A recurring theme in many of the sessions that took place yesterday at IRCE 2012 was agility, in terms of both exceeding consumer expectations and continuously improving business operations in order to help your teams drive performance.

Executives from ecommerce businesses of all sizes spoke to the need for companies to start opening up their organizations to new ideas and new ways of doing things now, or risk becoming irrelevant practically overnight.

Here’s look at how a few ecommerce brands are instituting rapid change in their businesses.

The Marketing/IT Relationship Evolves

The major trend behind the development of a more symbiotic working partnership between marketing and IT teams, said LegalZoom.com CTO Terry Terrill, is the consumerization of technology. In the session, “The Evolving Role of the Technology Organization,” Terrill pointed to how forward-thinking companies like Apple and Google have created greater expectations from consumers around how they interact with a company online and across all channels.

The impact on the technology development process is that it’s not just about iterations any more. Now, Terrill said, companies are “taking agile and slamming it down into a few hours to see if there’s market demand for a [technology] product before further investment takes place.” And in order to better determine that demand, companies are shifting toward their tech teams working “with” marketing and not “for” marketing.

A couple of Terrill’s suggestions for better alignment between the two departments include:

  • The CIO/CTO and CMO relationship has to be iron-clad and fit down into your organization so everyone can see connection.
  • There needs to be agreement on strategic priorities and resource allocation—not just between the marketing and tech teams, but at the enterprise level.
  • Embrace new and non-conforming technology. If you’re in ecommerce and not taking advantage of cloud-based or SaaS platforms to quickly test new ideas and get some early results to inform decisions around where to make deeper commitments, you’re shortchanging your organization. These new platforms are well-suited to brainstorming ideas around fast-developing arenas, like mobile and tablet.
  • Encourage IT participation in ideation. Co-create solutions, so the tech team can be invested in the idea and even improve upon it.
  • Cohabitate teams as frequently as possible. LegalZoom moves people around so they can work together closely on projects, helping them be more productive.

Most importantly, Terrill advised, “Create a culture of non-stop, customer-focused innovation. “Don’t be the future RIM, Yahoo, MySpace” that have all been innovated over by smaller, faster companies.

It’s an Image-Driven World … but Don’t Lose Sight of the Bigger Picture

In the session, “Can Consumers REALLY Navigate Your Site?,” a live usability test featured three consumer panelists attempting to complete certain shopping tasks on a handful of websites. Some of the design and usability best practices that surfaced during this informal focus group were:

• Some online retailers still do not offer shoppers a guest checkout option. Many consumers remain unwilling to fill out registration forms in order to make a purchase.

• All three panelists had difficulty finding and using comparison shopping tools on the various websites being tested. In most cases, the visual cues weren’t strong enough to help them find more than the checkboxes on each product to start the comparison process.

A more advanced issue encountered by one panelist was the inability to compare products on an apples-to-apples basis; none of the selected products featured a consistent set of features. While it can be difficult to get complete product details from manufacturers, it’s an important component to the product research process that more and more consumers are undertaking online.

• While it’s good to streamline product details so shoppers can find all the information they need on one page, be sure to make this content as visual as possible. A few websites still use a good deal of text for functions like sizing charts; iconography can go a long way to keeping the page clean but still rich in utility.

• Be careful with your product close-ups. If you offer shoppers the ability to click on a link to view a bigger image of the product, make sure you’re providing a dramatically larger photo. For example, blowing up a 200×200 pixel image on a product detail page to a 500×500 pixel image for the close-up.

And on the subject of making your website more visually appealing, Blinds.com CMO Daniel Cotlar shared a few insights learned in the course of continuously updating his company’s website design. The online retailer of window coverings uses a modular approach to tweaking web pages for better conversion, rejecting full-blown redesign projects as being too slow to keep pace with changing consumer preferences.

In the session, “When—and How—Do You Redesign?,” Cotlar pointed to several successful page element updates that reinforce the findings from the aforementioned usability testing session. Category pages on Blinds.com now include more photos and less copy, and the product detail pages feature much larger default main images.

In addition, the online retailer has made its comparison shopping function more prominent and expanded the criteria beyond price.

But Cotlar was adamant that website design testing should not just focus on layout and imagery. To serve today’s power shoppers, ecommerce businesses need to think about providing better functionality and ways to add value to the shopping experience. When you’re looking for ways to move visitors through your site, it’s easy to forget that getting someone from one page to the next in your funnel doesn’t mean you’ve successfully delivered a good shopping experience.

Making Your Website More Social

One of the ways smaller, more entrepreneurial retailers are jumping ahead of traditional ecommerce mainstays is in integrating social media into their websites. Case in point: Tea Collection, a predominately online retailer that sells children’s and women’s clothing with a modern global flair.

In the session, “Syncing Your Website With Facebook: Should You Do It?,” Tea Collection CEO Leigh Rawdon explained how her company has been using Facebook’s Open Graph since 2011 to forge a strong connection with prospects and customers.

She offered retailers five ways to make use of Open Graph:

1. Make reviews easy and powerful: For now, Rawdon said that using Facebook Comments for consumer feedback on products works just fine for her website. She likes that it’s easy to comment, has accountability (commenters are likely to be who they say they are), and comments are shared with friends. The two main drawbacks are the lack of analytics and that Facebook can change its plan from free to paid at any time for this service.

2. Let fans acquire new customers: While people like to be rewarded for doing something online, your fans are more likely to help share your news because of their involvement with the brand. Tea Collection has found that it can simply post when its sales are about to begin, and its community will pass this information along without being asked. Another good use has been to ask people to vote for favorite items of clothing.

3. Engage in two-way CRM: Facebook is good for two-way communication and maintaining a relationship with both loyal shoppers and new customers. But the most important activity is really listening so you can respond appropriately.

4. Consumer research is really easy—just ask: It might be scary to ask for feedback, Rawdon said, but you need to hear it. Tea Collection gets insight in its customers’ own words that it can use to guide improvements to merchandise, promotions, customer service, etc.

5. Showcase great customer service: Social media gives you real-time feedback from customers when something is not right on your website; that lets you fix the issue as quickly as possible. Tea Collection has found that Facebook is a better place for customer care than Twitter. Just remember to train the customer service team to respond more generally in this public environment; interactions are visible, and the goal is to initially address the issue while also promoting the company’s service values to the entire community.