Attribute-Driven Framework for Unified Commerce
Optimizing digital information architecture for enhanced customer experience
Organizations are wrestling with digital transformations of all types, from omni-channel selling programs to integrated digital marketing initiatives. All of these transformations are based on a deeper understanding of customers, their needs, and the best way to anticipate and meet those needs. Enterprises need a 360-degree view of their customers—an understanding of the entire customer lifecycle—and ways to translate that understanding into revenue and market share.
To use their understanding to market in various channels, organizations need to develop merchandizing strategies that match insights with customer journeys, and apply context to both traditional interactions and those driven by machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Applying customer and journey context means serving up the right products, services or solutions with supporting data and content to meet needs on a moment-to-moment basis. Therefore, customer data models, product data models, content models, and knowledge architecture all have to follow harmonized information structures–in other words, they have to be tied together by a unified attribute model or framework in order to achieve unified commerce.
Taxonomies and Attribute Models: Is-ness, About-ness and Metadata
Customer data models, product data models, content models, and knowledge architecture have to be tied together by a unified attribute model in order to achieve unified commerce.
Traditionally, taxonomies are used as a way to organize product and customer information, but a more powerful and flexible approach is to look at all information through the multiple dimensions supported by metadata. While a taxonomy can be considered a unifying mechanism for organizing information, a content model uses multiple taxonomies to describe various lenses for that information.
Metadata describes the “is-ness” and “about-ness” of a piece of information. What is this piece of information? What is it about? To describe a product page on a website, various fields are defined to hold labels and values. Product type, product name, features, description, brand, and price might comprise some of these fields.
A field can contain metadata, or information such as a dimension, a feature, or an attribute.
Building a product catalog requires definition of all of the possible descriptors of the various products along with the permitted values for those descriptors. Those descriptors have to be defined consistently so that products can be located and compared in an apples-to-apples manner. If a dimension for one product is defined in inches, similar products also need to be defined in inches rather than centimeters, or comparisons will not be useful. If the name of the attribute is “brand” in one product, calling it “manufacturer” in another will make comparisons more difficult.
Another type of attribute is category-specific attributes, such as those that would be in a catalog. For example, for drills, an attribute might be torque, or power source (battery operated versus corded). This type of attribute is unique to specific products.
Merchandising attributes can be layered and made available across different product categories. This is how collections are created. For example, natural products for pets could be defined by an attribute and then applied to products across many categories. Event-related attributes also can be used to establish collections—for example, a Valentine’s Day collection could include items from the jewelry department, apparel, or other categories. This type of attribute is not used for navigation or for product catalog purposes. It drives a merchandise collection of those items and content that allow a unique shoppable experience that is different from the standard navigation, browse, and search-based experience.
There are different ways to enable customers to shop through merchandising attributes--for example, organized by industry and application. Sometimes it is advisable to set up the product information management (PIM) system as a second hierarchy with a set of attributes, if merchandising scenarios are complex. This second hierarchy can make life easier for merchandisers but adds overhead to product onboarding processes.
Harmonizing and normalizing product attributes allows customers to locate the products they need and shop in the manner they are most comfortable with. The product data model needs to identify the attributes that allow customers to shop via search, browsing, or selecting a particular collection of features that are most important to them.
Defining and filling in attributes correctly for products is obviously an essential piece of the puzzle, but the same process also has to be carried out for content that supports the purchase. Perhaps a how-to video, a customer review, a product specification, or an example of how the product can be used will help the user make the choice and complete the purchase.
After the purchase, support materials or trouble-shooting guides that help users get the most from their purchase can be surfaced in a contextually relevant way. All this related content has to be modeled so it can be updated, managed and correctly presented to the user. A content architecture aligned with the correct use cases will ensure that this additional information is available for consumption when it is needed without overloading the user. Having enough content to support the purchase without detracting from the user experience is a delicate balance that may vary across customer types or journey stage.
Customer data models
Customers can also be modeled with various attributes and descriptors. These might include preferences, interests, goals, demographics, shopper type, and other attributes–some of which may be implied by their behavior and some declared explicitly. In a B2B setting, the customer’s industry, position, or department might constitute valuable signals that could be leveraged in presenting the correct information in the context of their journey.
Unified attributes across products, content, knowledge and customer
A “unified attribute framework” means that these various descriptors are designed to complement and inform one another. When all the different elements are used together in harmony, organizations can drive experience, offer the “next right products,” promote engagement, and provide category management feedback through analytics.
Research and identify customer attributes
The first step in extending a unified attribute framework for customers is to identify characteristics that can inform an offering. This is achieved by understanding the customer behaviors that lead to a conversion and determining how those behaviors are triggered or influenced. Customer personas and journeys provide the organizing principles and identifiers that can enrich the signals that the system responds to. For example, identifying the buyer’s industry or professional environment can provide more context for a search. If a user from the manufacturing sector searches for “mold stripping,” the products they are interested in pertain to maintenance for an injection molding machine. If they are in facilities management or construction, they are more likely referring to the task of mold removal from a home or commercial building.
