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Ecommerce & The Friction Removal Process

Posted on 7.31.2008

by John-Scott Dixon

Have you recently asked the question “Why do we have a website?” Please take a moment to think about it.


In my opinion, there’s only one answer - conversion. It’s defined as the percentage of unique visitors that complete a desired action on your website (e.g. submitting a form, buying a product, calling your office, etc.) Whether you’re moving people to your ideology, encouraging them to request more information or selling products, you’re primary goal should be conversion. With that said, most websites do a lousy job of getting that done. They don’t properly welcome their guests and continue a poor experience by placing the burden on each visitor to “navigate to” or “search for” what they want. Far too many distractions, obstacles and steps are placed between entry and conversion. In this article, I’m going to explore ways to reduce “Friction” from your process to increase your conversion ratio – unique visitors that convert divided by total unique visitors.

The best way to get started is Paco Underhill’s story of the Butt Brush in his book, Why We Buy, The Science of Shopping. It offers a great example of friction - literally. The setting is Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan [see image at right]. If you’ve never been, there’s always an amazing flow of traffic inward! According to Paco, management at Bloomingdale’s or Bloomie’s has exceptional command over each piece of merchandising; from counters to racks. The Butt Brush occurs around a tie rack. The kind that spins so that the shopper can stand in one place to view all of the merchandise. This little tie rack had been performing at an acceptable level, but suddenly sales dropped. Nothing appeared to be different. The managers were stumped. Finally, they noticed a security camera that might hold a clue.

Upon review, what they saw made perfect sense. Each time a shopper bent over to view ties toward the bottom of the rack, they’d get butt brushed. Nobody likes this, and they tend to walk away as soon as it occurs. So what happened? The tie rack had been placed to close to the stream of traffic flowing in from the street. When moved a few feet back into the store, it quickly returned to an acceptable performance rate. A small adjustment with big results! This captures the spirit of removing friction from your conversion process.

There are at least three types of Butt Brushes (friction) that can negatively impact online conversion. Design friction encompasses everything from distractions (e.g. using a bright color to draw your eye everywhere rather than to the next step) to navigation and inefficient purchase process architecture. Content friction describes low relevance - the visitor does not see what they want when they arrive, requiring them to navigate or search. Search friction is created when very specific syntax or expert knowledge of the content is required to perform a successful search and is more prevalent in ecommerce websites where the SKU count is large. With this structure, we can classify the friction your website may be experiencing and discuss potential solutions.

The most common source of friction is Content. It is also one of the easiest to reduce. I spoke with Scott Brinker, President and CTO of ion interactive, recently. They’ve created a successful platform to help businesses match online advertising creative to conversion-optimized landing pages. With ion interactive, when the welcoming content is matched to the advertising that generated the visit, a conversion is four times as likely. Scott is also a proponent of Semantic Marketing, indicating “it will make it easier at all stages of the purchase process - higher probability of getting what they want, quicker.” Scott and I have had conversations about how our semantic marketing technology could further improve conversion by matching content in the landing pages not only to the advertising, but also to the visitor as a representative of a particular market segment. As an example, Callahan Creek (an agency with expertise in Shopper Marketing) has been engaging clients with our semantic marketing technology for a number of months, one of which is a national pet foods company. They are excited about the ability to isolate dog owners, specifically those who have aging dogs, from the rest of the website’s visitors. Now, when owners of senior dogs arrive, they’ll be welcomed with products for aging canines and other supportive content. Tom Tholen, President and Chief Strategy Officer at Callahan Creek said “Any time you can shape the experience around the shopper - you can begin to create a long-term relationship.” The closer you tailor the content to a customer, the less friction as they flow toward conversion.

Design friction is simultaneously simple and complex to diagnose. At a surface level, we are looking for design elements that are not aligned with the purpose of the website - conversion. This is usually a function of design accommodation over time. As an example, let’s say we’ve created a new customer care section with video tutorials to assist customers post-purchase. Because we’ve done such a wonderful job creating the section coupled with the fact that the President of our company has heard from several key customers that it has really helped them take advantage of our product - there is now an initiative to increase awareness of the new section. Many times that is delivered as “put this on the home page.” or “put this on every page”. So now, each new prospect is distracted from completing the conversion process by information intended to maintain customer relationships. At a more complex level, online design is more than page layout. It is the architecture of the information. It is responsible for how prospects efficiently flow through a website toward conversion. The best advice is the “keep it simple” approach. As it relates to a purchase process,  the fewer steps or pages required, the higher the conversion.

Search friction is the most complex to resolve. As mentioned above, when an ecommerce website has a large number of categories, brands and products, it often becomes difficult for visitors to find the product that will best suit their needs. At Insight Enterprises, I led an initiative to improve search (reduce friction). We had 300,000 products and our customers had to understand our product coding system to find the right product on the Web. Our search engine was cumbersome and frequently forced customers to make phone contact with our representatives at a significantly higher cost of sales. After talking to a number of customers and sales representatives, we realized that they weren’t necessarily searching for a particular product, but one that met certain criteria. As an example, a purchaser might be asked to source 100 notebooks, less than $2,000 each, with 2GB of memory, a screen size of 13 inches and preferably the Lenova brand. With a traditional search, this is a fairly difficult task. With the search we created in 2002, the purchaser simply finds the notebook category and then checks off the required attributes [see image above]. In essence, navigating through the inventory based on requirements. This radically increased online purchases at Insight.com and forced our competitors to follow suit. If this approach makes sense for your business, I would recommend Endeca (http://endeca.com). They build guided navigation search engines for hundreds of companies across a broad spectrum of industries.

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