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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Standardizing Shareware E-Commerce Providers

We've been working with all of the big shareware e-commerce providers for some time now, both as a vendor running Iconico and as an affiliate running BitsDuJour and I had an idea a while back that I thought would be of great benefit to everyone in the industry. I originally posted this a in the ASP newsgroups (posted January 3rd 2008 if you're a member and want to find the original thread), and several e-commerce providers were interested. Unfortunately I don't have the time to champion the cause on this, but I'd thought I would repost it here, hopefully this can be picked up by the right people at the right time.

The problem as it stands right now is that there are so many propriety systems out there that handle e-commerce transactions and they are all totally different. To create a system that builds on them, or interfaces with them is so daunting and complicated, believe me, I've done it and it's not straightforward. All the purchase links are formatted differently, coupons are supported in unique and differing ways, and the list goes on. Now I'm all for innovation and I welcome that some of the old systems like RegNet and RegSoft are gradually getting dropped and that new ones like FastSpring and Avangate have sprung up, it's just frustrating to see the wheel reinvented differently every time.

One place where I think standardization is needed is in sales reporting. Simply to get your sales data requires that you log in, do a lot of copying and pasting, aggregation in Excel and you have to remember the quirks of each system as they are all different. Some systems don't even allow you to see the exact commission you've earned until your payment is created. Other systems only total up the sales. Some require you to save your emails and then parse them, praying that you didn't miss one of them. The support for adding tracking ids to purchases is spotty at best. Now this is more of a pain for affiliates than for vendors as vendors usually have one payment processor, but affiliates have to deal with all of them. I'm talking about Avangate, BMT Micro, Cleverbridge, element5/ShareIT, eSellerate, Fastspring, Kagi, OneNetwork, Plimus, RegNow, RegSoft and SWReg, and those are just the popular ones. Half of those are owned by Digital River, but the systems are still unique to themselves, difficult to use, and non-standard. It's a mess.

I think it's high time that we have some standardization across the industry, and following in the footsteps in the way PAD standardized software descriptions I propose that we create a standardized system for reporting software sales. This I think would be a good first step and something that it would be easy for the e-commerce providers to get on board with. I'm talking about an XML file format here, and it should detail exactly what was sold to when, where and who bought it, how much and all the details that you need. I propose one format for vendors with all the details, and a second slimmed down version for affiliates which protects the privacy of the purchaser but gives the affiliate the details they need.

I really don't think that this should be too hard for the e-commerce providers to create this, it's just a different reporting format, and I can only see benefits to them and too us as vendors and as affiliates. It will allow for easier processing and time savings for everyone, and the possibility of integrating e-commerce providers with a wide variety of reporting software, shipment and tracking systems, heck I can see a small industry of secondary products sprouting up around this. In a nutshell I can see this simple change saving time money, and creating more opportunities to sell. I know this is just a first step, but this alone could really help how our industry operates and bottom line create more revenue for everyone.

In the original ASP posting we actually had five e-commerce providers give an unofficial thumbs up to this; I'd love to see it be transformed into something workable.

18 comments:

Ewan McNab said...
We use ShareIt as one of our resellers and they send us an XML file for each order. This includes all of the information you mentioned, including taxes, commission, etc.

Obviously the XML is vendor specific, but may be worth a look at as a starting point. I think there are details on their website.

Good idea, though, to standardise it across the market.
Nico Westerdale said...
I didn't know ShareIt had an XML format, but I do know Kagi and eSellerate have one, but I'm sure they are all different.

