A Hippo walks into a startup…

Can't have a party without balloons. Combining Hippo and BloomReach colors.

Can’t have a party without balloons. Combining Hippo and BloomReach colors.

Today I start work in a new company — and so do all my co-workers, and a bunch of new co-workers.

BloomReach has acquired Amsterdam-based content management system company Hippo and today we formally join forces to build the first open and intelligent digital experience platform.

It’s one of the great things about working at the center of the ongoing digital revolution: Things change all the time. But sometimes, like today, they change in ways that are vastly more significant than at other times.

The combination of BloomReach and Hippo forms a pioneer in the coming phase of commerce and communication on the web — a platform with the potential to dramatically improve every interaction for every web user.

“It’s been awesome to work with these guys,” BloomReach CEO Raj De Datta said, while announcing the acquisition to BloomReach employees. “I think together we’re going to do something really great.”

OK, maybe my calling it a “new company” is less than precise. BloomReach is a bigger company. A company with a significantly wider scope. And it’s definitely a company starting a new chapter. But we are still BloomReach.

In a meeting to discuss the acquisition with BloomReach employees — and with Hippo’s founders present via teleconference — De Datta described the move as the start of BloomReach’s Chapter 3. We’ll get to the first two in a minute.

But the third chapter? It’s big, if we do say so ourselves. It means that digital businesses, which is pretty much all businesses, will be able to harness algorithms and machine learning to offer individually relevant recommendations concerning products and services — and content, too.


It’s a major step in the direction of “BloomReaching the web,” or making every digital experience personally relevant for every individual digital consumer. It’s been a long-term goal since the company started.

In a world where consumers are in control — where digitally empowered users decide how, when and where to shop and how, when and where to consume information and content — it’s vital to be able to deliver the right content to the right person on the right device at the right time. That’s especially true when the right device might be a laptop, smartphone, tablet, credit-card reader, auto dashboard, kiosk, touch screen, shopping cart, electronic sign or even arena scoreboard.

Milestones provide a time to focus on culture

But the BloomReach/Hippo deal is big for other reasons, too. It is big for the two companies that are becoming one. Nearly three years ago, on BloomReach’s fifth anniversary, I wrote about the importance of company culture as an ingredient in startup success.

There is only so much a manager or executive can control. The bigger the company, the harder it is. Instead, a company needs to be infused with a way of doing things; of treating people, partners and customers. That is culture.

“Culture is absolutely crucial in helping people amplify the strengths of each other and cancel out the weaknesses,” Silicon Valley scholar Paul Saffo told me at the time. “Good culture is where people stand on each other’s shoulders. And bad culture is where people stand on each other’s toes.”

A big day like today, the marriage of two companies, is a chance to re-examine and remember why those values are important. At BloomReach, the company values are often stated in shorthand — Truth, Own, We, Think and No Drama.

Hippo team members conduct their quarterly business review aboard a boat, of course.

Hippo team members conduct their quarterly business review aboard a boat, of course.

And, De Datta said, those values were at the forefront of the talks with Hippo, which was equally focused on connecting with a company that shared its own long-held values. (You’d expect no less from a company that holds “beer and fun” as two key pillars that support the company.)

“The culture has been the driving force behind Hippo. Product and culture at Hippo goes hand-in-hand,” says Varia Makagonova, Hippo’s global communication manager. “For all of us at Hippo, it’s really clear that we wouldn’t have merged with another company if it didn’t match our company values. That’s how important it is.”

Hippo and BloomReach’s culture convergence

In her time at Hippo, Makagonova has written about the culture and camaraderie at the company.

In fact, it turns out, Hippo has a culture shorthand of its own, one that is remarkably similar to BloomReach’s — Committed (Own), Outspoken (Truth), Smart (Think), Together (We), Humorous (No Drama).

Keeping that corporate DNA front-and-center has kept Hippo grounded and growing into a global enterprise still run by its original foundersJeroen Verberg, Arje Cahn and Tjeerd Brenninkmeijer.

And living its corporate values has powered BloomReach through two chapters of its story and to the beginning of Chapter 3. (De Datta talks about BloomReach’s commitment culture in the video below.)

Oh yeah, the first two chapters? While meeting with employees, De Datta laid them out this way:

Chapter 1 covered the first three years of the company’s life, a time when BloomReach had one product that was focused on organic search. Chapter 2 lasted the next four years, years during which BloomReach added two more products — one optimizing site search and the onsite experience and another providing instant and actionable data for site merchandisers.

Chapter 3 starts today.

Back when I wrote about BloomReach’s fifth anniversary, I made the point that the benefit of celebrating corporate milestones (and there was some celebrating, indeed), isn’t so much being able to revel in the congratulatory glow.

It is more a chance to stop and think about how a company, particularly how the people in the company, got the company to the milestone it’s celebrating. It’s a time to think about what went right and what went wrong; a time to appreciate those you work with and their role in the success you all enjoy.

Today, we have dozens of more co-workers to appreciate — and we’ll surely do that. And then, all of us together, will go about the business of writing Chapter 3.

Photos by BloomReach/Hippo.

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


Best cloud computing workplace list is a sign of what’s to come


It’s no secret that “the cloud” has arrived as a technology, but as if to underscore its prominence, Battery Ventures and Glassdoor today announced a best-of list that should help guide tech professionals looking for a good place to work.

The “50 Highest Rated Private Cloud Computing Companies to Work For” looks at privately held companies with at least 200 employees and includes known names like Asana, Dropbox, Prezi, Sendgrid, Okta, Demandbase and, yes, BloomReach. (See the full list.)

And while, OK, maybe we’re bragging a little bit, landing on the cloud-oriented list is about more than bragging rights. The growth of the cloud sector — and cloud companies providing all sorts of services, operational software, security tools and more — has been astounding in recent years.

But that’s nothing compared to where it is going, as a broad spectrum of companies shed legacy onsite software systems that require those companies to manage upkeep, upgrades and periodic replacements.

Battery General Partner Neeraj Agrawal, who specializes in cloud investing, estimated that enterprises are currently spending about 15 to 20 percent of their software budgets on cloud applications. Within the next decade, he said, that number would likely be closer to 75 percent.

“From my perspective, and I’ve been investing for 16 years, cloud computing is the single largest tech trend out there,” said Agrawal, who is also on the board of Glassdoor, a job and recruitment site that provides employee reviews of employers.

(Battery Ventures is an investor in BloomReach.)

Cloud company acquisitions are heating up

Not only is spending on cloud services on a steep climb, he said, but acquisitions of cloud companies are increasing dramatically. Agrawal said that in 2016 there have already been $50 billion worth of acquisitions involving cloud players.

Yes, some big deals factor into that 2016 figure (Microsoft buying LinkedIn), but the buying activity is still impressive if you look at the $15 billion in annual average activity over the past four years.

There are several reasons for the furious growth, Agrawal said, none of which are going away soon. Hosting software in the cloud allows for rapid iteration and continuous improvement that cloud-company customers benefit from immediately, rather than enduring the unwieldy process of upgrading traditional software products housed on a company’s own servers, for instance.

Buying software as a service gives customers maximum flexibility and requires software vendors to be not only looking for the next sale, but looking constantly to keep existing customers happy so they will renew their contracts.

So what does all this have to do with whether a cloud company is a good place to work? You know the answer, don’t you? In order to be a successful, a company needs to hire the best people. And it needs to keep them.

Scott Dobroski, a Glassdoor community expert, said the company has conducted surveys that show that technology professionals know they can command good pay and land a job at a company that appears to have good prospects. So, the number one thing that keeps tech professionals around and satisfied in their jobs, Glassdoor’s data shows, is an attractive company culture.

“Where the cloud companies and other standard startups really have to try to differentiate themselves, is their corporate culture,” Dobroski said.

No doubt, competition for the best talent is already brutal in Silicon Valley and the technology sector. As cloud computing grows dramatically, the competition for talent will grow with it.

“There is a war for talent,”  Agrawal said, “whether it’s engineering or sales people or marketing or other functions. Ultimately, these individuals have many choices of companies to go to and picking one where employees are rating a company highly is something they think about.”

Now, no one is saying a job-hunter is going to make a life-changing decision based on a best-of list or even a Glassdoor rating. But Sondra Norris, BloomReach’s head of people, said that when job candidates are considering several offers, they are naturally going to find out all that they can about how those already at the companies feel about their workplaces.

“All things being equal, I think it comes down to how you felt when you went through the interview,” she said. “And then you’re going to check with people to find out what they know about what it’s like to work here and be here.”

It only helps, being on a list of workplaces well regarded by those who work where your preferred candidates are thinking of working.

Agrawal agreed that employee reviews matter.

The internet is involved in our decisions, big and small

“There is another kind of strong secular trend that is happening and that’s really toward transparency on the internet,” he said. “Whether it’s a rating review for an e-commerce purchase or a hotel review on TripAdvisor or a restaurant review on Yelp. Every considered decision we have, there is going to be content on the web to help you make that decision.”

And, Agrawal noted, prospective employees are not the only ones who turn to rankings, ratings and reviews as part of their due diligence.

“The other belief we have as investors, it’s pretty simple: Happy employees end up resulting in happy customers, which end up resulting in happy investors,” he said. “Before I make an investment, I read all the reviews. I can go to Glassdoor to see what it’s really like to work there. To me, it’s a really good signal of what’s happening.”

Battery and Glassdoor compiled the 50 highest-rated workplace list using Glassdoor ratings. The list is a rundown of the private 200-plus-employee cloud companies with the highest ratings on the site. There were a few other criteria: Glassdoor defined “cloud company” fairly broadly, though all the “few hundred” companies considered eligible for inclusion conduct cloud-based business. The companies were U.S. based and focused on business-to-business sales. A company needed to have at least 30 Glassdoor reviews for it’s rating to be considered.

And so, how did the top 50 stand apart from all the others? BloomReach’s Norris, who obviously hadn’t evaluated the entire field, said she had some thoughts about what separated them from the rest.

“We are trying to create, and have created, a place that is doing something enduring, something meaningful, that also has a sense of community and camaraderie,” she said. “It’s a place where people actually want to be at work.”

Given the trajectory of the cloud sector, building a place where people want to be is only going to become more crucial as time goes on.

Cloud photo by theaucitron published under Creative Commons license.

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


Job Applicant

How to hire the right people

It’s no secret that making the right hires in Silicon Valley is particularly challenging these days. And when it comes to finding top-flight engineers and data scientists, the problem becomes exponentially more challenging.  

Innovation in the valley is roaring ahead and the big, well-known tech giants are offering all sorts of incentives and perks — including rooftop gardens, saunas, meditation rooms, on-site dentists and signing bonuses — to lure the best technical talent into their organizations.

This can lead to two big mistakes, neither of which are good. The first mistake is throwing up one’s hands and figuring that with Google, Apple, Facebook and LinkedIn out there, it’s pointless to try and hire the very best. The second mistake is betraying your standards and criteria in order to hit some headcount goal.

Ashutosh Garg

Sure, hiring is hard. It’s hard for young startups, but global giants like Google and Facebook have challenges, too. Think about it: A startup might be trying to hire 20 more engineers to get to its next stage. The tech giants are trying to hire 2,000 more people.

What you have to do is think of what you have to offer that your competition for talent cannot offer. If you can’t answer that question, you just might be out of luck. But if you can, by offering for instance, the opportunity to have a big, immediate impact on a product; solving a particularly vexing problem in a new way; or by offering the chance to pick or even develop the project an engineer will work on; or by being a place where the work will never be routine and where innovation moves so fast that projects never get old; then you have a chance to attract superstars.

The key is to identify engineers who are excited by those sorts of prospects; the kind who are comfortable with the unknown, the unexpected and the ever-changing. Find those engineers and engage them with your vision. But don’t become so eager that you fall into mistake No. 2.

Devise a clear set of standards for selecting the right hire and resist the temptation to ignore one or two of your standards in the interest of filling a position in a highly competitive market.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed more than a 1,000 candidates for jobs in technical and non-technical roles. And I’ve developed a list of four — not 50, not 20, not 10, but four — criteria for determining whether a job prospect is going to be the right one for the job. Focus on these four areas and you’ll be setting up your enterprise and your prospective hires for success.

