Small business owners usually don’t fear growth, especially not during a pandemic. Retail, manufacturing, and consumer goods brands that have either scaled their e-commerce or pivoted online during COVID have reason to be hopeful and confident. But the growing pains of e-commerce should not be underestimated.
Having served e-commerce brands with numerous product lines, regions, and sales channels, I can tell you this: it gets complicated. Small business owners who fail to anticipate the challenges of managing e-commerce product information and content at scale get blindsided. The quality and accuracy of their product listings suffers and their speed to market slows.
In my role with Widen, I focus on solutions for digital asset management (DAM) and product information management (PIM), which we bundle into a DAM+PIM offering for e-commerce brands. I have no intention of steering you towards those tools. They are made for enterprises, not small businesses. Rather, I want to discuss the stages of product information and content management to help you anticipate and address growth barriers before you crash into them.
Stage 1: Manual and Minimalist
An emerging e-commerce brand tends to grow around one or several smash hits. Whether it makes mobile phone accessories or outdoor gear, the brand might test demand on Kickstarter or Indiegogo and then win a loyal following through Instagram, bloggers, and product reviewers.
At this stage, you and your co-founders probably take product photos and write copy together. Everything is created and finalized quickly. With so few images, you can store them on a cloud system like Google Drive or Dropbox. The product data—description, sizes, dimensions, materials, colors, models, etc.—probably live in a spreadsheet there.
To launch your product on a platform like Amazon or your own website is relatively simple. You upload a few photos, paste some copy, set a price, and start selling.
Stage 2: Semi-Automated and Scaling
As your Amazon and web sales flourish, there’s demand for more products and growing interest from retail partners. The found team can no longer manage the brand alone. You gradually hire experts in product development, marketing, sales, logistics, and so on.
The new marketers are eager to improve your search engine rankings, email marketing, advertising ROI, and e-commerce presence. They take on the job of translating technical product information into compelling, multimedia-rich listings.
You notice, however, that communication between the product team and marketers is patchy. The product team hands over spreadsheets with product data, which are subject to change and misinterpretation. The marketers store these spreadsheets inside folders with the corresponding photos, videos, and copywriting.
There’s a semi-intelligible system for organizing this expanding library of XLMs, PNGs, PDFs, GIFs, MOVs, and other files. Still, you have to ask a marketer to hunt down files for you. Your retail partners do the same. Occasionally, you find a typo, error, or misstatement in product listings. Nothing too damaging. The brand is performing well on Amazon, your website, and several other channels.
Stage 3: Bloated and in Pain
You feel like the head of a big brand, even though your company is technically small. The cloud drive is now a labyrinth of miscategorized folders, outdated product images, meandering drafts, and untrustworthy spreadsheets. The marketers have grown disgruntled as they spend more and more time hunting down files for sales, the new e-commerce team, and retailers but less time doing creative and strategic work.
The spreadsheets inbound from product development now contain well over a hundred products, some of which are made for a specific U.S. region or international market. The data to distinguish one product from another has grown from a handful of data points to over 20. When product listings have mistakes or set unrealistic expectations, customers call them out with low-star reviews, causing tension between the product team and marketers.
The process to commission, review, and approve content is exhausting—there’s way too many people on the email chains. Their feedback always comes in late, in disjointed bits, delaying approvals and product launches by weeks. Meanwhile, someone in e-commerce is pulling out hairs over how to enter a few hundred new products into 40 e-commerce platforms with disparate listing rules. The growth feels unwieldy.
Stage 4: We Better Do Something…
It’s after a rough stretch in Stage 3 that brands go searching for technology that can assemble their e-commerce content, manage creative workflows, and automate distribution. This period of technological and operational catchup is normal. Like a teenage basketball player after a growth spurt, the brand must relearn how to run and jump.
My advice: do something early in Stage 3, not in Stage 4, by which point company culture and product reviews reflect the damage. Growth hurts, but it shouldn’t kill.
Jake Athey is the VP of Marketing and Customer Experience at Widen.
E-commerce stock photo by Kite_rin/Shutterstock