Do You Need a New B2B Website? Your Buyers Think So.
By Benjamin Arp
Part 2 of our Ultimate Guide to Ecommerce Integrations
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In Part 1 of our Ultimate Guide to Ecommerce Integrations, we introduced the concept of a fully integrated ecommerce site and provided examples of the essential integrations that can streamline your processes while optimizing your shoppers’ experience. Now, in Part 2, we’ll walk you through the steps of designing an ecommerce integration that will do exactly what you need it to.
The first step to designing an ecommerce integration is to map it out. Think of an integration map as an architect’s blueprint—it’s an outline of what the integration does, how it’s structured, and what information is included in it.
Remember that the purpose of any integration is to facilitate the flow of data between two systems. To successfully map an integration, you’ll need to determine what information needs to be exchanged. This information is normally organized into groups of data points, commonly referred to as “objects.” The objects involved in your integration will depend on the systems your integration is connecting.
For instance, your integration might exchange objects between an ecommerce platform and an accounting software. Here are a few objects that may be included in each system:
Ecommerce Platform Objects
Once you have a basic understanding of the objects in each system you can start to think about the data flow you want your integration to accomplish. If you were writing it out in plain text it might look like:
These seem simple enough—now you could write them out as a bullet point list of required integration capabilities:
After you’ve mapped out your integration to determine its required capabilities, you’ll need to determine whether the integration should be manual or automated.
A manual ecommerce integration is an integration between software systems that requires some level of human intervention. For instance, an employee might use an extract, transfer, load (ETL) process to integrate two systems. This might require the employee to download a file or extract information from a database, transform the format of that information, and then load it into another system or database.
The main advantage of manual integrations is that they’re often less of a financial investment than automated integrations. They don’t require your business to hire additional team members or to purchase new software or equipment. Unfortunately, these manual ecommerce integration processes can be slow and prone to frequent errors.
A second complexity associated with manual integrations is data structure. For instance, when you go to integrate two systems, you might find that one uses a Comma Separated Values (CSV) file format, while the other uses an Extensible Markup Language (XML) format. These structural differences don’t impact the integration’s underlying information but rather its formatting. This means that the data needs to be “transformed” from one format to another before it can be loaded into the new system—a task that’s tedious and time-consuming to perform manually.
This isn’t to say manual integrations aren’t a worthwhile option—many businesses use them successfully. However, you’ll want to consider how manual ecommerce integrations might impact your business’ allotment of time and resources between team members. While they may carry a higher initial investment, automated ecommerce solutions can help to optimize your business’s operations and avoid disruption.
Automated ecommerce integrations accomplish the same task as manual ecommerce integrations—they extract data from one system, transform it into a new format, and load it into a second system. However, whereas manual integrations require valuable time and labor from members of your team, automated integrations accomplish all this within a matter of seconds and without any human intervention.
You can set your automated integrations to initiate data flow either on a regular predetermined schedule (for example, once per hour) or immediately following a trigger event (for example, after a new order is placed). As we’ll explore below, there are several different types of automated ecommerce integrations, each designed using a different software technology. There are pros and cons to each methodology, and it may be worth engaging a consultant to determine which is best for your business.
No matter their technical basis, automated integrations can preserve valuable time, money, and resources, helping your business continue to thrive as it grows and scales. Manual ecommerce integrations are adequate for many small businesses—downloading a spreadsheet, making some changes, and importing the data to another system might only take ten minutes each day. However, as your business grows there will be more data that needs to be transferred between systems, and increased sales velocity may warrant more frequent updates. These are all motivations for ecommerce businesses to automate their integrations.
An automated integration between your ecommerce platform and an external system can be accomplished in a variety of ways. The methodology you choose will depend on your specific business needs and on what you want your integration to accomplish.
Ecommerce platforms and shopping cart technology may offer a variety of third-party plugins, apps, or modules that facilitate data flow between your ecommerce store and an external system. Plugins are typically fast, budget-friendly, and easy to install, and so may appeal to small businesses or new sellers. However, they’re often limited in their capabilities and may not be sophisticated enough for high-growth businesses.