Another example of use of customer attributes would be for a home improvement retailer to treat professional contractors differently from amateur do-it-yourselfers. The retailer could also look at other customer attributes: Some customers are from rural areas and some are from urban areas. Some are loyalty cardholders. Some are social media aficionados and potentially are influencers whose opinions might carry greater weight than those of the typical customer. Each one could receive different suggestions, promotional offers, and collateral.
Research is required to learn how past purchase history, interests, proficiency, industry, type of buyer and other attributes impact the information needs of customers and how the customers should be segmented, communicated with and served. Through this research, organizations come to understand their customers’ buying points and pain points in different parts of their shopping journey, as well as the content and data that influences their journey.
Classify products and tag content
The next step is to classify products into the assortment hierarchy and tag them. In this phase, the broad categories are refined based on the products’ usage, lifestyle relevance, and other rich content.
Product attributes have more of a detailed page focus, rather than reflecting broad categories. The objective is to get competitive parity in attributes for marketplaces—products at each level should be described in a way that provides visibility compared with competitor offerings in the noisy online world. If those comparative attributes are not present, products are essentially invisible. Missing data or an incorrectly designed attribute model means that products will not be findable on the site or possibly in the marketplace.
If the same products are available on Amazon or Google, or in the case of B2B, a B2B online marketplace, they should contain the common attributes across those environments in order to maintain parity. Those attributes are the table stakes. Competitive advantage comes from differentiation—meaning presenting features unique to your offerings or combining and grouping products in bundles that address needs and solve problems uniquely based on the research into understanding buyer characteristics.
At the most refined level, SKUs and brand assets can be assigned to individual categories. Meaningful product attributes are filled in that align with other products in the marketplace. Associated product content should be tagged, and product ID’s assigned that relate back to the e-catalog, so that they can be found in context across all channels that the organization is using to communicate with prospects and customers.
The steps of developing general categories and specific product attributes result in a basic e-catalog with product content and associated data. At this point, customer attributes can be incorporated into the merchandizing strategy in order to meet the unique needs of customers.
Tune the assortment by channel
Once the basic e-catalog has been developed, additional merchandising attributes allow for creative display of products. A variety of factors should be considered. How is the organization going to present an assortment to a specific audience or type of buyer? How will that presentation be tuned, updated and refined? How will cross-sell, and up-sell relationships be managed and presented? Is there anything unique about a particular channel that needs to be surfaced with merchandising attributes and ways to shop, compare, or use products and services? Standardization of attributes allows for parity, while differentiation allows for competitive advantage.
This is the stage at which competitive differentiators in products and content can be brought out and uniquely displayed, versus the presentation allowed by the basic e-catalog structure. The tuning addresses publishing and syndication workflow across channels. The determination of which elements to surface under particular circumstances for specific customers is driven by the unique attribute models. Tuning the assortment for digital experience by channel extends into search and dynamic navigation across the site.
Tuning may be done very differently for a mobile app versus a mobile site, a website, or an in-store experience, a store-associated experience or kiosk. Tuning could also be different for different social media influencers.
Gather insights and tune the experience across channel, audience, and event
The channels have different clock speeds and serve different purposes, but that is where each organization can start to differentiate. The focus should be on what is special about the organization’s products. The resulting options should consider the overall experience of the way in which those products are presented to meet customer needs versus those of a competitor that may offer very similar products or services.
Finally, to tie all this together, event attributes are layered on. At this stage, “next-right” products are tailored to customer journey events. This step requires identifying events that should trigger an offer of a product, content, or service, and determining the details of that offering.
This step also involves driving different collections to determine what shows up in the merchandised assortment based on emerging themes. Insight can be gathered as to the types of products or service that customers are gravitating towards, depending on event triggers. Alternatively, customers may be reacting poorly to certain offerings. New trends can be identified and the effectiveness of offers determined through analysis of customer behaviors and level of engagement.
This feedback allows organizations to further tune how products and services are merchandised. It also informs category management to provide insights into what product lines should be expanded, or which ones should be moved more quickly because they’re about to go out of style. Decisions can be made about when to drop prices, or otherwise aggressively liquidate inventory.
Intelligent use of event attributes can drive collections by emerging themes, allowing marketing teams to gather and test insights, and helping merchandising teams rapidly test-and-tune new offers and assortments. Event attributes can be applied without disturbing the back-end catalog and with minimum disruption to enterprise systems, which means that organizations can present assortments with unique offers for particular customer segments.
