For many businesses, especially retailers, Christmas is traditionally a busy time. In the weeks prior to the holidays, millions and millions of people go shopping – both at real-world stores and, increasingly, at virtual ones, through the interweb.

For some businesses, Christmas, as well as newly created occasions such as Cyber Monday and Black Friday, are make-or-break times, a period in which the business can potentially make enough money to keep going for the rest of the year, or longer.

So, with that commercial reality in mind, it’s worth asking some experts what provisions are necessary for enterprises to ensure a smooth journey through the busiest season of the year.

First things first

First of all, if you have a website through which you sell goods, and you have cash tills in stores which are connected to a central accounting system of some sort, you’ll obviously want your network to be in absolutely fine fettle.

For some businesses, this means applying a powerful software-defined wide area network solution.

Many telecommunications companies – such as NTT, BT, AT&T, and Hughes – provide SD-WAN solutions, and it’s probably the most appropriate solution for large, complex businesses which perhaps have outlets in many parts of the world, and associated localised websites.

Dan Thornton, head of product development at Hughes, says: “With Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the offing and Christmas hot on their tails, businesses can’t afford to fail with their online offerings.”

Thornton offers some tips on how best to prepare for a surge in online activity:

  • Ensure business apps and points of sale are given preference while providing enough bandwidth for customer connectivity.
  • Test any backup circuits to make sure they are operational.
  • Consider preventing or restricting employee personal use of the internet to open up more bandwidth for business and customer use.

“Ultimately in the context of online business continuity information is power,” says Thornton. “Understanding what is impacting bandwidth and knowing what applications are actually flowing across the network both from seasonal trends history and real-time information helps IT and operations teams optimise the network.

“Using new technologies such as SD-WAN that can give you this insight and help you dynamically manage bandwidth and provide predictable delivery of services, ensures customers get a consistent and positive experience irrespective of seasonal demands.”

Companies like Hughes provide managed SD-WAN services which enable retailers to concentrate on selling to their customers rather than deal with any IT issues.

And, of course, you would rather there not be any IT issues at all – for you or your network provider.

So, that’s the first thing: making sure you’ve got a good network. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an SD-WAN, but obviously, it needs to be one which won’t let you down during your busiest periods.

Some might choose to use a content delivery network of some sort, or virtual private servers. But whatever you use, the last thing you probably want is any sudden influx of visitors to crash your website’s servers.

Many websites are not actually equipped to deal with massive increases in traffic – it might be worth checking if yours is one of them.

Slow load times are bad enough, but if your servers mistake any sudden increase in traffic for a distributed-denial-of-service attack, your site could be shut down entirely, which can result in you losing customers and cause irreparable damage to your business’ reputation.

Ensuring network stability

A variety of companies offer network management tools which can help ensure your network is performing as it should.

One of those companies is SolarWinds, which says it has 250,000 customers worldwide and generated revenues of more than $500 million in 2015.

Head geeks Destiny Bertucci and Patrick Hubbard, each have 10 years’ experience at SolarWinds, and yes, “head geek” is indeed an official title at the company – actually, it’s even trademarked.

Speaking to EM360º, both Bertucci and Hubbard agreed that realtime visibility of the activity on a network is one of the critical factors which determine how secure and reliable you can make your network.

Hubbard says: “Looking at the traffic on a network can inform you of the applications or virtual server hosts that are actually driving most of the latency.

“For example, you can then look right down to the database level and say, ‘What files am I going to move? What lines am I going to rearrange to improve storage?’

“That is then going to inform the business decisions about where you’re going to invest in hardware and capital expenditure and everything else.

“So, it seems simple, like saying, ‘Hey, we want our shop floor mobile application experience to improve when a user is checking part numbers’. And that this something that can drive decisions about moving, say, 30 per cent of your storage onto a flash array.