Jarrod Hollingworth was working on a project to consolidate 28 e-commerce notification emails and came up with an XML format that looks something like this, I thought it was a good start and very extensible:

      <OrderField>
        <ID>OrderID</ID>
        <Name>Order ID</Name>
        <Description>Unique order identifier</Description>
        <Category>order.keyinfo</Category>
        <DataType>string</DataType>
        <Visible>1</Visible>
        <DisplayOrder>1</DisplayOrder>
      </OrderField>
      <OrderField>
        <ID>OrderSequentialID</ID>
        <Name>Sequential ID</Name>
        <Description>Identifies the sequence of orders
and allows checking
for missing orders</Description>
        <Category>order.keyinfo</Category>
        <DataType>string</DataType>
        <Visible>1</Visible>
        <DisplayOrder>2</DisplayOrder>
      </OrderField>
      <OrderField>
        <ID>OrderDate</ID>
        <Name>Date</Name>
        <Description>Date that the order was placed</Description>
        <Category>order.keyinfo</Category>
        <DataType>date</DataType>
        <Visible>1</Visible>
        <DisplayOrder>3</DisplayOrder>
      </OrderField>
Dan Engel said...
Nico,

Good stuff - count FastSpring in!

Dan @FastSpring.com
Steve Wiseman said...
I don't think this will ever happen. Why? The 'lock-in' factor is something these payment providers cherish and love. The more locked in you are, the harder it is to leave - no matter how bad their service gets. We are still stuck with Regnow. Their service is horrible. They treat our customers like crap, and they cause us to lose sales. The process of switching is difficult and slow. Especially when you have a huge system in place that is already working with your current payment provider.

So when thinking about something like this you need to ask yourself, why would they commoditize their own service and create a mass exodus? I don't think they will.

Something like this needs to be started by smaller payment providers attempting to differentiate themselves from the likes of Digital River. Once it becomes enough of a driving force, DR will be forced to adopt it or die.
Tech Pro said...
When DR launched OneNetwork I thought they were actually going to amalgamate all their acquisitions into one common system. How dumb can I be?

If DR can't do it with their own systems, I can't see it happening with systems that are competitors.
Nico Westerdale said...
I know what you mean about the lock-in factor. I switched e-commerce providers a few years back and at the time I called up the providers and made sure that I could get the right people on the phone and that I was going to get good customer service down the line.

That said, I don't think that having this standard format would really impact lock-in that much. The real hassle about switching providers is re-entering all of your product data and setting up store templates. This shouldn't be a big issue.
Nico Westerdale said...
Glad to see that you're still interested in this Dan! Any chance that you and the other 4 e-commerce providers that were originally interested in this could take it from here?
Ellen said...
This would solve so many problems. I'd love to be able to sell any ISV's title and get an affiliate commission without making the user switch carts and potentially lose my own sale. Similarly, I'd love to have any ISV be able to sell my titles, without me having to sign up with a dozen separate e-commerce vendors. And I'm sure we'd all love to be able to switch or add ecommerce providers without rewrite our complete existing processing. I know it's a huge undertaking, but how much easier would all our lives be if we had something like this!
If we have to report the txns in an XML format, I'll prefer basing it around the XML format used by Google Checkout to send an order notification.
Nico Westerdale said...
Well that would be a great idea too. I took a look through the docs and the new-order-notification.xml file included here looks very close to doing what we're talking about.

http://code.google.com/apis/checkout/checkout_xml.html

I don't know if anyone else in the industry has picked it up but as far as I'm concerned any standard is better than no standard.
Rob Verzera said...
Some of you may remember me, my name is Rob Verzera. I used to run RegSoft.com before DR took things over.

I have started a new e-commerce service named Take Two Solutions (www.taketwosolutions.com). While at first it may look similar to other e-commerce systems out there, there is a major difference. We actually listen to what you want, and we drive our development based on your feedback.

The philosophy I have taken with Take Two is that at the end of the day after the orders are processed, those are ultimately your customers. We help to facilitate the transaction between the two of you and make sure everything goes smoothly. You know best how your customers should be treated and how your order fulfillment process should work, and we can help you with that fulfillment process. We should in no way be in complete control of it, unless of course you want us to be.

