Make Your Site a Sales Machine

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Most online retailers don't really sell anything. Plenty of them conduct sales transactions, but, for the most part, they just present a product and hope someone buys it. No real selling strategy is involved.


A selling path for an online retailer is a series of screens where, unlike a random-access Web site, the consumer's choices are limited, controlled and purposeful. Each screen is an opportunity for you to ask a relevant question, get an honest answer and move your customer closer to a better sale for them and for you.


The screens in these paths are crafted to work together to win a consumer's trust, build selling propositions and result in a purchase decision and transaction. Think of it in the way you think of directing foot traffic in your store, or directing eye movement and message in a direct mail piece. If you left either of those examples to chance, little would happen.


But most retail Web sites remain random access. The consumer's choices are presented in a haphazard manner that begs the question: Where do you want me to click? In that scenario you have little control over the course of the sale. Real selling takes place when your consumer gets moved purposefully through your site from point to point, buying in at each step and getting more and more personally involved along the way.


The following are guidelines for crafting retail sales paths that convert:


• A Web sales path should not exclude choice. There should be one main, incredibly obvious and clear next type of choice, but a couple other options should also be offered. It must appear as though the input your consumer is giving is affecting the results of her efforts. If your selling path is simply click-click-click, you'll get no consumer involvement, no early buy-in and you'll be no closer to selling at the end of the path than you were at the beginning.


• Exude speed and efficiency. Make your first screen short and punchy. You need to make all of your screens short and punchy, but make the first one extra short and extra punchy.


• Get smarter at every click. If your consumer needs to make choices, have him make choices that give you more information so you can narrow the selling message. Let him choose features he's looking for, accessories that interest him and colors he likes. Down the road, use the knowledge you gain to help retain your customer through targeted and personal online direct mail.


• Be clear and don't ask unless you need to. Each choice your consumer makes should affect his next set of choices or the outcome of the sale. Don't ask anything irrelevant.


• Stay focused. Don't distract your consumer. The bottom line is to give the big picture, big selling propositions and make him click for the details as he wants them.


• Don't ramble. Limit the number of screens in your path and make your point succinctly on each screen. For simple products, make your case in three steps. For complex products, wide product lines or high-ticket products, go to no more than seven steps.


• Be honest. He is in the path. Clearly display how many steps there are in total. This is a key ingredient to building retention within the path.


• Barter for information. When you ask your consumer for information, give something in exchange. You'll be more likely to get what you're looking for, and you'll build trust and equality into the relationship. This is especially true in paths built around contests or offers.


• Sincerity wins the day. Avoid the advertisement. If your path is nothing but a series of ads linked together, you'll lose your consumer early on. Try to visualize the medium as an extension of a flesh-and-blood relationship where the byproduct is the sale of your product or service.


You should know what works by where your consumers bail out of the path. Identify problem areas, make adjustments, watch your results and adjust some more.


Your online retail experience has many of the same issues as your offline one. Take control of your online sales. You can win and retain customers with focused, path-based "personal" selling.


• Justin Talerico is chief usability officer at i-on interactive, Boca Raton, FL. Reach him at jtalerico@i-on.com.

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