Mobile commerce will likely affect most every ecommerce merchant in one way or another. NetSuite is a leading ecommerce platform with many ecommerce customers. Malin Huffman is a principal product manager at NetSuite in charge of the company’s mobile efforts, and he discusses NetSuite’s view of the future of mobile commerce, below.
Practical eCommerce: What are NetSuite’s mobile initiatives?
Malin Huffman: “We are very early in the whole mobile platform and mobile initiatives area, but we’ve focused on several initiatives to begin with. The first is building apps in-house to directly address customer needs. The next area is looking for partners that have specialty in mobile areas, or that focus on a particular type of customer. We encourage synergy between NetSuite and those partners to deliver targeted mobile applications or mobile-enabled sites that our customers can use.”
PeC: Tell us about the apps that you are currently working on.
Huffman: “The first app that we built and delivered is a native app for the iPhone, and it was really targeted at our executive customers, offering a very quick view of their entire business, just as they would on the NetSuite dashboard on the web and, also, to look up more detailed information in mobile.
“It wasn’t meant to replicate all the functionality in NetSuite. If you look at a lot of mobile apps out there, they’re not trying to replicate every single function that you would get when you log into either desktop application or a web application. But it’s really a good exercise in understanding your customers because it forces you to focus on the most valuable piece of the software that you’re delivering. For us, that’s really the 360-view of your business data that NetSuite can provide. The iPhone app that we built was really focused on giving NetSuite users at a high level a look into all of their data across the business, key performance indicators, trend graphs, particularly things in the dashboard that let them know how their business is doing, that they can then go out and act on.”
PeC: What else are you working on in the way of specialized apps?
Huffman: “Most of our other efforts are in the platform and partner area. We’re looking at other mobile operating systems, and we’re looking at specialized applications for verticals. A very important aspect of our business is focusing on vertical markets, such as wholesale and distribution, software companies, and services organizations. So, we’re looking at what kinds of apps and what kinds of features in mobile are interesting to those vertical groups.”
PeC: Have you found the development of apps to be a difficult process?
Huffman: “When we first got started, there was definitely a bit of a ramp up period. Today, there are a lot of options that our end customers have if they’re thinking about delivering their own apps independent of what they can get through NetSuite or our partner network.
“There are small development houses that can crank out an application relatively quickly with basic functionality and then they can build on that over time, depending on how feedback from customers. Even if [ecommerce merchants] just wanted to hire someone in-house, it’s not too daunting, unless maybe if they had never considered development projects on their own before. But, if they can bring on board either a dedicated mobile application development company or a NetSuite partner to work with, developing an app is not as big of a deal as it may seem initially.”
PeC: What should a smaller merchant be thinking about regarding mobile?
Huffman: “What they really need to think about is what is the advantage they want to get out of mobile? They need to think about who their customers are, and where those customers are when they’re searching for their products. They need to think about what those products are, and whether mobile really is a factor.
“For example, if you’re selling something like clothing or home goods that are turned over very frequently, the user is going to come back very often and buy those same goods over and over again. So, an end user buying those types of products is more likely to want to have that mobile access all the time to your system or your ecommerce goods; whereas, if you’re selling something like large appliances or products that are only replaced very infrequently, or something the user is not going to go to regularly, then you may have a different strategy.
“For companies that are selling products with more infrequent sales, you can take different angles and build up community around that or provide news or tips, things like that. You can approach at a different angle, but what you’re really going for is building your brand and providing a hook to those end users–your customers–to make them want to use your app or your mobile access and get some benefit out of it, for looking for those products, researching those products. If it’s something they spend a while looking around for before they actually buy, you’re providing them home improvement tips or fashion tips (or something like that) to make them come back and engage with you. The marketing aspect can be really huge and it should be a big consideration in your strategy.”
PeC: What percentage of your customers use your iPhone app?
Huffman: “Right now, about 20 percent of our customers are logging into that app on a monthly basis, and I think we can see that continue to increase over time.”
PeC: Will NetSuite be offering an app at some point so that your merchant customers can have the front end of their store on a mobile device?
Huffman: “We’re definitely looking at that option, as well as going the partner route with leading providers in that arena. I don’t think we’ve reached a decision yet on how we’re going to proceed. I think it will come down to largely what we’re hearing from our customers, and we’re still collecting information and doing research in that area. So, it’s a little too soon to say exactly what form NetSuite will have for front end or the end users of our ecommerce customers, but we’re definitely keeping an eye on that and doing research on it.”
PeC: If consumers are buying things off a mobile app that can’t be found through search engines, how will that affect search engine optimization?
Huffman: “We’re just in the starting phase of figuring out what the right answer is to that. There are a number of angles you can take.
“Social and geo-tag or location-based services are becoming really huge on mobile devices. You’re seeing a lot of people posting information to Twitter, Facebook, or other social networking sites, on products they’re buying, on sales that they find, and interesting new merchants that they are doing business with. So, I think social is one way that you can get more traction.
“Also, I think providing a user experience that’s very heavily customized, or that looks like you’ve put some thought into it for the mobile user, that’s an important factor. It will be interesting to see if there are more [sites] that get tailored specifically for mobile devices and mobile access, and I’m sure that’s going to have to happen. Right now, if you go in and search for something, the results may or may not direct you back to a mobile-optimized interface, and that’s a problem that search providers are going to have to take on.”
PeC: Have you ever bought a product through a mobile device?
Huffman: “I’ve purchased things like apps through the iTunes App Store and music through the iTunes application on my iPhone. In terms of physical goods, I would say I use the apps or my mobile browser more for searching on prices and product information. I don’t generally buy physical goods through mobile yet, but I certainly foresee that as being a possibility in the future.”
PeC: Anything else on your mind for our readers today?
Huffman: “I hearken back to the strategy again. It’s the same thing that we do as a software development company trying to serve businesses. We are thinking about what the customers’ needs are as we build features and we figure out which features to put in our application. That’s the same thing that ecommerce merchants need to do when they’re thinking about what software to offer their clients through mobile or through the web.
“Really think about your users. Are they on the go a lot, are they mostly researching, or do they actually do impulse buying from the mobile devices? Are they heavily into social media, or are they really just checking in on their computer to see if they have any email? What’s the channel to reach people? Is it through text messaging or instant messaging, or is it more passive delivery through news sites and news stories, or press releases,?
“I think the more merchants can understand who their customers are–either current customers or growth areas–and what those types of customers do, and how they treat mobile, those are all questions that are really important for ecommerce venders to consider as they’re planning out mobile strategy.”