Ecommerce Advice for merchants by Steve Blom, author of the Google Adwords 30 day Boot Camp, VP Yada Yada Marketing and Certified Pay Per Click Professional
For ecommerce merchants who are looking to increase their revenues, here is some useful information:
First of all, if you are right in the middle of a holiday season you need a short term and a long term plan.
In the short term if the the holidays are upon you just getting some traffic to the site just as it is really is the first priority, maybe a couple small site tweaks, and then the more long term plan you can start after the holidays are over.
Just make sure you have some kind of conversion tracking in place from either Adwords, Google analytics, or any of the multiple tracking packages out there.
This isn’t a full primer on ppc. At this point you either need to hire a pro, or be one yourself because there can be at Google over a thousand competitors bidding on the same keywords as you are. Check out ppcpanic.com or yadayadamarketing.com for some recommendations on this, or if you want to learn it yourself check out the Adwords learning center here.
The plan below is to kind of outline the next steps I think you need for long term success:
I am going to break it down as much as I can in order of importance.
Developing your unique selling proposition:
What is a “unique selling proposition”? You’ll find some of the marketing gurus touting it like its the latest internet innovation, but it first appeared in the 1960′s in basic college level courses in business and marketing. Basically your unique selling proposition is key to your business as a whole. You must have a target market, understand both that market and your competitors, and have a strategy that makes sense to carve out your place in the marketplace. Many whole books have been written about this but “Why should people buy from me and not my competitors?” is at least a place to start on this.
Price as a unique selling proposition is only possible if you have the leverage of say, a Wal-Mart. If you are getting customers just because you are cheaper, if someone else comes along that is cheaper still, that’s it, you’re done. And if a bigger, better funded company decides to take that market by buying more, they can cut you out from under your suppliers in many cases. The other thing that happens, is because you have no real margins to keep advertising profitably, as soon as a stronger competitor enters the market, you’re also toast.
For this reason, I recommend emphasizing service and presentation rather than price, which is what many top retailers are doing.
Every market has a top, a middle, and a low. Lets take cars- you have porsche at the top, chevrolet in the middle, and who knows, kia at the bottom just to be off the cuff. You can say, hey its cheap, buy a kia, you get a lot for your money and it makes sense. You can say buy a porsche, its expensive but its the best, and that also makes sense. But you can’t say, hey, Buy a porshe for kia prices. People innately get confused and don’t believe you because they know it can’t be the same quality for a lesser price.
You don’t try to sell a Kia to wealthy businesspeople. You don’t try to sell Porshes to poor students or to 20 somethings just starting out, unless they are also wealthy. There is room in the marketplace for both companies to make plenty of money, as long as they really understand their respective target markets and unique selling proposition.
Which one of those 3 car companies is bankrupt? Chevy. Why? Because a chevy is a cheap, expensive, middle priced, large, medium, and small car. They tried to be everything to everyone, which ends up just confusing the consumer. So what you are NOT, is just as important as what you are.
You can make money at the top in terms of profit per unit, or at the bottom with lower profit per unit but much higher volume. But the middle is really tough. The only way you can make it in the middle is to focus only on a specific niche, and somehow get a better selection than all your competitors in that niche, plus have a really good USP.
If I have a choice, I always want to take the “expensive” and “best” position, because you have a flexibility of pricing that your competitors don’t have, but with retailers all selling the same stuff, you don’t always have that luxury. So if you are selling the same stuff as your competitor, and they are charging twice as much, why should I choose them? The answer is right there on the website of a good retailer. Service. My business is important to them. I have the cell phone number of the owner. Something.
So why should I choose your site over everyone else? That is what you need to answer. Also get a url that communicates that proposition easily to people.
If I am selling party goods and I want to communicate “cheap” I go with something like elegantpartieswholesale.com, discountpartygoods.com ,partybazaar.com, something like that.
If I want to communicate elegant parties and service I go with elegantpartysecrets.com, easyelegantparties.com, simpleelegantparties.com, or something in that vein.
Which way you go with your USP drives the whole design of the website from that point. You can try different USPs with two separate websites, but don’t try to mix USPs on the same website. It should be really clear what it is when you have a couple random people visit the site. Use one site for the low price proposition and closeouts, and another site with higher prices and a different USP, and see which one you can actually make more profit from.
So here is the plan:
0) Have or find your USP which is going to drive everything else.
1) Pick a good URL that communicates this clearly to your visitors.
