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Ethan Giffin on navigating the new normal of ecommerce

Ethan Giffin on navigating the new normal of ecommerce

The philosophy of integrated commerce strategy: "I always felt it was important to have the three legs together: design, development and marketing." - Ethan Giffin

Commerce Famous Podcast, episode 23: Ethan Giffin on the new normal of ecommerce

In this episode of Commerce Famous, host Ben Marks sits down with Ethan Giffin, founder of Groove Commerce, a creative studio specializing in ecommerce engineering and growth marketing based in Baltimore. They delve into the evolution of ecommerce, reflecting on past changes and current trends, such as the impact of GA4 updates and the significance of site speed and SEO for online retailers.

Ethan shares insights into Groove Commerce's holistic approach, emphasizing the integration of design, development, and marketing to optimize ecommerce performance. They also discuss the importance of choosing the right tech stack and the role of agencies in navigating the complex ecommerce landscape for their clients. Furthermore, Ethan introduces his new podcast, Ecommerce Masters, where he interviews leaders in the ecommerce space to uncover their success stories, challenges, and insights into the industry's future. This episode offers valuable perspectives for ecommerce professionals looking to stay ahead in a rapidly evolving digital marketplace.

Listen to the episode right here or subscribe to Commerce Famous on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your preferred podcast player

Staying ahead of industry changes: "We're really trying to get in front of how the platforms are changing, how the partner tools are changing. How are Klaviyo, SearchSpring and others? How is that code affecting what we're creating? So we're really just trying to understand what's going on in the marketplace and trying to get our take on things as early as possible." - Ethan Giffin

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Transcript of Commerce Famous episode 23, an interview with Ethan Giffin

Ben Marks [00:00:38]: Everyone. Welcome to Commerce Famous. This is your host, Ben Marks, and with me today is someone I've known for many, many years, Ethan Giffin. Ethan is the founder of Groove Commerce, an agency serving as a creative studio doing e commerce engineering and growth marketing out of Baltimore. Your bigcommerce partner, Shopify partner, and also a shopware partner. And we've got a host of awards collected under the Groove Commerce banner over the years. But Ethan, welcome to the commerce Famous podcast.

Ethan Giffin [00:01:12]: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. So excited to be here today with you. It has been a long time that we've known each other, so always excited to sit down.

Ben Marks [00:01:21]: Yeah, I remember when I got into the, particularly the Magento world around circa 2008, you all were in that space. And, gosh, I mean, in the early days, I think you all won one of the first partner of the year awards, right?

Ethan Giffin [00:01:36]: Yeah. So we won. We did win. I think it was 2011. We won best new partner, best up and coming partner for Magento at that time, they had just launched the professional edition of the software, and we kind of just made a tear through, through selling those licenses and then onto the enterprise licenses. Also funny, the guy that was the head of the partnerships over at Magento at the time, Scott Dahlgren, called me, he goes, hey, we're looking to bring on, like, kind of a developer as, like, the developer advocate. Are you willing to kind of, you know, give your, your guy up for that? And, you know, at the time, I was probably thinking small, and I was like, no, no, no, no. I can't afford to lose this guy.

Ethan Giffin [00:02:19]: Like, we finally, like, figured this stuff out a bit. And then, you know, you know, nothing happened from there. And then I guess Kevin raised his hand and let's just say the rest is history of, well, I mean, this.

Ben Marks [00:02:33]: Episode is about you, but the history there is actually, you know, circa 20. You know, I think end of 2013, 2014, you know, Magento actually came out with a job wreck that, I mean, it was tailor made for me and Kevin and I spent about two weeks, like, kind of walking around the office, giving each other a side eye. And eventually Kevin just being the amazing guy that he is, he said, you know, we should talk about this. And his take on it was, you know, Ben, it's, it's a tremendous opportunity and I hate to lose you, but, you know, you really need to take this. And boy, was, boy, was he right.