“And the only way to get that information to arrive at such decisions is to actually watch the effects of application traffic, and the response times of the interconnections between the individual layers of the application – and the network is a fantastic place to see that.”

Essentially what both Hubbard and Bertucci seem to emphasise is the opportunity to see with your own eyes, in minute detail, what is happening on the network, rather than see some high-level information and use your intuition for the rest.

“That is exactly what I love – that visualisation which can answer the question, ‘What is in my bandwidth?’” says Bertucci.

“Back when I was first starting in networking, I would watch the data points in my head, I just imagined what was flowing through, I just loved networking, so it was exciting.

“But now we can actually see what’s flowing through. There’s so much information now that can change my decision on how I’m going to construct my infrastructure, how it’s going to react, upgrading the network, there’s no longer a bottleneck, and faster storage comes into play.

“I feel like the more that people are monitoring and visualising how data is moving, it just changes how you react. It’s more like being with the technology.”

At this point, some readers might be thinking that they’d welcome having to deal with the problems of too much traffic, and might be more interested in how to get into that position.

This article’s not really about that, but just as an aside, tips are available from companies such as SEMrush, which recently analysed 60,000 keywords from its worldwide base, focusing on the top 17 factors.

SEMrush says the study is “one of a kind”, and used a machine learning algorithm called Random Forest.

Here are three of its key findings: backlink factors extremely important for rankings: except for factors related to anchor texts, they share fourth place in the importance chart.
Backlink factors impact one another: your positions are unlikely to change if you boost the values for one factor but ignore others; branded keywords will always return more relevant but less popular websites on the first position.

The tale of the click

So, you’ve got to the top of search engines and you’ve got your network in place. Millions of visitors are rushing to your website and clicking all over the place, but you’ve got your security and access management policies in place so your site won’t crash or be compromised.

Now, how do you analyse such frenetic activity to see how you can maximise sales?

Tuval Chomut, CEO at Clicktale, has an answer for you.

Clicktale has created what it calls an “experience analytics” tool – which essentially means that they make technology that helps online businesses to uncover issues and opportunities that impact their customer’s experience whilst on their website, using the visitor data.

“Clicktale’s technology, Experience Analytics, works by gathering the trail of interactions that website visitors leave behind – from their clicks to their mouse movements around the page,” says Chomut.

“This rich visitor data is then combined with advanced data science, powered with Cognitive intelligence and machine learning to give insights into how customers are interacting with a retailer’s site and uses that to make recommendations about how retailers can provide better experiences.”

Clicktale calls this data the customer’s “digital body language”.

Chomut says: “Not only can this body language offer insight into how consumers are interacting with a brand’s digital assets, but it can also give retailers an understanding of the consumer’s mindset, and therefore, the meanings behind their actions.”

Game-changer

Chomut may not have mentioned artificial intelligence, but very often AI is what is behind such sophisticated analytics engines these days. As some might say, “it’s a game-changer”, and can provide insights into large-scale activities.

Gavin Wheeldon, CEO of Purple, a data analytics company, says: “Using a tool such as Purple enables businesses with physical spaces to gain more insight into their customer demographics.

“Our analytics platform provides a visual representation of real­-time footfall, passers by, conversion and bounce rates, dwell times, return visits and frequency; enabling businesses to truly understand their venues.

“By utilising visitor analytics, you can not only avoid problems, but create opportunities and ultimately offer a better customer experience.

“Businesses can identify their busiest periods and ensure they are staffed correctly as well as spot patterns and trends to optimise their location for revenue generation.”

Alex Tebbs, founder at VIA, agrees that data analytics tools are very powerful, and can provide a deeper understanding of visitors and customers, but adds that unified communications tools are also an important part of the mix.

Tebbs says: “Audience data can provide businesses with invaluable insight into the way their customers and prospects interact with their brand, and therefore how best to serve them.

“Use of web analytics platforms like Google Analytics show web owners how and when users access their site. This makes optimisation of that customer journey much easier and more effective, leading to improved conversion rates and greater retention.

