Not only are more consumers shopping online than ever before, but they are expecting more from their online experience as well. With Web 2.0 technologies allowing for a new level of interaction, consumers are looking for e-commerce to emulate the in-store experience.
“Web 2.0” is in fact quickly becoming an overused term, but it is generally defined as a second generation of Websites that use new technologies to change the experience for the consumer. With interactive tools such as AJAX, tagging, and various forms of instant consumer feedback, marketers can provide new and better experiences that go beyond shopping to encompass online collaboration and social networking.
The time has come to stop thinking of your Website as a company-controlled message. Instead you need to view it as a conversation with customers and prospects. A number of new technologies can help you get the conversation started and keep it rolling.
The power of AJAX
For instance, if you’re shopping online in the linens department of a Website and you’re looking for pillowcases, you’ll start with the top category of bedding and then drill down to sheet sets, sheets, and finally pillowcases. As you select each category in which you’re interested, the number of items decreases while the amount of information increases. The page automatically refreshes so that you don’t need to wait for it to reload.
When you start in the top category of bedding, you’ll see the related categories and thumbnail images. Once you reach the pillowcases, you’ll get a view with larger images that show various brands by color and thread count. When you choose the product you’re interested in buying, rather than going to a new page, you’ll see the listing expand within the window to give you information about the product, including the price.
The buying process is also streamlined with AJAX. Instead of your being bumped to the shopping-cart page each time you want to add an item to the cart, the page is automatically updated with more information on the specific products while the items are seamlessly added to the cart. This becomes more like an in-store experience. People shopping in a brick-and-mortar store, after all, don’t take each item that they intend to purchase to the counter one at a time; they add them to the cart as they browse through the store.
Tagging is it
Borrowing from the method that retailers use to categorize products, sites have begun to encourage customers to tag the items they view. This practice of tagging, or social tagging, turns merchandising into a grassroots strategy. For example, if a retail site has a name for a product, such as a cardigan, but customers are buying the item after searching for “button-down sweaters,” allowing customers to add that tag can help increase future sales when other shoppers also search for “button-down sweaters.”
Everyone’s a critic
Increasingly, online shoppers are social networkers who are blogging and sharing experiences at sites such as Del.icio.us; uploading videos to YouTube; using AJAX applications such as Gmail and Google Maps; sharing data feeds via RSS; and downloading TV shows from iTunes. Social networking applications can mirror the in-store experience of friends or family shopping together and talking about the products as they browse.
When customers have a good experience shopping on your site, they’re likely to discuss it on other Websites, where your existing and prospective customers can read about your company. Of course, if people have a negative experience, you can be fairly certain that they’re going to talk about that online too.
Shoppers respond very positively to Websites that offer customer reviews — even when the reviews themselves aren’t positive. Providing reviews garners loyalty and trust among shoppers, adding to their interactive experience.
Companies need to understand that, with instant customer feedback online, the online market has become a conversation where the company’s message generally is the first word, not the last word. Once a customer has an interaction with a company, for better or for worse, that interaction can be retold on a blog, a message board, or a wiki (a collaborative site where all users can add and edit content), and others generally will chime in to share similar experiences.
You can make these social technologies work for you by using them to connect with customers. By proactively listening and responding, a company can show that it is genuinely interested in its customers, thereby creating a “buzz” online.
Getting accustomed to customization
Another avenue where merchants have responded to the demands of Web 2.0 consumers is the creation of Websites for specific niches (see “Managing microsites” in the November issue). Consumers looking for petite clothing or Chevy parts can visit a retail site tailored to their specific interest rather than a big-box merchant that offers a broad range of apparel or auto parts on one site. To further increase customization, some sites, such as those that sell women’s handbags, allow shoppers to choose the color, fabric, and pattern to create a one-of-a-kind version of the product.
By using new technologies to re-create the in-store experience and encouraging customer feedback, you can increase online success and create customer evangelists who will help spread the word about your products and brands.
David Fry is founder/president/CEO of Fry Inc., an e-business solutions provider based in Ann Arbor, MI.