Hiring the first engineer for your company or for a given role can be difficult. But if you make a winning hire, it makes the second hire that much easier. Talent attracts talent. And so, consider applying these four criteria, listed in order of most important to least important, as you move through the hiring process:

  1. Cultural Fit: Does the candidate embody the culture you have built for your company? This, of course, assumes that you’ve consciously created a culture and that you’re able to articulate it. At BloomReach we’ve articulated our culture in a one-page document on our website that lists our five key values and offers a one-paragraph description of each. It’s clear, easy to understand and easy to recall. Cultural fit is a make-or-break requirement. If a job candidate doesn’t mesh with your corporate culture, then it’s game over. It can be difficult to assess cultural fit, so sometimes we’ll invite a candidate to give a presentation to team members, or join a group for lunch, as a way to better get to know the person we’re considering for a position. It’s important to note that cultural fit isn’t a standard that is measured only by the hiring manager or direct supervisor. Quite the contrary. It’s vital that a significant number of those who will be working with the candidate have a chance to get to know him or her and weigh in with their thoughts. Before making a hiring decision, we hold a debriefing with all those who interviewed a candidate. I encourage those who talked to the job applicant to think beyond skills and experience and to think about whether they would enjoy working with the prospect and whether he or she is the sort of person they’d enjoying sitting down with for a cup of coffee or lunch. If those scenarios are unappealing, the answer is no.
  2. Willingness to Learn: Don’t focus too narrowly on a particular role as it exists. Hire for the organization. At a startup, what we are doing today in our company and certainly in our individual positions, might not be what we are doing tomorrow. Priorities, strategy and roles expand and change. Can the job prospect learn and grow with the changes? Part of a willingness to learn is the willingness to work hard. Learning takes effort and being ready to make that effort is a key to success. We had a candidate recently who was puzzled by a piece of Morse code that had been jotted down on a reversible whiteboard in the room where we met for her interview. She said she was fairly familiar with Morse code, but couldn’t figure out what the mysterious message could possibly be. And so she asked. Well, it turned out someone had flipped the whiteboard and so the code was upside down, which was why it made no sense. Yes, we hired her. Being willing to learn is a sign of motivation; a sign that the candidate has a desire to grow. Someone who is not willing to learn, is not likely to succeed. Being resistant to learning new things is an indication that the candidate lacks natural curiosity and is a sign that you should move on.
  3. Intelligence: Some like to say that you should hire people who are smarter than you are. Knowledge can be gained, not so with intelligence or what I call smartness. Smartness is key, though, because someone who is both smart and willing to learn can accomplish almost anything. You want someone who is smart — smart enough to understand what you are trying to do — and what it is you are communicating, preferably the first time. Of course, the conversation is not one way. You want to hire someone who is confident that he or she is intelligent enough to push back and to fill in the gaps that you might not be focused on — or aware of. You want someone who will complement you. If you have built and maintained the right culture, the back-and-forth with your colleague will be a healthy exercise, one that helps the best ideas rise to the top and causes weaker ideas to be made stronger.
  4. Knowledge: This is the most nuanced of the four factors. Knowledge is different from intelligence. For engineers, it might be whether they understand the system you’re working on — or a similar system. Knowledge, of course, can be gained through the combination of intelligence and a willingness to learn. That means that the importance of knowledge as a consideration depends to a great extent on the maturity of your organization. If the person you are interviewing would be the first employee hired into the role, their opportunities for training and mentoring are obviously slim. If your organization’s bandwidth for mentoring and supporting a new hire is limited, you have little choice but to keep searching for a more knowledgeable candidate. If, on the other hand, the job prospect would be joining an established team, his or her degree of knowledge becomes less important, as long as the candidate possesses the first three characteristics.

As helpful as the four criteria are, there is still the very real challenge of evaluating each candidate on each factor. How do you know for sure how knowledgeable, able and smart a job candidate is? I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn about a job candidate is to have him or her teach you something. Let them tell you something you don’t know — literally. Or offer them a chance to get you thinking about something familiar in a different way. Ask them about their favorite algorithm. How does it function? Why do they like it? Say the candidate is an electrical engineer. Ask her how power transmission works. The engineering candidate has a music minor? How does music work? What are the key principles?

The information the candidate delivers is important, but so is the way they deliver it. Do they show empathy by changing the way they explain things in response to your puzzled look? Are they frustrated by your questions, flustered by facts they don’t have complete command of?

Remember, the formula for successfully building your company’s teams is simple — even if finding the best people for your organization is far from easy. Carefully consider a candidate’s cultural fit, willingness to learn, intelligence and knowledge.

And then keep one more rule in mind: When in doubt, don’t hire. Meeting a headcount goal, even in a tough hiring market, isn’t worth bringing on a brilliant engineer who’s a poor fit. Such a move risks delaying or derailing a key team — or your company.

Photo of Ashutosh Garg courtesy of BloomReach. Cover photo of job applicant by COD Newsroom published under Creative Commons license.

Ashutosh Garg worked at Microsoft, IBM and Google before co-founding BloomReach. He holds a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and has contributed to more than 50 patents.  


BloomReach employees gather at a company picnic.

BloomReach’s $56-million round points to new marketing technology landscape

Ask any entrepreneur, and if they are being honest, they’ll tell you there are days, moments certainly, when they wonder why they ever started a business in the first place. And then there are the days they know why — without question.

Days like the one that BloomReach, a Silicon Valley personalization platform provider, shattered conventional wisdom by securing a hefty round of funding in a tough market, for a company at the center of the chaotic and cluttered marketing technology field.

The money is nice, but the $56-million round for the cloud-based software-as-a-service company is bigger than money. It provides a stamp of approval for one company and an indication of the direction of the entire marketing technology field.

BloomReach employees gather at a company picnic.

BloomReach employees gather at a company picnic.

“We believe there is a $10-billion company to be created in this space,” says BloomReach CEO and co-founder Raj De Datta. “We think this funding is a validation that investors of various stripes and of extraordinary levels of experience have concluded that, A, indeed there is such an opportunity and, B, that BloomReach is a promising candidate for such an opportunity.”

BloomReach’s latest funding round, which comes on top of $41 million in previous investments, comes at a time when investors are slaying unicorns, tamping down valuations and shutting off the capital spigot, with late-stage venture capital investment down 33 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Along with the funding announcement, BloomReach also said that Marcus Ryu, CEO and co-founder of $4 billion SaaS company, Guidewire Software Inc., would be joining its board of directors.

The size of investors’ bet on BloomReach is likely an early indication of the evolution of the fledgling marketing technology field, which has grown geometrically in its early years. As many as 2,000 companies provide thousands of technology tools promising to help marketers discover, engage, measure, automate and optimize — all to better find the right customer at the right time and encourage them to engage with their enterprises.

“I do think we’re in for a culling and consolidation,” says De Datta, who with data scientist and CTO Ashutosh Garg, started BloomReach in 2009. “A lot of those companies are not going to make it and that’s going to mean a smaller number of potential leaders. Some of the large software vendors will go and pick some of those companies up and fail to integrate them and a number of them will die.”

While the forest fire analogy is sometimes overused, it seems apt in the world of marketing technology 2016. While traumatic and damaging, the fire takes out old overgrowth and leaves behind the strong — and room for new growth.

The winners, as the forest regenerates, De Datta says, will be those companies with solid fundamentals, tested teams and massive market opportunities.

“What this funding means,” De Datta said. “Is that the space will go from the purview of small, innovative startups that have a point solution, to the emergence of a small number of independent, next-generation platform players.”

BloomReach’s latest round of funding, which includes investments by Bain Capital Ventures, Battery Ventures, Lightspeed Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and Salesforce Ventures, positions it among those emerging companies.

And while that’s a spot that is statistically unlikely for any startup to reach, De Datta says that he’s remained confident since the 2008 day he and Garg first sat down to talk business at a Mountain View cafe.

“I’ve never easily accepted that failure of any kind was even a possibility,” De Datta said. “And the one thing I know for sure is there is really only one way to fail, which is, you run out of money. Or maybe you run out of energy. I’m certainly not out of energy.”

In fact, De Datta says, BloomReach is really just getting started on its mission to improve search and discovery on the Web for the broadest possible range of those who use the Web to deliver products, services and content.

“The plan is to build the winning personalization platform in the market, which in our view is the core of the marketing cloud — and to do that by building a multi-billion-dollar public company, making sure that every experience on the Web is amazing for every consumer.”

The latest investment provides the resources and reinforced expertise to go after that vision. While Bain Capital Ventures, Lightspeed Ventures and New Enterprise Associates are doubling down on previous investments, the new backers help round out BloomReach’s list of go-to experts.

Salesforce, for instance, is a SaaS pioneer that has built on its customer relationship management business to expand its footprint in the marketing cloud area.  

“I think that what this suggests,” De Datta says of Salesforce Ventures’ investment, “is that they share our point of view that a next generation personalization platform is core to the vision of where the marketing cloud is going. And they believe we are at least a very strong candidate to be the leader.”

Though the marketing cloud field is clearly a business-to-business market, it is being driven, De Datta says, by consumers and their growing power and sophistication when it comes to making decisions. In fact, there is a strong argument to make that consumers are a key driver of the field’s coming recalibration.

“Consumer behavior continues to change at its fastest pace in history and I don’t see that trend slowing down,” he says. “The ability of brands to deliver a great experience, great marketing for those consumers, is going to have to be about those brands making a smaller number of better choices, as opposed to just playing with a plethora of alternatives. They’re going to have to choose wisely.”

BloomReach-1 (1)

Just shy of seven years old, BloomReach has so far worked largely with e-commerce retailers. In fact, the company’s technology now captures data from 20.5 percent of all U.S. e-commerce. But the plan was never to stop there.

The way De Datta sees it, e-commerce is really just commerce, “and commerce is the selling of any product or service in the world.” Nearly all forms of commerce can be conducted on the Web.

Web-based commerce, De Datta says, could mean buying a shirt from Nordstrom. Or it could be renting a car from Hertz, or opening a bank account at Bank of America, or hiring a plumber or subscribing to an online magazine or researching the physician that makes the most sense for you. The possibilities are as vast as the Web itself.

And so a $56-million round has to feel good, right?

“I feel like it’s a great privilege that these amazing investors would entrust us with their money — and that we should treat it with the honor that it deserves in terms of how we use it to create value,” De Datta says. “In some ways it’s a validation of what we’ve done, but more importantly, it’s a prognosticator of what’s to come.”

Photo of BloomReach employees and of co-founders Ashutosh Garg and Raj De Datta by BloomReach.

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



BloomReach’s taxonomist is hard to categorize

One thing you should know about BloomReach’s Season Hughes is that she is likely to put you in your place.

Don’t take it personally. Her career is all about putting things in their places. She’s a taxonomist, BloomReach’s first, in fact, with a job title that inspires all sorts of misunderstandings and jokes, some of which you can read about in her blog post.

Taxonomy goes back as far as the birds and the bees — and classifying them as genus, species etc. But seriously folks, like so many things, the field has evolved and expanded in the digital age. Taxonomy is vitally important to the work of making the Web relevant, for instance, for e-commerce sites and their customers.

Organized Closet


The field’s principles provide something of a road map for a website, describing and classifying the products and objects on the site’s pages in ways that users commonly understand. In the digital age, much of the heavy lifting is done by algorithmically powered machines that are able to crunch millions of descriptions and search queries and find common ground.

“To sit down with a list of titles or product descriptions in the millions and have to pick things out from the titles and descriptions, there is no way that I could do that without the help of machines,” Hughes says.

But it takes people to put a fine point on things, to polish the rough edges left by the machine’s work.

“We need someone to sit down and to say, ‘This is a real product,’ or, ‘This is a useful attribute and we need to retain this information and get rid of everything else. It takes a human to make information understandable for other humans.”

It will help if you think about how you use the Web. Say you go to a general retailer’s website. You’ll notice along the top, or maybe on the left side, a list of categories, say “Women.” Under that category you’ll see subcategories, say, “Women’s Outerwear.” And, yes, more categories under that, like “Puffer Jackets.”

