Creating a compelling online experience

Without question, selling products and services over the Internet will eventually become as commonplace as walking into a store or placing an order over the phone. The real question is, what will compel customers to use the Internet for e-commerce over the traditional means of shopping? Many people would say that the future of e-commerce lies in the technology that’s already available or now in development. But the future of e-commerce is actually in creatively using the emerging technology to benefit your customers.

There’s a big difference between getting eyeballs to your site and. getting “sticky” eyeballs to your site.The concept of sticky eyeballs is not just to attract people to the site but, more important, to get them to stay, browse, and buy. And to do that, you need to create a compelling experience that extends the value of your site far beyond that of a place to buy goods.

Most Websites are pretty boring. Many brick-and-mortar retailers, on the other hand, have figured out how to excite shoppers. Take the Disney Store: As soon as you enter, an employee greets you with a friendly smile and a welcome. Behind him or her, you may see a movie playing on a big screen. Disney has figured out how to get you into the store, hold your attention, and stimulate you to make a purchase. Web marketers must also figure out how to do this.

Perhaps the best way to create a compelling user experience is to marry content and commerce. The Web enables you to organize and present massive amounts of information to users. But many Web retailers ignore this feature and instead simply publish their print catalog on the Web. This is a huge mistake that I call “shovelware.” Remember that the Web is a distinct marketing medium, just like TV or radio. Taking a print catalog and dumping it on the Web is similar to playing a radio commercial on TV. It does not make sense.

Instead, I recommend integrating meaningful content with the marketing messages to stimulate the user to purchase. For example, if you sell home gardening products, consider adding gardening tips, how-to articles, and product instructions to your Website – in a sense creating an online magazine. There are endless ways to integrate valuable content into a site, but the goal is to make your site a great resource, which helps build your relationship with customers and lets you bond with them – which in turn boosts your sales. The more interesting the content, the longer customers will stay on the site, which creates more opportunities for you to serve up products and promotional offers to stimulate sales.

Also, I often recommend that catalogers go one step further than just adding content to their site, and move toward creating an e-commerce community for their market niche. A community could include such things as message boards and chat rooms that allow customers to communicate with one another, as well as special-interest areas where users have access to helpful resources and interact with your company. By creating an e-commerce community, you can persuade users to return repeatedly to your site.

Tool time

While you must make the online shopping experience interesting and enjoyable to the user, you also need to make it easy and convenient. Here, technology can help you, providing handy tools that can guide your customers through the electronic shopping process. Here are some examples:

– Gift registry/wish list allows your customer to create a wish list of products he or she would like to receive. The hopeful recipient then invites friends and family back to your site to view the list and make a purchase. An automated feature in the system deletes from the online registry the items that have already been purchased so that the recipient doesn’t receive multiple versions.

– Reminder service is a simple tool that enables users to input important dates onto a Website, then a number of days ahead of time reminds them of those dates via e-mail. You can tie a promotional message, a special offer, or a digital coupon to the e-mail reminders.

– Shopper’s buddy allows customers to choose from a list of personality traits and product preferences that describe a gift recipient, then searches the site to recommend appropriate gifts.

– Virtual model technology enables users to create a virtual model in their likeness – some with matching skin and hair coloring as well as body proportions – and then virtually “try on” clothing. Apparel marketers including Lands’ End and Nordstrom are already using such technology (see “3-D reality on the Web,” July issue).

– “Intelligent agents” analyze a visitor’s actions while on the site, and from that build both a shopping profile and a personality profile of the user. The computer is then programmed to present the user with what it thinks he or she wants.

So when will e-commerce really take off? To put it simply, when consumers have a good enough reason to prefer online shopping to heading out to the mall. It is up to online catalogers to give them that reason.