If you think that a successful web store is just an electronic catalogthink again. Just slapping together pages of product listings connected to an online shopping cart might get you sales, but customers don't live on offers alone. There are three C's you must consider to make your online store a success:
Content. Selling your product and service in a context that's relevant to your target audience.
Community. Creating an online environment that site visitors and your customers can participate in and feel part of.
Commerce. The actual offers and revenue-generating streams of your web site.
That's the e-commerce site equation: Content builds community, which establishes credibility, which generates sales.
Content: Turn Your Site into a Learning Fountain
Content is king on the Net. People use the Net to learn. That's what drives visitors to a web site. Content can consist of information and community participation, and even your e-commerce offers are considered content. Your site's contentwhether it's information, community participation, or a product or service offermust be interesting enough to make visitors come to your site, stay, and keep coming back for more.
Keep in mind that your content doesn't have to be closely related to your product, but rather to your prospective customers' needs and desires. To do this, you need to make your web store not only a place to buy things, but a learning fountain, too. That's what Paul Siegel recommends. Siegel is an author, Internet marketing consultant, trainer, and speaker. He's also the originator of the Learning Fountain, a web site that influences visitors by helping them learn. Siegel is known for saying, "A learning fountain is a web site that attracts prospectsnot merely visitorsby helping them learn. While learning, they linger and buy." You should take a leaf out of his book and do the same for your web store. By the way, his site is a good resource for building your online business.
According to Siegel, the most popular sites on the Net are learning fountains: Yahoo!, The Motley Fool, Consumer Worldeven Amazon.com, an e-commerce siteare all learning fountains. Your e-commerce site should be a learning fountain, too.
Siegel divides the content of learning fountains into four types:
- Context provider
The next four sections describe these content types.
No one knows the product or service you're selling better than you do. So use this knowledge to help your visitors understand all aspects of your product or service. You might not have all the information they need, but with a little research, you can create a directory of sites on the Net that can provide the information consumers need and refer them to it.
For example, suppose you sell computer products. On your site you could provide a long list of product reviews comparing one product you sell to another. That would be a very time-consuming task. Instead, you could refer your customers to sites that specialize in these reviews, such as ZDNet and TechTV.
Or suppose you sell tools for do-it-yourself home improvement. You can refer customers to ImproveNet, which in turn directs customers to design ideas and project estimators. Another idea is to refer shoppers to places where they can find free stuff, such as at Free Forum Network or Free-Stuff.com. Shoppers will come to your site just to see your latest links to free stuff on the Net. If you get into the habit of refreshing your links, shoppers will return again and again for fresh referrals.
Providing regular updated information on your site that is of practical use to your visitor will bring him to your site and entice him to make repeat visits. Include access to the latest newsespecially news in your product areaarticles, and reminder services.
YellowBrix aggregates free content from more than 500 different providers in categories such as Top News and Weather, Sports News, Business and Finance, Entertainment and Lifestyles, Technology, and Health Newseven Fun and Games. News providers include CNet, Rolling Stone magazine, CBS Market Watch, and Sporting News. And most of the content is free to use on your web site.
Another site similar to iSyndicate is ScreamingMedia. With ScreamingMedia, you can display news stories based on any keyword that you choose. The story headlines and full stories are integrated into your site pages.
Many shoppers need advice to make a buying decision. By making product advice available to your shoppers, you increase the possibility of making a sale. For advice to work, however, it must be trusted and credible. A good example of this kind of advice can be found at Amazon.com. They pioneered the concept of reader reviews for the books they sell and video reviews for their videos. Anyone who has purchased the product can write his or her own review. A peer review looks more objective to a potential customer and increases the possibility of a purchase; shoppers trust other consumers' opinions more than they trust advertisers.
Although not real peer reviews like those on Amazon.com, CDNOW offers CD reviews from noted music critics and writers. c|Net not only reviews hardware products, but advises you on the best places to buy them. TechTV also gives you help on how to use your computer once you've brought it home.
The Context Provider
Providing informational tools to help shoppers make buying decisions is another important content feature for your web store. Consider giving shoppers the capability of solving a problem or determining their shopping needs in the context of your site using online tools such as checklists, calculators, evaluators, and simulators.
Context-specific information can be either product-specific or shopping-specific.
