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Shop.org attendees look to data for a competitive edge

There is nothing like a major gathering of digital retailers to underscore the accelerating velocity of e-commerce and the retail sector in general.

The Shop.org Digital Summit 2015 in Philadelphia this week is something of a pilgrimage for those who spend their harried days scanning the horizon for everything from the newest fashion trends to the latest in marketing technology, hoping to latch on to that one, not-yet-discovered differentiator.

Exhibitors from around the country, and beyond, arrive hoping to catch the eye of those seeking retail’s cutting edge. Speakers, thought leaders, industry experts and consultants show up to share what they’ve learned in business school, or in the school of hard knocks.

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As the show, which is expected to draw 5,400 attendees, begins in earnest on Tuesday, it’s clear that the retail world is hungry to find out what will help retailers compete with each other and, as importantly, Amazon. More than that, though, the list of Shop.org sessions and workshops belies a desire to find out what’s coming. Where, in fact, is all this going?

This year’s agenda includes some of the usual suspects: establishing return on investment for digital marketing; executing an omnichannel strategy; testing the effectiveness of initiatives; building real personalization, beacons and, of course, mobile.

But at center stage and infused in many of the other topics is one word: data. In 2015, we’re long past the days when just having data was the goal. Digital retailers are searching for the best ways to have meaningful data that they are able to act on. They are looking for ways to determine how their online efforts ultimately drive in-store sales. And they are keen on developing ways to combine online data with in-store data to build a more complete picture of their customers.

“That is a big thing that folks should not just press for answers on, but consider it within their own organizations,” Katy Tonkin, of digital marketing company Point It, says of stitching together online and offline customer information.

Tonkin, the vice president for digital strategy at Seattle-based Point It, spoke to me after her Monday presentation on improving the return on search marketing campaigns. Her advice on conducting a bit of introspection was reminiscent of LeapFrog’s Dave Husain’s guidance. He recently urged businesses to focus on the problem they’re trying to solve, rather than focus on existing solutions and how they might fit with their strategies.

“Every business,” Tonkin continued, “has to figure out what is going to work for them.”

But given the way consumers shop and business is conducted it makes it all the more crucial that sellers keep track of customers and prospective customers across all manner of interactions. And as part of that, it is increasingly important that businesses understand how they are performing at each point during a customer’s process of researching and buying.

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“We are getting enough insight into what happens offline to connect it to what happens online,” she says.

Steve Arndt, a senior account executive with Persio, who is attending the show, says the upcoming holiday season is actually a prime time for retailers to learn what they can about their customers. His point: Of course retailers are focused like a laser on making sales during the crucial holiday shopping period. But they should think bigger when they think about holiday strategy.

“For marketers, it’s a great opportunity to really build upon their client database list by gathering information,” he says. “They can really capitalize on that information gained over holiday to set themselves up for a really strong 2016.”

The fact is that customers — whether new customers or returning customers — are very likely to do some sort of browsing, shopping or buying from a retailer during November and December, when holiday sales represent an outsized proportion of annual revenue.

And just why do retailers need all that information? Rich data is the foundation of high-quality personalization efforts, which yield the kind of shopping experience that consumers say they want and retailers know they can profit from.

“The theme of personalization seems to be resonating through the marketplace,” Arndt says.

Of course, when personalization comes up in conversation, privacy is sure to follow. Perhaps not surprisingly, privacy was near the top of Tonkin’s impromptu list when I asked her what the big topics might be at future Shop.org summits. If businesses are going to work harder to understand customers better, it stands to reason that they will want to learn more and more about how those customers behave.

That will undoubtedly be a delicate dance, requiring open communication, transparency and a culture of asking permission. Tonkin says, for instance, as wearables become more popular and common, businesses will need to think about what they intend to do with the personal information wearables could generate.

“The data that wearables can collect about consumers is so valuable to marketers, but what are we going to do with it?” She says.

Tonkin also expects to hear a lot more about voice search at future Shop.org gatherings. Siri and Google Now are already like old friends for many consumers and Cortana is being more widely integrated into Microsoft’s products. More generally, Tonkin says, the way people search will continue to change and evolve.

One topic that she says has staying power is attribution. Shop.org attendees are likely to be talking about how to credit different sales channels for many conferences to come. As the digital media world becomes more complicated and fractured, understanding how well certain segments of that world are working becomes more difficult. But attribution will remain a top-of-mind question about the bottom line, unless, says Tonkin, “you’re in an organization that’s willing to spend money without knowing what that money is doing.”

“I have not yet met a CMO who says, ‘I’m OK with not knowing where my money is going.’”

And then, of course, there is the unknown. Given the speed with which digital marketing is hurtling into the future, there no doubt will be trends and technologies that those scanning the horizon have yet to pick up on.

And whatever those new things are, it’s a good bet that the group of digital marketers arriving in Philadelphia this week can hardly wait for them to arrive.

Photo of Shop.org setup and Katy Tonkin courtesy of the National Retail Federation.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.