“Gathering data beyond the web is also a worthwhile investment. A unified communications tool, for example, will let you know when your customers want to interact with you and how, providing insight into when your contact centre needs to be manned, how your teams should communicate with customers on an individual basis, and where potential efficiencies lie in your communications methods.

“Overall, data is and will continue to be, a powerful tool for business owners. It is those businesses who mine data for insight that will succeed in the future.”

Analysing data about visitor behaviour is usually aimed at one thing – making sales, or “conversions”, in e-commerce parlance.

But conversions are not the only fruit – there’s something called “NPS” as well, according to Grant Kemp, data and analytics consultant at Inviqa.

Kemp says: “Typically website owners focus stridently on things like conversion rates and traffic metrics. These are great if you want to see how your site is operating in terms of converting new visitors into customers. If your site is fast growing, these are golden metrics to follow.

“For sites that are starting to get larger, I find that website managers are getting better results from more traditional customer loyalty metrics such as net promoter score, online review site score, or NPS, and repeat order rate.

“If your NPS is great, your customers are more likely to recommend you or re-buy from you. You also know that you have nailed the full product and purchase experience, and can confidently push more channels to your site and earn that revenue.

“If your NPS is not great, you can start getting feedback from those users who are less likely to recommend you – that is, those with a NPS score lower than five. In this way, you can identify what is important for your users and how you can give it to them.

“One of our customers here at Inviqa was focusing on the Asian market, but we repeatedly had feedback from users in Asia that the site was difficult to understand.

“Metrics such as exit rate, which was higher for those users, showed that the trouble was mainly caused by issues in the checkout area. The retailer was therefore clear about where to look and make improvements to the site. Once the checkout experience was improved, revenue improvement was the natural outcome.”

But none of it means anything if you’re not there.

Data analytics is all very well, but ultimately, your website needs to be available and your physical store needs to be open to make the most of your popularity.

Anand Buddhdev, a senior engineer at the Ripe NCC, echoes what the head geeks at SolarWinds said earlier, about watching what happens on your network.

“Enterprise networks should monitor bandwidth usage on all the router and switch ports of network devices,” says Buddhdev.

“During a DDoS, network interfaces will usually be saturated with incoming traffic. The monitoring system should generate an alert when the usage goes above a certain threshold.

“This way, a network operator immediately knows that there is an unusual network event happening, and can take measures to mitigate it. Network monitoring also helps the enterprise to understand how the network is growing and when more capacity is required.”

And lest we forget, the retailer is king

While software, infrastructure, and other solutions vendors may be able to skilfully explain what tools and methods retailers might need to adopt in order to be successful, it’s always worth asking an actual retailer about their approach.

OHMME is a startup company, which retails sports and leisure clothes. Its unique proposition is that it uses what it describes as “eco-friendly” materials which keep their leisurewear fresh even during tough workouts.

OHMME’s head of digital marketing at OHMME, Gabriel Cabral, says a good user interface and experience is important to customers, but too many visitors can strain the website, in which case, a virtual private server might be a good option.

“The beauty of understanding who your online customers are is that it will allow you to better target your ads and create lookalike audiences which will help to get more conversions,” says Cabral.

“This goes in hand with a fantastic UI / UX, meaning that all your digital channels not only have to look amazing but they also need to work amazingly well.

“It’s a no-brainer that you have to treat your website like your baby, after all this is where the money comes in.

“Even though it sounds ideal to have lots of visitors on an online store, too much traffic could crash your site.

“A common solution is to switch to a VPS. Despite the fact that it’s not completely your own server, it can offer thousands of concurrent connections. If this solution is not good enough for you, you might need to consider cloud hosting.

“If your resources are limited, there are ways to work around these issues. For example, if you have a big mailing list, send your newsletters and promotional material in batches and schedule your ads for a time you know they work.”

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