A taxonomist can help build and refine that map. Does “puffer jacket” mean something to people? What is a “puffer jacket?” What belongs in that category? How is it different from “parkas?”

“You’re taking products and you’re giving them names and you’re giving them categories and you’re giving them attributes,” Hughes says.

She points at the modest office table that separates us as we talk. In her professional life, she says, she looks at a table and thinks about what a consumer would call it. Is it a table? Or is it a desk? What attributes of the table would consumers care about? It’s black. That’s probably important. It’s wood. Also important. Do consumers care about the size? The weight? Maybe, but is that key to describing the product? Or is that information that comes in handy after the shopper finds the product?

And, of course, working with machines to sort all that out is just the beginning.

“People assume that once you’ve built a taxonomy, it’s done,” Hughes says.

But new products are coming along all the time — selfie-sticks, drones, hoverboards. They are “hoverboards,” right?

“Are they a skateboard, a scooter?” Hughes asks. “It seems most people are calling

them ‘hoverboards.’”


But that’s the fun. People have a name for everything. And those names are important to them and to those who want to present them with products or other Web content.

“What I find most interesting, and often most surprising, is how customers feel about products; how they’re searching for products; what they care about in products; just what they’re calling a thing. They care about the most fascinating and surprising things.”

Things like gravel. Well, aquarium gravel. Hughes was on the aquatic pet team when she worked in taxonomy for Amazon, before coming to BloomReach in June. Fish lovers, apparently, are very particular about what’s in their gravel.

“It’s something I never knew people cared about,” she says. “I had to make a filter to help them find it.”

It’s not as if Hughes wanted to be a taxonomist since the day she was born, but the notion of putting things in order has always been important to her. She earned a master’s in library science and worked in libraries in Washington state before moving to Amazon.

“I think taxonomists in general have a certain personality where we find calm in order and control,” she says.

Hughes started at Amazon in the self-publishing area, making sure inappropriate and copyrighted material didn’t end up in DIY publications. A friend and co-worker moved over to taxonomy and Hughes figured she’d give it a try.

She loved it. The same as she loved Seattle, at least up to a point. Seven straight years of being rained on, she says, was enough to have her thinking about BloomReach, a company that drew her in with its projects and people — people whom, if she had to categorize, she’d go with passionate.


Hughes fit right in. She shared her passion for volunteering with her new co-workers, organizing within her first few months an ice cream social for seniors at a neighborhood senior center and overseeing BloomReach’s annual Giving Tree effort, which helps gather gifts for families in need of financial help, all while carrying on her own work with abandoned cats and her support of an area video game museum.

And speaking of attributes, Silicon Valley’s, including sunshine and relatively warm days, seem a good fit for a taxonomist who travels to and from work on a bright pink Vespa. Why not? Pink is an especially meaningful color for Hughes.

“I just really like it,” she says of what’s become her signature color. “There is no life-changing moment when I decided that pink would be the color of my life. It’s just a fun color. It makes me really happy.”

As for all the organizing and categorizing, it does bleed over into Hughes’ personal life. She remembers that one of Amazon’s interview questions was something about, ‘What does your closet look like?’

“You can go to my closet,” she says, “and you’ll see that I have shirts next to dresses, next to pants, next to coats. They’re in categories.” And the shirts? “I sort them in sleeve length. And if they’re the same sleeve length, I order them from lightest to darkest.”

The closet test pretty much establishes Hughes as an organizational whiz. And, it appears that for now, at BloomReach, she has found her own proper place.

Photo of orderly closet byRubbermaid Products and pink Vespa by Meredith P., published under Creative Commons license.

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





Datacember 9th: War on Christmas sees cyclical truce

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It’s an annual tradition as reliable as the lighting of the White House Christmas tree, the airing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the dramatic increase in airfares: The gnashing of teeth over the “War on Christmas.”

This year it was Starbucks’ turn to step in it. Maybe you remember that when the coffee shop came out with its much-anticipated, holiday-themed cup, it landed with a healthy dose of controversy. The cup was plain red — no reindeer, no snowflakes, no ornaments, no Christmas icons.  

Bah Humbug mug

A self-described “social media personality” took to Facebook and video to say that the plain cups were a sign that Starbucks hated Jesus, according to CNN/Money. Starbucks said, not at all, and in fact, the cup was a reflection of the company’s support for “belonging, inclusion and diversity,” the story says. The blank canvass, Starbucks representatives continued, allows each “customer to tell their Christmas stories in his or their own way,” CNN/Money reports.

The back-and-forth survived a news cycle or two. But even with the Starbucks hubbub, the War on Christmas deal this year didn’t come anywhere close to the notoriety it gained in 2005, according to Google Trends, which provides data on keyword searches.

Google War on Christmas Trends

The 2005 search spike, which is about ten times the level of searches this year, appears to coincide with a series of commentaries by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who spent part of that holiday season reporting on which retailers were using the word “Christmas” in their advertisements and which weren’t.  

No doubt it’s interesting to see how the controversy comes and goes over the years. After a significant run in 2013, the phrase mostly took the holidays off last year, with searches falling to barely half of what they hit this November as the Starbucks brouhaha was brewing.

But looking at the trend line also illustrates how data often comes with limitations. Sure, watching the trend line is a reasonable way to get a handle on how intensely people care about a given subject. But what’s missing, of course, is: care how?

Are those searching for information on the “War on Christmas” angry about the way Starbucks designed their cups this year? Or are they angry that others are angry about such a thing? Or are they trying to learn what they can about the controversy so they can decide whether they should be angry one way or the other? We’ll never know from this data.

Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic, pointed out that the social media personality who appeared to get the ball rolling on this year’s War on Christmas debate, created a hashtag for followers to use in discussing the controversy. She noted, however, that many of those on social media were using the hashtag to say that “his campaign is dumb.”

It’s a common limitation. The data represents a big number, but what’s behind the number?

Consider Facebook’s role in this year’s Democratic and Republican presidential debates. The huge social network became a conduit for questions from the public. And commentators noted the topics people were “talking about” on Facebook during the debates.

Knowing what people are talking about is helpful, of course, but knowing how they are talking about what they are talking about is so much more helpful. Context is important.

For instance, after the October Republican debate, Politico featured a headline that said, “Ben Carson Wins Facebook.” It turns out, according to Politico, which cited Facebook, that Ben Carson was the most discussed candidate of the night, which is a victory of sorts. But again, the data point didn’t include any information on just what people were saying about Carson.

Or consider the annual excitement over Neiman Marcus’ holiday catalog, which no doubt is worthy of excitement, what with it featuring a $150,000 motorcycle, a $400,000 trip to India and such. A search for news articles alone about this year’s book returns more than 45,000 results, which is a lot of interest. And no doubt the catalog is a great marketing tool. But how many of those trips to India do you think actually sold?

Whatever the case with motorcycles and trips to India, it seems the discussion around the War on Christmas is past its peak for this year, according to Google Trends. But, you never know —  the controversy could be back this time next year.

Oh wait. Actually, you do know.

Graph source: Screen shot of Google Trends. Mug photo by Rob “Berto” Bennett published under Creative Commons license.

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 10.14.41 AM

BloomReach: Find yourself here

Sometimes we just have to pinch ourselves: working in the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by smart people who are determined to solve a big problem, while still finding time to have fun.

Not that working to make the Web more relevant isn’t fun. It’s just a different kind of fun than say, crushing a co-worker at ping-pong or enjoying a hamburger grilled to perfection out in the California sunshine.

And while it might appear a little unseemly, we just want to brag a little bit after watching our most recent BloomReach video, produced to give a little peek at how a day around here goes. Oh, and to show off dogs. Yes, dogs.

It’s all about how we’ve managed to grow and operate in Mountain View, Bangalore, New York and London, while staying true to our five core values — Truth, Own, We, Think and No Drama. And how we’ve managed to be named one of the valley’s best places to work year after year.

Come and see for yourself.

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Internapalooza 2015 career advice: The world is smaller than you think

The Kevin Bacon era is over — or the era of Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, the six degrees of separation initiator, if you prefer.

The idea that we all live within six degrees of separation from each other has been blown apart by our free-flowing digital world and social networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Tumblr.

Six degrees of separation? Think more like three degrees, or even two.


I’ve been giving this some thought since I was invited by the 2015 Internapalooza organizers to address a room packed with interns, who had come to Silicon Valley to build the foundations of their careers.

As I contemplated the advice I’d give my younger self, it struck me that few things are more important than building and nurturing relationships with those we work with — and those we have worked with and will work with.

I’m not the first to talk about how social networking has changed everything. It has especially changed the way we build and maintain relationships. What it hasn’t changed is the vital importance of working on those relationships from the very beginning of your career, no matter the field you’re entering.

Think about it: In the span of roughly a decade, we went from the era of Netscape (1994) and email to the era of LinkedIn (2002) Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006). These social tools have essentially collapsed the the idea of six-degrees of separation.

The world is shrinking — rapidly.

I did some quick math, based on my own connections, and realized that if everyone had 1,200 unique connections through social media, their separation from others would be reduced from six degrees to about 3.2 degrees. It’s hardly a stretch to think that once a person is working in Silicon Valley, a place built as much on human networking as on computer networking, that that number could easily be reduced to two degrees.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 1.35.27 PM


So, why does all this matter? First off, it means that we now live in an era in which, “What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas.” We’re in a time where “giving 100 percent” is no longer a cliche. When practically everyone who is professionally important to you is within two degrees of separation, everyone knows the level of commitment and determination you bring to the job.

That said, here are few things for interns — or anyone building a career — to think about:

  • Friendship takes nurturing to survive. Animosity lives on forever with no nurturing required. Friendship takes work: checking-in, offering advice and consolation, looking out for opportunities for each other, etc. A grudge or the memory of a slight requires nothing to persevere. Hard feelings will endure unless someone steps up and fosters reconciliation.
  • Parting ways provides a serious flashpoint. When you are leaving a job, voluntarily or not, remember that many industries are like small towns. The people you are leaving behind are people you might well meet again as you move among jobs. And whether you ever work with them again or not, you can be sure they talk to people who you will be working with in the future. The same goes for a job you interviewed for, but didn’t take or weren’t offered. Make friends; not enemies.
  • The way to get the job you want, is to do well in the job you have. Thanks to my colleague Ailian Gan for that line. It’s possible your internship isn’t all you thought it would be. Maybe the job you’re doing is not the job you want. Work like it is. Work hard enough and well enough to win a job offer from the company you are working for this summer. Your job performance — good or bad — will be remembered. Giving the work your best is something you owe your employer. More importantly, it is something you owe yourself.

Photo of Ashutosh Garg and Las Vegas photo illustration by BloomReach.

Ashutosh Garg is BloomReach’s co-founder and chief technical officer.


Five keys to marketing success in the CMO decade

Amid all the talk about the power of digital marketing and the rise of the CMO, it’s refreshing to pause every now and then and consider what the heck is going on behind all that?

The answer? Consumers.

It’s a reality that venture capitalist Ashu Garg considers a lot. After all, it’s his business to think about where the marketing world is going and just how it’s going to get there. And when he thinks about consumers, he thinks about people who once sat down to watch TV or listen to the radio and who no longer rely on a few outlets for information and entertainment.


“Today, you can watch media across hundreds, if not thousands of channels. You can consume music across hundreds of Internet and mobile form factors, and this explosion has fundamentally changed how we consume all kinds of content,” Garg said, recapping comments he made during a recent presentation at BloomReach, in which he laid out the rapidly changing face of marketing.

Garg cited a Vogue survey that asked teenagers to name their biggest cultural influencers. No, they didn’t say Leonardo DiCaprio. Not Jennifer Lawrence. Instead, the top eight influencers were all YouTube stars, acts who had made it big on the Internet.

And not only is the idea of dictating a message to consumers a non-starter, consumers are talking back to brands, in ways that they never could before.

“If I have a problem with United Airlines,” Garg said by way of example, “I don’t bother to call United Airlines. I tweet. I post. If I’m good at it, I create a real storm. The tables have turned and the balance of power has become very uncomfortable for brands at times.”


