What makes one e-commerce web site a raging success, while another similar one barely gets a visitor much less sells anything? Ask any small business owner and you’re likely to get a range of answers from “Cool technology” to “A really sexy web site”, and more likely than not: “Being Number One on the Search Engines”.
Important some of these things may be, they’re not actually the core elements for success! And it’s for this reason that most people go wrong when they go online. In fact, the main factors, or decisions, that make a web site successful or not, take place long before a line of code is written, or a graphic designed or anyone puts finger to keyboard to write any copy. We list below, in order of importance, the ten things you should concentrate on if you want your e-commerce web site to be a rip-roaring success:
1. Do Your Research
The first thing that you must remember (and this is the bit that everyone seemed to forget in Internet “Gold Rush” of 1999) is that the same business principles apply to your internet business as any other. You must: a) Have a product/service with a solid perceived need; b) you must be able to sell it at a price that is profitable and provides good value to the purchaser and; c) you must be able to reach a sufficient number of potential purchasers (and convince them to buy) to generate enough revenue to make your business viable. And to find out that, you need to research your market. Thoroughly.
The first and most obvious thing you need to find out is the “need” factor. Note I said “perceived” need, perhaps better described as a “want”. We buy lots of things we don’t need, because mainly we think we need them. So, will people benefit from your product or service? Do you genuinely believe you can convince people they need it? To find that out, you have to ask them! But we’re not there yet: it’s one thing having a product that people do actually need, but if there are already lots of people supplying it, then you might have a problem with part b. You are only going to be able to sell your product/service at a profit AND and a price people think represents good value if 1) Not many other people provide it or 2) yours is better (and/or cheaper – but for reasons explained later, this is not usually a good route to take). Again, you must do your research and find out before you do anything else. And finally, can you reach this market cost-efficiently and find enough people to buy from you? This is the one great strength of the Internet and e-commerce: it’s much cheaper, it’s faster and has a much wider reach that any other communications channel so far invented! But it still costs time and money, and you have to be realistic, so you need to research your market and work out if you have the time and money to reach it.
2. Work on your Strategy
OK, so now you know, hopefully, that there is a need for your product or service, that not many people offer it at the price/profit/value level that you can, and you know that thousands of people who use the internet a lot and who you know from your research can and do buy online, will want to buy it from you. So now you work on your strategy. This is key. You cannot simply say “Hey, we’ve got a great product and a big market, let’s slap up a web site and we’ll get rich!” You need to sit down and carefully work on how you’re going to do all of this. You need to know what your goals are. If your goal is to “sell lots” you’ll sell nothing! I Guarantee it. You need to work out where your want to be in 1, 3 and 5 years time at a minimum and then work back from there. If you start with that and work back, then a lot of the pieces will fall into place. Your strategy should apply to all your business, and your web site or Internet bits will only be a part of it (a big part, perhaps…). For example, if you have a product with a big ticket price, and you only sell 5 a year, then you don’t want to start planning in a shopping basket system and credit card payments! Selling on that scale will need lots of relationship building and face-to-face interaction, so you need to work out how your Internet/e-commerce strategy will enhance and benefit that. A good web site to that will impress people who pay £50,000 for your product? A newsletter system to help keep in touch during the long sales cycle? It’s a completely different approach to selling £20 watches….
3. Concentrate on Existing Customers
If your business is already up-and-running and you’re simply adding an Internet presence or improving on it, then your existing customers should be treated like Gold. They can actually help you bring your business online. Test the waters with them, ask them what they think at each stage, build the system around them and their needs and you’ll end up with a template that will help you expand online in the sure knowledge that it will attract and help keep new customers. And, of course, if you do it right, you can start making extra money online right away, without a single new customer, by using your web presence to save money and improve relationships with your existing customers so they buy more from you.
4. Make Service a Priority
While the Internet can help you cut costs and make your business run more slickly, you’ve got to remember that it can also be very impersonal. One of the most valuable things I’ve ever learnt is that people buy from people they like. And they don’t like to be let down. The media is littered with stories of people who managed to click and pay for something online only to wait weeks for it never to turn up. Emails don’t get replied to, phones don’t get answered (if the web site even publishes the number!), and they get constantly fobbed off. Yet the Internet is an ideal tool for delivering better customer communication! But many businesses use a flash web site to hide behind… That’s another quirk of the Internet – it’s possible to gain customers more quickly than traditional methods, but you can lose them like lightening if you provide a poor service. News travels fast on the internet – even faster if it’s bad news…
5. Work out your Communication and and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) policies and procedures
As I mentioned before, the Internet provides excellent tools and opportunities to build relationships with customers and clients. By this stage of your planning, you’re chomping at the bit to “get something up and start selling” but winning a customer is a bit like wooing a woman (please forgive the sexist nature of this analogy!). You don’t run up to a woman you like a scream in her face “I want to have babies with you, NOW!” So why do people do this online? You need to build into your plan ways and means of starting and growing relationships with your customers and clients. You need work out ways of opening a dialogue, finding out about them, and helping them find out about you. Did you know that research shows that people generally visit a web site seven times before they feel comfortable enough to buy anything? So what are you going to do that makes your web site interesting enough for people to visit seven times just to look at it? And when they do, what then? Is it like a one night stand? Or do you send them emails asking if they are happy with the product/service? Can you send them a regular newsletter that they find interesting? And do you have a system in place to manage all of this – for example, can you track how many times a customer has been contacted, by what method, and what was said? You can and should build up a valuable database of detailed customer information, their buying habits, what they like/don’t like and a system for contacting them on a regular basis.
