As I’ve just completed another VP of Ecommerce search, I think back about the caliber of the candidates I had the pleasure of working with. They were absolutely all top notch. With each ecommerce leader placement I make, the quality of talent just keeps getting stronger and stronger. Ecommerce has come a long way in a short period of time. What began as a pioneering role in the embryonic world of online commerce some 15 years ago is now a position that sits at the executive meeting room table with the senior most strategic decision makers of an organization. I’m hard pressed to think of any other major business function that has ever risen to such prominence so quickly.
Key Skills of an Ecommerce Leader
The ecommerce leader is the chief steward of the organization’s electronic storefront (transactional website). Their goal is to drive new traffic, create and deliver an online experience that will endear users to the brand, and turn visitors into customers while maximizing overall profitability of the online business. The responsibilities of the ecommerce “czar” are wide ranging, including strategy, website development, user experience, security, site maintenance, analytics, operations, technology, and oversight of third party service providers. The ecommerce leader also acts as a sort of internal “diplomat” to rally other operations of the company behind the ecommerce side of the business. Ecommerce is big and getting bigger. Forrester Research predicts online sales will account for one of out every ten dollars of overall consumer spending by the year 2016. I guess that’s why they call it ecommerce: We know what the “e” is for, but at the end of the day, it’s all about commerce and driving the business.
The best ecommerce candidates I know couple marketing wisdom with technical know-how – ecommerce managers work closely with website developers and oversee the selection of ecommerce platforms, online payment systems, authentication, security, and an array of other technologies required to operate a web-based business. But besides the technical skills, what else does it take to be an effective ecommerce chief?
Having a Strategic Mindset. The ecommerce leader holds the company’s ecommerce vision. He or she sees long-term market potential and business opportunities. They’re expert at employing research and customer data to drive the business. They think “beyond the margin, ” as I like to call it. Being strategically adept is one of those attributes that comes only with experience. It’s what truly separates the major leaguers from the under-studies. You want concrete examples from your candidates that demonstrate these competencies.
Strong Aptitude for Data and Analytics. I talk a lot about this in my writings, so I won’t dwell on it much further here. Suffice it to say that online marketing is more about analyzing test results and less about gut instinct. In ecommerce, you can measure what works and what doesn’t, sometimes almost instantaneously. Your ecommerce candidate must be highly adept at crunching and interpreting data.
Collaboration/Relationship Making/Influence Maker. Like practically every other job in the realm of digital marketing, ecommerce is ostensibly a team sport. Ecommerce leaders interact with practically all major departments within the business. They also work with many different outside vendors. Cross-collaboration and interpersonal skills are a key part of the job. It’s essential to understand the candidate’s ability to work effectively with teams ranging from product marketing to sales, from finance to customer service, plus external partners. That’s one of the most important areas I probe when conducting reference checks for these candidates. In many instances, the ecommerce chief also plays the role of “change agent”, leading the company through a transformational shift from legacy marketing into online commerce. In those environments, forging cross-functional relationships is mission critical.
Operational and Project Management Expertise. What we’re NOT describing here are the pure technologists. Leave that to the coders and hackers. I believe that the best ecommerce managers are a blend of marketing and technology, the marketing techologists as they’re often called. To them, technology is a means to an end- converting visitors into paying customers. Choosing the right technologies and projecting the vision and mission of an online business is important, but at the end of the day you want an ecommerce leader who brings a proven track record of driving results. That’s how business leaders will measure the ecommerce leader’s success. At the root, ecommerce leaders need a deep understanding of ecommerce metrics including conversion, AOV (average order value), traffic, shipping and so on. . And of course, this includes their ability to attract, hire and retain strong talent, and show demonstrative management and leadership skills (assuming it’s a department of more than one).
Ask about their experience juggling multiple and concurrent projects including the following:
• Desktop and mobile website development
• Digital content
• Online merchandising and launching new products
• Brand marketing
• Social media
•Also, confirm their budgeting and P and L experience for positions that are responsible for revenue rather than only operations .
The ecommerce manager needs to be able to describe the consumer’s purchase path on the website, and how to optimize that navigation. Also, make sure they’re well-schooled in cross-selling and upselling. Ask how they have tracked the performance of campaigns on various platforms and acted on those results to optimize consumer engagement and create differential brand experiences.
