eCommerce Small Business

How to take your business to the next level with data automation and integration: A beginner’s guide

by Guest Post

Data automation for online sellers

This post is from our friends at VL OMNI

To say that today’s technology landscape is complex is an understatement. With over 5,000 applications in the marketing vertical alone, ecommerce and omnichannel retailers have potentially infinite solution combinations to choose from.

This is an incredible opportunity for those businesses looking to maintain or amp up their growth — gone are the days where your business is forced into a box! No longer tethered to solutions that appeal to everyone but no one at the same time, businesses are freed to evaluate a host of potential solutions and to choose the best fit for their needs. And there’s also the opportunity to customize many of these core applications to be tailor-fitted to your business’ needs!

So why, then, are many businesses with highly tailored technology stacks and partner arrangements still using outdated or undersized data automation and integrations strategies?

Well, speaking from the perspective of an expert data integrator, it all comes down to knowledge. The data integration industry isn’t new persey, but it’s undergone some big changes alongside the ecommerce and omnichannel industries and applications powering it. With the importance of data integration and automation hitting the mainstream in recent years, it can be a confusing landscape to navigate without an expert guide and a good dose of knowledge in your back pocket. So, to that ends, here are some key foundational piece of knowledge on integration to help your business pick the best strategic solution for today — and well into tomorrow.

What is data integration?

Defining data integration in a way that’s digestible to both technical and less technically inclined audiences is  not as simple as going to Google. Here’s an example of one of the top results, a definition from IBM:

“Data integration is the combination of technical and business processes used to combine data from disparate sources into meaningful and valuable information. A complete data integration solution delivers trusted data from a variety of sources.”

While that’s a great definition, it’s not wholly or immediately useful to someone in charge of making strategic decisions for an ecommerce or omnichannel business. Instead, I present you with a more practical definition from the 24+ years of experience behind VL OMNI as a data integrator:

A Practical Definition of Data Integration:

  • Connects applications together
  • Automates data movement and translations between applications
  • Standardizes data throughout a business or organization
  • Reduces siloization (“islands of technology”) between applications, departments, trading partners, and more

Why does data integration matter?

The right data integration solution and matching strategy can save your business time, money, and errors. But did you also know that your data integration strategy can impact your customers’ experience with your brand across alI channels? The right solution in place running as your business needs it to can mean the difference between your customers’ data moving as it should and when it should so that the promises made by your front-end can be effectively delivered by the technology powering the back-end to deliver a great customer experience — or not.

What are some data integration approaches?

There are five general options for integrating and automating your business’ data:

  • Manual data entry. Manually keying and rekeying in data to move it between applications.
  • File download/upload. An extension of manual data entry; moving data between applications by exporting and importing files (e.g., CSVs).
  • Plug-and-play/point-to-point integrations. An appification of the data integration process, designed to satisfy the integration needs of as many users as possible. These integrations often come as a part of a core application and move data from that core application out to other applications that are commonly used in that ecosystem, and usually have a fixed set of functions or movements they can complete. TaxJar, for example, has a great library of integrations to applications their audience commonly uses.
  • Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Programming. This method involves custom programming an integration between one application to another (or to many). Unless you have an internal IT team dedicated to maintaining these integrations, this strategy is not usually recommended as both the initial spend as well as making changes to the integration can be costly in terms of both time and money.
  • Data Integration As A Service (iPaaS). A great option for businesses between ‘SMB’ and ‘Enterprise’, iPaaS standardizes connections between applications in a one-to-many application integration interface. iPaaS fits neatly between the plug-and-play integration app and the internal IT team who can create and maintain custom integrations. Data can be moved effectively between a single application and many, customized applications can be integrated easily with the rest of the technology stack, and key business rules can be applied directly to the data transformation.

Each of these strategies satisfy specific needs while fulfilling broader strategic objectives. Choosing the right integration strategy for your business, just like selecting applications to power your technology back-end, should be a careful and informed decision.

Some of the elements your business should consider when choosing an integration approach that fits your needs best for the long term include:

  • Growth. Is your business growing steadily, rapidly, or is it in decline?
  • Application mix. Does your business use only a few core applications, or a complex mix of applications?
  • Data sources. Do you use only a few data sources and file types, or a diverse mix?
  • Custom solutions. Do you have any solutions developed in-house or that have been customized to your business’ needs?
  • Current data strategy. Does your business have a formalized strategy, a high-level strategy, or no strategy?
  • ERP. Are you using an ERP, and if so, has it been customized?
  • EDI. Does your business do EDI?

Your answers to these questions and more will help you to start to evaluate where your business falls in terms of potential solutions.

What can I do to improve my data integration strategy?

There are a number of actions that you can take in the short term to take steps towards a better future for your data movements:

  • Look at your business’ data holistically. Take a close look at your business’ data within the business as a whole, and its uses, needs, business rules, and more. What do you need?
  • Try the Yarn Experiment. Map out how data moves and what data is required to satisfy the applications your business uses. Keep the customer experience you want to create in mind.
  • Leverage plug-and-play integrations, but understand their limitations. Many integrations are built in to the applications your business already uses, including TaxJar! If you have applications that have built-in integrations that work for your business, use them! Just understand that if you continue to grow, your integration strategy may evolve. Apply strategy to which ones you adopt, how you adopt them, and what the plan is for if/when they don’t meet your needs any longer.
  • Look for APIs before adopting new applications. No matter your data integration strategy today, APIs are crucial to more complex integrations!
  • Reduce custom coded projects, including PHP and non-scalable solutions. Unless you have an internal IT team to maintain custom integrations, custom coded integration is not a recommended solution.

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for knowledge and becoming an empowered decision maker. Whether it’s adopting a simplified tax filing solution by implementing TaxJar, or ensuring your data is integrated holistically in a way that makes sense for your business with VL OMNI, you’re still tasked with making the right decision for your business — and that’s powered by how much you’re willing to learn about the subject at hand!

If you’re looking to learn more about data integration strategies, you can watch a presentation on Integration Strategies for Long-Term Growth given by VL OMNI here, where you can also download the slides from the presentation.

About the Author: VL OMNI

Who are we? Agile and scalable SaaS data integration. Accelerate growth with VL OMNI: Your trusted platform for real-time accurate customer order data, shipment details, inventory, prices, and more. VL OMNI is an agile point to multi-channel data integration platform and service. Over 200 businesses trust VL OMNI to move data seamlessly through the infrastructure as they grow, expand, and accelerate their business. Find out more at www.VLOMNI.com.

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