The external system you’re integrating with your ecommerce platform—for instance, an ERP system—may offer its own native plugins or custom scripting extensions. Many businesses prefer this method as it allows the logic of the integration to reside within the external system which often has a much stricter change-control process than the ecommerce website.
Legacy open-source software systems may leverage tools like cron jobs, file transfer protocol (FTP), or open database connectivity (ODBC) connectors to transfer information between systems. The rise of cloud software has largely moved businesses away from these methods, but companies with legacy software infrastructure may continue to rely on them.
Integration platform as a service (iPaaS) solutions, also commonly known as middleware, are some of the most popular automated integration methods available to ecommerce businesses today. These cloud-based platforms standardize applications across a business’s systems, theoretically making it easier to transfer data while leaving room for customization.
Custom API programming is the most advanced automated integration solution available to ecommerce businesses.
API stands for Application Programming Interface. An API provides a standard interface for two systems, allowing them to exchange certain information with each other by translating that information into a specific format. Virtually every modern software system has its own API—for instance, Spotify’s API shows you information about the music you’re listening to, including the song title, album title, artist name, cover art, and genre. Meanwhile, your ecommerce platform’s API might allow you to request information related to different orders such as customer name, shipping address, billing address, items purchased, total charges, and more.
In an ecommerce API integration, a business may hire a developer to write a custom code that leverages their ecommerce platform’s API. This code enables the flow of data from that platform to any external system. It’s important to note that the integration solution here is not the API itself, but rather the code written specifically for that API.
To summarize the information covered in this article, we’ve gathered a few key questions to consider when planning your ecommerce integration. Answering these questions will give you a solid understanding of how your integration is structured, which will better position you for any troubleshooting down the road.
In a “push” integration, one system typically uses a webhook—an HTTP request triggered by a certain event.
Meanwhile, a “pull” integration transfers information on an on-demand basis. This is typically an API request, meaning one system requests information from another through a shared API.
Most automated integrations transfer information based on either triggers or a set schedule. You can set triggers so the flow of information is initiated every time a specific event occurs—for instance, every time a new order is placed, or every time a new shipping label is printed. Alternatively, you can set your integration to transfer information at regular time intervals, whether it’s once a day, once an hour, or every five minutes.
Both these scenarios typically allow you to layer in custom conditions for more sophisticated actions. For instance, you could set an integration to run every time an order for over $500 is placed.
This question refers back to mapping your integration. You might want to transfer order information from your ecommerce platform to your accounting software, but what information specifically? And how does the information in your platform match the data structure in your accounting system? Clarifying all these details in the beginning stages of planning your integration can help you avoid complications or confusion down the line.
The data structure between the two software systems you're integrating will often use two different file formats—one might use CSV format while the other uses XML. When this happens a programmer must write a script that can transform the data from one format to the other. This might happen via a middleware (iPaaS) software, a plugin or extension, or in a custom script hosted on a web server.
There are a variety of possible errors that can occur with an ecommerce integration. Consider how you want your integration to communicate and handle these errors. How do you want to be notified of an error? What do you want to happen in case of an error? Do you want your system to automatically retry? If so, how many times?
We hope our 2-part Ultimate Guide to Ecommerce Integrations has given you the essential information you need to navigate choosing and planning a variety of integrations for your ecommerce site.
Miva is proud to offer Miva Connect, an integration product and ongoing integration management service. Miva Connect is a suite of standard data flows with a full customization service to craft viable integrations that work the way you need to in the most efficient way possible. Learn more about how Miva Connect can support your business today.
Benjamin Arp is a Miva Sales Engineer focused on driving ecommerce growth. He’s helped hundreds of ecommerce merchants develop their growth strategy, evaluate existing systems, and create plans to grow sales. In addition to working with merchants one-on-one, he is a regular contributor to the Miva blog and hosts webinars on a variety of ecommerce topics.