This week on our featured podcast, Bricks to Clicks, Content Analytics founder, author, and CEO David Feinleib sits down with Ram Rampalli, Senior Director and Chief Content Evangelist at Walmart Global eCommerce. Ram has a complex and vital role at Walmart, and during his tenure, he has increased content across the retail giant’s website 20-fold. His primary focus is strengthening the product catalog, and, in his words: “If you have a great catalog then obviously search becomes a lot easier. Whether you're searching for a product or you're browsing for the product, you can identify the product that you're looking for very quickly.”
The two dig deep into all areas of online retail, but especially the issues surrounding content quality and discoverability. All content managers know the importance of good content, but very few professionals have to manage a content catalog of this scope and his insights are eye-opening for any retailer.
“Content is very critical in the future of retail and it's important that brands start treating content as a first-class entity and pay more emphasis, rather than content being a support entity to facilitate a business process.”
Ram Rampalli, Senior Director and Chief Content Evangelist, Walmart Global eCommerce
Announcer: This is "Bricks to Clicks," a podcast presented by Content Analytics and hosted by author, CEO, and entrepreneur David Feinleib.
David: Welcome back to Bricks to Clicks. My guest today is Ram Rampalli, Senior Director and Chief Content Evangelist at Walmart Global eCommerce. Ram co-founded the Walmart labs catalog and content project and has helped increase content more than 20 times since the project's inception. Prior to Walmart e-commerce, Ram was the Senior Product Manager at eBay. Ram, welcome to the show.
Ram: Thank you, David. It's a pleasure.
David: Please tell us a little about your role here at Walmart eCommerce.
Ram: Well, like you said in your introduction, my role is to basically focus on building the product catalog. And as everyone understands, customers, sales, and products are the three key vertices of retail. You should know who comes to your store. You should know what they buy. When they buy. Where they buy. How much do they pay, and so on. And then you should also know the details about the product at an intrinsic level. And our mission here is to create this holistic product catalog which is deep enough so that we can understand, for example, it's better for me to know that Dave has come to buy a smartphone as opposed to Dave has come to buy a phone. But at the same time, it's ideal or the best for me to know that, hey, Dave has come to my store to buy an Apple iPhone, 64 Gig, white, this particular version, this particular carrier, and so on... right? So the more details I have, that's better for me, so that I can better serve the customer, because at the end of the day Walmart's mission is to serve the customer. And to that end, we are building the product catalog which is one of the key vertices that serves that mission.
David: Now, some of what you're talking about there sounds like it relates to search and search engines. Can you talk a little about how search and content interact?
Ram: Okay. So basically... I think that's a great question. You know, because I think it's time for everyone to start re-imagining the role of content, right? Because everyone thinks content is connected to e-commerce. And today, there is a paradigm shift from brick and mortar stores to online stores to omnichannel world, on one perspective. On the other side, technology has also evolved significantly. So the role of content has grown significantly from just the use of content for creating product pages. In the case of search, for example, search is a function of a good catalog, right? If you have a great catalog then obviously search becomes a lot more easier. Whether you're searching for a product or you're browsing for the product, you can identify the product that you're looking for very quickly.
And this applies not only for items that are online but it also applies for items that are within a store. So, like, you are in a cold place like Boston or New York and it's snowing heavily, you don't want to drive all the way to Walmart to find out whether they carry the product or not. It's ideal if you can just go online and search for the product. Yes, we carry it. Click, reserve the product. Just go to the store and pick it up, in case you need it urgently. So basically, content drives a lot of features. And high quality, rich content, populating all the attributes like recommended and optional attributes, are some of the key for search to function effectively.
David: Now, how does improving the content directly tie to brand revenue? You know, when you think about pricing and supply chain and some of these other aspects, obviously if the product is in stock, shopper can buy it. If it's priced right, you're gonna buy it on a particular retailer. What is it about content that really helps brands drive more sales?