6. Offline/ Online Marketing, Search Engines & Pay Per Click
Ah, search engines. The magic bullet of marketing… or so the Search Engine promotions “experts” would have you think. The holy grail for many is “being number one on the search engines”, and great though that is, your success or failure actually hangs on what happens when all that traffic gets to your web site – it’s got nothing at all to do with being No1. In fact you can actually bankrupt your business by being No1. A sudden flood of traffic can burst your bandwidth budget, have you running to Dell or HP or whoever for more servers, bring your web site to it’s knees, and, if all those visitors turn up and don’t find what they’re looking for, you make virtual enemies of thousands – even millions – of potential customers. Once again, before you even think about Search Engines, you must go back to your research and your strategy and start again from there. Ask yourself: What is my ideal customer? What search engines do they use? What key words do they use to find services/products like mine? What’s my USP? What magazines do they read? Are there cheaper/better ways of reaching them than via search engines? There are, of course, certain low-cost/no-cost golden rules that everyone should follow. Your web address and email address should be printed on all your stationery. If you send out catalogues, promote your web site in it. Add a promotional message (including a link to your web site) at the bottom of all your emails (this is sometimes called a signature file or sig file). The key is to think about your promotion from your customer’s perspective. If you do that, then, at least as far as Search Engines are concerned, you can focus on relevance. Make sure that people who find your site via search engines are actually looking for what you have to offer and are ready to buy. You are relevant to them and they are relevant to you. If my sales target in my strategy is to sell 100 units a week, then all I really need is 100 buying customers from Search Engines. If I use all the tricks in the book and haul a million visitors in who aren’t even vaguely interested in my widgets, I’m wasting their time and my money. To sum up, you should:
- Aim for a number one Search Engine listing ONLY for well-researched, highly targeted key words and phrases
- Use Pay Per Click facilities such as Overture to get quick results and control your budgets
- Make sure you don’t waste offline opportunities. Publish your web address/email on all company literature and include it in all your adverts.
- Use Sig files on ALL emails
- Sign up affiliates and pay them a commission
- Use a Viral Marketing email campaign
- Publish email newsletters and information to build an email list
- Research your market carefully to find out what methods people use to find and buy your product/service and concentrate all your efforts on those channels.
7. Make Sure Your Web Site Copy is Clear and Persuasive
Perhaps the most overlooked element of web site development these days is copy – that is, the words been all those pretty pictures, flash animations, and whizzy functions. A great deal of web site copy on the internet today is utter rubbish, and many online shops feature hardly any at all! You get a welcome message, product titles, pictures, maybe a few specifications, and great big “Buy Now” buttons. Once again, it seems that people jump onto the Internet bandwagon and forget that there’s a real human being on the other side of the computer screen and he/she wants information and wants to be treated with some respect. Basic business rules still apply, and with some modification, your approach to your web site should be similar in many respects to traditional mail order or direct/distance selling. And the golden rule of mail order and direct selling? The more you tell, the more you sell! Professional copywriters throughout the marketing ages have known this all along. The theory has been tested to the ends of the universe and the result is always the same. Long copy outsells short copy every time. But there are some rules and some adaptation of this basic fact when thinking about the web:
- Your copy should be clear and concise in its construction
- Every sentence needs to be short and snappy, with short words
- Where possible, one sentence per paragraph (if it’s sales copy, editorial is different)
- Use headlines, sub heads and bullet points
- Every single statement should contain a fact, benefit or persuasive argument. Don’t waste a word!
- Spend MOST of your time creating headlines, they are the single most important factor in direct mail sales success and the same goes for the web.
Special Web Rules:
- Break up copy that’s more than about 500-700 words long into separate pages
- Always try to close the prospect at the end of each page as well as having a “more” link to the next page
- Try to include a close or buy link above the “waterline” (ie before they have to scroll to read the next paragraph or sentence)
- Try to inject as much “personality” into your copy as possible. A web page can be a particularly “cold” place – so add as much human warmth as possible. Remember, people buy from people they like.
