How to Apply DM Methods to Your Site

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As seasoned direct marketers know, there's a big difference between conventional marketing techniques and direct marketing methods.

Designing your Web site like a direct marketer - tapping into the knowledge you might already have - could help you generate more profitable sales and help you build your Web business more successfully.

Pick the established direct marketing ideas that are right for your Web presence:

Develop a written business plan. Include creative guidelines for developing copy and design/graphics. Explain how you will attract and keep visitors at your site - and the techniques you'll use to get them to return. Describe how you will create a favorable buying experience, generate sales, produce customer satisfaction and get customers to buy over and over again.

Be sure the plan anticipates your needs for at least the next two years and addresses the "what ifs."

Design your site so it's easy for visitors to use. The search function and navigation buttons should be simple to find - and they should offer visitors quick transitions from one section or category to another.

The pages should have good balance and eye flow. Visuals of products should be large enough to be clear, visually descriptive and appealing.

Prices should be easy to find and easy to understand. Keep shipping and handling charges separate from the prices of merchandise. Use dollar ranges so visitors can quickly determine charges.

Create a summary on your home page. Provide an overview of your business and emphasize what makes it different. Establish your competitive position right upfront. And keep everything concise and reader-focused. Make everything friendly and inviting - a presentation that says, "Come in, visit and see the many ways we can benefit you."

To keep product images interesting, try rotational visuals - that is, visuals that change every time visitors return to the page.

Present a variety of products and services. You should offer products, services and programs that are not found in your store or in your printed catalog.

If you are a retailer or wholesaler, don't present only one-third of your store inventory on your Web site and hope that visitors will be encouraged to visit your store - in person - to see your full range of products. You'll miss sales opportunities, and you'll frustrate customers who want to use the Web to order specific products and to review or evaluate merchandise for a later purchase at your store.

Establish confidence and credibility. Clearly demonstrate that you are a company customers can trust. This is especially important if you are a small firm or a business that is not widely recognized. Your Web site should reflect your company in its most favorable glow - honest, established and dependable. Some tips on how to do it:

• Present complete information about your company and your services. For example, in a concise and highly readable fashion, explain the purpose of your company and its beliefs, philosophy, mission and goals. Highlight the way you are positioned in the market (the way you want to be perceived), and tell how your products or services complement that positioning.

• Provide contact information such as your complete mailing address. Avoid using just a post office number, since it may give the impression you are trying to hide behind a make-believe storefront. Also include phone, fax, e-mail and Web-site information. Give your site visitors choices for getting in touch with you, rather than just relying on electronic communication.

• Present "customer comfort" information. For example, let customers know they can phone you during business hours, even order merchandise if they don't want to do it via your Web site. Be sure to inform visitors of your business hours - and the days (including the time zone) they can call and talk to a human being.

• Explain that you offer a secure Web-site environment for purchasing products or services - that your customers' privacy and security is of major importance to you.

• Emphasize your policy of not renting or reselling customer names, addresses and product purchasing information to other marketers. Then reinforce this information on other pages of your site.

• Offer a guarantee. Let visitors, prospects and customers know that you believe in what you sell . . . and that you guarantee complete satisfaction. Also let them know about your easy return policy. Reinforce all of this information throughout your site.

• Provide testimonials of satisfied customers - people who continue to do business with you. Also let your visitors know if there are clubs and organizations that endorse, approve or recommend your products or services. Finally include the names of significant clubs and organizations that you are members of - those that might be recognized by visitors to your site.

• Show photos of key people in your company, just to let visitors know that there are real people behind your Web site. For example, one Web site has a photo of two warehouse employees with the caption, "We try to pick, pack, and ship customer orders within 48 hours after receipt."

Use readable typefaces for body copy or text. For example, use sans serif typefaces for your headlines; serif typefaces for your body copy (similar to what I used for this article). Avoid using all cap letters or trendy typefaces that are difficult to read. Be careful of using extensive "reverses" for body copy or text, i.e., white lettering on a black or dark background. It slows down the reading time.

Keep your site user friendly. Since most visitors want to be informed and pleasantly entertained, you should keep everything in balance. Don't get cutesy, slapstick, or silly. Don't let highly creative graphics overpower your selling messages. Avoid ads that distract visitors. Consider using product visuals and exotic graphics only when necessary, because substituting text for visuals will give your site the speed it needs.

Keep the visitors in mind. Zero on customer benefits, such as product advantages, fast 24-hour turnaround on most orders, and a toll-free phone number for contacting your customer service people. Demonstrate product or service advantages. Present a problem/solution: Introduce the problem and then show how your products or services can solve it. Give facts and rational reasons why visitors should buy your products and services. "Talk" to your visitors in a warm and friendly manner using the "you" approach (e.g., "You will find that our Widget can save you up to 10 hours every week").

