Redefining Customer Experience with Personalization: A Q&A with overstockArt’s Joe Strouth

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Founded in 2002, overstockArt.com is one of the earliest online sellers of hand painted art and has been a leading online retailer in the space ever since. Though this brand got an early start in the art seller community, they don’t take broad strokes with their customer experience.

Personalization and customer data is paramount for overstockArt and they’ve worked to establish their brand as thought leading and engaging all for the sake of solid customer loyalty. We sat down with overstockArt.com’s Marketing Manager, Joe Strouth, to talk about the biggest marketing challenges he faces, the brand’s biggest priorities, the evolution of the customer experience and how personalization is changing their brand for the better. Read the full Q&A below!

SAILTHRU: Joe, tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role.

JOE STROUTH: I’m Joe Strouth, the Website and Marketing Manager at overstockArt.com. I handle everything from coding HTML emails and managing PPC campaigns to design, photography, and oversee our website and marketing efforts on a daily basis.  

It was right around 15 years ago that Stacy and David Sasson started the company out of their home here in Wichita, Kansas, and as one of the earliest online stores for hand painted art, we’ve been leading the pack ever since.

What are a few of your biggest marketing challenges today? What are you prioritizing this year or next to solve for them?

Growing the quality, quantity, and distribution of content has recently become a greater priority for us. Content strategy as well as increased personalization play a big role in redefining what it means to provide value to our customers before, during, and after the purchase. The fact of the matter is, most people aren’t looking to buy most of the time. Establishing our brand as an authoritative, engaging, and thoughtful provider of information is crucial to turning visitors into customers.

For many, this may sound like a daunting and expensive task, but we have to start somewhere. This means first evaluating what we currently have, how/where it’s presented, and how users are responding to it. We then take that data, combine it with external market research, and use those insights to produce the kind of content that we, as art lovers, want to engage with.

What is your approach to customer loyalty? How important is loyalty to your brand?

Customer loyalty is crucial for us. A significant portion of our sales are repeat business and that is no accident. Given the longer buying cycle of handmade, non-consumable, heirloom-quality products like ours, typical gamification strategies have not proven to be very relevant or effective. What has made an impact however is focusing on truly memorable service interactions. Our stellar customer service and sales team members go above and beyond to help people find the right art, at the right price, in a reassuring and helpful fashion. Of course, after the purchase, email is our primary means of keeping in contact. It was just this past week that our CEO and President reached out to hundreds of our most loyal customers to more fully understand how they were doing and what more we could do to help meet their needs. People come back to businesses that “get them”, so we make the effort to really understand their perspectives first and foremost.

Where does personalization come into play for OverstockArt? Are you currently personalizing the customer experience, if so, how?

Personalizing the customer experience continues to produce measurable increases in ROI for us, no matter where we try it. The effect of a personalized email strategy on open and click rates can be dramatic, but that’s no reason to stop there. Customers’ expectations are rapidly trending towards a much more individualized experience, specifically while they’re engaging with the product – not just the marketing. Delivering on this requires gathering the information necessary to understand each customer as well as developing solutions for reflecting that back to them through the product, in a way that adds value. Historically for us, this has meant connecting with customers and cooperating with them throughout the process of creating truly unique commissioned artworks. More broadly applicable however is our process of tracking customer visits with individual user profiles. This data is then used to deliver automated messaging through email and display ads, incorporating what we now know about their preferences across a range of subjects, styles, products types, artists, and more. This is also used in real-time as well as during subsequent visits for on-site product recommendations and merchandising. We’re exploring means to grow the breadth and depth of our data, as well as new and valuable ways to reflect that online.

There’s a lot of debate around what teams within an organization “own” the customer experience, and personalization specifically. How do you see cross-functional teams (including product, marketing, tech etc.) working together to provide personalized, cross-channel experiences to customers?

At overstockArt we’re lucky to have relatively small, tight-knit, and cross-functional teams. It’s important for team members to not self-censor in meetings or discussions with other departments. If some idea or functionality that’s available to you seems like it has potential to create a better experience for the customer, don’t keep it to yourself! Even if you think that it’s purely your department or team’s jurisdiction, getting a diverse range of perspectives is always beneficial, and who knows – the person on the other side of the office might have a cool tool of their own that would make the road ahead brighter for everyone.

Every seemingly siloed project is likely to have at least one simple, low-risk task. See these as an opportunity to bring someone in who would otherwise not be involved. Not only will you learn a little by teaching, but it familiarizes them with your workflow and thought process. Engineers and designers, salespeople and marketers, interns and the CEO have all touched Sailthru here at some point for example. Turn “your tools” and “your goals” into “our tools” and “our goals”. The customer experience is a company wide initiative and working together to reach a superior experience is our goal.

 

When it comes to building a single customer view at scale for customers, many brands still face challenges. Why are marketers stuck and what advice do you have for them?

Building a single customer view at scale simply doesn’t fit the modus operandi of a lot of legacy tooling that is deeply integrated within many companies.

My advice to to start by defining the problem through interdepartmental discussions around customer data. Establish what each team knows about any given customer already, as well as what they don’t know but would like to.

You’re likely to uncover some overlap, at which point the teams involved can get together and discuss how to make that data available to each other, or begin capturing it if it’s not available. Whether this takes you down a path towards developing your own solution or shopping for one on the open market, time spent defining your needs and wants will pay great dividends.

What do you see as the emerging trends for email marketing and customer experience over the next several years?

I expect personalization to become more widespread as automated, hands-off solutions become increasingly affordable and accessible to more marketers. Email segmentation will continue to give way to true personalization and I firmly believe that this will have to come through closer integration with product development.

Many brands don’t have true preference centers for their subscribers beyond a simple unsubscribe or at most a limited number of categories or frequency choices. Machine learning should be able to gather user preferences through interactions with products and marketing without the user having to manually set them from a limited number of choices. The future of automated generated of multivariate tests in content and presentation is not very far off.

What’s your biggest marketing pet peeve?

I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of email. It seems to go in cycles whereafter I have to go on “unsubscribe sprees”. This may seem like small thing, but it can be exasperating when simply trying to leave an email list – certain brands’ unsubscribe links give a message when clicked that “You must be logged in to manage your account settings”. Do your customers a favor and keep your unsubscribe process friction-free unless you’d rather be reported as spam out of convenience.