8. Make Sure your Navigation is Easy, and that your Web Site Design and Backend Technology are all focused on a Great Customer Experience
Only now should you be thinking about the build of your web site and its technology. It’s at this point, you can finally consider your web site’s design and how it will look. Remember, web design (any design) is subjective. No matter how much time or money you spend on it, or how proud you are of it, a certain proportion of your visitors will still think it’s crap. But guess what? They don’t care, and if you get everything right it has almost no bearing at all on sales. But there are three important elements to web site design:
1. Ease of navigation comes FIRST. Make sure your fancy page design doesn’t confuse and frustrate your customers. Keep it simple. And bearing in mind that no matter how good the site looks, lots of people will hate it, so make sure the design is not overbearing. Make sure that, whether your customer likes your site or not , it’s not an issue!
2. Get it done professionally. Good, professional design inspires confidence in your customers, and on the web that’s a precious commodity. They may not always like it, but they’ll appreciate that it’s been done professionally, and that therefore infers that your are a professional company.
3. Make sure that the site is clean and uncluttered, and avoid too many flashy animations, whizzy bits, and Flash downloads that will slow your site down and annoy your customers, no matter how “cool” you think they are. And whatever you do avoid “front Door”, “click here to enter our site” intro-type pages AT ALL COSTS! Especially Flash ones. They are utterly pointless and delay your customer from getting to what they’re after, which is information about your company/products/services.
And finally, the technology – especially the “Shopping cart”. So long as it works properly, doesn’t mix up customers’ baskets, can cope with demand, and deliver orders reliably, then your choice of “cart” technology will have no bearing whatsoever on sales success. Other than that, your technology and the complexity of your system will be dictated by what it is you actually need to achieve. We’ve mentioned newsletters, CRM, customer support & service and so on – all your technology choices MUST be made to make these things easy for you to manage and to enhance them. And most of all, your technology must ALWAYS be geared towards a great customer experience.
9. Get Pricing in Perspective and Think about your Market Positioning and your Value Proposition
There’s one final myth about the internet (and business in general) that I’d like to explode and it’s this: People buy on price. The myth that you must be cheap, even cheapest, on the internet has grown exponentially, especially with the advent of shopping price comparison engines. Combine this with the widely held (and largely correct) belief that using the Internet to sell reduces cost, most people think that price is the only issue, and that you must be cheaper than everyone else to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth!
A buying decision is a bit like an iceberg, of which the price element is the highly visible tip. The bulk of the decision reasoning takes place hidden away from view, and many in business ignore it at their peril. When a customer says to you that you’re too expensive, they are not actually saying that your price is too high. What they’re really saying is that they are not convinced that the benefit your are offering exceeds the investment they have to make. They don’t like your Value Proposition. The problem is usually that you haven’t convinced them enough about the benefits, not that you’re charging too much. On the internet, this brings us back, actually, to point/step seven where I explained the massive importance of your sales copy. If your web site is simply a catalogue of products and prices and a shopping cart, what else has any site visitor to go on when making a judgment other than price? So you’ve cornered yourself immediately. You have no option other than to go cheaper than your competition to make the sale. If, however, you make a big deal in your web copy about the benefits of buying from you (like prompt delivery, great service, reliability, money-back guarantee, free insurance or whatever you can think of) then suddenly, price is not an issue. People will pay your higher price for peace-of-mind, great service and extra benefits than taking a risk with the cheap, nasty web site that might let them down. And when you feel under pressure to drop your price, say for a special offer, why not try adding a free extra benefit instead? It’s much more effective and more profitable! Instead of knocking 10% off, offer 10% more!
Another issue that you need to look carefully at, especially on the Internet where credibility is hard to achieve, is your Market Positioning. Your prices say a lot more about your company than you think. Although people like to say they love a bargain, every single one will make the assumption that cheap = nasty. If your prices are too low, people will assume there’s a catch or you’re cutting corners. If you want to position your business as the best in its class, then people will only feel good about you if your prices are at the top end of the range. Too low, and suddenly they lose faith in you because “something doesn’t ring true”. If your prices are “unbelievable!”, then so are you!
10 Tackle Fraud & Security
Internet fraud is a big, big issue and you can’t ignore it. Most online customer will admit to being extremely wary of handing out credit card details online, especially to new web sites that they have never come across before. So, you need to have security and fraud policies in place and (here we go again about copy!) make sure you tell your customers that you have these and you will take great care of their personal information.
At the very minimum you need:
- A secure server and SSL certificate for your order pages
One of the best solutions is to use a Payment Service Provider (PSP) to process your credit cards for you. The better known and respected ones such as WorldPay are best, because the general public are aware of them and know that they have strong security measures in place. And from your own perspective, you gain some protection against law suits and some relief from the risk and responsibility of looking after customers’ valuable credit card information.