Ethan Giffin [00:03:10]: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, you've done a great job advocating for, you know, from the technical side on platforms for, for quite a while. Now that you're at shopware, you're like doing a fantastic job with that. So, and it creates, you know, just a high level of comfort when, you know, one of our tech leads can kind of talk to somebody that's done it before versus just one of the sales guys or sales folks, you know, so to, so to speak. You know, the crazy partnership people.

Ben Marks [00:03:35]: Yeah, there's, there's a lot to be said for, for, you know, for, for, you know, having skin having, or having, or having had skin in the game and, yeah, just authenticity. I mean. Cause at the end of the day, especially on the technical side of the house, you know, we, the job has to get done and it only gets done if people really understand what they're doing and they understand the software and the environment they're operating in now. So that's actually a good chance for us to jump into, you know, how is it, how does, how does groove, how does groove approach? We'll take just the e commerce bucket of your three service buckets. What is your philosophy as you all approach clients and requirements?

Ethan Giffin [00:04:15]: I think for us, we started out day one into commerce. We've been doing commerce for 17 years. We've worked through multiple different platforms. We've worked through as much as things change, things still stay the same, you know, in terms of that. And so, you know, our kind of philosophy is that we want to build a, we want our clients to learn as much, you know, want our clients to learn from us and we want to learn from them in this process, right, where we want to be very transparent with how we interact. And I always felt it was important to kind of have the three legs, so to speak, to have kind of design, development and marketing together. Because when I was on the client side, I had an SEO agency, I had a development agency, I had a media agency, I had a pay per click agency at the time because that was very separate, had a branding agency and they all hated each other and they all thought each other were full of shit. I got tired of arguing with the dev agency that, hey, we can't have six pages of source code.

Ethan Giffin [00:05:20]: When you view the source of aSp.net view state in this thing because Google's not even get to the actual content part of the page. And so it was very important for us to have all of that kind of under one roof, and we're kind of going through some of that right now in terms of GA four. So there's just a lot of technical challenges in terms of getting the code to fire off. Right. There's just odd kind of gremlins and conflicts that are kind of appearing in the interactions with these theme files. And so it really takes somebody really to kind of be successful to kind of figure out those problems really takes somebody from our marketing team as well as from our development team to kind of work together to get that right. So that's really our philosophy overall. So the creative part of it influences the site speed, the core vitals based upon what's in the creative.

Ethan Giffin [00:06:22]: It affects conversion rate, it can affect SEO, and so how it's built can affect core vitals and SEO and all the things. And so we want to have all of that under one roof. So we're kind of working together as a team when we're doing these builds or we're improving someone's store commerce famous.

Female Narrator [00:06:46]: Is proudly presented by Shopware, the leading open source e commerce platform for mid market and lower enterprise merchants. More than 50,000 clients already process over $25 billion in annual gmv through Shopware. Find out more about Shopware and the best value in e commerce@shopware.com.

Ben Marks [00:07:03]: Dot so it's not even, so, I really, I like the approach, right, because you're not, you know, you have these different service buckets, but they're truly cross disciplinary like you actually are. Every discipline informs the other disciplines, right? So that you, so that you have the same outcome. And it's funny, you know, we really like to talk about the history of, of commerce, and to some degree, that means the history of the web. And when you were talking about just the extensive source, source code behind a page that speaks, it reminded me of in the earlier days, you wanted to make sure that the key content was actually higher up in the page source, irrespective of where it was displaying in the viewport, because that at one point mattered. The algorithms were like, okay, well, whatever content is first is probably going to be important. And then, of course, it changed. Well, I guess we know there's going to be menu content probably up top. And then eventually, of course, the crawlers like Googlebot evolved to actually render pages and JavaScript and actually understand the content as it appears to a human.

Ben Marks [00:08:13]: I mean, that's just one of the many, many changes that we've all, and certainly group commerce as well, have had to navigate over the years. And with the latest you mentioned being Ga four, you know, how is, hey, how are you solving? How do you solve these problems for your customers as they come up?

