13 tips (A baker’s dozen!) for successful e-commerce

Multichannel retailers must manage many moving levers in their e-commerce strategy. From getting customers to the online store to incorporating product reviews, the following tips will help you make the most of the channel

1 | Put muscle into your merchandising. Online merchandising must ensure that site content compensates for the fact that the products aren’t physically in front of a person. This means having all the necessary product information, injecting a sense of community with customer reviews, and offering site search that does as good a job as a store associate finding what the customer needs. “The vast majority of merchants understand the concept of online merchandising, but don’t have the time to execute it for 50,000 items,” says Fiona Dias, EVP of strategy and marketing at GSI Commerce, an e-commerce service provider. However, this may be the reason online conversion rates typically hover between 2% and 3%, she asserts: “Merchants are not taking care of their [online] stores.”

2 | Drive customers to the store. The e-commerce Web site is akin to a new store location. Treat it as such. “As a marketer, we would not sit back and wait for a potential customer to happen upon a store to shop,” says Kathy Calta, CMO of Vertis Communications, a marketing services company. “Marketers conduct research to develop an understanding of their customers. A marketer can then tailor the marketing plan to reach customers through a variety of communication channels and special events. The same holds true for an e-commerce Web site.” Media integration is crucial: Marketers must implement a call to action across all channels. “We can build awareness and attract customers with targeted off-line media that drives the consumer to the site, as well as online channels like search and social media,” Calta says.

3 | Pay to win. Getting paid for an online transaction is growing more complicated as the number of available payment methods rises. “Merchants sometimes get fatigue simply from analyzing all of the options,” said Bruce Cundiff, director of payments research and consulting at Javelin Strategy, a financial research firm. A merchant service provider is the first place to go for help in pinpointing payment methods that make sense. While many newcomers try to compete with traditional credit cards through lower costs for the merchant, this shouldn’t be the only criteria you measure. “The ability of a payment method to bring in new consumers is important,” says Cundiff. Don’t forget to do due diligence on a payment method’s security policies. “Knowing what the burden of responsibility for authenticating a user is paramount,” he adds.

4 | You’ve got e-mail. E-mail can be used to send marketing messages, coupons and offers, introduce new products, and help build a relationship with a customer by sending newsletters or loyalty updates. “E-mail provides e-commerce an unmatched channel to engage and serve digitally savvy customers,” says Joel Book, director of e-marketing education for ExactTarget, an e-mail service provider. “From attracting shoppers to a site with timely and relevant offers to keeping clients informed on order status, e-mail represents the Swiss Army knife of online marketing, complete with tools to connect, attract, engage and serve today’s online consumers.”

5 | Integrate your data. Blending data generated offline with online data enables retailers to target consumers more strategically. A retailer should get to know their customer and communicate with them consistently across channels to enrich the customer experience. “The better you are at listening to what the customer is doing and saying, the better opportunity you have to communicate with them,” says Dennis Syracuse, SVP of marketing and analytics at Datran Media, a digital service provider. “You become a responsible and relevant partner with them, rather than just blasting out a message. The more you use data to leverage that relationship, the easier it is for you to communicate.”

6 | Tag thoroughly. When used properly, ALT tags, which tell the search engines what’s in the content of your photos or video, can be extremely effective. Lisa Wehr, CEO of search marketing firm Oneupweb, says the key is to be as specific as possible: “If the product you’re describing is a fax machine, tagging it ‘fax machine’ is not going to position your product page higher on its own. But if you write a thorough ALT tag description with the model number, you’ll be more successful.” Another thing to keep in mind, Wehr says, is that the items will appear in image search results. “If they’re searching for Versace shoes, the customer will want to see the various styles, so the more specific you are, the better off you’ll be.”

7 | Make paid search work. Customers looking for products and services often start with search. E-commerce marketers need to meet them where they’re actively looking to buy. “Paid search is so valuable because it lets advertisers reach a pinpoint-targeted audience in a highly trackable way,” says Mark Simon, VP of industry relations at Didit, a search marketing company. While it works well for niche targeting, marketers seeking a broader audience can also use paid search, he adds.

8 | Employ URLs that are search- and user-friendly. Even the most impeccably designed e-commerce site is of little value if users can’t find it. Search engine optimization is a huge driver of online sales, and one of the most important aspects of the channel is ensuring that a product page’s link is identifiable by both users and search engines. “Search engines tend to encounter difficulties with longer, more complicated URLs, and as a result may not display them in a top position on the search engine results page,” explains Michael Kahn, SVP of marketing at Performics. “Consumers are more apt to click on a natural search result that is short and descriptive.”

9 | Ensure easy navigation and site search. Easy navigation is one of the greatest assets a retailer can offer a customer who has just landed on an e-commerce site. As in bricks-and-mortar stores, customers need clear paths toward what they are looking for, and internal search can take them to desired product pages quickly and easily. The goal of any internal navigation tool is to enable visitors to move about a site and to quickly return to previously-viewed content, related content or drill-down into more detailed product information, says Kahn.

10 | Incorporate social media. Social media help e-commerce marketers get closer to the customer. The first step should be focused entirely on listening to what people are saying about your brand. “The major social properties – Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — are good places to find out who is talking about your business,” says David Berkowitz, director of emerging media and client strategy for 360i. Having channels open to communicate easily with customers is also valuable. E-commerce marketers can begin establishing themselves in social channels. Berkowitz adds: “Even if they aren’t planning to invest in channels like Twitter or Facebook yet, they can claim their brand names to establish a presence there.”

11 | Reviews: The good, the bad and the ugly. Reviews can have a major impact on sales. “Reviews are important for everyone, but for retailers even more so than branded manufacturers,” says Andy Lloyd, CEO of Fluid, an e-commerce technology company. Reviews both good and bad can still drive user engagement and ultimately sales. “Even if something says ‘these shoes suck’ on a retail site, there are still other pairs of shoes to choose from there,” he explains.

12 | End shopping cart abandonment. While it is the direct avenue to a sale, the role of the shopping cart goes beyond the immediate purchase. “In some cases, the shopping cart is just where people park products when considering them,” Lloyd says. “They may not want to buy it now. It’s important to continue marketing in the shopping cart. Put a picture in there so they retain that emotional connection with the product.” Marketers may also want to consider building in a mechanism that allows customers to save products there over time, as well as a triggered reminder e-mail and/or live chat function for customers who have put something in a cart and then left the page.

13 | Use analytics to gauge effectiveness. Measurement is a must. “Especially in challenging economic times, marketers are wise to leverage analytics to measure success,” said Eric Peterson, a Web analytics consultant. “The difference between knowing you’re spending marketing dollars online and knowing how that money contributes back to the business is profound.” Most companies are unfortunately not doing so, he notes: “Econsultancy reported recently that fewer than one in five companies have a strategy in place to use Web analytics wisely. Rather than try to manage against a huge spreadsheet, manage at a higher level against a critical few metrics.”

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