And the path customers take between becoming aware of a product and the actual purchase of it? Let’s just say the relatively straight line has become a squiggly mess of turnouts and switchbacks.

“Consumers begin their journey at all kinds of starting points,” Garg said, “and each consumer follows a path that is unique to them.”

For instance, when Garg recently bought an Audi, he started his search on Quora. He read reviews, visited an online car site and bought his car without ever interacting with Audi.

“How do you find a way to be part of that conversation, when the conversation is happening not in traditional channels, but in thousands of new siloed channels?” Garg asked.

(Garg is no relation to BloomReach co-founder Ashutosh Garg.)

But where there is pain, there is opportunity. Innovative companies understand that they now have new ways to reach consumers and that consumers’ social dialogue about their brands can be leveraged in ways that creates relationships and a vibe of genuineness.

Marshaling the torrent of content, though, requires technology, specifically marking technology, which Garg said is in the early stages of a massive evolution. For instance, he put spending on marketing technology software at about $12 billion. In ten years, that figure will be $120 billion, conservatively speaking, he said.

The chief marketing officer will be the new power player in the executive suite. Garg pointed to Gartner’s conclusion that by the end of 2017, CMOs will spend more on information technology initiatives than will chief information officers.

“I believe this is the decade of the CMO,” Garg said. “There is a fundamental shift that is happening in the C-suite. The role of CMO is evolving pretty rapidly.”

In fact, Garg offered five areas –– featured in his latest white paper –– on which enterprises should focus in order to take advantage of the shifting role of marketing in a digital and mobile world.

  •      All Hail King ROI: If marketers want to command a significant portion of the corporate budget, they need to be able to show just what return, in terms of sales, companies are getting for their spending. And not just what return the company has gotten in the past. They’ll need to provide predictive analytics that will show what their efforts will bring in the future.
  •      Hire Math Men, Not Mad Men: The overwhelming majority of advertising is still sold the old-fashioned way, person-to-person, over drinks or dinner etc. That is changing fast. Programmatic advertising is on the rise. By the end of the decade, all media will be bought and sold using software. Have the right people in place to lead the charge.
  •      Publish or Perish: Remember all those information and entertainment channels? Companies need to think like publishers. Traditional marketing messages aren’t resonating. Consumers, whether B2C or B2B, want stories that speak to them and their challenges. Stop writing about you and start writing about them.
  •      Mass Personalization is Not an Oxymoron: Segmenting and “look-alike” personalization is no longer sufficient. Consumers expect their entire purchasing journey to be personalized. They want every touchpoint with a brand to be integrated with each other, so the YouTube video they watch acknowledges the ad they first saw. It’s complicated, but coming. Consider the experiments in New York, in which billboard messages change depending on who is looking at them.
  •      Close the Deal: The line between sales and marketing is blurring. Consider how far along consumers are in their buying deliberations before they even encounter a sales person. Marketing must move beyond generating leads into a role of closing deals by not only predicting where fruitful customers are, but also by finding them and sealing the sale.

The world of marketing is moving fast and marketers need to move with it. Keeping consumers in mind and focusing on the steps that will help enterprises keep up with them will go a long way toward increasing the odds of success.

Photo of Ashu Garg by BloomReach’s Stephanie Yang, Twitter feed photo by Steve Garfield published under Creative Commons license.

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


You can’t fake genuine corporate values

Why BloomReach?

Yes, they have all the fun perks of a Silicon Valley startup: ping-pong table in office – check; unlimited time off – check; catered lunches several times a week – check. But I had already chosen BloomReach before I knew those things. I chose to join BloomReach today because they offer more than an incomparable solution. I chose BloomReach because, at the heart of their business, they have deeply-ingrained core values.


My first interaction with BloomReach occurred when I came across their job posting on LinkedIn. I clicked through to their website and started reading their story. At first glance, it looked like I’d found a typical Silicon Valley startup. The company was founded by a former Google scientist and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Their website featured a zany picture of all their executives dressed up in silly costumes. But as I continued to look through the site, I came across a page that really grabbed my attention: “Culture & Values.”

Having read quite a few company values pages, I came to expect that many sounded the same: smart people, innovation, expertise, creativity. Similar sounding values were either listed or strung together in a sentence that had a lot of words, but very little meaning. BloomReach’s values page was different. For starters, it looked like they had given it some serious thought. They weren’t just doing it to check off a box. Moreover, their values were humble and simple. They didn’t use buzz words or have the fancy up-speak of a college freshman’s resume.


As I read through the values, part of me was skeptical. They hit a little too “right-on-the-nose” for me and addressed a lot of the issues that I had seen deter progress and great ideas in the workplace. On the other hand, it also felt as though the values were written by the employees for the employees, not as an additional piece of propaganda the company could use to promote its services. Excited, but still hesitant, I set up some time to talk with someone who worked at the company so I could find out more.

“They are absolutely true.” It was encouraging that the company values would be affirmed in my first conversation with a BloomReacher. In fact, after the obligatory overview of what BloomReach does, the employee I’d contacted couldn’t wait to fill me in on the best thing about working there – the company’s values. She said they aren’t just aren’t words on a page; they are the heartbeat of the organization. After hanging up the phone, I was sold. This was the company for me.

BloomReach’s values came up repeatedly as the interview process went on and I spoke with more and more people. Best of all, they didn’t just come up in conversations; the values were evidenced by the words and actions of every person and throughout every step of the interview process.

I chose BloomReach because their values aren’t just a well-written page on a website. Their values – truth, we, own, think, no drama – make up the heart of every employee and every aspect of the BloomReach organization and I’m happy to be a part of it.


Open source shows it’s OK to share, even in a dog-eat-dog world

Swimming in the soup of Silicon Valley, you can sometimes lose sight of some of the truly remarkable and defining things about this place.

 Things like open source. Think about it: Software engineers at companies locked in mortal battle with other companies full of engineers give their work away. Including to the competition.



 In the world of open source, much like in life, when you give, you receive. Other smart engineers will presumably improve and expand upon your initial idea. And releasing the code you wrote is a way to show your stuff. But when it comes to open source, most practitioners have a deeper desire; a desire to do good, to help, to apply unique talents to difficult problems.

 That almost evangelical desire is as old as the open source movement itself, as I learned when I sat down with a serious Linux devotee a few years ago.

 More recently, I had the chance to chat with BloomReach Principal Engineer Chou-han Yang about a piece of open source, called Briefly, that he and a team of fellow engineers recently released. The video below features a snippet of our conversation.

Briefly, by the way, is a creative approach to simultaneously handling Hadoop and non-Hadoop jobs when working with big data processing pipelines. It’s the sort of challenge, Yang says, that many companies are no doubt grappling with and so it was a logical place to try to make a difference. You can read more about Briefly — which relies on a neat Python function to get the job done — in Yang’s BloomReach Engineering Blog post.

Photo of code by Kovah published under Creative Commons license.

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


Scale up or die is the 21st century mantra

The moment comes for every company — more than once at the successful ones. It’s the time when a business outgrows the systems, staffing, technology, business plan or even the product that it set out to change the world with.

Moving an enterprise from an idea to a profitable business is all about scaling — ramping up innovation and products to serve a bigger and broader market.

BloomReach recently completed its own scaling move: rebuilding a vital data pipeline while keeping its predecessor running full-bore. It’s like building the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge while keeping the old one open. And, oh yeah, without slowing down traffic.

The move replaced a system, known as a pipeline, that was designed to suggest themed product pages for retailers. (This American Eagle page, for example, featuring destroyed jeans, is an example.) The old system was reaching its physical capacity. In its place is a new pipeline that’s faster and modular rather than monolithic. The upgrade means that BloomReach engineers can speed up the pipeline’s performance simply by adding more machines to the equation. The rebuilt system, in fact, can handle a virtually limitless number of products and themes.


The overhaul made debugging easier and opened up possibilities for future products to enhance the company’s machine-learning-based personal discovery platform. The rebuilt pipeline means it’s considerably faster to add new customers to the system — a system that analyzes Web data from various sources, filters it, applies business logic to it and then builds pages displaying groups of similar products. In the end, the themed pages it generates can be edited by customers, if they choose.

Equally important, the change means that the system can easily accommodate customers’ growing needs. Rebuilding the data pipeline is the sort of move that successful companies make time and again as they grow, scale and pivot.

“In the 21st century, the status quo is always dangerous,” says Michael S. Malone, the Silicon Valley author whose most recent book is “The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company.” “It’s the most vulnerable place to be.”

The world — meaning technology, customers, competitors, markets — is moving too fast for companies to be unprepared when it’s time to scale. It’s not so much that companies need to be built to last these days. It’s more that they need to be built to change and grow — and fast.

Even so, the principles of scaling can seem counter-intuitive. Stanford University professor Robert Sutton talks about how enterprises often need to slow down in order to accelerate. They need to take the time to spread the excellent ideas and practices that are trapped in pockets of their organizations. They have to look at more than just pushing the needle higher.


“Scaling is actually a problem of less,” Sutton tells Fast Company in an interview. “There are lots of things that used to work that don’t work anymore, so you have to get rid of them. There are probably a bunch of things you’ve always done that slowed you down without you realizing it. ”

The time to scale is often when everything is going well. Your innovation is moving forward; your product is selling; your customers are happy. Why mess with a good thing?

But the truth is, your customers are happy because you built for them what they needed when they needed it. Your customers’ businesses change and customers you hadn’t thought of come along — customers that could benefit from variations on the products that you’ve built.

“When you first start out, you have one or two customers,” says Ailian Gan, the BloomReach product manager who helped oversee the construction of the new data pipeline and the migration of customers over to it. “You can never really expect all that happens down the line. You run into new problems. You try to expand into new use cases that you didn’t have before.”

It can be hard, Gan says, to know when it’s time to rev up the growth engine. One thing is clear: Not scaling isn’t the answer. Ask seminal social network site Friendster, which stumbled when its software and network failed to keep up with an increasing number of users and their crushing demand for computing power.

And so once BloomReach engineers and executives realized that the demand from existing and prospective customers for the company’s technology would require a more efficient way to scale and support customers, the engineering team went to work.

“The thematic product was getting to the point where any time you wanted to add a new feature, it just got so complicated and so challenging,” Gan says. “It was a very complicated set of code, so if you wanted to add something in one place, you have to go and change this, but that depends on this other part. You had to go change a whole bunch of things.”


What was needed was a whole new system infrastructure — a modular one, one that included MapReduce, which meant the system could grow simply by adding more cloud-based machines. And after 10 months of work, the new pipeline was up and running, with more than nine terabytes a day of data flowing through it.

Every day, the system reviews tens of millions of potential themes and presents potential themed product pages to teams of marketing and search experts who decide which pages to launch. It handles more than 350 million product attribute lookups a day and relies on Cassandra and Solr to identify themes and match products to those themes.

“We made it more modular,” Gan explains. “If you want to change something you just change that one part of the code and you don’t have to worry so much about it affecting everything else.”

The change meant that engineers could quickly add features, without the painstaking work of rewriting computer code throughout the system. The new architecture resulted in a common product database with wider access throughout the company. For instance, the ability to extract attributes from product pages, a key piece of building themed product pages, became an independent component, which could be used by many different applications. And it included tools that quickly identify bugs and allows for quicker fixes.

It’s the sort of dexterity that any growing company needs in the long run, sure, but also in the short run, as demonstrated by the need for those in retail and retail-related businesses to ramp-up for the holiday shopping season just passed.

BloomReach’s pipeline design team also kept an eye on becoming more cost-effective while increasing performance. A new customer could be added to the system in a quarter of the time it used to take. Meantime, existing customers, more than 80 of which were moved from the old system to the new, were receiving better service.

And of course, the entire rebuild happened while BloomReach was handling the data of existing customers and growing in terms of new clients and employees.

“The analogy of fixing the airplane while it’s flying is not that far off anymore,” Malone says.

That said, in today’s business climate, maybe it’s best to just keep your seat belt fashioned. Even if you hit cruising altitude, you can bet that you won’t be there for long.

Photo of bridge building by paukrus and climbers photo by Ruth Hartnup published under Creative Commons license. Photo of Ailian Gan courtesy of BloomReach. 

