Much like shoppers expect a particular size of diaper to be on the shelf at their local store, they expect to see the diaper they want in the digital world along with more packaging options, detailed information about the product and videos.“The digital shelf allows brands to connect with shoppers in a more meaningful way through engaging content, direct dialogue and a repository of relevant information,” says Evana Oli, manager of e-commerce and digital shopper marketing at Georgia-Pacific. “It levels the playing field of brands that may not have a strong presence in brick-and-mortar.”There is a lot of work that goes into getting a brand’s product and information onto a virtual shelf to be viewed over e-commerce platforms, mobile apps and more. Consider the elements required for the “digital shelf” – product assortment, multiple images of a product, videos, descriptions, ingredients, instructions, ratings, reviews, product availability, pricing and promotions. Furthermore, there are the issues of paid search terms, rankings, tapping into a platform’s subscription service or coupon programs, and all of the ways of driving a shopper to the digital shelf.And the digital shelf isn’t limited to online purchases. Leslie Danford, senior national account manager of e-commerce at spirits manufacturer Beam Suntory, says around 40% of consumers are researching the company’s products online before or during a visit to a brick-and-mortar store for purchase.To uncover the challenges brands face when managing the increasingly important digital shelf, Shopper Marketing edited a virtual conversation with various digital brains.How hard is it for brands to adapt to so many different digital shelves (e.g., pure-play e-commerce sites, retailer dot-com sites, mobile apps)? Nicole Vinson: Today, there is no standard item “setup form” across retailers, so while the information may be the same, the way it needs to be delivered varies from retailer to retailer. There are also nuances when it comes to elements like ratings and reviews and enhanced content integration. Amazon, for example, does not take syndicated ratings and reviews. Amazon also requires brands to integrate enhanced content into Amazon Central, whereas other retailers partner with syndication partners like WebCollage.Oli: Leveraging tools like WebCollage help streamline the process, however there is still a lot of manual work involved.Danford: While uniformity would of course be nice in terms of scaling our efforts, we appreciate that each retailer has a unique audience and value proposition, and we work to tailor the format of our brand and product information to account for that.Vinson: Assortment is a whole other beast, as it’s not just about what packs are sold, but also about managing in-stocks and sell-through. Retailers have multiple fulfillment models requiring different assortments for each platform within their ecosystem.Keith Anderson: Some retailers like Amazon have invested in automation and self-service systems that suppliers can use to refresh content, plan and execute promotions, analyze sales, and more. But most online retailers still have primarily manual ways of working. The good news is that DAM (digital asset management) platforms are emerging.Explain DAM (generally, internal systems for storing and maintaining digital assets) vs. product information management, or PIM (systems that effectively deliver the content to other parties).Anderson: PIM systems typically predate DAMs and contain hundreds, if not thousands, of data points about every aspect of individual products, including ingredients and parts, suppliers, costs, weights and measures, and anything else you can think of. These systems can be old, with now-laughable limits on character counts in fields like “product name.”Vinson: DAMs house assets well beyond product details and have a user interface overlay with a variety of tools to manage, search, filter, distribute and control assets. DAMs tend to be a little less granular on associated meta-data than a PIM, but with an advanced DAM, we have seen fairly robust options.Courtney Acuff: We’d say that we are both a PIM and a DAM. ItemMaster is first and foremost a PIM but also a DAM in that our platform is capable of housing branded content – assets – to live alongside the product record. We’re different though in that our platform creates, manages and distributes.Oli: We use a DAM platform to manage our content. Indexing content and maintaining its integrity is an ongoing process that requires dedicated resourcing and expertise.Anderson: There are many complexities involved in reconciling and synchronizing data and content between PIMs, DAMs and retailers’ systems. I think there’s a growing chorus among retailers, suppliers, standards bodies and solution providers that this area must be a priority for the industry, and it will require collaboration from all stakeholders.Acuff: PIMs and DAMs are only as good as the data within them and we do believe that ItemMaster has an advantage in helping CPGs ensure their product records are consistent and of high quality. Most retailers today cobble together brand content to power their needs and almost all CPGs suffer from outdated product information and old imagery.In what ways do product assortment, packaging and hard conversions vs. soft conversions present challenges in e-commerce? Acuff: The food and beverage industry, an $800 billion market, is about to face significant change in 2018 with the new FDA nutrition label changes. This is going to create a huge volume of new packaging that hits the market. It’s imperative that consumers shopping in digital environments are able to see and read for themselves the new serving size or see the new required vitamins or view the new category of “added sugar.”Oli: When there are packaging changes and soft conversions, it is important to clearly state to shoppers what the expected experience would be and be prepared to address any complaints that may arise.Vinson: Rolling out hard conversions means setting up a new item with the retailer. New items will need all new content. New product launches have no sales history, page traffic or established ratings and reviews to help organically move the product up in natural search.Danford: We’ve taken a multipronged approach to this challenge: First, we strive to embed e-commerce into internal processes to ensure that relevant product, packaging or other changes are captured and dispersed. However, formal processes can’t account for every possible scenario, so we also work to maintain strong cross-functional relationships to ensure informal lines of communication remain open. Lastly, we are partnering with key external vendors in order to leverage their networks and scale dissemination of digital information.How important are ratings and reviews?Anderson: Profoundly important. They influence search position at Amazon and some other retailers, and they are among the most trusted sources of product information with impacts on sales and conversion.Vinson: Ratings and reviews are mission critical to the digital shelf. Brands should establish them by looking at all the opportunities across paid, owned and earned channels.Danford: We are investing in capabilities to capture consumers’ opinions wherever it is most convenient for them to share. This could be on our brand or product websites, retailer websites, at events, in response to email communications or through a number of other touchpoints.Oli: They speak more loudly and clearly for a brand than owned content, as shoppers prefer and trust the opinions of fellow shoppers. It is important that brands constantly monitor reviews and directly engage with shoppers wherever possible by responding to these reviews.Anderson: A first priority should be to ensure that none of your products have zero reviews. They won’t rank favorably in search, and few shoppers are brave enough to be the guinea pig. “Review velocity” is a measure of the pace at which reviews are being added to a product. Our analytics suggest that it’s more effective to run a sustained, steady campaign encouraging happy shoppers to leave reviews than a single “shock and awe” campaign that yields a huge spike followed by a precipitous drop.Are any retailers out there easier to work with than others?Vinson: Walmart is on the cutting edge of allowing multiple inflows of e-commerce content onto its platform. Both the API and the contract with WebCollage provide brands multiple access points to add content to product pages on Walmart.com.Anderson: Retailers that directly provide suppliers tools and support an ecosystem of sophisticated technologies in areas like analytics and content management position their suppliers to outperform.Vinson: Amazon has set the standard for reliable trustworthy product information. However, Amazon’s platform can be challenging and restricted when it comes to managing the shelf, especially if a self-service option is not available and you are required to request help from customer service.Acuff: Everyone is different. That is just a simple fact about the industry. The differences we encounter with distribution partners is helping to push us to create flexible solutions and services which we think betters the marketplace overall.