Ram: So I think it starts from assortment selection, right? There are so many rumors about the number of products. I mean, you can take your guess, I can take my guess. It all depends on how you slice and dice it. But we all know that it's either hundreds of millions or probably in the billions. Those are the number of SKUs that are available in the universe, right? Now we need to bring the best selection for our customers. We satisfy our customers and we want to make sure that our customers are happy. If we are able to provide them with the right set of assortment in our stores online, or brick and mortar, or any channel for that matter, right? So content actually starts at the assortment selection. Suppose, if the brands start giving their complete catalog...when I say complete catalog, Dave, I'm not looking at products that are discontinued, certain brands do not have the license to sell certain products in certain retailers, we're not looking at those things. We're not looking at certain products that are private labeled for certain retailers. Anything that you can retail within a particular retail ecosystem is what we are looking for or defining as a complete catalog. Whether we carry that product today or not, brands should basically send that complete catalog to all the retailers directly or by leveraging a content service provider like Content Analytics or one of the other CSPs that are out there, right? And then, after that, once we decide which assortment that we decide to carry, the next step in the process is an accelerated item setup. Because you don't want to spend like weeks setting up the item.
And the next thing that comes in that process is all the algorithms that you were talking about, whether it is a search, or the supply chain, or a whole bunch of things. You know, people are talking about drones. People are talking about robots. And, you know, all sorts of things, or even like optimizing packaging, and shipping, and so on. All these things depend on high-quality data. Because if I don't know the product dimensions, I don't know whether five products fit in one box or three products fit in one box. You know, you wanna give the customer the best experience, right? You just want to ship everything optimally at the right time and so on. So content basically drives all these algorithms holistically. Then of course, whether you're in an in-store experience or whether you're in an online experience, content plays a very big role. Like I said, whether we want to do Walmart Pay in stores or Scan and Go in stores, or pick up today or order online, pick up in-store, whatever it is...or you're just casually browsing in a store and you wanna compare two products and you want to find information beyond what is there in the packaging label, content still plays a very critical role there.
Online, I don't want to explain that to you because I think it's one of those use cases everybody is aware of. And then, finally, all the futuristic experiences, whether it is augmented reality, or virtual reality, or whether the drone comes and delivers the product in your house or in your office or whatever it is, at the end of the day all these futuristic things are also dependent on high-quality data. So content is I think very critical in the future of retail and it's important that brands start treating content as a first-class entity and pay more emphasis rather than content being a support entity to facilitate a business process.
David: That's very, very well put, very well put. Well, speaking of the importance of content – what's your biggest challenge with content at Walmart today?
Ram: In general, content has always been an afterthought, right? And, you know, unfortunately...obviously we cannot generalize it, because there are many brands who treat content as a first-class entity today. But in general, content has always been an afterthought and people were trying to think of content as an expense and not as an investment.
David: And why has it been an afterthought?
Ram: I think people have not comprehended the role and relevance of content in this new omnichannel world, right? We are still seeing a lot of suppliers who have come to us and spoken to us, "Oh, I don't sell anything online. But you know, my products retail at 99 cents. But I have 1,000 products, each of them at 99 cents. So it's becoming more and more expensive." Or it is like people have not figured out the role of content in experiences like Pick-up Today, or Scan and Go, or you know, Walmart Pay, and so on. So I think the lack of understanding has been a critical factor, and hopefully, people will start realizing the value of content.
David: From what you're saying not just about the online experience, it's across all of these different channels?
Ram: Correct, correct. And it's not just retail, Dave. Like for example, Grocery Manufacturers Association, they're creating this Smart Label Initiative, or like the European Union has created the EU 1169, right? So if you think about it, content at the end of the day can be simplistically defined using the Model-view-controller Paradigm, right? The model is for any given product, there's a set of attributes you need to populate. And the views are whether a website in a retailers' page or whether it's a mobile app for...like a Scan and Go app, or something like that, or whether it is for generating the smart label or the EU 1169 label. Whatever be the application, they're all fundamentally dependent on the basic set of data, right? And if you are able to pack all this data and make it accessible for everybody, and then whatever the client does, if they can pick up the content from there and use it, then it's simply...
David: It's gotta be powerful.
David: Switching gears a little bit, everyone's aware, I think, of the Walmart Jet acquisition. What can you tell us about that as it relates to content and how should brands be thinking about the multiple properties that they need to get content live on?
Ram: So at this point of time, we are mostly focused on getting the product content. Basically, like I said, even the table stakes content are still lagging. And we need to accelerate and get that. In an ideal world; obviously, we would like to create customized experiences and so on. But then, at the very minimum I would say brands should continue... We have the enterprise Walmart spec, leverage the enterprise Walmart spec. Try to complete all that recommended and optional attributes. Most of them just complete the basic requirements. So at the end of the day content is something that helps us serve the customer. And we want both brands and the retailers, everybody in the ecosystem understand that the customer is, at the end of the day, who we serve and we need to make sure that we keep the customer happy.