Ethan Giffin [00:08:29]: I mean, I think we're trying to get ahead of things as much as possible, right? So we're actively, like, working on internal lunch and learns and communications and creating processes around how we handle these things. You know, a lot of times when people come to us with one of those issues, it's often because, quite honestly, their theme code or their code base has not been updated to whatever the platform has provided them, or they might be a year, three years off of where they should be. So some of it is like maybe they hen pack their updates to their themes versus doing a more general one, and they're missing other features and functionality that are missing parts of it. But we're really trying to get in front of this as much as we can and understand how the platforms are changing, how the partner tools are changing. How is Klaviyo, search spring and other folks? How is that code affecting what we're creating? So we're really just trying to understand what's going on in the marketplace and trying to get our take on things as early as possible. So it's just important to us to create. We really want people that understand and know what they're doing to be a part of the agency here.

Ben Marks [00:09:55]: Right. And so that speaks to having a broader perspective, even for someone contributing within a certain service area, having that broader perspective and understanding why. Okay, I don't exactly know the nuts and bolts of how this might impact SEO. That's not my direct job. But I do know that what I do over here has an impact. And being able to be able to formulate and ask those questions, I mean, that's, yeah, that is a necessary approach these days. And when I think about all of the other, the related systems, like you mentioned a couple Klaviyo, search spring and Klaviyo is particularly important for the Shopify world, sort of being experts in what I call subdomains, or I'm calling subdomains for now. I don't mean that to be dismissive of their importance, but each of these vendors, as they have grown throughout the years and we see their solution become more fully fledged, you do start to see an expansion of scope into even what an e commerce platform might do, especially when it comes down to anything involving customer engagement.

Ben Marks [00:11:13]: These platforms like Klaviyo and Dot digital and others, they do more and more, and they handle a lot of the, both the customer data as a platform and also, of course, the customer experience. Do you all have any strategies, or do you pick partners based on how well they play with the ecommerce platforms? Or do you look at the relationship from the other direction?

Ethan Giffin [00:11:41]: So, I mean, we're looking for, and the answer is both. And quite frankly. So we're looking for things that are, I guess, the less friction in implementation or integration, the better, generally in this day and age. We're also looking for products, though, that are the best of breed that help get people to the next level. And so sometimes it's either pushing those platforms to create integrations or them hiring us to create integration for them, which has happened on multiple, multiple occasions. So we're really trying to, the biggest thing is that we need those platforms to perform for our clients and we need them to be unique. And so one of the biggest things, like one of the biggest conversations, especially as there's been some kind of bumpiness in the economy, is really kind of evaluating what's in the overall tech stack for, you know, for a brand. We're having those conversations all the time, you know, many folks, and we love our tech partners.

Ethan Giffin [00:12:46]: So I just want to, like, caveat this with, with that. But often people are kind of app, like, have an app frenzy or they had an app frenzy for a long time, and now it's like, well, wait a minute, you could actually get, you don't get the full thing, but like this other app that you pay for, it gives you 60% to 70% of what this other app you pay for gives you. And quite frankly, you're not even using it. Like, you're using it at a very basic level. So you're not even going any further than 60 or 70% of the functionality within that app. And so really reducing the amount of apps that are plugged into a store, reducing the amount of javascripts that are flowing through, whether it's natively in the code or through tag manager or whatever, it all has weight, right? And so we want to kind of reduce that weight as much as possible. And we try to evaluate that annually, like with, with, with clients where we can. Now sometimes, you know, when we do get, like, issues, it's funny.

Ethan Giffin [00:13:48]: Somebody will come to us and they, oh, you know, I've, I've got, you know, 26 integrations and you're like, what in the hell are you doing, you know, like, you know, with all of that and, you know, they want to keep all of them, but, you know, we, you know, that's definitely something that we want to, we want to look at. Or can it be done natively within the platform? People will pay for things that with just a little bit of extra dev work can be done natively within the theme or the platform. Those are things that we're trying to bring up to folks. Again, we love our tech partners, but in anything there's good products and bad products, and so we're seeing a constriction a little bit.