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



Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 4.42.18 PM The new SEO landscape is all about creating high-quality content

Even taking the most basic steps to improve search engine optimization on retail sites can mean a big boost in sales and profits, Shawna Hausman, of baby goods seller giggle, told a full meeting room Monday at a digital bootcamp kicking off the Summit 2014 in Seattle.

When Hausman, giggle’s VP of e-commerce and digital marketing, arrived at the retailer 10 months ago, she created a long list of possible site improvements. Then she decided SEO was the place to start. So she lined up some outside experts and gave them two weeks to clean up the headlines, titles and product descriptions on giggle’s site.

“That for us,  was the low hanging fruit,” she told the crowd of about 380. “That was really the short-term, easy win. Then it was about creating an SEO roadmap. There were tons of opportunities.”

Given giggle’s relatively small digital marketing staff, Hausman said she adopted a strategy of taking care of problems that could be solved by outside agencies, including the retailer’s problem with tracking down thin and duplicate pages, which search engines don’t like.

“So it’s really about identifying the quick win, the low hanging fruit, getting going and starting to see the benefit,” Hausman said.

In fact, she added, just taking the first few steps resulted in a 40 percent lift year-over-year in giggle’s year-to-date sales figures.

15401738952_de524ca1fc_zHausman teamed up with Will Uppington, BloomReach’s head of customer success and general manager of organic search, to present a seminar called, “The SEO Landscape is Shifting, Use New Strategies to Keep Up,” on the first day of a three-day summit that will draw more than 5,000 digital marketers and those serving that market to Seattle.

Uppington opened the session by pointing out that SEO professionals are now working with less real estate and more competition as product listing ads and images take up more and more space in organic search results pages on the Web. Meanwhile, search engines are holding sites to high quality standards while restricting the amount of information they share about queries.

“Growing SEO traffic is harder than ever before,” he told the crowd.

In many ways, the new landscape means SEO managers and others need to adopt new strategies, Uppington said, strategies that frankly are better for customers and better for the Web. For instance, rather than pay attention solely to traffic, revenue and rankings, retailers should consider the quality of their content.

“Your entire site is being evaluated for quality and discoverability,” he said. “So, if you don’t know what’s going on from that perspective, you don’t really know how you are performing.”

Uppington urged those in the crowd to focus on the quality of their content and to think about:

  • How quickly consumers can find their content.
  • Whether consumers like their content, or whether they bounce from their sites.
  • Does their content cover the demand consumers are expressing and the products they would expect to find.

“The other nice thing about these metrics is, these are the ones that you can control,” he added.

Hausman suggested that e-commerce managers use the data they do have — data from their own site search — which is data that will always be available. She took boot camp attendees through an example involving changing pad covers, a parent’s essential that wasn’t performing up to its potential on giggle.

Hausman said she beefed up the content surrounding the pads by building a page that included changing pad covers and changing pads themselves, creating a richer content experience and a revenue-boosting opportunity. People who buy changing pads, often buy a changing pad cover, too.

“If you know they’re looking for one thing,” Hausman, referring to a changing pad, told me after her talk, “they’re obviously going to be looking for a cover. So you might as well put (the cover) right with it.”

And while the technical aspects and marketing techniques behind SEO are important, Hausman also offered some practical advice when I spoke to her after her presentation.

“You’ve got to find the true believers,” she said of SEO. “Find the people in your organization that really get it. Or keep meeting with people until they do get it.”

SEO can be a lonely pursuit. It’s technical. It’s hard to understand. The cause and effect of SEO can be hard to explain. So, Hausman says, SEO managers should think creatively when searching for allies. Maybe the champion he or she needs isn’t on the digital marketing side. Maybe, she said, it’s someone in finance who can see how doing SEO right bolsters the bottom line.

And of course, being able to make that bottom line case is really the most powerful weapon in any SEO manager’s arsenal.

Photos courtesy of The National Retail Federation. 

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy




UK consumers to retailers: We need to talk

It might be a stretch to say that consumers in the United Kingdom are from Mars and the retailers that cater to them are from Venus. But recent polling shows that the two really do need to talk.

Retailers and their customers are suffering from something of a disconnect when it comes to the perceived significance of brand loyalty and the value of personalizing consumers’  shopping experience.

 “There is clearly a gap between what UK consumers are looking for in an online experience and what UK retail brands think consumers are looking for,” says Raj De Datta, CEO of BloomReach, which sponsored complementary surveys of consumers and retailers released today.

 The surveys of 1,000 consumers and 122 online retailers in the UK, conducted by Redshift Research was part of the run up to today’s formal launch of BloomReach’s London office, found a number of places where what consumers want and what retailers are giving them appear to be misaligned. For instance:

  •  While 34 percent of retailers said their brand’s reputation was the most important reason consumers choose to shop with them, 85 percent of consumers said brand reputation was not an important factor in their choice.
  • And while 59 percent of consumers said that online shopping is better than in-store shopping when it comes to providing experiences that are tailored to their personal needs and preferences, 60 percent of retail marketers said an in-store shopping trip provides a better opportunity for a personalized experience. Another 28 percent said online and in-store provided the same level of personalization.
  • Fifty-four percent of retailers said they didn’t offer a customized or personalized experience on their websites. But 31 percent of consumers said they’d be more likely to make a purchase if they were given a personalized experience, such as product recommendations or content tailored just for them.


The attitudes and practices of shoppers and retailers in the UK are especially significant because the UK is an e-commerce powerhouse, as indicated by the consumer survey’s finding that 24 percent of consumers buy online at least once a week and that 79 percent make an online purchase at least once a month. In fact, the region boasts the most developed online retail market in the world, according to Cushman and Wakefield and the percentage of retail revenue attributable to e-commerce far outstrips bigger countries, such as the United States.

 Meanwhile, projections call for robust growth.

 “It’s easier and easier for people to shop online,”  says Julia Cook, CEO of Change Management, a London-based business consultancy that works with retailers among others. “It’s really taking off.”

 Online shopping is clearly interwoven into many consumers’ lives. It’s how busy working people buy their groceries. It can be a hedge against expensive gasoline in times of rising fuel prices. Great Britain’s compact geography also plays a role, with many outlets offering next day delivery for less than £4 pounds, or about $6.50, says Adam King, of Media Lounge, a Bournemouth-based firm that runs and designs websites and helps e-tailers with digital marketing.

 “Look at the early adoption of mobile e-commerce by UK businesses, which has seen around 27% of online sales in the UK now being conducted by a mobile or tablet device,” King says in an e-mail interview. This adoption and embracing of e-commerce technologies has helped the UK achieve 13% of total retail sales via e-commerce, against just 6.4% in the U.S.”

 Click-and-collect pick-up stations have been popping up at tube stations and car parks, another sign of e-commerce’s growing popularity in the UK. Tesco, Waitrose and InPost are among the big names delivering to tube stops. Oh, and another big name is employing click-and-collect, too: Amazon.

 The online giant has impressed UK shoppers, according to BloomReach’s surveys. More than 80 percent of the consumers polled said no one offers more personalized service than Amazon. The online giant is no doubt one of the factors that has shaped and raised the expectations of consumers when they shop on other sites.

 Tony Stockil, CEO of the Javelin Group, a London retail strategy consultancy, talked about the high standards held by UK consumers at Virtually There, an online retail forum, as reported by the Startups website.

 “Customers now want different things from us as retailers,” Stockil told the crowd. “They have less time and patience than ever before. They’re more demanding of information, service and speed. They’re becoming increasingly tech savvy, more competent and better informed, and they’re no longer willing to make sacrifices to shop from retailers who aren’t willing to make sacrifices for them.”

 Consumers now follow a circuitous path to purchase, maybe starting on a smartphone, before visiting a store to actually buy an item. Or maybe they start on the phone, visit the store and return home to ultimately purchase on a laptop or tablet

 Showrooming and Webrooming are both a thing now. It’s created the sort of fast-twitch environment that the majority of retailers recognize. About 60 percent of retailers in the BloomReach-sponsored survey, in fact, said it’s important to provide a personalized experience for shoppers across devices and in their stores, even when consumers haven’t signed into their digital sites.

 Providing that sort of cross-device personalization is no doubt key for retailers competing with Amazon. And no doubt the ability to personalize will only become stronger as big data and the tools available to analyze it become more sophisticated.

 “I know what technology can enable,” Cook says, “but I think the X factor is how consumers want to shop. Shopping can be a necessity and it is also entertainment.”

 Good point —  and another powerful argument for the importance of retailers really getting to know their customers.

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




Alan Emtage looks back (briefly) at his search engine Archie

If you don’t know who Alan Emtage is you can Google him — thanks in some part to who Alan Emtage is.

In some ways the search engine that Emtage developed in 1990, Archie, is more famous than he is, which is fine with Emtage, who seems genuinely happy to have played a part in the history of Web search. And why not? Web search has changed the way we do business, live our lives, learn our lessons, connect with each other, work for change.

“So, I look back on it, it was an amazing time,” says Emtage, surveying the early days of Internet search. “I got to work with most of the pioneers, of who people think of as the pioneers, of the Internet: Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, Jon Postel, the list goes on.”

alanEmtage, 49, was a student at McGill University in Canada when he came up with a way to index and search computer files over a network. These were the days before the Web and hyperlinks. Archie relied on File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and was used mostly by academics and the technically-inclined. The system was designed primarily as a searchable archive of computer programs. The search engine was named Archie, in fact, because Archie is Archive without the “v.” Hey, why not?

I was lucky enough to speak with Emtage while doing some research on the history and evolution of site search. (Stay tuned.) I caught up with him by phone, interestingly enough, as he visited Amish friends in eastern Pennsylvania. Here was one of technology’s leading lights speaking to me from a corn field in a community that prefers to keep technological intrusions to a minimum.

Despite its somewhat obscure beginnings, Emtage’s Archie is widely considered the first search engine and the principles behind it — build and index a catalog of information, then search the catalog to find where the information you’re looking for resides — are essentially the same ones used by contemporary search engines.

Technological evolution rarely takes a linear path and search engines today are the products of a lot of innovation and creative thinking. But there is little doubt that the Web-based search engines that followed Archie — names like AltaVista, Inktomi, Yahoo, Google and Bing — can trace their foundations back to Archie.

Is Emtage proud to have been a part of that evolution? Of course, though he hardly defines himself by that early accomplishment.

“For me, it’s getting to be a bit of ancient history,” says Emtage, who works with Mediapolis, a New York City firm that builds websites and offers consulting to Internet startups. “It was 25 years ago and 25 years is half my life. It’s not something I dwell on.”

But sure, it’s nice to be reminded of his role and to remember now and then, like when a blogger calls to pick his brain about search.

“I’m spared searching for an answer that a lot of people seem to ask themselves as they get older: What legacy am I going to leave,” Emtage says. “I’ve left a legacy. At a certain point it lead to an enormous industry and enormous companies and it’s sort of hard to imagine.”

And maybe it’s only appropriate that the man who moved search so far forward is spared from the need to hunt around for the significance of his own work.

Photo of Alan Emtage courtesy of Mediapolis

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

RelevanceReport 5.30.14

Apple’s mobile wallet, the post office’s ala cart offering, Ikea builds a catalog and Bowie: The BloomReach Relevance Report

Just when you thought you had it all figured out, something else happens. Here’s some more stuff that’s going on — as if you didn’t have enough to keep track of.

Will the USPS scramble your eggs?


OK. OK. Enough with the jokes and howls. No, the U.S. Postal Service is not going to lose your lunch in the mail. That bunch of bananas is not going to be bent, folded or mutilated when it arrives in your mailbox. I’m sure the USPS can sort this thing out; this deal to deliver groceries for AmazonFresh. Yep, Amazon is going postal with grocery delivery in select cities. It’s a trial and it’s all part of the craze to unite consumers with their Internet-ordered goods sooner rather than later. It seems Amazon is announcing a new same-day initiative every day and just last week Newegg said it was entering the fray. The post office’s AmazonFresh deal is part of the USPS’s aggressive push into e-commerce delivery. And let’s face it; it could use the help. Amazon already relies on the post office for Sunday deliveries. In fact, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. estimates that  the USPS is Amazon’s biggest shipper, according to The Wall Street Journal. This is just the icing on the cake. And let’s hope it stays there on the way to your house. Couldn’t resist.