Present your products and services effectively. Spotlight the facts, attributes, and customer choices for your products and services. Don't leave any questions unanswered: Address sizes, models, styles, fabrics, designs, and proper usage. Also explain materials, capacity, thickness, shrinkage, operating details, and other factors. Help prospective customers make more informed buying decisions.

Use good photography. What your visitors see should be as close as possible to what they will receive. Use captions under your visuals or pictures to further explain key details about your merchandise, services, and programs. The fact is, many viewers of Web pages will read the photo captions first, before they read anything else.

Present your products and services in a factual manner - with a minimum of hyperbole. It will help reduce merchandise returns. In fact, in mail order/Web marketing, most merchandise returns are from customers who discovered that the items they ordered did not equate to what they received. For example:

• The actual color of the item did not match the color on the Web page (e.g., maroon turned out to be red);

• The material or construction of the item was of poor quality (e.g., pressboard with a wood-grain finish instead of real solid wood);

• The product required extensive assembly;

• The product didn't fit or conform to the project or job;

• The product looked better on the Web page.

Offer a mini educational program. For example, if the visitor wants to know more about your widget, he or she could click on "Industry and Test Reviews" or "Comparative Reviews" for more information. Other options:

• Free electronic newsletter that educates and informs.

• Free details on print publications or other Web sites that offer more in-depth

information or additional facts about a specific subject (e.g., you market hiking boots, so you suggest Web sites that feature articles about hiking).

• Free information about seminars, workshops, and clinics.

• Free details on conventions and special events.

Offer Web Specials. Consider presenting a 10% discount to new customers who make their first purchase on your Web site. You can also introduce digital coupons that offer free shipping and handling on orders that reach a certain dollar amount. Also, if you have a business arrangement with another site owner to direct traffic to your site, you can reward those first-time visitors to your site. In short, when you offer appealing promotional offers - including special discounts - you can bump up your responses and sales.

Make sure you promptly respond to all inquiries. One study noted that 60 percent of Web site visitors who requested more information via e-mail never received replies. [I recently e-mailed a Web marketer with a question about a product featured on their site. The product description wasn't clear to me. I also requested their printed catalog. They e-mailed this response to me: "Please visit our Web site for more information. Thank you. Customer Service Department." And I never received their printed catalog!]

Offer visitors an opportunity to register for automatic e-mails. This service might be related to new merchandise announcements, product searches, specialized services, special offers and sales, troubleshooting information, and news bulletins. The goal, of course, is to forge closer business relationships with both your customers and prospects through interactive communication.

Create a program that cross-sells and upsells related merchandise. For example, on cross-selling, a customer purchases a black dress from your site and leaves her e-mail address so she can be alerted to the newest fashions via your e-mail marketing program. So, using her e-mail address, you thank her for the order and call her attention to several accessories that will complement her dress (directing her to specific pages on your Web site). You could also include a promotional flyer on the accessories in the parcel that her dress will be shipped in (the fulfillment package).

You can also upsell on your site by calling attention to better values, deluxe versions, premium models, high-end styles, limited editions, or larger quantities. Thus customers are encouraged to "move-up" to something better . . . and spend more money with you. It also increases the average customer order.

Use a system that identifies repeat customers so you can make an extra effort to please them. Consider using cookies to track customers and to choose different selling tactics based on the customers' wants, desires, or profiles.

Give customers advance notices and first choices. Whether you call it a "customer preferred" program or your "customer thank you program," give customers the first choice to purchase new items, discounted values, and special deals from you. Give them advanced notices on merchandise markdowns, new services and programs, and upgraded products and services. Let them know that you acknowledge - and appreciate - their customer status with you (especially if they are frequent buyers), and that you want them to be the first to know.

Ask for a response. Always ask for an order or a sale. Then lead your visitors to your order form and make it easy for them to purchase from you. [Sales are lost because order forms are too complicated or too confusing.]

Change your site and keep it fresh. There is nothing worse than having visitors return to your site only to experience "the same old thing." It's especially disappointing to customers. In fact, several surveys have clearly indicated that customers want to see new merchandise and new information. Outdated sites or sites with static merchandise assortments can encourage visitors to take their business elsewhere.

Web sites that are highly focused on customers' needs, wants, hopes, and goals are those that have a higher probability of working. Web sites that are interactive with customers - those that get customers involved - offer more positive results. And Web sites that are based on direct marketing techniques can help increase the chances of profitable success.

Richard Siedlecki is an Atlanta-based independent management consultant specializing in direct marketing. His e-mail address is

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