5 Proven Ways to Increase E-Commerce Response

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E-commerce represents less than 1 percent of U.S. retail sales, but it is still growing strong. Techniques for stimulating purchase continue to emerge. Here are five ideas for how to make your e-commerce business more responsive.


Provide a great customer experience. This is so basic that you probably are rolling your eyes. But the first order of business is a maniacal focus on building a great customer experience at the Web site. Great experiences drive response -- and repeat response. On the Web, this means:


·Easy, intuitive navigation.


·Fast page loads.


·Broad merchandise selection.


·A fast, flexible and friendly shopping cart.


·No surprises at the end of the checkout process.


·Easy, flexible returns policies.


Some companies are establishing a job known as "chief customer officer" or "vice president of customer experience." It is exciting that businesspeople are beginning to understand that it is the customer experience at all points of contact that define the customers' relationship with companies, and ultimately their loyalty, and companies' profitability.


Go heavy on promotions. The Web, it is now clear, is a passive medium. You need to overcome consumers' natural inertia to stimulate response, just as you do in direct mail.


So go overboard on promotions. Try any wacky thing. This is a new medium, and you need to experiment. Here are some ideas.


· Aggressive cross-selling. The Web allows you to post merchandise, either in links or layouts, right next to related products, in a much more flexible and experimental way than you can do in print. So try everything. If it does not work, you can change it tomorrow.


· Build an outlet store, a separate section of your site that offers bargains, overstocks markdowns. Before you know it, that section may be one of your most popular sales vehicles. You may even want to brand it separately, with its own URL.


· One tried-and-true technique is a "favorites" list that allows regular customers to save lists of products they buy frequently, like replenishment products. This saves them time in reordering, and it also gives them an extreme sense of satisfaction that they are catered to, respected and valued.


· Use e-mail as a cheap and timely delivery vehicle for promotional offers. You can set this up on an automatic basis -- for example, sending an offer in the order confirmation note from customer service. Or when a birthday or special occasion is coming up.


· Other promotions that work: Daily deals on the home page. A limited-time sale, supported by e-mail reminders. Free shipping and handling with sizable orders. Referral offers, where you offer a gift to customers who refer their friends.


Use all the elements of the Internet marketing mix. You may be concentrating now on merchandising and e-commerce at your site. But there are a number of killer apps out there, and they are inexpensive to try and to use. Don't overlook them.


The most powerful tool today in Web marketing, hands down, is pay-for-performance media buying. When you are looking for new buyers, this is the most cost-effective method of attracting them to your site. On the Web, everything is negotiable these days: banner space, search engine key words, newsletter advertising, even e-mail.


The granddaddy of these pay-for-performance deals is affiliate marketing. There are large affiliate networks that set things up for you. Or you can trade banners or buttons individually with other Web sites that you think have visitors with an affinity to yours.


Of all the killer apps on the Internet, e-mail is perhaps the most powerful, especially as a retention device. Send your customers an e-mail with special time-sensitive offers. Up-sell and cross-sell them in messages that follow-up on recent purchases. You can do this automatically, if you set up a so-called "lights-out" campaign plan, where decision rules drive customized messaging that is preplanned and executed when triggered by some event or customer behavior.


Many online merchants are seeing the benefits of newsletters, which have editorial value, but are also excellent vehicles for driving traffic and response. It takes considerable resources to write and execute newsletters, but the payoff in customer retention, and response, can be huge.


Try a house banner ad. Design banner slots into a variety of pages on your site, from the home page on down, and put ads there attracting people to other areas of the site. It is attention-getting, and costs nothing.


Finally, you should be thinking about referrals. The Web is an ideal medium for gathering referrals to new potential buyers. Regrettably, on the Web this is known as "viral" marketing -- a term I deplore. But it is a powerful technique. So put a referral request at the end of every e-mail you send, especially your newsletters. And ask for referrals at various points on your Web site.


Make the Web your customer service resource. And do not think of the Web as only serving your online customers. If you design it right, it can be a service tool for your entire business.


· First, consider some of the new software tools that are available to allow your online customers to get questions answered during the shopping experience, like live chat or live voice from an operator. Companies with complex products, like technology companies or consumer electronics, have found these tools to be effective in converting visitors to buyers.


· But there are lots of cheaper things you can do before making big tech investments. Put a toll-free number on every page of your site. Place additional detailed information about your products underneath the initial offering, as a hot link.


· Be sure you have a FAQ section, for frequently asked questions, where customers can get their top-line inquiries answered.


· Use easy catalog ordering to integrate the customer experience and reduce call center man-hours. Let a customer who has a print catalog type in the SKU number on the home page and be taken to the product of interest.


· Consumers expect to see inventory status live, in real time. If your Web site is not linked to your inventory systems, put it on your to-do list to develop. This is a service level that is reaching "gotta have it" status to be competitive.


· You also can provide your customers with reminders of important dates, like birthdays and holidays. Conduct regular outbound e-mails to confirm orders, shipments and other messaging normally handled by postal mail or phone.


· Finally, insert an area where customers can post comments or complaints, and monitor it daily to ensure issues are resolved.


Eliminate the online silo altogether. From the customer's point of view, you are you, and he is he. He may prefer to use one channel or another, but he expects a consistent and excellent experience with you in whatever channel he chooses, whenever.


So the online experience you provide must be integrated with the offline experience. There are a number of ways to analyze this and then plan for integration. Perhaps the easiest is to analyze your current selling process -- or, from the customer point of view, the buying process -- and see how the Internet can play in it.


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