IBM interns join ShopDirect to combine gamification and Twitter analysis

Undergraduate ShopDirect interns spent the summer with IBM on a project using gamification and Twitter to engage with customers

ShopDirect group (SDG) worked with a group of interns who spent the summer with IBM on a project to look at using gamification to engage with customers.

The retailer – which owns, Littlewoods and isme – is predominantly an online business. Paul Hornby, head of e-commerce at SDG, says the retailer has been seeing massive growth especially among mobile and tablet users.

Working with a team of IT and management undergraduates, the 12 week project enabled ShopDirect to assess how a fantasy football-style game, linked to Twitter, could improve customer engagement.

The company has a strategic partnership with IBM, which it uses to outsource its IT infrastructure. Hornby says: “As a part of the strategic partnership, IBM mentioned its Extreme Blue project.” This is a programme which IBM runs each summer, where undergraduate interns work on a 12-week project with IBM clients.

"One of our goals is to be the best online retailer by creating a personalised experience – pulling social data in to influence a customer experience. The idea that our customers can create their own experience on the site, the ranking and element of gamification, was very interesting to us," he explains.

Thomas Elm, from the London School of Economics; Anna Thomas, from Imperial College; Michael Fedosiuk, from Oxford University; and Stewart Douglas, from Kings College, made up the team that worked with ShopDirect.

Mobile Commerce

Mobile commerce is taking off but at ShopDirect, people tend to make their purchases on a tablet, laptop or desktop computer. Hornby says: "In the last 18 months we've seen an increase in mobile and tablet." This has influenced customer behaviour. He finds customers generally use a mobile to research products and add items to their online shopping basket. But for payments, he says ShopDirect's customers generally make their purchases using a desktop computer or a tablet at home.

"The desktop conversion rate is 15 higher than on a mobile," he says. In other words, people are much more likely to make a purchase if they browse the e-commerce site on a computer or tablet rather than a smartphone.

He expects the roll-out of 4G to shift customers towards making purchases via their smartphones. Even so, Hornby believes smartphone users on ShopDirect most likely make impulse purchases where they are comfortable of the size of the garment and where there is less financial impact.


The team worked with ShopDirect on a project called Trendification, to investigate ways to improve personalisation and engagement with customers. The project uses an online fantasy football-like game, hosted on a prototype website, which challenges users to pick items of clothing they think will be trendy.

In a video interview with Computer Weekly, Elm said: "ShopDirect wanted to create a format that would be engaging to the customer by using social media." He says the team developed a fantasy football type of game where customers select outfits. Sentiment analysis from Twitter is then combined with ShopDirect’s marketing data to give the customer a score.

By tweeting and posting about the items they like, people playing the game score points.

"If there is a dress that is being talked about on Twitter, the customer will receive more points," Elm says.

The game offers the retailer the possibility of creating a number of concurrently running competitions, covering a range of products, each offering different prizes.

The project deliverable was a prototype and a whitepaper. Although IBM owns the intellectual property, Hornby says the project has been extremely useful for ShopDirect. "We had 12 weeks of R&D and went through the process for very little investment." He says the project has allowed ShopDirect to investigate the art of the possible. "We are now able to talk to IBM to make the system a reality, and discuss how some of the ideas that came out of the project can be turned into something we can do ourselves."

Piloting HTML 5

The Trendification website was built on HTML 5 and ties into Twitter using Coremetrics and SPSS IBM modelling  tools.

Hornby says: “The team built a nice front end using Canvas, CSS3, and monitoring Twitter to understand sentiment and create scores."

He says the company wants to understand how it can use HTML5, although its e-commerce sites need to support a broad range of older browsers which do not support HTML 5. "We're very interested in understanding what we can do with HTML 5 and CSS3 and we have never used Canvas before."

Commenting on the sentiment analysis of the project, Hornby says: "It was interesting to record Twitter activity – so a customer could create an outfit and use Twitter as a barometer of what is and isn’t cool."

Working with the Extreme Blue programme

ShopDirect put together a proposal to get involved in the Extreme Blue programme. Social media and the use of personalisation were the areas both IBM and ShopDirect shared common objectives.

Hornby admits he was amazed at the quality of the output produced by the Extreme Blue undergraduate team. "The team took the time to understand our brand, and get under the skin, understand our products." The undergraduate team spent a few weeks fleshing out the project and visited the ShopDirect head office in Liverpool to gain a better understanding of the retailer's customers. Hornby said: "We know our customers are influenced by reviews and by their peers. They like the idea of creating an outfit, and seeing how popular it is."

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