As for technical skills, this is not an all-inclusive list, but I look for candidates who have familiarity with the following:
• Web Analytics tools
• Strong knowledge of search engine marketing, and all of its variations
• Social media analytics tools
• Ecommerce platforms like Magento, Shopify or Demandware
• Online advertising tools such as Google Adwords, Google Product Listing Ads (PLA’s) and display ads
• Experience working with the major social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google
• Experience with Vine, Instagram and Pinterest can be a “nice-to-have”
Remember: At the end of the day, the ROI you receive from your investment in digital marketing and ecommerce will depend on the caliber of the people you hire.
The Special Importance of Communication Skills
I recently returned from a digital media marketing conference at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where I had the distinct pleasure of sitting on panel with a group of distinguished digital marketing leaders from across the country. In the audience were professors and other instructors from colleges and universities throughout the midwest. The topic: How to keep marketing curricula relevant in the digital age. When I studied marketing many years ago, we learned about the Four P’s- Product, Price, Place (distribution) and Promotion. There was a heavy emphasis on brand advertising (in those days even direct response was in its infancy). But as we know, digital technology has represented a sea change in how brands now go to market, and just when you think you have a handle on it here comes another game changer. Technology that was trendy yesterday may not be in vogue today. It’s difficult enough to stay on top of these changes if you’re a professional marketer, let alone if you’re in the world of academia. The Wall Street Journal recently published a couple of articles about these issues being faced by business schools across the nation. Among those mentioned most: Digital marketing communication skills.
We shared our ideas about some of the gaps we’re seeing in recent graduates when it comes to digital marketing communication skills, and many on the panel agreed that students often lack the ability to effectively communicate in the modern business environment, particularly those with more technical and quantitative degrees. Many companies today are still looking at data the same way they were 10 years ago, and as a result, analysts can find themselves facing skeptical audiences when it comes to presenting findings to senior management. The best in this field are more than just data geeks: They can present scenarios, backed by data and interpretation, that make the case for less investment, more investment, a change in strategy, etc., and they do it in a way that math-a-phones understand. No one expects someone fresh out of school to be an expert presenter, but the importance of ecommerce and digital marketing communication skills, written as well as oral, cannot be overstated. You will hear that from ANY ecommerce leader you speak with.
I look for excellent digital marketing communication skills in all of my candidates.
Writing an Effective Ecommerce Leader Job Description
It’s a rare hiring manager who doesn’t tell me that he or she wants the best and the brightest candidate available for their open positions. Of course. No one wants to settle for second banana.
Problem is, traditional digital marketing position descriptions with their shopping list of required qualifications and specific platform “must haves” can actually work against you.
Case in point: A recent conversation I had with a forward thinking client who said something I usually don’t hear. “Don’t worry about the ecommerce leader candidate checking all the checkboxes on the job description,” she explained. “That was written by HR. Instead, go find me the best athlete who wants to win the world series, and we’ll deploy them where they’ll have the biggest impact on the business.”
The idea of an NFL draft-like interviewing process is very appealing.
My best candidates don’t always fit into cookie-cutter type molds. Round pegs in round holes? Hardly. Many are multi-dimensional.
When you think about it, identifying good talent in digital marketing is kind of like trying to look inside the window of a speeding car. Specific skills are quickly outpaced by the speed of change. Markets change, technologies emerge and strategies must quickly shift. It helps that the particular employer I just referenced administers an online test to measure cognitive ability, a key characteristic of high achievers.
Many experts will tell you that learning new skills is the key to success in digital marketing and ecommerce, and believe me, I can share from my personal experience that “A” players are constantly striving to stretch themselves.. Put another way, they’ll figure what to do when you don’t know what to do. Amit Nagpal does a good job summarizing the importance of continuous learning. You rarely find “desire for continuous learning” listed on most digital marketing job descriptions, but between the lines, believe me, it’s there.
Hire the Best Ecommerce Leader Candidate, Not the Best Applicant
If you’re an employer, look for the best digital athlete and not just the best applicant who fits the requirements.
Digital marketing job descriptions that declare you “must have” this and you “must have” that will get you just that: Everything you MUST have RIGHT NOW. Problem is, what you must have today could be outdated in six months.
Try inserting something like this in your next JD:
Candidates who have a strong passion for solving problems and a hunger to learn and blaze new trails will thrive in our environment.
Now THAT sounds like a cool gig!
Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC, is one of the nation’s preeminent and veteran executive recruiters in ecommerce, digital and multichannel marketing, and CRM. Jerry is the “voice” of best practices in the recruitment and hiring of marketing professionals and is the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing,” on Amazon. He also participates in many leading digital marketing and ecommerce conferences. Jerry has been recruiting and placing marketing professionals for more than 28 years. Check out Jerry’s other insights on the Thought Leadership section of the Bernhart Associates website.