2) Pick a good shopping cart that doesn’t limit you. Since retailers of all sizes will be reading this, its hard to give a one size fits all recommendation.
The more expensive the carts are, the more they do and a lot of times you really do get what you pay for. The better carts make it a heck of a lot easier to market, and a
shopping cart is probably the most important choice you make as an ecommmerce merchant, because changing in mid stream is sometimes very difficult.
Here’s a couple places to start.
For people with physical stores that just want to get their inventory online, check out modernretail.com . They work with “real” retailers all the time and have a nice interface, plus free email marketing that comes with their system, and it is integrated nicely with google analytics.
For merchants that are a little bigger and want more capability Check out Miva Merchant, which is what a lot of middle ecommerce merchants are using. The latest version makes a lot of SEO friendly pages which can get you some free traffic which is a nice bonus. Miva isn’t super cheap but you can either go on a monthly with them or just buy a licence so you basically own that version of the cart so there are no more monthly charges. There is also Geocart which is about 250 a month and up, but will seamlessly get you to he next level with SEO, and makes it much easier to advertise with Nextag, Bizrate, etc when you are ready.
This page gives you a little more info about the carts capabilites.
If you’re on a budget, we’ve come across a cart that is not only search engine friendly, easy to use and affordable. Check out Big Commerce. We used this cart to build the store for Java Planet and you’ll see how nice it is.
Lastly, if you have a lot of technical skill and want to do everything yourself there are a lot of open source shopping carts out there. The plus- they are free. The minus of course is that you are on your own, there is no customer service.
In my opinion the mack daddy one is os commerce, but it is getting really complicated in some of the latest versions. It does a LOT of stuff for free, and a whole ecosystem has been built around it of people that build modules for it, install it for you, customize it, etc. At this writing we are also checking out a couple carts specifically designed to work with wordpress so stay tuned.
A better cart that will not limit you in terms of SEO options is vital to get you to the next level, both for SEO and for the all important Adwords quality score.
Search box and sitemap- The correct cart should give people the opportunity for people to search for products on the site, and for you to be able to review the searches done on the site and the ability to specify a landing page based on what you see people searching for. or an ecommerce site with a lot of items, this is a must.
Every merchant will have their own set of priorities that they want in their cart, ease of use and ability to easily add or update new products and descriptions being one of the primary ones, reporting and inventory lists usually being very close up there as a number 2, but definitely in the mix there are a couple other important factors that your customers and the search engines will need as well, namely integrated email marketing and search engine friendly urls. What are search engine friendly urls? Basically if I click on an item and I get http://mysite.com/product.asp?id=4756 and I click on another one that is http://mysite.com/designer-dresses/green/ which link would you rather click on? Also this becomes critical for the search engines, for opvious reasons. Also, the cart at any level should generate a sitemap that is compliant with google shopping and other search engines. Theres a lot more to this but hopefully all the above will get you a long way in finding a cart that you can afford, live with, and that doesn’t limit you as you grow.
3) Get hosting for your new domain and get it set up. Get your products added, conversion tracking installed, and send some ppc traffic to it, just like in the short term plan we had at the beginning.
4) Start building inks to it from day 1. If you can get enough links you can give even some established players in your niche a run for their money. In ppc, this will also help your quality score as well.
Really it just takes more links to do it, as long as you have put in an SEO friendly cart in the earlier step. Don’t just build links to your home page, ideally build links to the exact product that matches the keywords that you know converted when you did your pay per click.
5) Build links by submitting articles to article directories, registering the site with every search engine and directory you can find, participating in social media, and lastly, starting a blog and submitting the blog to all the blog directories. If you do all that, you won’t sleep much but you’ll have a lot of links.
6) Review your conversion and ROI. In another post I’ll focus even more on site conversion for retailers. Don’t give up. You will make it.
Q. How many companies depend on online sales now-a-days ?
This is tricky, because the best source would be the number of Google Adwords advertisers, which they haven’t released in years. Googles goal was 250,000 advertisers by 2003 and I am pretty sure they made that. My best guess is that there are 1.2-1.5 million advertisers at Google now. And then there is Yahoo/ MSN to consider as well. So, well over a million online businesses are out there advertising is safe to say, but that figure could be considerably higher. There are something like 20 million small businesses in the US, with around 3 million businesses that have 1-4 employees (check the census.gov or the sba.gov sites for some hard data on number of businesses in the US) and we expect most of those to move online as well in the next couple years.
