyeglass wearers who discuss different prices, styles, and things that have to do with the product and its buying, creates a very sticky experience on site. People interact, people comment, and people spend time out of curiosity to see what frames other people wear, said Roy. It creates what Roy calls “ePressure;” the sentiment or push that a visitor experiences when he sees either Facebook peers, or people that look like him/her, are in his/her age group, etc., that pressures them to make a purchase.

“If you have creative ideas with respect to social commerce and personalization, I would recommend you expose them,” said Roy. “Once we started touching social, we got a ton of exposure which drove more traffic, which drove conversions.”

Roy left off with this point about social media – that as e-retailers, we need to seriously consider our relationship with Facebook as it plays into all this talk about personalization, email marketing, customer engagement and customer retention.

“Facebook today has a greater hoard of information about its citizens than any nation has ever had,” he said. “They know everything about their users – much more than we will ever need to convert them. The greatest dilemma as a CEO is: do we invest more time into new applications or do we get into bed with Facebook? They have all this data, all this information, why not share it?

“People will say, Facebook will never sell you that data. But there are two reasons why Facebook will have to sell data to us retailers: 5 and 0. That $50 billion evaluation they just got..it’s going to have to be justified.”

While his point is somewhat scary, it’s a good one.

Roy’s session concluded with him saying that the future of how we will compete against ourselves as retailers is two-pronged: 1) How to apply personalized data, and 2) Offering uniqueness. The three things we should remember as we approach an ecommerce strategy that aims to target customers in a personalized, strategic way are:

1. Identify your 3 critical personalization data sets

2. Integrate means to collect the data

3. Consider your relationship with Facebook

In the end, whether it’s email marketing, SEO, SEM or any other distribution channel, personalization will play a key role in getting customers engaged, thereby getting them to buy. And what, just to confirm, is personalization? As defined by Roy, it is the creation of a personal and personable atmosphere that encourages businesses to share their true identities and help retailers convert them – the fusion of social media with online retail. And pretty soon, the e-commerce/Facebook relationship will be even more closely related to everything we do as internet retailers.