David: Talk a little about basic content and extended forms of content, what does that mean specifically? If you're a supplier who's new to this area, and when you're thinking about basic content, what is that exactly?
Ram: There are again several ways of slicing and dicing. Let me take a stab at it. So basically, if you think about it, there's visual content, right? So there are images and videos and so on. And images can come from different perspectives, you know, all different things. And then there are all forms of images like 360-degree, spin photography, and so on. So visual content is one major bucket. Okay. The second bucket I would say is the basic content, which means, like ideally, a good identifier like a UPC or G10 or something like that. And then basic attributes like brand color, type, size, material, descriptions, a good product title, and so on, which are absolutely necessary. And I would say this is the minimum required content for any given product, right? And then comes the advanced marketing content, like, say, additional images and marketing text and marketing blobs, and so on, which is an additional form of content. And then comes the user generated content like ratings, and reviews, and so on.
And the fifth and last bucket, I would say like advanced and associated content. So like for example, if you're talking about automotive parts, then fitment data is something that's relevant, right? I mean, you would like to give information about the tires of a particular brand of tires. But then, it is equally important for you to give how this tire actually fits in the overall ecosystem. That's another... Which counts that it kind of...that this tire can go into, and so on. Or when I say advanced content, I'd say like, you know, user manuals, or how-to documents, or in the case of food products, recipes. So all these, anything that goes above and beyond. So if all this data can be put together, that is the ultimate goal. But then, you know, at least the second bucket, which is like an identifier and all the required attributes.
David: That's important. Now, brands sometimes ask us, should they provide the same content to every retailer? Should they try and provide different content? Do you have a view on that? Or is the most important thing just to make sure that they're getting the content they have over to you.
Ram: Yes, and they have to get it. And if they have optimized their content for us we would like to talk to them, understand how they've optimized it, what they have done for that. Because on the other side, even on our end, like we would like to optimize it for our customers. So, yes, if they are optimizing it on a per retailer basis, we would certainly like to engage with those brands to understand what level of optimizations have they done and why have they done those and what motivated them to make those changes?
David: That's great. That's great. Looking ahead to the next 5 to 10 years, maybe sooner, thinking about a new shop or interfaces like voice augmented reality, what are you seeing there? What do you think we're gonna see over the next decade?
Ram: I'm not a futurist, but I think...
David: But if you were, if you were.
Ram: I think you've listed out a few of them already. And I think the focus is primarily, you know, that's what is being spoken about. And again, you know, these are all consumer-facing experiences, right, which are direct impacting, like whether it is augmented reality or voice-based recognitions, and so on. But then there is other consumer-facing interfaces that are not directly impacting, like for example, how do you get a drone to deliver the product in your house, or in your office, if you don't have good product data, right? How do you get automation to pick up products and optimally get products? You know, all those other...
David: Those tie together.
David: Yeah, yeah, that's great. Other areas we're seeing interest in? Machine learning, some advanced algorithms, any thoughts on how those and all of this data tie together?
Ram: I think it's like more like the cyborg chess or something like that, right? Where, you know, we have reached a point where we understand that, you know, humans have intuition. And at the same time machines have the processing power. So a combination of these two things are certainly going to be ideal. But that said, right, you know, machine learning also depends on high-quality good data. If you don't have great data... Like for example, say...if I can use a very specific example, if a human can easily recognize Smsg as...you know, with relative ease can recognize that a Samsung or AAPL as Apple, right? You know, there's some kind of a correlation. But when you look at the so many different brands out there you cannot have data at that cryptic level and expect a machine learning algorithm to magically keep working, right? So yes, all these advances are happening on one side, but nevertheless, that doesn't mean that we can slack out on the data side and we can expect the machines to pick up the slack for us.
David: That's great. Now, before we wrap up, being in e-commerce and omnichannel, what's the favorite product that you bought online recently and why?
Ram: Oh, I buy a lot. I love to shop at Walmart; especially, you know that they have a much larger assortment. I think of some of my recent purchases include...I got the Nest Protect, you know, because I don't want to be running around with a red towel whenever there is...I would much rather operate it with my phone, right? And of course, my daughter is a huge fan. So it's mostly LEGOs, and you know, other forms of toys that I get for her.
David: That's great. Well, Ram, it's been a real pleasure having you on the show today. Thanks so much for being here.
Ram: Thank you, Dave.
Announcer: To find out more about Content Analytics, or to order a copy of David's book, "Bricks to Clicks," visit, contentanalyticsinc.com/brickstoclicks.