Moving Beyond the Starter Website

So you’ve been selling online for a few years now, and the Website that seemed perfect when you launched it is no longer producing the results you need. Perhaps it looks too old-fashioned, and maybe it doesn’t take advantage of some recent developments in usability, online selling techniques, or technology. It could be time to upgrade — but where should you start?

With only the bare minimum of e-commerce functionality, “starter” Websites are little more than online brochures with prices and a shopping cart. They feature simple hard-coded HTML pages with virtually no administration capabilities, so every page must be updated by hand whenever changes are made to products or pricing. Such sites do not let you easily manage merchandise, campaigns, content, reporting, or any other valuable functions, and often they don’t even have a back-end database. Customer usability is likely to be below par as well.

As you’re no doubt aware, replacing a starter Website with an advanced e-commerce site can be a complex undertaking. At the same time, the stakes are significant: The quality of the end product can dramatically improve or detract from your ability to increase customer acquisition, conversion, and retention. Creating an advanced, or second-generation, site is your opportunity to expand upon your original site’s good features and to eliminate things that did not work. You’ll want to update everything to work in parallel with the most logical flow of data through your site, to suit the greatest number of shoppers. In doing so, you’ll also want to make sure that your site designer is an expert on usability. If he or she isn’t, hire someone with the required knowledge and experience. Such an investment will be worthwhile.

Getting started

The first step is to collect data from your existing site. Gather as much information as you can regarding usage, usability, traffic, features most often and least often used, stages in the purchase process where the most shopping carts are abandoned, products most and least often purchased, and so forth. Review your user session logs to study the way the path to purchase flows through the Website — and the way people actually click through the site. Compare the two, and identify where things seem to go smoothly and where there were roadblocks. Also evaluate whether you could revise your product category structure to make navigation simpler.

Before you choose to discard anything, find out which features and systems have any value and which do not. For example, if your “favorites” list sees little use, perhaps the feature is irrelevant to your customers’ needs. Don’t assume such is the case, though. The seemingly irrelevant feature may harbor a hidden programming bug that makes it inconvenient or unavailable to some users. Always look beyond the numbers.

You can gather much of the information you need from your customers through online and telephone surveys, focus groups, and user testing. Your catalog and retail customers of today are tomorrow’s Website customers, so make sure to include them in whatever research you do.

In general, your customers’ needs and desires should be your guiding principles as you develop your goals for the site. Assess what your customers want when they visit your site, and then determine how your site will satisfy them. Does the site need to provide a better user experience? Drive traffic to retail locations? Supplement your catalog sales? Or be a better customer service resource? Then determine the level of performance the site needs to operate at in order to make it worth the investment.

Next, evaluate your competition. Look carefully at what they are doing online, and develop a plan to meet — if not exceed — what they offer their customers. E-commerce sites can employ a bewildering array of features and functionality, so to keep track of it all, I recommend that you develop a competitive matrix (see an example below) that shows how you stack up against competitors feature by feature.

Picking and choosing

Okay, you know what features your customers want. You know what functions your competitors do and don’t offer. Now it’s time to figure out exactly which features you want to include in your upgrade. A few to consider:

  • Merchandising capabilities

    Effective merchandising can transform an average e-commerce site into an extraordinary one. Advanced sites have robust merchandising capabilities that can put the right product in front of the right person at the right time. I recommend you select an e-commerce engine with a campaign management system built in, to enable you to fully control discounts, promotions, and messaging.

  • E-mail

    Because e-mail is so important to the growth of your Website, you should build your e-mail strategies into your overall online strategy. For one thing, you probably want your site to be “e-mail aware” — capable of tracking and reporting on the effectiveness of your e-mail campaigns. You could then develop two promotional offers for your summer merchandise, and test them by sending them out to two customer groups with similar demographics. As the responses and purchases mount, your Website could keep track of which promotion is generating more sales, so you know how to focus your efforts.

  • Customer loyalty and retention tools

    Opt-in e-mail, personal accounts, customer reviews, tell-a-friend, favorites/wish lists, quick polls, and online magazines are among the features that involve visitors with your site, make their shopping sessions enjoyable and successful, and encourage them to come back.

  • Reporting

    Virtually all advanced e-commerce features rely upon data about customers and sales to be truly effective. It follows that a solid reporting system is crucial. Such a system should report not only traffic statistics but also advanced analytics such as conversions, demand, best-sellers, tool and feature usage, abandoned carts, and sales generated by e-mail campaigns. You can use timely information from your reporting system to continually upgrade your product offerings, promotions, and site content.

  • Content

    Many basic Websites lack useful content — including valuable product information — for the simple reason that developing and updating the copy takes time and energy. Advanced Websites take advantage of administration capabilities to make content management easier. Such sites typically feature plenty of product content with ample detail and depth, and include ancillary content such as how-to articles that support sales indirectly. Such content pays off by engaging shoppers and holding their interest.

