The most popular current destinations in the online world — Amazon, Facebook, Google, YouTube, and others — didn't start out that way. A few of their original layouts showed promise, but much like yearbook photographs viewed a couple decades later, many of them likely induce chuckles (or cringes) from their creators.
Today, those companies and other Internet leaders thrive in good part because they continually upgrade their websites to give their audiences robust, rewarding experiences. Below are a few tips to help online retailers of any size and category follow a similar, successful path.
Think like a customer. Put yourself in your audience's shoes, and click through the entire browsing and buying process on your website over and over again. In particular, look for obstacles that come between you and your chosen goal. Don't limit your scrutiny to misdirected links, pop-up messages, extraneous requests for information, and other obvious impediments. Thinking like a customer means taking a critical view of every element, including those that the retailer in you would accept without a second glance.
For instance, you might want to welcome site visitors with an interstitial page that trumpets your store's high ranking in a renowned customer satisfaction survey. However, online consumers typically expect lightning-fast access to, well, everything, and more than a few of them don't appreciate any delay. There's nothing wrong with tooting your own horn (in moderation), but a small home-page banner that links to a detailed announcement page can serve the same purpose without irking any shoppers.
When you encounter a distraction on your site, ask yourself what effect it would have if you'd come across it while trying to buy something at another retailer's site. If your honest answer isn't "it would encourage me to make a purchase," you might want to rethink its presence — or at least its location — on your site.
Cater to your customers. The online environment offers quick, ongoing access to much more consumer data than physical stores can gather, not to mention all sorts of ways to track, collect, and analyze it all. You can see exactly what your customers like and dislike, where they dawdle, which kinds of products they're most likely to add (or discard) on their way to check-out, when they abandon their carts, and so much more. You can also easily test a variety of factors to find the most profitable means to influence their online shopping patterns and purchase decisions.
Use all of this information to meet your customers' needs, play to their interests, soothe their concerns, exceed their expectations, and boost your bottom line. For example, you might test an array of offers designed to both reward your best customers and increase their average order values and purchase frequencies. Better yet, create a subscription program stocked with the types of benefits that, per your research, will strengthen your customers' loyalties for the long haul.
Satisfy your audience's content needs. In 1996, Bill Gates wrote an essay declaring that "Content Is King" in the online world, and the intervening years have proven him right. E-commerce firms need to create content that gives their customers reasons to return to their sites again and again — even when they're not in shopping mode.
One of the major disadvantages that online shoppers face is the inability to literally handle the merchandise. In-store shopping gives consumers a clear sense of what a product looks like, how it feels in their hands or on their bodies, and how to use it properly. You can't reproduce that experience online, but you can embed clips of products being used, "how to" videos, and other informative resources, including archives of instructional, educational, printable articles that your customers can access whenever they need assistance. Many manufacturers are happy to produce and share these materials with their retail distributors.
If you have respected product experts in your company, you can post videos and articles featuring their tips and insights. Similarly, if you also have physical locations that host special events, promoting them on your website (and livestreaming them, when appropriate) can highlight your various capabilities for your customers. Just make sure your complementary content doesn't in any way diminish the primary function of your website, i.e., selling your wares.
Follow the leaders. E-commerce is barely 20 years old (in fact, the World Wide Web itself just turned 25 this past March), so the definitive guidebook on best practices for online retailers hasn't been written yet. You can still find useful role models throughout the industry, though.
In addition to performing due diligence on your direct competitors, review the most successful websites in other retail categories — as well as those completely outside the industry. Whether you're trying to implement a cleaner layout, a quicker check-out flow, or a more effective method for communicating limited-time offers to your customers, learning from and applying the innovations of others can help you invigorate your online efforts.
Your website is your online sales rep, marketing your products and brand to the world 24/7/365, so you need to ensure that it does so in the best, most appealing light possible. By maintaining a singular focus on your audience's behaviors and desires, you can build a shopper-centric site — and reputation — and keep enhancing and optimizing it to meet your customers' needs and interests for years to come.
Tom Caporaso is the CEO of Clarus Marketing Group, a firm that creates subscription commerce solutions, including FreeShipping.com, which offers members 10 percent cash back, free shipping, and other savings opportunities; Return Saver, which offers members free return shipping on practically any online purchase; and a variety of customized programs.