Winning in e-commerce requires building brands and deep insights into everything from algorithms and search to product description pages, argues Mindshare’s Ben Watson.

You’ve just launched a new product. It’s backed by years of research and development, as well as significant marketing spend. As an experiment, you borrow a friend’s phone and hop over to one of the biggest online retailers in the world, where you try searching for your new product.

And it’s on page three of the search results.

Is that your e-commerce nightmare? It doesn’t have to be. And, in fact, it shouldn’t be.

Consumers and marketers have access to an expansive digital shelf and a sophisticated online retail marketplace. For consumers, it means the ability to research and purchase nearly anything at any time of the day.

For marketers, this requires a go-to-market approach tuned to the principles of each marketplace. But those principles do not always reflect the same imperatives of more traditional marketing strategies – and often require breaking down existing operational silos to be successful.

You don’t win by panicking because your new product doesn’t immediately leap up in the rankings. The winners will be those who study the system, show some patience and prioritize the products that are selling. And they’ll do it while building in flexibility to balance other business imperatives and inventory conditions.

Winning the auction today

In a hyper-connected digital world, search is more than a keyword. It’s the front door to a retailer and a demonstration of consumer shopping intent. It’s one specific intent signal on Amazon, a slightly different intent signal on Walmart, and so on across Instacart, Target, Kroger, TikTok, YouTube and pretty much anywhere with a search bar. All of which adds complexity to mastering online retailer ecosystems.

Most algorithms drive access and media pricing of keywords based on the proven ability of an individual product to sell. When a product has that history, media support can take a step back. When a product does not have that history, especially in high-volume categories for keywords, you need to find your place in the auction – and attempt to pivot campaign structure, headlines and copy for product description pages (PDP) to grow your position.

If you over-commit media investment and try to force the algorithm, however, it often results in counterintuitive outcomes.

Getting on page one, of course, is important. Without visibility, products don’t sell. But that doesn’t mean that all your ads have to appear on page one. It’s impossible for a product, even a top-selling product, to have the top ad spot for every single search.

Some products on some keywords also perform better below the fold or within PDP ad spots. The algorithm balances individual consumer history, inventory availability by geography, and visibility for paying advertisers – all while surfacing products that sell most quickly.

Remember that the customer is on a journey carried across multiple media with their unique purchase and search history. Individual results are definitely going to vary.

If your teams are getting the campaign structure fundamentals right, then results will build over time.

The new 80:20 rule

So, how do you build your campaign structure?

Firstly, continuity matters. The algorithm wants to see consistency in-market and consistency of media support. That means maintaining inventory so you’re not caught out of stock, and not pulling your media support just because you’re not seeing immediate results.

Secondly, don’t rely too much on your legacy. Offline sales and a pipeline of innovative launches on their own are of no interest to the algorithm. It does not factor in the size of a brand or a long and distinguished history in-market. Consumers, on the other hand, do.

This is where traditional branding pays off further down the line. Strength of consumer preference and strong storytelling through national media and social channels are vital. They lead to higher relative clickthrough and conversion rates, as well as a larger volume of branded searches. These are incredibly important signals to the algorithm.

There are more signals to take into account: search engine optimization (SEO), review volume, ratings, inventory signals. This is a new world of retail – and, ultimately, each e-commerce algorithm stack ranks each product against each keyword based on ability to shift product at volume and in the fewest clicks possible.

That stack rank is your key to understanding your relative value to the algorithm and where your value prop aligns to consumer intent.

This brings us to the 80:20 rule: 20% of products drive 80% of revenue. The goal of your marketing efforts should be keyword alignment on the products that are driving 80% of your revenue and maximizing those keyword areas of opportunity. If you have any tech that doesn’t either directly assist you in winning the auction or growing organic rank, then it’s a waste.

The algorithm is not static. Consumer needs change and PDP pages can break. So it’s also critical to be adaptive, know the right actions to take and move quickly when needed.

The goal for clients and agencies alike is to be comfortable with those dynamics. Don’t chop and change every week. Don’t panic. Let the machine do its work. The brands that are more patient, and react and adapt to the right data signals tend to do better.

Break down silos

Thinking about all of these things at once might not seem like the role for a media person. Or an agency person. Or a client-side person.

But to succeed in this space, we all need to think commerce-first. Every single person on your marketing team needs to understand what’s happening with branded advertising, keyword searches and product inventory, factoring in the pipeline as well as tentpole moments.

Brands sometimes don’t want to give up that control. But agencies and clients need to start with the mentality to at least have the conversation between media teams and commerce teams, and establish connection points which add value to all parties.

Test, learn, communicate

Winning on the digital shelf means testing and learning on new keyword areas, evolving campaign structures and bid positions as it relates to both media-attributed sales and topline sales. You need to lean into the data that the algorithm gives you. Don’t try to force volume; instead, grow steadily and prove to the algorithm that your product is a reliable seller.

All of that requires trust and constant communication between media, inventory, retail and content/SEO teams. E-commerce is not simply media – and it is much more than shopper marketing.

Your job as a marketer is to win the auction today and stimulate algorithmic growth for tomorrow’s revenue games