E-commerce is not ‘The Field of Dreams’, says IIA CEO Joan Mulvihill

28 Jun 2016

The tech industry has been getting SME engagement on e-commerce wrong the entire time, warns Irish Internet Association CEO Joan Mulvihill

E-commerce is not ‘The Field of Dreams’ and if you simply build a web platform there is no guarantee the customers will come, Irish Internet Association CEO Joan Mulvihill has warned, and she believes a new approach is needed.

As the Irish Internet Association (IIA) edges one year closer to its 20th anniversary, the organisation’s CEO Joan Mulvhill has pinpointed the precise reason why Irish businesses are slow to adopt e-commerce: every business is different.

Mulvihill, who has been CEO of the organisation for the past seven years, is gathering resources to fix an anomaly that the vast armies of web design firms, hosting providers, digital marketing experts, legal advisers and payment service providers haven’t been able to fix.

Future Human

Over the years, there have been all kinds of initiatives ranging from business online vouchers, seminars and training events, you name it.

‘This is not The Field of Dreams where if you build it they will come. And digital marketing based on buying lots of ads won’t cut it either’

And yet, every year, struggling retailers in towns up and down Ireland, and across Europe too, are being reminded how much custom is shifting online. In Ireland’s case, the value of the internet economy is forecast to grow to €21.1bn by 2020 from which 60pc will come from consumer spending. And yet, according to figures last year from the IEDR, 91pc of Irish SMEs can’t process any sales online.

Mulvihill, who hails from a consultancy background where she used to advise family businesses, said that there is a gap between the tech industry’s understanding of what SMEs need and what SMEs themselves know: the key to retail is in the detail.

The main barrier to e-commerce in Ireland

“The issue, the main barrier, is really simple.  One size does not fit all,” explained Mulvihill. “Any initiative that does not acknowledge that fundamental understanding of retail is never going to really work. For sure, it will mean more businesses with websites but that’s a crude and unenlightening metric. Just building a website won’t cut it.

“This is not The Field of Dreams where if you build it they will come. And digital marketing based on buying lots of ads won’t cut it either. Even if you can get them to come to your site you need to be able to deliver value to the customer.

“Retail is detail and consumer retail is a tough and competitive industry that takes no prisoners. Customers have more choice than ever before so businesses investing in online sales need to make sure that their investment is going to pay off.

‘The role of the IIA is still is unique because of the ‘why’ of its existence’

“The customer proposition, the product, the average basket size, the perishability/fragility/weight and price of the product all contribute to the optimal e-commerce strategy for a business. It’s about building the right website, choosing the right platform, choosing the right payments solution, choosing the right fulfilment partner, choosing the right digital marketing strategy, all of which depends on the level of experience, resources and skills available to the retailer.

“The problem has been staring us in the face. People know that they should be selling online but no one has really told them how. It involves having a real understanding of retail, in-depth knowledge of the technology and a strategic interest and investment in driving e-commerce growth. It takes time, hard work and a commitment to understanding the retailer.”

Mulvihill said that the IIA itself has decided to bite the bullet by assembling a working group of retailers in Ireland that are successfully selling online.

By crowd-pooling their expertise, it is hoped they can help their fellow business owners understand their requirements and cut through the waffle and babble the tech industry routinely throws at business owners who just want to get on with it.

The working group has built an online diagnostic tool that the IIA will be launching this summer, which will allow any business to identify the best-fit e-commerce strategy for them because one size does not fit all.

Mulvihill said that this will be free for everyone to use. The business owners will be able, through a process of selections and filters, to identify the e-commerce strategy blueprint that is best for them.

“In the end, it was about being practical and building something that will make a lasting difference. This has been built for everyone for the long haul. It took a huge amount of work but if you want to deliver real change then it’s not going to be easy.

“The ‘why’ of the IIA for everything that we do is rooted in the fact that we are an entirely independent, all-island, not-for-profit organisation. This means that we are uniquely motivated to develop sustainable projects  and deliver valuable content that is brand agnostic and free for everyone. That is why we exist. We cannot do this without the support of our members and sponsors.

“When we launch this summer it will be just the start. We want businesses everywhere to use it. We will be going all over the country running (free) events to meet with businesses and running workshops showing them how to get the most from it, providing advice and sharing expertise and case studies. We will be updating the content and encouraging others to share their experiences and top tips.”

20 years of the IIA

I attended my first Irish Internet Association meeting in the basement of the Henry Grattan bar on Baggot Street at some time in 1996 and, while I’m not sure it was the very first IIA event, the attitude, curiosity, enthusiasm and conviction of its early members impressed me from the start.

Mulvihill credits her predecessors for sowing the seeds, with an important legacy of an association that reached across all industries and deeper, to citizen-level engagement.

Long before Dublin became a kind of a mecca for tech conferences, the IIA was the only organisation beating that drum

“Suddenly there was a conference a month, then a conference a week. Private colleges were delivering education and companies were delivering training directly to their customers. For sure, it had a huge impact on our income but, on balance, it was something to be proud of. It is a measure of our success as the originators of the ecosystem. It was all down to my amazing predecessors who had sown the seeds for the vibrant ecosystem we have now.”

Even though the ecosystem has changed, Mulvihill says the IIA’s role matters more than ever.

“The role of the IIA is still unique because of the ‘why’ of its existence. When you think about it, the term not-for-profit is a bit ridiculous. It’s like saying ‘this is what we don’t do’ which isn’t really a description of anything. But look again. To be not-for-profit means that we exist for some other reason. We run events and training like others but we do them for a very different reason. We exist to make Ireland a leading web-enabled economy.

“Every time someone attends an IIA event, does our diploma in digital marketing, books a seat at the awards dinner, pays a membership subscription or becomes a sponsor, they are making a contribution. It could be to a white paper, the Digital Marketing Toolshed, the Cloud Computing Working Group. which developed the NSAI Swift10, the e-commerce working group that has built the diagnostic tool, the policy submissions on the skills shortage and open data, the representation of their industry on the ICT Skills TaskForce, the public consultation submission on the National Digital Strategy. And why do we do these things?

“We do these things to make Ireland a leading web-enabled economy.”

Recognising the trailblazers


Launching the 2016 Net Visionary Awards were IEDR CEO David Curtin and IIA CEO Joan Mulvhill

The Dot IE Net Visionary Awards will take place on 7 October at the RDS Concert Hall and are expected to attract a host of exciting newcomers that will join the industry’s IIA Hall of Fame, which was launched last year. Entries are open and it’ free to enter at www.netvisionary.ie

Mulvihill said the awards have changed with the times.

“In the last few years, we have succeeded in reaching wider and deeper because we know that technology is for everyone.  The awards categories are testament to that.  We choose categories based on key messages that we want to promote – so look at the categories and you will see what we see, that technology is everyone; agriculture and food, medical and health, for retailers, for educators.

“And then look at our Hall of Fame and see what we see. These people were not just selected for what they achieved but rather for what they contributed and in looking at their contributions you can see that they share the same ‘why’ as the IIA.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years