Travel technology – Progress on the front line

As the web has evolved, so has the role of the e-commerce manager. Dinah Hatch finds out how the job has massively changed in recent years.

E-commerce. In its simplest form, it’s a description of the science of selling something to someone via the Internet.

And when the first e-commerce managers were appointed at enlightened companies that were beginning to realise that this online sales mullarky might have legs, their role was often a solitary one that was one part making a nice website and working out how to making it transactional, and one part convincing the top dogs on the board that their investment in the department was going to provide a return.

And with the delicate pop of the dot-com bubble bursting still echoing in many ears, they can hardly be blamed for feeling a little cautious about online activity.

We laugh now at the notion anyone would fail to recognise the huge marketing and sales potential that websites provide, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. As one e-commerce manager who wishes to remain nameless told Travolution: “I spent half the time during my first job in charge of online marketing just trying to save the department and convince the top brass that I wasn’t a total waste of space.

“The board thought it was enough that I should just set up a website and allow people to buy the product. They couldn’t see that you have to try a lot harder than that to survive.”

But that attitude was understandable a few years ago. E-commerce seemed to exceed every expectation in its infancy and having a website became a panacea for all company ills – a web presence alone was bound to grow the organisation, increase its market share, brand awareness and perceived value.

But with millions of businesses setting up shop online and innovations in everything from search engines and consumer profiling to presentation and purchasing methods, the role of the company e-commerce manager has changed dramatically.

Russell Gould, e-commerce director at Thomas Cook following the merger with MyTravel (where he was e-commerce director), came into the world of e-commerce working for a mortgage company start-up site and has seen the role go through major changes.

He says: “Before the dot-com crash, the role was big in terms of staff and budget, but afterwards everything was downsized. Then people started to believe again that there was real value in e-commerce and now we are back where we were – but much leaner and more aware of what we are spending.”

He adds: “These days you have to be on top of three main areas. You have to be up to speed with everything in the e-commerce arena as it’s not a static market. You have to manage people and know how to develop them. Thirdly, it’s about managing performance that is totally transparent and trackable.

“With the pace the economy moves, you have to be agile, dynamic and flexible with the ability to analyse what’s worth worrying about and what is not.”

Neil Swanson has been head of web sales operations and content at Thomson for more than six years, having moved there from high-street retailer Argos, where in 1999 he moved into the newly created e-commerce department. He says: “Initially there was no significant interest around what we are up to but now the web touches and impacts upon every area of the business so that many other people are involved in making our websites a success.”

He adds: “The role and the new media department as a whole has changed dramatically as the web has evolved from accounting for only 1% of Thomson sales in 2001 to over 50% of sales now.”

Hs team has expanded from seven people six years ago to more than 40 today. He feels the core skills required of an e-commerce manager – reporting sales, analysing data, creating promotions and ensuring the best possible content to sell products – have not changed but now sees e-commerce teams working much closer with colleagues in the planning and trading, finance and content departments.

Steven Moore, head of e-commerce at Hotels4you, formerly Trust Accommodation, feels online sales and marketing came of age when it started to wipe its face financially. He says: “It’s become much more focused on monitoring and encouraging ways to deliver a return on investment rather than vainly acquiring traffic for the sake of it. You can say we have 200,000 unique visits a month but what does that mean and what is it costing? These are issues we look at very closely now.”

Virgin head of marketing systems Alison Wightman, who looks after e-commerce and database marketing, has seen her team grow from 13 to 18 in the 16 months she has been in the job and expects that number to double next year. The biggest difference she has seen in her role is the fact that e-commerce now accounts for the lion’s share of the total marketing spend, instead of just a small part of it.

“The spend has moved so far online now. There used to be a separate marketing department for e-commerce but now e-commerce marketing is so huge that that small department would not be able to cope,” she says.

With the expansion of the role and the explosion in availability of all sorts of useful technical data to support marketing and customer targeting, Wightman also feels an analytical mind is now an essential must-have for the job.

She adds: “There is a load of data out there and you can get lost in it all. Most companies now have all the tool sets to mine this information but don’t yet have the people to look at it. You now need to be a data expert in this line of work.”

E-commerce manager 2007

  • Analytical brain to take apart data and understand what is happening on your sites

  • Keen sales mind to decide on best promotions, discounts and functionality

  • Management experience as teams have grown to match burgeoning importance of online activity

  • Flexibility and adaptability to work in a highly fluid and changeable market

  • Good negotiation skills because you are in great demand. As one manager says: “It’s really hard to find good e-commerce people. There are a lot of people out there with the experience but they aren’t necessarily that great.”

The future of the role…

“My one prediction would be that the companies that succeed in the future will be those that manage to mine the vast amounts of user behaviour data the web provides and turn it into bite-sized chunks of insight.” Neil Swanson

“E-commerce managers will become much more ingrained in the business. I have a head of acquisitions in my team responsible for online acquisitions and they always need to make sure they are going in the same direction as the central marketing team. I think in time the two roles will become one.” Russell Gould

“The e-commerce team will be driving forward more data strategies. That’s how the role of e-commerce manager will evolve – it’s about tipping the box upside down to see what comes out and what that tells us.” Alison Wightman

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