    Developing a content strategy can be helpful. Take a close look at your products and determine how much support material they warrant. The site for seeds cataloger Burpee exemplifies the use of content to educate customers and support sales, offering everything from a brief tip of the day to full-length feature articles. Many product pages offer a link to Vital Statistics, an additional page with extensive product information. Climate information is available to help visitors find the optimal planting times according to where they live, and there is even an online garden school. All this helps customers use Burpee products and makes the site a valuable online destination for gardeners of all experience levels.

  • Personalization

    If you plan to make your site very advanced, personalization technology can give you a real edge on the competition. A number of techniques and technologies are available, but all are intended to serve up messaging, offers, and images calculated to be of the greatest interest to each particular customer. Static rules-based personalization provides the ability to market specifically to target customer groups that you define. Self-updating rules can determine the appropriate product, promotion, or content to display to a customer in real time to stimulate purchasing.

    For example, if I were shopping at an online pet supplies dealer, I might fill out a survey in return for a 10% discount on that day’s purchase. The site would ask what kind of pet I own; I would type in “golden retriever.” The next time I visited the site, I would be presented with a customized page that greets me by name, provides thumbnail images for three new doggie toys, and announces a discount on the brand of dog food I bought during my last visit. This will undoubtedly spark my interest more than if I were greeted with a generic home page advertising cat litter, fish food, and bird toys.

  • Campaign management

    Best-of-breed campaign management technologies provide all the tools you need to assemble targeted campaigns that incorporate personalized e-mail messages and Web home pages.

    To extend the pet store example, suppose I opt in to receive the merchant’s e-mail announcements. Its campaign management application could automatically include me in all promotions for dog-related items and exclude me from all others. It could further refine its business rules based upon how often I make a purchase and how much I spend. This way, I would not be deluged with information about every sale but would receive only information calculated to be of interest to me. Such targeting increases the relative value of every message your customers receive from you and has been proven effective in increasing sales and customer loyalty.

Preparing to integrate

Many of the features you decide to use will require in-depth technological integration of your site with your back-end systems: databases, fulfillment systems, customer care management systems, and so forth. The advantages of close integration include faster order processing, automation of labor-intensive functions to reduce staff workload, and smoother shopping and ordering procedures that will make your customers happier. Among the points of integration to plan for:

  • Real-time inventory

    If your site currently has no provision for easy, fast, daily inventory updates, consider incorporating a real-time inventory system that puts your Website’s front end in constant communication with your inventory databases so that your customers always know exactly what products are available.

  • Order placement

    Typically, an advanced Website is able to place orders live to the back-end, speeding order processing and enabling instant customer notification in the event of backordered or out-of-stock items.

  • Order status and order history

    Create a live link to your back end so that customers always have the most up-to-date information about their shipment. A live link to shippers such as United Parcel Service and Federal Express lets customers visit your site to get the information they need even after their package leaves your facility.

  • Product uploads

    Automate your product uploads so that your most up-to-date products, product information, and pricing are always available to customers.

Selecting the technology

It’s not enough to know what you want; you also have to figure out the best way to get it. Above all, that means choosing your e-commerce engine carefully. Because you need the maximum return on your investment, look for an e-commerce engine or platform that will last a minimum of three to five years. It must be able to scale and grow with you as your business evolves. Such e-commerce platforms include ATG, Blue Martini, and MarketLive, to name a few.

I recommend a J2EE-compliant Java application. This is becoming the standard for e-commerce because it offers the expandability, extensibility, scalability, flexibility, and integration capabilities vital to an advanced and evolving Web presence.

Whatever e-commerce engine you select, be certain that it offers a comprehensive self-administration system with a user-friendly interface. An administration system allows your marketing or merchandising staff to instantaneously update all products, pricing, images, messaging, campaigns, and anything else on your site with no delay or expense for programming. A self-administration system puts control of your e-commerce site in the hands of the marketers, where it belongs.

Make sure the services offered by your hosting provider can cover the highest peak load expected, particularly if a large portion of your sales occurs during a few specific periods, such as the December holidays.

The ultimate test for a Website is its effect on the bottom line. Your site, and everything on it, should be engineered to:

  • increase conversion rates;
  • increase average order size and frequency of purchase;
  • improve customer loyalty and retention;
  • reduce abandoned-cart rates;
  • decrease customer service costs; and
  • improve the overall customer experience.

In short, find out what your customers want and need, and engineer your Web presence to satisfy them better than the competition can.

Ken Burke is president/CEO of Multimedia Live, an e-commerce technology company based in Petaluma, CA.

A Sample Competitive Matrix

A competitive matrix helps you figure out what you need to add to your Website to help you measure up to the competition.

Features currently on site Our site Competitor A Competitor B
Online order status X X
Extended product information X
Personal accounts X X X
Gift wrap
Wish list X
Real-time product updates ? ?
Personalized home page X