I know you are focused on retailers, but generating sales leads online is a far bigger business, with people following up by phone to close the deal, even for retailers. So a lot of transactions start on the web as sales leads, but then people call in, the calls from that marketing campaign are tracked, but the end transaction is often done offline.
Q. What’s driving the trend for companies to go online?
-The biggest thing driving the trend for companies to go online is the fact that their consumers have already moved online. Not only have they moved online, but they are talking about your companies products on forums and social networks like facebook. They are reading reviews, good or bad about your company online, which will affect whether they end up calling you or not. And they also have access to many comparison shopping networks like shopping.com,bizrate.com and nextag.com which compare retailers and products like priceline does for airfares. Retailers just getting online now are going to have to play a lot of catch up at this point, because the tools available to consumers are really quite amazing.
Q.What are some tips for how retailers can give good customer service to their customers online?
Retail is a very competitive market on the internet, because the big players have all moved online. Your site visitors need to see exactly what they are looking for, immediately, but you have to strike a balance between pleasing the visitor and pleasing the search engines. The best ecommerce systems really help to get this right.
For customer service, most of the sites that are on the cutting edge now are implementing the following:
* Easy access phone service
* Instant Chat, which is enabled by people standing by, looking at visitor behavior on the website, and proactively initiating a live chat session with a visitor on the site. For instance, the operator may be noticing that the person can’t seem to find the page with the product they are looking for, or that they started putting an item in the cart but cancelled it. The right proactive chat could help the person and save the sale.
*Mobile and Text marketing – increasingly now, people aren’t accessing the web any more from computers at home, but from Iphones and other “smart phones”, so optimizing the site for mobile users will be one of the next big things.
* Call tracking technology and Campaign tracking technology which lets retailers know exactly what keyword was searched that brought in the sale or the call is a must in the current competitive environment.
*Reviews of the product as part of the shopping experience. People want to know what experiences other people had that purchased the same product. Its better to let them know while they are still on your site than to let them leave to find the same information.
Q. Any big dos or don’ts?
-DO- use technology that automatically optimizes your online store for the search engines
-Do- have a phone that is answered by real people
-Do- have live chat available
-Don’t advertise a big sale on something, then not have that sale on your website
-Don’t just blast emails once a week to your customer list that basically says “buy this” although it is fine to send coupons and discounts every so often.
Don’t abuse your email list, because you want people to stay on it and not unsubscribe. People won’t unsubscribe if you offer them quality content on a regular basis, and aren’t always pushing the immediate sale right now.
-Don’t use outdated shopping carts that make links that people don’t understand.
Would you rather click on:
The better shopping cart systems can do this. There are a lot of other things that need to be done, but too many to list here without getting too technical.
Q.How can retailers get customers coming back based on their Web site?
For retailers, the most important thing is, whether the customer buys or not, try to capture their information in the first visit so that they can be followed up with later by email, text messaging, phone, or even postal mail for your buyers. Have an e-newsletter that has quality content put out once a month. Survey your existing customers to find out what information they really need or that they are confused about. Find out what they want to hear about, and give it to them. Also, personal follow up emails can sometimes do absolute wonders and bring in big reorders, especially for your best customers. They are worth a little TLC.
Q.Do you have any last words of advice to share with ecommerce merchants and online retailers?
I would urge retailers to take a look at some really successful online retailers that are in a different niche than they are for some ideas. Take something that has nothing to do with your niche, and start looking at sites. If you are a clothing retailer, start searching for faucets, or grout cleaner, or car parts or what have you. You can really learn a lot this way, without getting stuck on problems and things that are only part of your niche. If you see a lot of leading retailers doing the same things in different niches, you can kind of triangulate to things that would really be worth a try for you.
Of course amazon.com is king of ecommerce and you should definitely check them out, but there is:
http://www.zappos.com/nine-west-rocha-black-patent-rp really good retailer, notice all the things on this page that build trust and try to close the sale.
Here’s some other retailers to learn from:
Its hard to pick one overall winner, but I would look strongly at zappos.com and proflowers.com for the overall sales process.
Also for ecommerce, as you know, shopping cart abandonment is huge. There’s no cure all, but live help, phone appearing for them to complete their order if they leave, live chat, and “seals of approval” from BBB.org, truste.com,hackersafe all these things help reduce shopping cart abandonment by increasing the trust factor, and I would look into those.
Best of luck to you in pursuing ecommerce excellence,