Baidu bets big on mobile

In case you doubted all this chatter about the influence of mobile on in-store purchases, check out Baidu’s latest bet. You know, Baidu, China’s beyond-gigantic search engine. It’s putting $10 million into IndoorAtlas, a Finnish company that provides indoor mapping services to help people find their way around malls and office complexes. The move comes with Baidu’s launch of BaiduEye, which sounds one part extremely annoying and one part helpful. It’s a gizmo you wear on your head. BaiduEye’s camera identifies products and sends you info on them through a headset. Ground control to Major Tom, anyone? Mobile is becoming the backbone of a retail strategy that relies on all the channels consumers use to shop and buy. Google found that 65 percent of cross-device shopping starts on a smartphone and Deloitte Digital this year estimated that 36 cents of every dollar spent in a store is a result of a customer’s mobile search.

No, Amazon and Walmart aren’t the only e-tailers consumers have heard of and topped the list of consumers’ favorite shopping sites. I know, you’re shocked. But Prosper Insights & Analytics offered a number of other nuggets that might not have been so easy to guess. First, the gap between the big favorites and the rest of the pack is declining, the National Retail Federation reports. And the Top 50 list is shifting, as it can be expected to do every year. Sites like Zulily, Eddie Bauer, J. Crew and Wayfair have broken in. Good year for Wayfair, which earlier this summer was called “the hottest e-commerce retailer in the country” in the NRF’s Hot 100 survey. And it turns out different generations list their top three slightly differently, with baby boomers going Amazon, Walmart and Kohl’s and millennials listing Amazon, Walmart and Target.

Retail consortium and Apple are out to lighten your wallet

Hold on to your wallet. Big changes are coming in the way we all buy stuff. Sure, you’ve been hearing about (and maybe using) mobile wallet technology for years. But GigaOm says the big wireless wallet consortium called MCX will be ready to go in 2015. The consortium, which includes heavy-hitters Walmart, Target, CVS, Best Buy, some restaurants and much, much more, announced its effort in 2012 and has been running pilots, GigaOm points out. But this week consortium members named the service Current C and said an expansion is underway. Meantime, Apple appears to be going its own way (shocker) with mobile payments. A digital-wallet watch and iPhone are rumored (because everything with super-secretive Apple is a rumor) to be right around the corner. The Apple products will rely on Near Field Communication, which is not the way MCX is going. Ah, memories of Betamax and VHS. If history is a guide, Marcus Wohlsen argues in Wired, then Apple is going to be VHS. (Thanks Dave Pell for pointing to the piece.)

Dead trees do tell tales

Don’t you hate it when someone comes up with something so clever that you can hardly enjoy it because you’re so envious that you didn’t think of it yourself. I mean, not that I’m like that and I’m sure you aren’t either. But here is Ikea with an ad that is brilliant — funny without being silly (OK, a little silly, which is funny), memorable (which is always good in advertising) and with great going-viral potential (which is even better than memorable). For your enjoyment, “The BookBook,” from Ikea.

Quote of the Week

“We love this kind of sale, because [the customer has] already made her decision, she knows where to go in the store, and when she gets there, she almost always buys something else — spending about 125% of her intended order. And she doesn’t require a delivery fee.” — Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren talking about the store’s click-and-collect service at the Goldman Sachs retailing conference.

Photo of Amazon Fresh truck by Jeff Sandquist, iWatch artist’s concept by Philipp Zumtobel and newspapers by Jon S. published under Creative Commons license.

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


Do mobile shoppers favor in-store tracking? It depends.

Not that anyone thought it would be easy, but new research points out just how tricky it is for retailers to build a cutting-edge shopping experience without alienating the very consumers they hope to attract or hold on to.

It turns out that in-store tracking of shoppers’ smartphones is a non-starter with half of those recently surveyed by PunchTab, a Palo Alto-based firm that helps retailers and brands build loyalty and engagement with customers.

“Fifty percent of consumers just didn’t want to be tracked,” says Robyn Hannah, PunchTab’s vice president of public relations. “A lot of it was around privacy concerns. A lot of it was that they felt that they were being over-marketed to.”

In fact, of the half of respondents who said they were not likely, or not at all likely to agree to be tracked, more than half (51 percent) said their main concern was privacy. “Stop being creepy,” one respondent told PunchTab. “Seriously, stop trying to convince people that abusing their privacy is a good thing,” said another. “You don’t need this information.”

Specifically, PunchTab found that 13 percent said they already get too many messages; 12 percent said they are bothered by offers for things they’re not interested in and 1 percent said they didn’t like being told how to shop.

The numbers sound grim, but Hannah made the point that marketers and e-commerce enterprises could also see the glass as half full. OK, maybe a quarter full. In fact, 27 percent of those surveyed said they’d be OK with tracking under certain circumstances — and those are the consumers businesses should focus on.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 1.45.00 PM

“I think with the millennial demographic, in particular, they understand very well that there is an exchange, a trade. You can have my data, but what do I get out of it?” Hannah says.

The PunchTab findings, which have also been reported by eMarketer, are particularly interesting because they touch on some of the solutions that brick-and-mortar retailers have embraced as a way to compete as shopping increasingly moves online and as Amazon continues to bulk up as a competitor.

It’s not that retailers are oblivious to consumers privacy concerns. They’ve known for years that they need to move cautiously into a world of providing personalized recommendations that are relevant to a customer at exactly the right time and in exactly the right place. But the thinking always was that consumers would be willing to share private data — like location information — in return for discounts, convenience and notifications about upcoming sales.

And though that appears to be the case for only a fraction of those surveyed by PunchTab, when it comes to smartphone users, even a fraction is a significant number. PunchTab reports that 58 percent of Americans have smartphones and 72 percent of them use their phones while shopping.

When shoppers are armed with smartphones, retailers can deploy beacons and track willing consumers in their stores. That way they can offer coupons for nearby products that shoppers prefer, or they can suggest alternative or additional items that might suit their fancy based on past purchases and other intent signals.

Smartphones, our lifelines, are smack in the middle of the sweet spot of these efforts as stores work to marry consumers’ penchant for online shopping and buying with the traditional practice of browsing clothing racks in brick-and-mortar stores.

“Here is a significant opportunity for marketers right now to leverage the GPS in mobile phones to make users aware of their products in the store in real time,” Hannah says.


Of the golden 27 percent, PunchTab found 88 percent say tracking is appropriate when it results in coupons or special offers, 72 percent say tracking is OK if it can speed up the checkout process and 58 percent said tracking was fine if the system let shoppers know that they were closing in on a loyalty reward.

The key is to focus on those willing to be tracked and give them what they’re after in return.

“Seventy-two percent said shorter check-out time,” Hannah says. “Today’s retailer is competing heavily with online retailers. Nobody wants to be the Blockbuster to the Netflix, the Border’s to the Amazon. The in-store experience is painful right now and they have a chance to make that better and more desirable in order to compete with those online retailers.”

But the work doesn’t stop with the 27 percent who are open to location tracking. By keeping them happy with offers and an improved shopping experience, retailers will create ambassadors for the idea of tracking.

“If you can sway that group first and demonstrate that you’re trustworthy,” Hannah says, “they’ll create greater consumer adoption, especially in the millennial demographic.”

And if you’re able to take the 27 percent open to tracking and add to it the 23 percent who classified themselves as “indifferent” on the subject, suddenly you’re halfway home.

Photo of shoppers by Charlie Brewer and mobile apps by Jason Howie published under Creative Commons license. Graphic courtesy of PunchTab and based on survey of 1,153 U.S. smartphone owners.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.

RelevanceReport 5.30.14

The BloomReach Relevance Report: Pay up; UK omni no-go and sluggish shoppers

It’s that time again, you know it is: Time for the BloomReach Relevance Report. Enjoy.

Amazon finds a business it doesn’t dominate — yet

So, wait? You mean there is a business that Amazon isn’t already in? Apparently, yes, judging by this headline from a retail news aggregator: “Amazon Jumps into Mobile Payment Service.” The headline points to a Wall Street Journal story about the Seattle seller-of-all-things launching Amazon Local Register, a mobile payment system meant to take on Square, PayPal and other new payment systems. (Here’s a free story about Amazon’s move.)  As brick-and-mortar stores scramble to compete with Amazon’s online reach, Amazon itself is pushing into brick-and-mortar with Local Register. The move will help Amazon collect consumer data from brick-and-mortar transactions, something the behemoth has little insight into today, the Journal points out.


UK retailers need to up their multi-channel game

Trenton Moss, founder of Webcredible tells eMarketer that retailers in the United Kingdom have omnichannel (there’s that word again) all bollixed up. He doesn’t mean to be harsh. In fact, Moss says, perfecting the all-channel approach of seamlessly and simultaneously serving consumers in-store and online is currently impossible. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s tough, no doubt. Moss points to retail giant Tesco and Burberry, purveyor of all that is fancy-pants, as all-channel champs. Meantime, British consumers have gone global, well international, gravitating toward better deals online in European countries beyond their border.

U.S. shoppers are feeling a little sluggish

It seems that U.S. consumers have finally shopped ‘til they dropped. And dropping with them are traffic at brick-and-mortar stores and sales forecasts at heavy-hitters like Macy’s and Wal-Mart Stores. But both are making big pushes on the e-commerce side of the house. Macy’s spent nearly $2 billion on technology and e-commerce initiatives in the last five years and is developing in-store pickup and ship-from-store programs, Reuters reports. Wal-Mart Stores recently announced a move to provide more personalized recommendations on its website, which is a continuation of a relentless focus on digital commerce for the giant retailer. Despite the gloomy reports, Business Insider reports that traditional stores are catching on to the new realities. And Darrell Rigby writes on the Harvard Business Review site that brick-and-mortar stores aren’t going anywhere. Physical stores still generate most retail revenue — by a lot — and there is no reason to believe their future is anything but bright. No, they’re not quite dead yet.

Let’s get Real</>

There is a push for advertisers and e-commerce sites to get real when it comes to the photos of models they use. Indie fashion retailer ModCloth is the first to jump on the non-airbrushed bandwagon, pledging that its models are real people who look just the way you see them on the Web. In signing the Heroes Pledge for Advertisers, it turns out ModCloth is just agreeing to what it’s always done, Today Style reports. (The website also reports that the move comes days after a Twitter storm broke out over the Gap’s tweet of a very thin model.) ModCloth has always used real women, not models (who can be real women, too), and has never used PhotoShop. The idea, ModCloth reps say, is to inspire other retailers to follow suit. Anyone?

Go big or go home

Restoration Hardware CEO Gary Friedman has always been one to think outside the big-box store. He’s said in the past that his stores, which sell snazzy stuff for the home, are banking on the idea that people really like to walk into a store. Now he’s banking on the notion that consumers still want to shop in catalogues, the New Yorker reports. The bigger the better. UPS drivers throughout the land have been throwing out their backs lugging around the 17-pound books. Think of it as Sears’ old Wish Book. Drivers wish it would go away. Before you write the strategy off as nuts, consider this: Marketing experts say that those who flip through catalogues buy more than those who rely on their computers to shop, according to the magazine.


Quote of the week

“Consumers remain very thoughtful about their spending. Our customer comes in with pictures, swatches, competitor prices; she’s already done her research and knows exactly how much she is going to spend.” — Lee Bird, chief executive of At Home, a home décor big-box chain based in Dallas to the Wall Street Journal.

Photo of Square payment reader by Joe Ross, Sears catalogue by Adam and newspapers by Jon S. published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy


ClickZ Live wisdom: Data tells stories

I’m spending some time this week at ClickZ Live, a global digital marketing conference; and like any global conference worth its multi-logoed gift bags filled with gizmos that are not quite identifiable, this one is presenting pearls of wisdom.

I love pearls of wisdom. They are not necessarily the profound truths that rock your world, but moments that help you stop and think. Right off the bat, here on Day 2 in San Francisco, one dropped into my lap. It came during a discussion about Big Data, a phrase that is alternately revered and reviled. It’s become cool to disparage Big Data as a buzz phrase that business people toss around to sound like they’re on top of things.