Ben Marks [00:14:31]: Yeah. And that's not even a universal thing. It can be very situational. Know, a great partner, you know, a great, a great integration for someone's operating environment for one merchant may not be the best solution in that category for another merchant. And I like this idea of, you know, set, you know, keep it simple, you know, to start. You know, let's, let's reduce the surface area, the number of integrations. And I like this idea of checking in. Like, let's, let's look at things a year down the road every year and let's see.

Ben Marks [00:15:02]: Okay, hey, are we getting, are we still solving the same problems? Do we still have? How has our audience changed? And do these solutions meet the need? Have new solutions come in, or have we grown out of this solution? That's a really powerful approach. I assume your customers must like that.

Ethan Giffin [00:15:23]: They really like that. Some of the things that we do, about half of our business is project based, new builds, etcetera. Other half is really kind of our growth, our growth services, and that includes both kind of our complete care managed services offerings as well as our marketing offerings. And so from my point of view, I don't love just the straight dollars for hours things. I think there needs to be value add. So when we're engaged with a brand or a retailer on a monthly basis, we're doing accessibility scans, we're remediating, where when we get into a good rhythm, like our clients just say, go ahead and just remediate. What you find really kind of keeps it to a minimum. You know, at that point, we're doing kind of what we call qbrs with our clients, where we're doing a full 360 review of what their service of each channel and how it's operating.

Ethan Giffin [00:16:20]: Of course, we're doing that to kind of get more embedded with them to help them be more successful or to kind of, you know, or to take over things like SEO or paid media or email. So we're doing that. We've got a custom dashboard that we give our clients access to. And then the cool thing is, this year we actually moved into a new office that shares a elevator shaft with a Marriott. And so we're holding our first customer summit this year in Baltimore. You know, having people come down to Baltimore for two nights and, you know, having guest speakers and other things. So, you know, really trying to figure out, you know, how do we create, like, a real kind of network? How do we create, almost in my mind, I was like, how do we create some kind of cool, like, mastermind group, except we execute on the work as well? You meet cool people, you learn stuff. You get more in depth access with the software partners by being associated with us.

Ethan Giffin [00:17:22]: You meet other cool clients of ours, and then we do the work for you and get you a return on your overall investment.

Ben Marks [00:17:29]: That could be a pretty powerful moment. I've seen that over the years of my career, when you bring customers together and you allow them to network, interact, and talk about, hey, what are the problems that you've encountered in your business? Or it's just saying, like, hey, we had this situation with supply chain or with fulfillment or accountancy, and we didn't really come up. We didn't come up and invariably someone else in the room. Oh, yeah, no, we had that problem and we solved it. And then, you know, anyone else paying attention gets to benefit from some real time, you know, real time and really organic input on product and services. I mean, is, how big is this event going to be in Baltimore?

Ethan Giffin [00:18:10]: I mean, we think it's our first one, so we're hoping somewhere 30 to 40 folks, you know, but we want it to be small enough. And, you know, having the hotel here on site, you know, you kind of come and we've got a bar in our office. We really built our, all of our clients are remote. Like, a huge chunk of our staff is remote at this point. So we really set the office up to be kind of a hub, you know, and it's set up to kind of, it's set up to produce video content. This is our video studio that, you can't see this if you're on the pod, but I'm sitting in our in house video studio here. We've got lots of ways to kind of plug in with this thing. And so we did all that purposefully when we moved offices to be able to take advantage of that.