Customer engagement analytics can show what works and what does not work, providing hard data that supports decisions about what to do next. The organization can modify product combinations and refine attributes based on real time user behaviors. Eventually, merchandising can be adjusted through event attributes aligned with identified trends to better acquire and retain customers as well as drive promotion and improve offering effectiveness.
Unified commerce – adaptable and scalable digital machinery
Unified commerce collects, aligns, and integrates customer data and real-time behavioral signals across touchpoints and throughout the stages of the customer journey. It then combines those signals with product and content attribute models. It is dynamic, measurable, adaptable, repeatable, and, most importantly, scalable.
The process provides insights on a continuous basis across demographic segments, audiences, product lines, and channels. It offers a holistic approach to e-catalog structures and product data models to create a dynamic assortment mix. The approach includes the upstream processes for governing changes to update and evolve the digital machinery to optimally serve the customer.
Beyond product attributes – the bigger picture
Understanding the attributes and dynamics of the customer journey provides an initial framework. The next step is to look at what the organization is offering these customers throughout that journey and bring the customer journey process into the design of the e-catalog. The starting point for this set of attributes is a hierarchy that reflects the master assortment, the full assortment of products and services that the organization offers.
The organizing principles in this phase include the principles for item-onboarding. Everything in the e-catalog would be common across all channels, including physical channels such as in-store. The unified attribute framework includes descriptors in common across channels, format, and devices about the products and services that the organization has to sell or offer.
Attributes are often thought of in one dimension, such as product data attributes. By using a variety of attributes in coordination with each other, it is possible to generate a richer, more dynamic, and personalized experience. Understanding each channel and touchpoint, each shopper event, and then combining that information with product and services attributes and supporting content allows for a unified attribute-driven framework for content in context to support e-commerce.
This framework has elements of four pillars of functionality: customer data to understand patterns and preferences, optimized content to support the user throughout their journey, product data in order to find what is needed and execute the transaction and knowledge in the form of answers, advice and solutions to differentiate the experience from that of competitors.
Knowledge is not always visible in e-commerce environments because it is typically in the heads of merchandisers, sales engineers, and customer support specialists who understand customer needs and solutions or in specialized databases or content silos. Content is typically handled in separate processes that are disconnected from product data and more likely to be associated with marketing assets fragmented across various departments. In many cases, customer data is housed in multiple tools and systems, requiring integration and consolidation in order to be useful.
Each of these elements needs to be analyzed separately but unified holistically, because they all need to come together to create an optimal digital experience.
In a B2B context, there may be hundreds of thousands of products and tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of applications.
The U.S. population has been trending toward natural products for years, as more people become concerned about additives and preservatives, and lean toward the use of natural fabrics. Pet owners are no exception—they want the option of natural products for their pets. In one recent project, EIS helped a national pet care retailer develop a new merchandising strategy for a themed collection around natural products. The goal was to boost revenue and average order value (AOV) for themed products across multiple product categories.
The approach was to identify and tag products as "natural,” “organic,” or “hypoallergenic.” In addition, products were included from trusted natural brands or those that do not contain artificial substances.
EIS worked with products already in the company’s product information management (PIM) system, selecting a subset matching the scope of the intended collection (i.e., the pets, types of products). A review of those products further narrowed the products to a set that had tags, brands, and materials that were relevant to the collection.
A new attribute defining the featured shop was created and displayed, with a subset for the specific pets (dogs and cats). A new product hierarchy for navigating the natural dog and cat category was created, and added to the existing dog and cat hierarchies. Finally, new navigation facets (such as price and color) for the natural dog and cat categories were created and displayed.
The content for each page was defined, with the appropriate design marketing and site merchandising content. This step included selecting “hero images” (large and dramatic images and associated headlines), landing pages, and calls to actions that suggest the customer’s next step.
In order to maximize the likelihood of prospective customers being able to find these products, navigation is not enough. The site search must be responsive to terms such as “natural products.” The display hierarchy category labels and collection content for the “natural shop” should also be used to boost SEO impact.
Unifying attributes across structured and unstructured data lays the foundation for a range of advanced customer experience capabilities that become the competitive differentiator in highly competitive, fast changing e-commerce B2B and B2C marketplaces. Customers have the ability to research prices, features, and offerings at the click of a mouse. As a result, they will rapidly move their business to vendors who understand them and can give them what they want, sometimes before they are even fully aware of their needs.
Personalized and predictive experiences are raising the bar for every online player. E-commerce and digital marketing organizations lacking a flexible, fully integrated, and adaptive foundation, will always be scrambling to catch up rather than leading the way.
The importance of unified commerce and the underlying enabling data frameworks cannot be overstated. Without such a strategy, deploying state-of-the-art digital experience technologies will be like driving a Ferrari on rutted dirt roads. Paving the way with unified attributes will unleash the power of personalization and provide a state-of-the-industry customer experience.