But during a panel discussion, Chis Pemberton, Digital Brand Manager for Ghiradelli Chocolate Co., offered a reminder that it isn’t what you call your data; it’s what you do with it.

“I like smaller data with bigger insights,” said Ghiradelli, who, let’s face it has one of the coolest jobs in the world. I mean, promoting chocolate? How hard could that be? “I’m more interested in the insights that I get from my data.”

It’s something I’ve written about before, sometimes bringing up the idea of thick data; about how Big Data doesn’t pit humans against machines and algorithms, but provides an opportunity for them to team up. In other words, the discussion isn’t just about the data. It’s about the stories that data tells; stories it tells about your enterprise, your customers, your mission and on and on.

“Don’t forget,” Pemberton reminded the marketers in the room, “the data tell a story. You’ve got to tell the story.”

Stories like what?


Well, despite my wise-cracking, it turns out that marketing chocolate can be tricky, particularly in the summer months when the candy tends to melt and tends not to be top-of-mind for the sweet tooth crowd.

“If you look at the search trends,” Pemberton said, “it tends to plummet in the summer. But if you track S’mores recipes …”

Yeah, they skyrocket.

So what does the team in charge of selling delicious chocolate despite the summer sun do with such data? Ultimate S’Mores contest! Of course.

So, take a moment. Stop and think. Maybe there is a S’More right in front of you.

Photo of boy with S’More by Ken Bosma and Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory by Brian Gautreau published under Creative Commons license. 

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at; follow him on Twitter @mikecassidy.


INFOGRAPHIC: Where do consumers search for products? Where do consumers buy products?    

In a world with multichannel retailers, where do consumers choose to search for products and buy them?

Well, an increasing number of consumers are using a variety of different channels to complete their purchases, meaning–they might go online first and do a bit of browsing before they head into the store. Or the opposite–they might first go into the store to browse before heading online to purchase. After all, according to the UPS “2014 Pulse of the Online Shopper report,” 62% of those who purchase an item online rather than in store say that they needed to do additional research before purchasing. And those who do use multiple channels to complete their purchases, expect a smooth transition from channel to channel.

Check out this week’s BloomReach infographic for more stats:



Yes, mobile-mania is sweeping the the land, but digital retailers need to cut through the noise and focusYes, mobile-mania is sweeping the the land, but digital retailers need to cut through the noise and focus

You think there’s a little buzz around mobile commerce?

Sure, mobile makes up only a small slice of e-commerce sales, but it seems you can’t turn around without running into another finding, warning or piece of advice about mobile commerce.

The mobile vision can be a little confusing, though it’s pointing in one direction: big. eMarketer says U.S. mobile sales will hit $57.8 billion this year. Custora puts it at an even $50 billion. Goldman Sachs says the figure is $70 billion. Forrester weighs in at $114 billion. And Deloitte says that by the end of the year, mobile will influence half of all in-store sales, meaning the channel will be fueling well over $1 trillion in sales.

Impressive channel.

mcommerce 2014-07-11 at 12.34.00 PM

But wait. Michael Caccavale, CEO, Pluris Marketing, says mobile isn’t really a channel in the first place.

“It’s more of a remote control for life in the near future that will soon require multiple approaches for what are effectively ‘channels within the channel,’” he writes in MobileMarketingDaily.

Multiple approaches? Channels within the channel? Hoo boy. It’s no wonder that 71 percent of digital marketers surveyed by the Altimeter Group said that revamping websites and other e-commerce programs was very important. Ninety-six percent said it was at least somewhat important.

But revamp them how?

Consider the debate over whether a distinct mobile app or a site optimized for mobile is the better way for retailers to go. Fred Thiel, CEO of Local Corporation, says that consumers actually prefer to shop on apps.

“People prefer to use apps if they’re searching on their smartphones, and that’s partly because that search happens right there in the store,” he says in an interview with eMarketer.

Adobe agrees apps are the way to go.

“Industry research says yes,” the company says in it’s 2014 Mobile Consumer Survey. “Recent ADI reports show mobile consumers spend four times longer with a tablet app and two-and-a-half times longer with a smartphone app than on the web. Before building your mobile app, have clear objectives and goals for driving customer loyalty and engagement over time.”

So, that’s settled. But wait. Three paragraphs after endorsing mobile apps, the Adobe report recommends a responsive website: “You have to have a web strategy that is inclusive of smartphone and tablet browser.”

In fact, it wouldn’t be crazy to conclude that if you build an excellent site, one that is as seamless on mobile as on a PC, then consumers might spend as much time on it as they would on an app.

Then there is Netta Kivilis, head of marketing for Custora, a firm which recently produced “E-commerce Pulse: Mobile Report. She wonders whether consumers have the bandwidth to load up and use distinct apps for every online store at which they shop. In fact, eMarketer reports, a recent study by Baynote and the e-tailing group found that 55 percent of mobile shoppers bought directly on apps over the holiday season, compared to 34 percent who used an app.

US mcommerce figs

So, when it comes to the question of whether consumers prefer shopping on apps or mobile sites, the answer appears to be yes. It’s not a very satisfying answer for a retailer trying to figure out mobile strategy, Kivilis acknowledges.

It makes you want to throw your hands up, but you can’t throw your hands up. Mobile is too important. You need to take advantage of it, at least in part by leveraging the tremendously individualized signals that mobile users are sending you about what they want and where and when they want it.

You want some more statistics? The number of smartphones in the world will reach two billion this year, Adobe reports. comScore says 140 million of them are in the United States and eMarketer says nearly 125 million people will use them to shop this year, according to its report, “Mobile Commerce Deep Dive: The Products, Channels and Tactics Fueling Growth.”

So no hand-throwing-up. Mobile is crucial now. Smartphones and tablets are part of a shopping routine for an increasing number of consumers who use a number of different devices to shop and buy. These so-called “cross-device shoppers” are a relatively small number today — Kivilis puts it at 12 percent — but “it’s essentially tripled in three years.” Not to mention, that the growth of cross-device shoppers as a segment shows no sign of slowing.

And here’s the thing: They are very valuable customers. BloomReach’s own data shows that a relatively small percentage of shoppers using more than one digital device accounts for a disproportionately large percentage of sales on mobile devices. For instance, BloomReach typically connects 5 to 20 percent of mobile devices to a second device and those consumers alone represent 30 to 45 percent of mobile revenue for the BloomReach customers analyzed.

“We also found that these cross-device shoppers are higher value customers,” Kivilis adds. “They’re buying more. They’re giving higher value. It’s the holy grail for a retailer.”

And so figuring out how to attract and keep mobile shoppers is key, despite the statistics and advice that at times seem contradictory. Keep in mind, that your answer might be different from your competitors’.

The key then is to figure out the tools you need to analyze your site and your consumers — and then to act on the information that those tools give you.

Cover photo of iPads by by Matthew Pearce and photo of smartphone by Highways Agency published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.


Wal-Mart launches major online offensive against Amazon

Maybe the biggest question around the news that Wal-Mart Stores is dramatically upgrading its e-commerce site is, why did they wait so long to make such a serious run at Amazon.

The Associated Press reports that the Bentonville behemoth is working to improve personalization on its site, which offers seven million products, by tailoring recommendations based on a consumer’s shopping history, his or her location and the weather outside.

Time will tell how successful is at achieving its goal, but there is no debate that such true personalization is the holy grail for online retailers. The term “personalization” has been around for years and its meaning has been diluted by efforts that call themsevles personalization, but fall far short of the ideal, as Tina Johnson-Marcel points out in her post on MarketingProfs. (For a look at how consumers’ attitudes and technology related to personalization has evolved, check out the eBook “You Don’t Know Jack (or Jill): The State of Online Personalization.”)

Wal-Mart CEO McMillon with e-commerce associates

Wal-Mart CEO McMillon with e-commerce associates

To answer my own question, there are no doubt a number of reasons that Wal-Mart has concluded that now is the time to go all-in on digital commerce. (For a look at other changes in the works, see this The Wire story.) For one thing, the world’s biggest retailer has a relatively new CEO, Doug McMillon, who has focused on competing with online leader Amazon and has pushed hard to upgrade e-commerce.

“Doug isn’t there to make next quarter or next year’s earnings,” Wolfe Research analyst Scott Mushkin told the Wall Street Journal last month. “He’s there to try to bring Wal-Mart into the 21st century.”

And in fairness, it’s not as if Wal-Mart just woke up to the notion that digital commerce is fast becoming a much more significant slice of the revenue pie for retailers. The retailer has been working for years on beefing up its online offerings, launching @WalmartLabs in Silicon Valley more than three years ago. Last year alone, Wal-Mart spent $500 million on e-commerce initiatives and it plans to spend another $150 million this year.

In fact, Wal-Mart executives have pointed to the Silicon Valley effort as a sure sign that the company is up to the technological task of competing at a high level in e-commerce. Consider the recent comments to shareholders by Neil Ashe, who heads up e-commerce for Wal-Mart:

 “You hear a lot these days about cool and interesting companies in Silicon Valley. Let me tell you about one — a tech business,” Ashe said, according to the Wal-Mart blog. “This business does a lot of inventing. In the past two years, it has filed for more than 300 patents. Some of the best technologists in the world are joining this business. Almost a thousand joined last year: in Silicon Valley, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Bangalore, and other cool places around the world. This business is growing. Last year, its sales reached $10 billion. This year, it’s forecasting sales to reach $13 billion, which is similar to the size of Visa or Nordstrom. This business is also expanding around the world. In Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America. Now it might surprise you to hear that this business … is Walmart. That’s right. Walmart is one of the fastest growing e-commerce businesses in the world.”

And no doubt Wal-Mart and others see this as the time to upgrade the e-commerce experiences they’re offering consumers because the technology now exists to build true personalization into websites and mobile sites. Speaking at a Churchill Club event earlier this summer, Ratnakar Lavu, Kohl’s executive vice president of digital innovation and information technology, underscored the point:

 “I do think for the first time, actually, the technology is there. Whereas if you’d asked the traditional retailers in the past, like five years ago, we would have said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But with all the Hadoop infrastructure, and all that are now part of the open-source community, we’re now able to actually analyze large sets of data. We’re able to build predictive algorithms. I can do real one-to-one experiences.” fulfillment centers will get busier as the retailer's online efforts grow fulfillment centers will get busier as the retailer’s online efforts grow

That means, as the the Associated Press story about Wal-Mart’s web upgrades points out, that retailers simply cannot stand pat on their digital initiatives:

 “The move to personalize websites for shoppers has become a top priority for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers like Wal-Mart as they play catch up with, the online king that pioneered customizing content for shoppers. Retailers increasingly are trying to use their reams of customer data they get from mobile devices and computers to personalize their websites and ultimately, boost sales.

“Other retailers, including home-improvement chain Home Depot and office-supplies retailer Staples, have been working to personalize the online shopping experience. In fact, a quarter of customers who visit Home Depot’s home page see product recommendations that are based on recent purchase or browser history, according to the company.”

Wal-Mart’s efforts so far appear to have paid off. Last year, Wal-Mart’s online sales growth, which was up nearly 30 percent, actually beat out Amazon, its unrivaled rival. Amazon’s sales were up about 20 percent during the same period. That was the good news for Wal-Mart. The less positive statistics? Amazon’s online revenue was $67.8 billion, more than six times Wal-Mart’s Internet sales of $10 billion.

And, of course, Amazon isn’t sitting still while Wal-Mart adds to its online empire. That’s not the way the Internet economy works, is it? Every day is a race to the top, whether you’re the reigning champ, the current also-ran or an enterprise that few have even heard of — yet.

Photos of Doug McMillon with global e-commerce associates last month, walmart fulfillment center and store sign, courtesy of Wal-Mart Stores,

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy


RelevanceReport 5.30.14

BloomReach Relevance Report: beacons; retail theater and back to school with you

Step right up to the counter and grab a helping of the BloomReach Relevance Report: All the news you need for the moment. Hey, there will be more news later.