Take Two Solutions was founded in 2007 by Rob Verzera, former CEO of Regsoft.com. Since its inception, the goal of Take Two has been to partner with vendors in a collaborative manner, giving our vendors a voice and ensuring that their needs are addressed directly. Much of the platform development derives directly from vendor feedback, ensuring that our vendors receive the features they require and their customers demand. Offering the features that one would expect, such as shopping carts, multiple currencies, and localized order forms, along with our philosophy of active vendor participation, will help to solidify our position as an industry leader in E-Commerce




One of the requested features that we recently implemented was a fully localized order experience from the order page through delivery. Our order forms are fully translated in the customers' choice of six languages, as well as the order emails, static text, and any custom fields that you define, allowing the customer a completely localized order experience. This differs from most providers, where typically only the static order page text is translated.

We will be visiting the forums on a regular basis, and commenting when we think we can help. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us.

Thanks,
Rob Verzera
Nico Westerdale said...
Looks interesting Rob, another of the new breed of e-commerce providers that have sprung up in the wake of DR's takeover of the major players.

I'll be interested in how you get on, and when you come to writing an affiliate system let me know. We interface very tightly with all the present ones at Bits Du Jour and we'd be happy to let you know what our requirements would be.
Adam Dorrell said...
Nico
Having a standardised sales report for the industry is an excellent idea. You list the obvious benefits in being able to save time on cutting and pasting, but I also see some huge wins in interpretation of data. If you've been in a meeting where people are not sure if data includes VAT or other sales tax you'll know what I mean - so you comment about an industry springing up is really true.

My company makes CustomerGauge and we have integration issues the whole time. With a single system it would be easier for all...

To create a standard, we need a few things.

1. A champion - sounds like you Nico - you just have to make sure others do the work!
2. A cool name (as a first go, how about ESIX: Ecommerce Standard Information eXchange - could also be Electronic Sales Info Exchange = E6 for short).
3. A "Standards group" of knowledgable peers who can agree on a spec
4. The spec defined: Let's say "Flat file" type, in XML (with an engine to convert to CSV if needed)
4. A published spec available to all on someones webspace.

Based on the notes above, some good places to start would be using the most widespread format.
A. Google is a good place to start, and it's already published, but maybe not sufficiently neutral.
B. Ebay API
C. Digital River (they have a good market share of the big companies)
D. One of the others mentioned above.

I am happy to be deputy champion and host this, plus work on the "Marketing". Where I'm not so secure is the technical side. Would anyone volunteer? I'm sure that a few hours of 4 persons time would crack it. We could probably publish a draft spec by mid Sept. Anyone in?

Regards
Adam
Nico Westerdale said...
Hi Adam,

Well I'm all for being the champion of this! Like you say I don't have time to build it out myself, and I actually don't think that I'm the best person to, there are others that know the detailled issues much better.

It would be great to get someone on board from DR, so far out of all of those that I've contacted they're the big missing puzzle piece, so if you're out there and reading this DR then please shoot me an email so we can get this thing started!
Nico Westerdale said...
Adam's comment has spurred me into action! I've set up a Facebook discussion group for ESIX:

Join the Facebook group here!

It's a private group so we can freely discuss issues without worrying about treading on anyone's toes. There's a discussion forum and I think this will be the ideal place to work together on building a standard format.

I invite everyone who's posted here to join and let's get this built!
Adam Dorrell said...
Nico
you certainly work fast! Logo, Facebook (my least favourite but OK!). I think I can help with the DR if you can contact me...
Adam
Nico Westerdale said...
Ok Adam, I've added you to the group, I think the first order of business is to gether everyone who has expressed an interest, and once we're all in then we can start talking.

At some point we may want to outgrow the Facebook group, but for now it's a quick and easy start.
Mike Wilson said...
Hi Nico,

Well done on getting this started.

This is definately something we could use with Software Monitor's online CRM functions. Pre-population from XML feed is a much wanted feature request and fairly high on the priority list to get sorted.

I'm most interested in supporting FastSpring, their new service looks excellent.

Best Regards,

Mike

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