Ethan Giffin [00:18:56]: We've got all of that in house. It's really how we think differently about things. People are also really looking for Shopware is a very, very extensive software product. There's a huge amount of features and functionality in there. It takes a long time to figure all of that out. People are really looking to us to be experts in that. And so this allows us to spend time and think about and understand all the things like what does every button do? How do we work with it? And it's a big complaint that we get when we're talking to new prospects of, like, I just don't, I feel like I'm way behind the curve or I feel lost with all the stuff happening here. And so it's like, all right, we got you, you know, like, what's important to you and figure out how to train them and keep them up to date.

Ethan Giffin [00:19:49]: So we really are actively trying to just, again, stay ahead of the curve of what's happening.

Ben Marks [00:19:54]: And that's one of the things that I've said for a long time, is.

Ethan Giffin [00:19:58]: That.

Ben Marks [00:20:01]: The best agencies are the ones who are the ones who, regardless of the platforms that they use to solve problems, know enough to be able to evaluate the customer requirements and pick the right solution for that customers, basically the problems that they're solving today, and then also the problems for where they want to grow in the future. And it really is, I think, a big secret in our, you know, in our industry, especially as you get outside of the pure SaaS players, is that without, you know, without the, without being able to the merchant, like you said, they, they feel, they feel lost, they feel behind the curve. But it's really, it's on the platforms to be building the right products and service and positioning to help these customers start to get oriented and make sense of things. But really it comes down to the agencies. The agencies are the ones that are really, even for the platforms very often can be maybe our most important customer because you take what we do and actually help find the right customers and the right situations to apply that. And that has, I think that has all kinds of effects done well or done poorly on the industry as a whole. I'm a big fan of this holistic view where there are plenty of solutions, there are plenty of great people to tailor these solutions. So we really should have, we should be living in a situation where every merchant is on the best platform for them and with the right integrations and the right customizations, because the better we are at helping them execute their business, then the better it is really for the industry as a whole.

Ben Marks [00:21:56]: It sounds like you all subscribe to at least part of that philosophy.

Ethan Giffin [00:22:02]: We do. We really want to pick, you know, I'm, you know, I'm pretty easy to read. I'm transparent. I say what I feel oftentimes to my own detriment. But, you know, like, I remember being on stage at the old Irce conference, you know, it's changed the name a bunch of times at this point, but with a client and he basically says they're not afraid to tell me when I'm crazy, you know. And so we really try to be transparent and be agnostic in terms of platforms and kind of agenda. With all that, we want to pick the right solution for the brand or retailer to be able to succeed because if we do that, their longevity with us is so much better. Then back to your point about partnerships.

Ethan Giffin [00:22:53]: Literally every major platform that we have partnerships with have very specific stats about how the churn is so much lower for accounts that have an agency attached for onboarding and ongoing kind of support with that, right? Because they're getting the care and feeding that they need to be able to be successful.

Ben Marks [00:23:17]: And then talking about success is not just about what's going on today. It's also about what we see, what we see going on in the near future and then in the long term, I mean, we can use ga four again. That was an update. Thankfully, that was not just sprung on us overnight like a typical algorithm change, but something that we could all prepare for. Now, those are things that are broadcasted, but are there any things that you'd want to draw attention to coming in the next rest of 2024 or any broader trend that you see happening over the next couple of years?

Ethan Giffin [00:23:54]: I mean, I think we're really focusing on things like site speed, conversion rate. They're all kind of intertwined. I think SEO is very important. I think there's going to be some shifts with that. But I think as long as people are looking for things, making sure that your site appears the way it should for search is always going to be. People have long said SEO is dead. I don't buy that by any sense of the imagination. Has it changed? Has it shifted? Has it moved? Did it start with Northern Light and move to Yahoo and then go two and then eventually Google? And is Amazon a part of that now? And TikTok and it's just kind of changed, right? It's just kind of changed.