The beacons are coming; the beacons are coming

Retailers are scrambling to create a seamless shopping experience from in-store to online and back, and it appears that beacons will be playing a big part in that effort, says mCommerce Daily. The website says that a report by Business Insider Intelligence concludes that there will be 30,000 beacons up and running in the United States by the end of the year and that 80 percent of them will be in retail stores. That’s still not exactly saturation. In fact, beacons will be in only 2 percent of retail locations. But just you wait. mCommerce says the number of operating beacons will increase by 287 percent in the next five years.  The ability of beacons to help enterprises sell stuff is already being demonstrated in Major League Baseball ballparks and the NFL’s newest stadium is going to be beaconed to the max, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The Mercury story doesn’t say whether the stadium’s tenant, The San Francisco 49ers, plans to use the beacons at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to push products, but come on. This is America.

Retail is like theater (but with no intermission)


Ever wonder who started Crate & Barrel? Me neither, but it turns out Gordon Segal, who founded the housewares giant in Chicago with his wife, Carole, in 1962, has a pretty interesting story — and an interesting take on retail. “Retail is like theater,” he tells Investors Business Daily. “The store is the stage, with scenery, lighting and music. The products are the script — each item has an interesting story. The employees are the actors who make it come alive and bring the customers back.” I like the way the retired Segal thinks. The launch of the iconic brand wasn’t seamless, but Segal studied the masters, such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, IBD says. The resulting notion that retail is a production with actors who need to create a memorable experience strikes me as something that transfers well to the online world. Perfect the experience and customers will return.

Whatever happened to the school of hard knocks?


Wait a minute. I applaud Rite Aid’s move to add electronics to its more traditional back to school items, but “smart TV devices” and “music amplifiers?” What kind of schools do these kids go to? Why, when I was a boy… Oh nevermind. Back to school is huge (the second biggest shopping season, behind the winter holiday season) and retailers need to be on top of their game as we begin our slide to the inevitable first day of school. The National Retail Federation reports that families will spend $72.5 billion on school supplies. Like so much in life and retail, back-to-school has gotten a little more complicated. For instance, eMarketer reports that the back to school shopping season now spans much of the year — at least when it comes to students browsing for products.

Not that anybody’s keeping score

Who doesn’t love lists, especially lists that are 100 items long? This one, from the National Retail Federation, features the Hot 100 Retailers, the superstars in an industry that is changing at breakneck speed. No. 1 on the list, which ranks retailers by the year-over-year change in U.S. sales, is Albertson’s, which seems surprising, but actually isn’t. The NRF says Albertson’s has pulled off a remarkable rebuilding of it’s grocery empire, which had nearly $19.5 billion in sales last year. Much of that rebuilding was through acquisition. Next on the list is Wayfair, an online furniture and decor store which was a dotcom startup 12 years ago, and is now the hottest e-commerce site in the country, according to the NRF. In the e-commerce subcategory, which is of particular interest to the BRRR, Amazon came in at No. 1 (shocking), followed by Apple Stores/iTunes and Home Depot. Here’s SearchMarketingDaily’s take.

Which is better, cool data or cool design? Answer: both


We live in a time when e-commerce retailers like Warby Parker, Bonobos and others work to kill it on site experience as a way to differentiate themselves and hold their own against giant Amazon. Meantime, Amazon continues its march toward world domination by killing it when it comes to masterfully using massive data sets to figure out what shoppers want to buy before they know themselves.  Now Pehr Luedtke, CEO of Spotzot, argues rather convincingly in Wired that the key to continued success is to marry those two specialties. Primarily, he makes the case that brick-and-mortar stores that have created beautiful, or at least pleasant, shopping experiences, should pay attention the mountains of data potentially provided by smartphones, beacons and the like. That’s smart as far as it goes, but I’d argue they should also pay attention to using data to create a beautiful experience online as well. Consumers who find results that are relevant to them personally and who don’t have to work hard at it will remember you and return.

Quote of the week

“I have been close to the changes business and consumers have experienced over the last few years, and I have an acute understanding of how important it is to connect stores, online and mobile. For us to create the Target of tomorrow, all three of those elements have to work in tandem.” — new Target CEO Brian Cornell

Shakespeare photo by Devon Christopher Adams, classroom photo by Emory Maiden and Apple Store photo by Kevin Zolkiewicz published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.



Vacationing in the big data era sheds light on Human vs. Machine tension

I’m just back from a family trip to Chicago, New York and points in between, aided by talking Google maps and other modern marvels, which oddly has me thinking a lot about the role of machines in our lives.

The discussion is often framed as Man vs. Machine, which is alliterative, but also inaccurate. First, to be inclusive, we need to go with Human vs. Machine. Second, I’ve concluded it’s not actually a battle. It’s more a collaboration; an exercise in figuring out how humans and machines can complement each other to make life easier and more fulfilling.

The Human and Machine epiphany hit me while I was traveling with my family on an epic summer road trip consisting of planes, trains and automobiles. Like almost everybody in the 21st century, we lined up flights, hotels, Uber rides, an Airbnb stay and a rental car on the Internet and through mobile apps. We endeavored to find our way around Manhattan and Chicago with Google Maps and public transit apps and sites like HopStop and CTA Train Tracker.


And in the process I was reminded repeatedly of a Harvard Business Review blog post by Andrew McAfee that I’ve mentioned before. McAfee argues — fairly convincingly — that algorithms are simply better than human beings at coming up with the right answer. McAfee says human expertise is important on the front-end, designing the algorithm, for instance, but that human reasoning is almost always harmful when it’s used to second-guess a data-driven conclusion.

It is a hard notion to swallow, as McAfee points out in his piece:

“Of course, this is not going to be an easy switch to make in most organizations. Most of the people making decisions today believe they’re pretty good at it, certainly better than a soulless and stripped-down algorithm, and they also believe that taking away much of their decision-making authority will reduce their power and their value. The first of these two perceptions is clearly wrong; the second one a lot less so.”

McAfee is definitely onto something: There is a balance; a place where the mix of human and machine is optimal — though I’m not sure I’m ready to accept his extreme human hands-off conclusion. (Maybe I’m just one of the stubborn folks he references above.)

It seems to me that machines should be our help-mates. They provide the data we need to make the right decisions for our enterprises. But here’s the thing: Nobody is perfect. And when people aren’t perfect, neither are the machines (think algorithms for instance) that they build. Machines can provide the wrong suggestions because of biases and shortcomings baked into the human-made models that they rely on.

So, the human-and-machine model requires that the humans are aware of the potential pitfalls and their impact on the computer-generated results that the machines yield — all of which makes for better results.

But we also need to be vigilant and willing to assess the results of our human/machine collaborations and tweak the balance between human and machine input when necessary.

There are examples both trivial and tragic of times when the balance has tipped too far in one direction or the other. Consider, for instance, the National Transportation Board finding that pilots’ over-reliance on automated cockpit technology was one contributor to the fatal 2013 Asiana airlines crash in San Francisco.

I plan to pay a lot more attention to the human and machine dynamic in the coming weeks and months. It’s a fascinating tension that has been described in terms of “thick data” and viewed in this story from British publication Marketing as a battle between big data and “magic moments” that are built with the help of true human understanding.

“One of the struggles in wrestling big data into little, magic moments for people is in reserving the time and resources to discover and, importantly, respond to the human stories inside the numbers,” the Marketing story says. “We spend more energy collecting information than listening and responding to it in unusual and surprisingly human ways.”

I’m going to be looking for stories that have at their heart this struggle to figure out when human insight is needed to fully leverage data and when the decisions before us are better left to the machine.

I’m also going to pay a lot more attention to how this tension plays out in my own life. I started on my family’s recent trip, where the tension between the two was evident and where human distrust of the machine surfaced in odd ways (such as my wife, Alice’s, habit, when I was driving, of reading the directions from Google Maps before the automated voice had a chance to say its piece).

In the end, our machine-aided vacation experiences represented something of a mixed bag:

There was our Uber ride to our hotel near Midway Airport. The driver announced that his GPS had given out. I turned to my iPhone to provide directions, including a right turn that our driver insisted was a left turn, despite the clear instructions of my mapping software. He turned left; we got lost. Score one for machine data over human judgement.


And there was our bus trip from Manhattan to Hoboken. My map described our stop as 14th and Bloomfield, but the on-board bus announcement referred to a different cross street. My wife and daughter insisted we get off (based on seeing the intersection we wanted out the bus window). I insisted we stay on the bus and we missed our stop. Score one for human judgement over machine data.

Then American Airlines’ reservation software mysteriously upgraded my wife and daughter Riley’s coach seats, purchased with AAdvantage miles, to first class. My seat, purchased with cash, remained in coach. Score one for the machine, particularly if you ended up in first class. (Which, did I mention, I did not?)

One thing we can be sure of in the swirl of uncertainty is that machines and the big data they crunch are here to stay. Every day you read about a new way to leverage data, machine learning and robotics. (The latest offering, from the Wall Street Journal, is about a new form of advertising in which consumers “converse” with a smart bot that builds a bond between brand and customer.)

Our challenge is to figure out not only how to co-exist, but how to leverage and combine our unique strengths.

Machine photo by Frédéric Bisson and Uber driver photo by Jason Tester published under Creative Commons license. Subway photo by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.


Even the best retailers and marketers need to remember that every consumer is an individual

I needed somebody to shop.

I wanted a better understanding of what people like about shopping online, what drives them nuts; whether they chose to shop online because it’s their favorite way to buy or whether it was the lesser of two (or more) evils.

Who better then, than a 12-year-old girl, with an eye for long necklaces, hoop earrings and fast-fashion? Hey, it’s tough duty, but somebody’s got to do it.

We recruited Lilah R. to get the job done. We gave her a budget, pointed her to a website (yes, a BloomReach customer)  and promised her mom we would not publish her last name, to protect her privacy.

“I usually only order books and stuff online for my Kindle,” Lilah says, explaining she’s not a heavy shopper, which isn’t to say she doesn’t enjoy shopping. “It’s usually just once or twice a year. I go on Amazon and look.”

And so it was a bit of a treat to visit to search for new clothes and accessories. In some ways, Lilah put the site through its paces. And her experience was a gentle reminder of how difficult it is to anticipate the needs of every individual consumer; a nudge to remember that it always pays to listen to customers and to work every day to understand how it is they interact with a retailer’s inventory and sales methods.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 11.50.49 AM

In the world of e-commerce, every day is a performance. Retailers, like DebShops, where Lilah shopped, assemble and curate their inventory. They turn to companies like BloomReach, which has the technology to ensure that consumers receive personally relevant results and meaningful recommendations. And then they wait for the reviews, which come in the form of visits, time on site, add to cart, revenue per visit and, of course, overall sales.

From the consumer’s side, the metrics are different: Is the content engaging? Is it easy to find what I was looking for? Does the site know me? How much is shipping? When will my stuff arrive?

And so how did it all stack up for Lilah?

“I really like the stuff that they have on the website, so that was good,”  she says of DebShops. “I just in general really liked the website. It was easy to find stuff.”

In searching for and discovering the 10 items — skirts, earrings, necklaces etc. — that she ultimately purchased, Lilah used the retailer’s site search and BloomReach’s “More Like This” function, which recommends products that are of a similar style.

“More like this narrowed it down,” she says. Like when she was looking for long necklaces. She was able to look at one, click the feature and find a page of other long necklaces, without sifting through short necklaces and statement necklaces.

Yes, there were times when Lilah had a way of describing certain attributes that confounded the site’s current search configurations. For instance, when she searched for “two-inch tank tops,” in order to adhere to her school’s policy banning spaghetti strap tops, she came up empty.

Lilah acknowledges that that the two-inch strap descriptor might be a bit idiosyncratic, but it underscores the sophistication retailers need to strive for in an era of personalization. (It can be harder than it sounds to come up with every possible way different people describe the same thing, as we illustrated recently with our “Describe the Dress” quiz.)

But all in all, Lilah says, the online excursion was a success. The clothes and accessories met her expectations and she found the jewelry worthy of making the trip with her to summer camp.

And while one excursion hasn’t turned Lilah into a hard-core online shopper (she still prefers to try clothes on), she is looking forward to her next digital shopping trip.

And why not?

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.