Survival is tough on the Wild Wild Web. Improving your site’s content is one way to trigger additional sales and keep your business alive

Take a look at any of the top-producing e-commerce sites on the Web and you’ll find a variety of enticing products supported by appropriate and effective branding.

Now look closer. Mingled among the shirts and the shoes, the CDs and the DVDs, you’ll find articles, animations, detailed product descriptions, customer comments, and other elements designed to grab and hold a customer’s interest and encourage him to click that “Add to Basket” button.

This material is collectively called content, and aside from the products themselves, it’s the most important component of any successful e-commerce site. Presented and managed correctly, good content reduces abandoned cart rates, creates site stickiness, and increases sell-through and return on investment. In fact, boosting your bottom line should be the sole purpose of Web content: If it isn’t doing that, it doesn’t belong on your site.

There are two types of content on an e-commerce Website: direct and indirect. Direct content is information about individual products, such as photographs, product descriptions, and pricing. It also includes other elements that help sell the product, such as audio files, video files, animation, alternative views, enhanced zoom, FAQs, and customer reviews.

As an example, footwear cataloger/retailer Journeys serves up dynamic, compelling direct content at every level of its Website. In addition to detailed photography and written descriptions, the site uses animation, sound, and video clips to bring its products to life. Another example is the Sears/Craftsman site, which uses small videos to demonstrate the easy operation of some of its tools.

In contrast, indirect content is the supplemental information that supports the sale. Indirect content includes how-to articles, polls, and e-zines, all of which can be highly efficient vehicles for selling. A single article about fly-fishing, for example, could link to products ranging from rods, reels, and tackle boxes to apparel, accessories, and gift items.

Balancing content and commerce Compelling content can go a long way toward stimulating sales on your site, but that doesn’t mean more is always better. Striking the right balance between content and commerce is critical.

With too little content you run the risk of losing your customer’s interest, and the sale. Too much content – even if it’s all excellent – can be distracting. Visitors may forget that they’d stopped by your site to buy a product, rather than just read about it.

But offering an increasing depth of detail, multilayered content can help lead customers from your home page through gateway and index pages, and finally to the product detail page, where the sale is made. You should carefully reconsider any content that takes a customer off this path to purchase. If you decide to include it anyway, think about linking to it through a daughter window, or “pop-up” – a separate window that pops open to show a single piece of information while leaving the main window open. Then, once the customer finishes reading, he simply closes the window to resume shopping.

In addition to helping move customers along the path to purchase, you can effectively use content at the product level as a cross-selling tool. Visualize, which sells artworks and reproductions, does a great job of linking commerce and content throughout its elegantly designed site. After selecting a piece of art, the customer can click a link on the product page to find out more about the artist and read about other available pieces by the same artist.

All in all, you should plan your Website’s content as carefully as you plan its merchandise mix. Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

1) Choose the right e-commerce engine. Your e-commerce engine is one of the largest investments you’ll make in your site, so be sure to choose one that includes a strong component for publishing and managing content. Sites built on e-commerce platforms such as ATG’s Dynamo, IBM’s WebSphere, Blue Martini, and MarketLive are fully self-administrable, leaving control over content in the hands of your marketing or merchandising team – not IT. If you have your site built by an outside firm, be sure to specify that you want the freedom to administer all types of content (text, animation, audio files, and whatnot).

2) Personalize. You may already use information from data logs and other sources to personalize the products and promotions that greet return customers when they log on to your home page. You can use the same data to personalize the Website content. Personalization technology is now a standard feature of most e-commerce engines, and for good reason. When people like what they see, they’re more likely to read it – or buy it. So study your data logs for customer information such as clickstream behavior, purchase history, and demographic information that you can use to build detailed customer profiles, then create content around them. Or get in touch with your customers’ preferences through registration, surveys, or e-mail, then serve up only the content they’ve requested.

3) Use the Web’s unique capabilities. The Web is a dynamic, multidimensional, interactive medium that provides unparalleled opportunities for messaging and selling. Take full advantage of these opportunities by providing your customers with a variety of experiences on your site. Audio product narrations, video clips, animation, 3D product views, and even interactive contests and games can add energy to your site, enhancing the shopping experience, increasing loyalty, and improving sales. The dynamic nature of the Web also lends itself well to self-propagating (or customer-provided) content such as product rankings, customer feedback, and polls. While self-propagating content requires the same careful management as any other kind of content, updating it frequently or even in real time (in the case of polls) can make a visit to your site a truly interactive experience.

4) Create an e-zine to educate, entertain, and involve. Just as a Website is more than an online catalog, an e-zine is more than an online magazine. E-zines can take many forms and include a variety of media, including animation, sound, and video, all focused on the goal of supporting sales.

Visualize’s stunning monthly e-zine, “Off the Wall,” features articles about selecting, living with, and enjoying art, complete with numerous links back to products that illustrate the concepts. Seeds marketer Burpee takes a different approach, offering both an e-mail newsletter and an online Garden School consisting of more than a dozen in-depth articles. Each article includes step-by-step instructions, helpful hints, design ideas, FAQs, and links to featured products.

5) Give customers choices – then let them choose. This follows the old sales maxim, “When you have made the sale, stop selling.” Never force-feed content to your customer. As you design the architecture of your site, make sure that customers have the option of asking for more content when they get closer to making a purchase. For example, because an extended product description may provide welcome details for one customer but distract or confuse another, you should build descriptions in multiple levels so that shoppers can choose how much data they want to receive. And don’t have an audio or video file play automatically when customers open a page; always let them choose whether to play the file.

Finally, make sure to update your content regularly. If your content remains the same, it will become less effective.

While there’s no magical formula for making sure your content is balanced and effective, usability testing can be a highly effective way of gauging your success. There are many ways to approach it: Hire a firm to design and carry out testing prior to launching your site, conduct testing inhouse, or use your site to gather customer feedback. Questionnaires specifically related to content can provide valuable information about what customers like, where they are getting confused, and what might stop them from making a purchase.

A well-designed content plan regularly replenished with fresh information is one of the best weapons an i.merchant has. When shooting it out with the competition online, content may determine which sites are left standing.

Customer acquisition, conversion, and retention are three critical requirements for the success of any business. On the Web, carefully chosen content can support all three.

Getting people to your site is the first step in making a sale. “Teaser content” can attract new customers by giving them a sneak peek of what awaits them on your site and offering them an incentive to click through. This content can take the form of a banner ad, an e-mail campaign, or a special promotion, and it can even include a source code that lets you track its effectiveness.

Once visitors are on your site, you can use content such as alternative views and extended product information to involve them with the product, keep them on your site longer, and reinforce the confidence that converts browsers to buyers.

And after the sale, features such as e-zines, newsletters, and chat rooms can boost retention and loyalty by giving customers reasons to return: to learn, to be entertained, or to exchange information with other customers.