First, let's look at the product-specific tools. Suppose you have a mortgage brokerage service on the web. To help potential customers make a buying decision at your site, you might offer a mortgage calculator. The customer can calculate a monthly mortgage payment based on the type of mortgage he wants, the interest rate, and any other options that would be available with the service. An example of this kind of shopping tool can be found at Bloomberg.com. Investors who visit The League of American Investors can run a simulation game that teaches a potential investor how to invest wisely.
Your context-specific information need not be product-specific. You could provide some useful general tools at your web store, such as links to currency exchanges, international holiday listings, and a world time calculator. Or you could offer several shopping tools at your site that make the shopping experience for consumers more helpful. One of the best shopping tools that you can provide your customers is a link to a package-tracking service, and the FedEx web site has an excellent one. From their Multi-Carrier Track page, a customer can track a package after it has been shipped by specifying the shipping company (several are listed) and the tracking number. Another great service tool to offer your customers is called LifeMinders. The LifeMinders program enables web site visitors to sign up to receive timely, relevant tips and reminders each week about their home and garden, family, auto, entertainment, personal finance, personal events, health, and pets.
Community: Building an Interactive Community
Siegel lists one more important learning fountainthe learning community. People go online not just to be informed but also to interact with other people. Filling this need at your web store will help you turn shoppers into customers and customers into repeat buyers. Content can attract shoppers to your site. But to generate a continuous flow of repeat visitors, you need to provide access to an interactive community.
Community is just as important as content when planning an e-commerce site. If done properly, community features on your site will increase the number of page-views per visit, giving you opportunities to offer merchandise to your shoppers. Community features can be used to encourage customers to return to your site. Establishing a learning community can help shoppers develop expertise through the interaction with other shoppers who visit your site. Asking questions, discussing problems, raising issues, and the general camaraderie that develops in an interactive community breeds a kind of loyalty that's beneficial to the success of your web store. And loyalty breeds repeat visits.
Another benefit of an interactive community is that it can add content to your site. Discussion boards and forums, chat rooms, and discussion lists can provide content because they generate information by their very nature. You can take a short quote from one of your forums or discussion lists and post it each day on your site as fresh content, to generate interest in your product or offer. This type of content can act as a traffic magnet, bringing continuous visitors to your site.
Communities can build your business. Think about it. The more times shoppers visit your site, the more familiar they are with it. The more familiar they are, the more comfortable they might be in making a purchase from you instead of some unknown merchant just a click away. Look at it this way. Communities are sticky. Visitors tend to spend longer periods of time at your site than before. The stickier the site, the more loyal the customer becomes. Loyalty builds trust and trust is the currency of business. You should include as many interactive community tools as possible on your web site.
The major tools of the interactive community are discussion boards or forums, chat rooms, discussion lists, and newsletters. The following sections explain these options.
Discussion Boards and Forums
Everyone has an opinion, and most people want to know that their opinions are taken seriously. Some enjoy helping other people; others have a desire to learn more about a subject, issue, or product. These desires cause people to gravitate to online communities.
As word gets out that serious discussions are going on at your web store and you promote those discussions on your site, shoppers will come back on a regular basis to see what's discussed next.
Discussion boards and forumsor message boards, as they're sometimes calledprovide a bulletin board of threaded discussions. They start with a series of subjects or questions that readers can post their comments or answers to. Later readers read the posts and add their two cents to the thread of postingseither to the original subject or in response to a reader's postinguntil the discussion dies out after available feedback is exhausted.
Visitors to your site are allowed to read any and all posts. But if they want to participate in the discussion, they usually need to register and get a username and password. When they register, this gives you an opportunity to collect some demographic and interest information for marketing uses.
Discussion boards need to be programmed. But if you don't mind using a message board service, you can add a discussion board to your site for free! A free discussion board serviceand one that offers many optionsis Delphi Forums. Using their web interface, you can create a customized message board that resides on their server but links to it from your siteand they also provide a free live chat room for your site's use.
The stickiest interactive community tool of all is the live chat room. Having a live chat room can keep visitors on your site for hours at a time. That's a lot of face time for one web page. During this time, you could place offers on the chat discussion page pitching your products or service. You could even join in the chat about your product or product category, identifying yourself as the merchant and offering to answer any questions about your company and products you sell.
There is a downside to chat rooms, however.
