Three Steps to E-Commerce Success

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The pressure on organizations to implement e-commerce can be intense. There is pressure from existing competitors, customers who want more than you can offer and other organizations that are moving into your business. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, and the ability to take a slice is becoming easier as the barrier to entry shrinks every day.


Whatever the reason for pursuing e-commerce, it has the potential to add tremendous value to both business-to-consumer and business-to-business sales. In four years, online business trade will jump from $43 billion in revenues to $1.3 trillion -- 10 to 20 times the projected retail market, according to Forrester Research data projections.


An example is the Web address ToysRUs.com that helps the company compete with eToys, a popular online store. From June to December 1998, the site went from handling 10,000 visits a day to 40,000 visits daily. An America Online link also routes customers to ToysRUs.com.


There are plenty of tools and products on the market that can make implementing an e-commerce solution sound as easy as 1-2-3. And it often is. But the question still persists: Why are so many e-commerce sites unsuccessful at attracting customers and executing sales?


The answer is often that an organization will implement an e-commerce solution by looking at the parts without looking at the whole. Creating an e-commerce solution that leverages the benefits of the technology and the willingness of the marketplace requires a three-step approach: lead, learn and transact.


<B>Lead.<B> The first step refers to how you guide the customer to the transactional portion of the site. This does not involve banner ads or external advertising (although it may), but refers to the navigational scheme and page layout that informs and guides the user. Having the most exciting e-commerce site in the world will not do a lot of good if it's buried in the middle of your site. Place the call to action up front and make it accessible from every page on the site. Let the user know that you are ready to help him purchase whenever he is ready.


<B>Learn.<B> The second step is most often left out of the e-commerce solution, and unfortunately, it's often the difference between a standard e-commerce site and a super-powered site. Internet technology gives an organization one of the most powerful marketing tools it has ever had -- the ability to learn about, understand and predict the customer in real time. The two major concepts in the learn step involve profiling and personalization.


Profiling is collecting information about the user, either directly by asking or indirectly by inferring from previous actions. This information is then stored to develop a profile of the different types of users on the site. Many of the large e-commerce packages include a profiling capability. Make sure that the collected data will be accessible to other outside applications; it may change the way you market in other areas as well.


Personalization gives the user what he wants, when he wants it. While most Internet sites give the user what the site wants him to see, leveraging personalization across a site allows the user to be in control and also lets you know when the green flag is raised to solicit. The time to inform a user of an upcoming product sale is when you have asked and he has answered. If you sell screws, ask your users if they want to be informed when certain types of screws go on sale. If they say yes, then give them what they want: a targeted message that leads them directly to the next step.


<B>Transact.<B> There is more to the third step than meets the eye. If you have led the user to the transaction portion of the site and you have provided him with the information he wants, then you don't want to lose him at the point of sale. Make it easy to use. Make it intuitive. Pre-fill user fields with their information so they have less keystrokes to type. The best e-commerce sites disguise the work that is actually taking place. Make the sale an enjoyable, positive experience. Help them remember what they bought and when. The more the user sees your site as a benefit to him, the more he will use it.


Overall, these three steps have guided some of the largest electronic sites on the Internet. Take a look at yours and compare. Building a comprehensive, full-featured, e- commerce site that actually sells, can be as easy as lead, learn and transact.


<I> Geoffrey Baird is the principal and co-founder of the Internet services practice at Metamor Technologies Ltd., Chicago, a information technology consulting firm. His e-mail address is geoffrey.baird@metamor.com.<I>
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