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Delivering a QoE Advantage this Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Online Holiday Shopping Season

by Mahmood Ali November 27, 2019

Subbu Varadarajan

3Qs with Subbu Varadarajan, CPO and Founder, Zycada

Q: What key capabilities must today’s eCommerce sites deliver to excel during the online shopping season? What challenges must they meet to get them there?

You smash sales records when you truly understand the relationship between your site, your customer’s quality of experience (QoE) - primarily driven by your site’s responsiveness - and revenue. You start by asking: “Am I really looking at this from the perspective of the user?” All things being equal, your site’s performance can make or break users’ perception of your brand.

Today’s users have unconscious expectations that are shaped by category leaders like Walmart, Amazon, and eBay. In order to delight customers, your site has to be ultra-responsive, but what does that really mean? If a page normally responds in 1 second, what happens when you reduce that by 10x to under 100 milliseconds? Our data, collected over 120 billion transactions, shows that rapid response times increase engagement by 40 percent! Imagine that: boosting an online shopper’s engagement by 40 percent without touching prices.

Most sites today use content delivery networks (CDNs) that are great at delivering static content, i.e., content like product images that are stored in cache. However, we’ve found that 80 percent of site searches are unique — so the search results are dynamic content that can’t be cached. This is a pivotal moment since searches signal huge buyer intent. To display the results, the site must reactively compute and deliver products for that individual search. New investment in advanced technology is needed to achieve proactivity — having results ready before the user even searches — to satisfy the intent and provide a winning quality of experience (QoE).

And let’s not forget the key point here: the stakes are extremely high during the holidays! Cyber Monday traffic can be 10x the standard traffic volume, all 10 of the top 10 online sales days by volume and dollars occur between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, and holiday online revenues typically crush those of the prior three quarters combined. Online holiday shoppers are ready to buy, but they expect an experience on par with the top technology companies. If your site isn’t snappy, they will spend their money elsewhere.

Q: How does the rise of mCommerce introduce new challenges to sellers online?

The shift to mobile commerce is a huge one, and online sellers need to do much more than create a responsive design. Mobile is a much more personal medium, and the way users interact with their devices is a completely new paradigm. eCommerce operators have a tremendous opportunity to hyper-personalize the shopping experience. The mobile device is a proxy for the actual end user, and commerce sites need to take this into account.

Since mobile is so personal, the onus is really on the online brand to deliver an amazing experience. If your mobile app is not performing, the user thinks your brand is not performing.

Hyper-personalizing the customer experience shows you care. But that implies an additional burden on your compute resources, which directly affects responsiveness. We refer to the compute time at the origin as “first mile” latency. Mobile platforms also present “last mile” challenges – issues in the final leg of transmission between the CDN and user. The last mile is plagued by transient problems, such as packet loss, that are unpredictable and unavoidable. Wireless devices, even those on WiFi, encounter these problems more frequently.

Even 2% packet loss in the last mile of delivery, which sounds minuscule, can introduce latency that is fatal to completing a mobile transaction. And just like eCommerce, mCommerce is competing with user expectations shaped by the biggest names in tech. If your customer is used to streaming Netflix on her phone, don’t expect her to tolerate hiccups when trying to make holiday purchases on your site. Whatever’s harming the experience isn’t your fault, but it’s still your problem.

At Zycada, we’ve had great success helping eCommerce brands deliver fast, secure mobile experiences to their shoppers across the first, middle, and last mile. For now, let me just reiterate that mCommerce is massive and on the way to eclipsing eCommerce. Investing in optimizing the mobile experience creates outsize business value. A happy user is a loyal user.

Q: You’ve talked a lot about speed and performance impacting the online holiday shopping experience. What about security?

Security is a must have for any online business but maintaining it can be particularly challenging during the holidays when site traffic is so high. High volume does bring with it higher vulnerability, and that needs to be a front-and-center concern for every online retailer this holiday shopping season.

CDNs can ably fend off cyber-attacks, except when such attacks are on non-cacheable content, in which case they may proceed all the way to the origin. Unfortunately, hackers are finding ever-increasing ways to breeze through the CDN layer to the first mile.

In response, commerce providers increasingly must build perimeter defenses around the first mile. And while sellers typically ensure they have enough capacity to handle the surge in legitimate online holiday traffic, they also need to consciously choose to have enough headroom to handle attacks.

Commerce vendors should train their staff to quickly respond to attacks by working closely with CDNs and other security vendors. This will enable them to quarantine bad traffic without causing disruptions to the real end users.

AI plays a growing role in security as well. While botnets have earned a bad reputation as a source of devastating attacks, a white-hat botnet can flip the script and play defense against malicious actors. We’re entering a whole new world — one where it takes a bot to catch a bot.