Unlike discussion boards, where you can read all the messages and remove any that are deemed unfit for your board, a chat room is an open free-for-all. To supervise a chat room would take a staff of people monitoring it 24 hours a day. To solve this problem, you might open the chat room at certain times of the day, when monitoring is available.
As with discussion boards, you don't need to set up a resource-demanding chat room on your server or your hosting company's server. There are many free chat services on the Net that you can use by providing a link from your site to the chat services server. As mentioned before, one such service is Delphi.
Here's another use for chat. How about real-time customer service? Lands' End provides live customer service through a chat interface. If you need help with a product, you click the Live Help button and it opens a chat window and initiates a chat session with a live customer service representative.
Although discussion boards and chat rooms require that shoppers visit your site, there are other ways to build a community with shoppers that don't require a site visit, yet build loyalty and keep your web store in the customer's mind. One of the best and least expensive ways to build community is through the use of an email discussion list.
A discussion list is a discussion board via email. Subscribers to your discussion list receive email on a regular basis containing comments that are echoed to every subscriber on the list. Every subscriber on the list receives every post to the list. All posts to the list are done via an email message sent to the list. In a typical discussion list, the listserv software enables a member to send his or her message to the list address, and then broadcasts or echoes that message to all the list membersall within a few minutes.
A well-executed discussion list can gain wide visibility and a very good reputation for your business and for the products or services you sell. Members of a popular discussion list could number in the thousands and offer a great opportunity to sell your product or service. You might use a discussion list as a communications platform for customers who use your manufactured product. If you sell other companies' products, you can use the discussion list to inform your subscribers about your product's category. For example, suppose you sell collectible first-edition books. You could form a discussion list for collectors to exchange ideas about collectable books. You could participate and answer their questions about first editions, showing off your knowledge of the market and building trust in the eyes of your subscribers for your business.
And where do you get the listserv software to run a list? Do you need to place a program on your site? No. You can use a freethere's that great little word againlistserv service on the Net called Yahoo! Groups.
There are three types of discussion lists:
- Unmoderated discussion lists
- Discussion list digests
- Moderated discussion lists
An unmoderated discussion list sends all messages received to all members of the list. If the number of members on the list is small and the list is not very active, this isn't a problem. But if the list is large and very active, it could generate hundreds of messages a day and swamp the users of the list.
One solution is to create a list digest. The digest collects all the messages sent to the list, bundles them, and emails themin one email messageto the list members. The digest can be either daily or weekly.
Another way to cut down on the number of emails to the list is to have a moderated discussion list. The free listserv services only provide unmoderated discussion lists. That means that all posts sent to the list appear without any review. If you want to control what's said on the list or the number of posts sent to the list, you need to bring the listserv software in-house.
Web Marketing Today has a good review of free mailing list programs. They review eGroups (now Yahoo! Groups) and Topica. The review explains the main features and points out differences and advantages of each.
Unlike discussion boards, chat rooms, and discussion lists, a newsletter is a one-way communication device that doesn't allow interaction. But it's a very good way to stay in touch with your visitors and keeps your company in the front of their minds. With the typical newsletter, members can subscribe and unsubscribe freely. You need a listserv software such as Majordomo to manage the list and send out your electronic newsletter.
An electronic newsletter can be used in a number of ways:
The most basic use of a newsletter is to keep your subscribers informed about what's new on your site. You can announce new features, new products, or new promotions that can be used to drive subscribers back to your site on a regular basis. Use your newsletter to nurture potential customers until they're ready to purchase a product from you or sign a contract.
Use your newsletter to send out information that subscribers can use, such as movie, book, or music reviews, or upcoming updates to software they've purchased.
Enhance your reputationand get businessthrough well-written articles in your product or service subject area. You can archive these information-type newsletters on your site, adding more content for shoppers to view when they visit.
There's even a revenue-generating opportunity with electronic newsletters. If your newsletter is unique and offers information or even support that consumers can't get anywhere else, you can solicit paid subscriptions. Or you can ask the manufacturers of your products to sponsor your newsletterin effect, selling advertising space.
Don't be shy about asking visitors to your site to subscribe. One of the best ways to obtain subscribers is to ask visitors to sign up when they first enter your web site. Place your subscription offer on your home page and tell them what they'll receive as a subscriber. You also might want to offer an incentive to sign up, such as a $10 discount coupon or perhaps a free demo of your software.