Ethan Giffin [00:24:35]: So those are things that we're thinking about. How do we move people up the steps, so to speak? How do we kind of get them to the next kind of step of their evolution? You know, whether that may be, you know, you know, whether that may be revenue wise or order wise or, you know, whatever that is, it may be kind of bringing product, like some, some product manufacturing in house to, like, create their own products that they sell. Like, we want to assist with all of those types of things in terms of helping to market them and create sales, you know, with them. So we're really trying to be engaged with our clients, ask more questions. We have clients that are getting acquired. We have clients that are acquiring. And so we've got to ask a lot of questions to be able to support.

Ben Marks [00:25:30]: That's a great answer, I guess. Before we close out here, I wanted to, you just launched the ecommerce Masters podcast, and with a career like yours, you must have plenty of people that you. That you're having on and that you have invited. Can you tell us about how that's going?

Ethan Giffin [00:25:47]: Yeah, it's going great. And so we've got about a half dozen episodes in the can. We started a podcast called e commerce Masters. It's where I am interviewing brand and the heads of brands and retailers. So we're looking for kind of c level folks, founders if possible, but also in bigger organizations that might be a vp of e commerce. We're really looking to kind of get into their stories, understand how they've kind of grown their careers, how did they evolve the sales within their stores? What are the mistakes that they've made? What are the things that kind of keep them up at night? And it's been great so far. We really are, you know, quite honestly, I don't know why I put off doing a podcast for so long. I was on the radio as a, you know, as a young kid.

Ethan Giffin [00:26:39]: I had a dj company for a long time. I had a tv show for a bit in the nineties that was on kind of regional television. And I'm like, why the heck didn't I do this kind of sooner? So we're actively looking for guests. If you're kind of a brand founder or if you're a retailer of a sea level, vp level or above, and we're looking for kind of merchants that are 10 million gmv or higher, and interviewing you, it takes about an hour of your time. And it's been a great way for us to talk to people and learn things from that. And everybody has a different story. Everybody has a different path or evolution. I'm really excited for what we've gotten so far.

Ethan Giffin [00:27:33]: We're actually in the process of launching a second podcast called the e commerce marketer that's going to be more focused on real deep dives into both platforms and tools and SaaS tools that plug into platforms. We're looking to get into a real demo where we've got some lower level tips and tricks, but also some real high level tips and tricks so that we can help people grow their minds a bit with their marketing strategies as well. We're going to be having some roundtables and other things, so we built this video studio in our new office to be able to support all of that. And so we're, like, chomping away at creating content.

Ben Marks [00:28:18]: Man, that's. Congratulations on e commerce masters. And then looking forward to. Looking forward to some deeper dive into some of these dark and maybe semi dark corners where the integrations meet, and you get down into the details of really directly where the web hooks connect. All right. You can coin that term, I think. Well, even that should be a dating site, right?

Ethan Giffin [00:28:47]: Like, you know, where the web hooks connect.

Ben Marks [00:28:51]: Dating. Dating for. Dating for nerds. Love it. Yes, I say that with. With full appreciation that I am still kind of a nerd. Me, too. Well, Ethan, you know, it's been, you know, it's a pleasure once again to cross paths with you here, and I'm sure I'll see you, probably see you at another trade show at some point out in the world.

Ben Marks [00:29:12]: Best wishes to you and everyone in Baltimore. I guess traffic has become a little more complicated. You know, it's. I'm glad the tragedy wasn't worse. I'm sorry for the tragedy that it was, but I know if I know anything about Baltimore, which is a fantastic city, everyone, food and culture and everything, Baltimore will pull through.

Ethan Giffin [00:29:33]: Yeah, we'll pull through. And, yes, it's a crazy, crazy thing. We're, you know, very sad for the folks that lost our lives with the bridge, but we, you know, we'll get through this and kind of get on the other side of it. So thank you for your comments and also thank you for. For having me on the show. I really appreciate it when you asked me.

Ben Marks [00:29:53]: Well, it's a pleasure to have a. An industry veteran on anytime. So, Ethan, I'll see you soon, man. Take care.

Ethan Giffin [00:30:00]: I'll see you. Bye.

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