Last week we published an infographic that describes the e-commerce solutions that move a product and its associated content throughout an organization.
But streamlining internal communication makes up only half the equation for growing a robust e-commerce presence. Your company also needs to seamlessly communicate with external partners, be it your downstream distribution channels or your upstream suppliers, to effectively exchange product data.
This week we’re looking beyond a company’s internal e-commerce systems and focusing on how companies communicate with each other.
Key questions we’ll discuss:
- How does a brand send its product content to its retail partners?
- How do retailers receive that content in a consistent way and integrate it into their PIM systems and e-commerce platforms?
As you’ll see below, there are many different types of technologies and companies helping companies exchange data with each other. The few that we’ll focus on solve headaches associated with:
- Exchanging logistics data for purchasing and shipping
- Publishing content to retailers and marketplaces
- Receiving content from suppliers
STANDARDS FOR EXCHANGING LOGISTICAL DATA feeds
For years, companies have been experimenting with ways to efficiently share data. When it comes to standards for this shared data, the area that’s made the most progress is logistics.
EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) is one such example. It is a standard format for transmitting product content as strings of “data segments,” as opposed to fields of data in a spreadsheet.
Before businesses start trading EDI content, they agree upon the type of EDI standard to follow, usually based upon the EDI translators they have available (much like picking a language based on the translators installed on your computer). Then they start transmitting content by stringing together “data elements” – price, size, weight, etc. – with a delimiter separating them.
If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Companies that use EDI to communicate with each other tend to be bigger, well-established corporations on both sides of the exchange, and have relatively robust IT resources to draw upon. If you’re a smaller retailer or brand you are almost certainly not using this.
GDSN (the Global Data Synchronisation Network), which we’ll dedicate an entire post to later in the month, is another example. Brands and retailers who are part of GDSN exchange information formatted in the GS1 “common language” of product content. With one format of product content recognized across all of these channels, retailers spend less time chasing after suppliers to submit complete, properly-formatted data and suppliers spend less time customizing data for each unique retailer.
GDSN and EDI both are heavily weighed towards information like UPC code, weight, and other attributes that are geared for logistics. So while these standards help companies get better data to load into their ERP systems and creating PO’s, they don’t do a great job with the marketing copy and assets that populate the front-facing pages of e-commerce sites.
CONTENT AGGREGATORS FOR RECEIVING DATA feeds
Another player in this space is the content aggregator. Content aggregators build databases of product information and then sell retailers access to this data. So while they aren’t directly involved in the communication between suppliers and retailers, content aggregators do attempt to make direct business-to-business exchange of data unnecessary by creating a pool of data from suppliers in a given market.
Take the consumer electronics market, for example. Here, companies like CNET and Etilize are big players – two content aggregators that pull and store comprehensive product data from suppliers in the space. They also create marketing copy from this product data, all filled with popular keywords to improve search results. Each specialty market tends to have its own group of content aggregators.
As a retailer, the upside to using a content aggregator is that you get data for all the products you carry in a single, consistent, unified format - without having to spend time chasing down updates from every single supplier.
The downside is that you have zero ability to get rich content NOT provided by the aggregator, so your shopping experience will appear almost exactly the same as any other retailer using data from the same source. Another major downside is that you're using the same exact content as everyone else.
CONTENT SYNDICATORS FOR PUBLISHING DATA feeds
On the other side of the equation lie content syndicators. As with content aggregators, these companies attempt to make direct business-to-business exchange of data unnecessary by acting as a middleman and translator of the unique requirements of each channel.
Simply put, content syndicators will publish your product data – and any updates - to large downstream marketplaces such as Amazon, Ebay, or Google Products. Oftentimes they’ll also provide (paid-for) services that will even map your content to the requirements of the downstream targets for you.
One of the major players in the space is Channel Advisor, though there are many others. Companies upload a product feed to the system, and Channel Advisor optimizes the information for publication to each downstream channel. Channel Advisor also acts as the middleman when sales and other activity occur in these channels, and relays the information back through to the original manufacturer or retailer.
As such, content syndicators are the structural opposite of content aggregators: one publishes data to multiple channels, one aggregates data from multiple sources.
DIRECT BUSINESS TO BUSINESS EXCHANGE
The major advantages of doing direct business-to-business data exchange instead of using middlemen like content aggregator and syndicators is two-fold.
On the brand side of the exchange, significantly more control is made possible since the brand itself, and not a content aggregator, is producing the descriptions, benefits, image, and other marketing copy that is shown on retailer websites. This helps a brand control its image everyone online.
On the retailer side it enables retailers to differentiate themselves against other retailers by providing a richer e-commerce experience including videos, retina-friendly images, and other content that is likely not available from a content aggregator.
For example, this is where we come in at Salsify.
We’re building a content network focusing on rich marketing content to drive great e-commerce experiences. Unlike EDI, we aim not to require heavy IT investments on both sides of an interchange; our target users are marketers, not IT. And unlike GDSN, we’re not focusing on logistics data for ERP systems and creating POs (though our smaller customers will use Salsify for those purposes as well).
Aside from Salsify, companies are using other cloud-based tools like Box, DropBox, and Google Drive to share content directly with each other. While easier to use than FTP, for example, these tools are really just “better than attaching to an email” and don’t actually help users get data into or out of the other key systems in the e-commerce stack listed in our infographic.
Understanding how your products content moves internally is important, but also understanding how to effectively distribute your product content externally rounds out the picture for a successful e-commerce strategy. Whether you’re looking at just exchanging logistical data or finding and publishing detailed marketing content, there are multiple systems to fit each need. This rounds out our discussion of the infrastructure beyond e-commerce sites.