For most Internet retailers, the Web is a matter of life and death for their businesses and their livelihoods. Despite strong growth and generous revenue projections, many online merchants find themselves in a state of emergency - pained by the challenges of meeting the rapidly changing and complex expectations of users, as well as the ever-increasing sophistication of today's technology.
Because every Internet retailer has at one time or another suffered from at least one of the most common ailments, addressing and correcting these issues before they inflict too much harm is the only way to put a digital storefront back on the path to recovery. While ecommerce continues to outpace traditional retail sales, the drive towards "everything digital" is accelerating merchants' involvement and investment - which creates a far more competitive online business climate than ever before.
As a result, the entire definition of ecommerce is changing at a faster pace than many can keep.
Pretty much everyone is selling something on the 'Net, but it is not always a physical product. Information publishers, service providers and even software providers can be categorized as Internet retailers, and there are solution vendors of all types positioning themselves to support merchants' growth in a positive direction.
For example, ecommerce service provider Avangate is used by thousands of software and software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies hoping to build their audience and accelerate business revenue. The company, which was recently selected as one of the 2012 Red Herring Top 100 Most Innovative in Europe, is showing that while old models of distribution and marketing were effective, the seller and buyer markets today are ready for significant disruption. And it is disruption that they are undeniably experiencing.
According to the Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce, U.S. retail ecommerce sales for the first quarter of 2012 (adjusted for seasonal variation but not for price change) was $53.2 billion (wsm.co/LSzU7d) - an increase of 3.1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011. And it gets better: the Q1 2012 results increased 15 percent from Q1 2011.
Merchants readily adopt any program or platform they can to correct the ills of their digital business performance, whether they are fleeting or formidable. If there's a better way, merchants will find and use it - often before those in other verticals. But from behavioral-based advertising to triggered email, and nearly everything in between, being familiar with the most common ailments first will prevent a deadly epidemic later.
The broader community of Web professionals and digital media workers is quickly realizing that many important lessons can be learned from the design, development, marketing and advertising practices of the savviest Internet retailers. In the end, however, it is the specific ailments which determine the triage that is to be immediately applied, as well as the treatments that are to be put into place throughout the recovery process.
The symptoms for all ecommerce ailments, of course, are detected through poor performance - low brand interaction rates on social media sites or high abandonment rates in the shopping cart, for instance. But there are a variety of approaches that can cure even the most serious conditions facing today's merchants. So, what are the most common ailments for ecommerce merchants and how can they be corrected? Let's open up the patient files.
According to Forrester, 7 out of 10 online shopping carts are abandoned before a sale is ever completed - and many expect that percentage to rise as consumers become more comfortable seeking out additional information such as reviews/ ratings and prices of the competition. Does it need to be this way?
If there's one thing the Web still can't do, it's replicate the act of gift-giving when the recipient is thousands of miles away. But that hasn't stopped people from trying. One new tool to do just that is Sociagram, from the team behind Lets Gift It. Sociagram takes the concept of allowing customers to ship gifts beyond simply printing text on packing slips, instead giving them a platform to record a personalized video to go along with it. Ecommerce companies can present said videos in a branded player that is already mobile device-ready. Currently in private beta, Sociagram is expected to see general availability in the coming months.
As an online shopper, imagine how frustrating it would be to return to a site several hours or days later, only to find the cart empty and having to repeat the product search process from the beginning. Even a small change in the length of cookie duration can do wonders for reducing abandonment rates.
While some shoppers will in fact return, and their experiences will be improved by your having kept the orders in their cart, others simply will not return. It's a fact of ecommerce life - or is it? One of the most popular trends today is leveraging what is known about the behaviors and buying habits of users and using that information to your advantage to encourage their repeat visits and eventual purchases.
The Real Time Offers solution from behavioral commerce platform provider Steelhouse, for example, enables merchants to target shoppers mid-interaction based on their buying behaviors. The solution provides merchants with live data that can instantly link specific offers to individual shoppers based on their shopping personalities.
For example, a free shipping promotion would be displayed to a customer that is likely to abandon their shopping cart, or a coupon could be presented to a shopper that typically only buys when there is a discount. Additionally, this solution not only helps with shopping cart abandonment and average order values, but can also be leveraged to upsell customers, create flash or secret sales, encourage visitors to join a mailing list or loyalty program, launch seasonal sales or announce new products.
Enough resources are expended already in the acquisition of buyers - so why stop once a customer has been acquired? It would be a systemic failure if merchants did not pay as much, if not more, attention to the customers they've spent resources on to bring to their retail Web properties. There's nothing more disheartening than to see a large community with perpetually low interaction.
Merchants, therefore, need to take the lead by writing a prescription for their users that encourages repeat or return visits. How can this be accomplished? Through triggered email.
For many Internet retailers, email marketing can be a tough pill to swallow. They are often drawn more towards social media, or paid advertising and the remarketing that can occur in that channel. Some ecommerce merchants, however, consider email to be a wonder drug of sorts for reviving their floundering retail Web businesses.
Email service provider Listrak client SmileyCookie.com, for example, implemented a triggered email campaign that provided a formal welcome campaign and fostered interaction and increased sales while reducing shopping cart abandonment. Visitors encountered a modal acquisition pop-up offer to receive 10 percent off their orders if they opted-in to receive emails.
When they subscribed, they received a welcome email containing a coupon that was valid for two weeks. But if no order was placed within six days, a second email was sent reminding them of the offer. SmileyCookie also used Listrak's Shopping Cart Abandonment solution that initiates a three-message series of emails offering varying levels of discount. The end result? A 15-percent increase in online sales as a result of the increased interaction.
It is nearly impossible for shoppers to purchase if they don't return. But even with all the advanced behavioral remarketing that is available, the best cure might just be the one that reinforces a sense of community between the shopper and the brand, and rewards the user for their participation. Welcome to the retail channel, gamification.
Ecommerce coupon and "offer marketing" platform Fanplayr, for example, recently brought its gamification technology to Magento, which is now part of eBay's X.Commerce ecosystem. Magento merchants can add the Fanplayr widget to their stores and engage consumers socially with games that provide multi-variable coupons and offers as a reward for playing.
The Fanplayr widgets can be deployed pretty much anywhere - not just a Magento shopping cart - including Facebook brand pages, email, mobile websites and even within advertising. The extension offers real-time performance insights into the coupons/offers being used by merchants, and also provides social graph (and Facebook Connect) integration.
Ecommerce merchants who fail to wholly embrace social media risk not only community stagnation (low group interaction), but they may also prevent themselves from acquiring a few more buyers along the way. Social media, however, remains a mystery to many Internet retailers, but that need not be the case as there are a variety of technology solutions that can heal any anemic social presence.
Social sign-on solutions might just be the optimal antidote to this common ailment. With billions of users ready and willing to engage retail businesses in a social relationship, providing website (and community) access to those prospective buyers via their social network credentials is not only increasingly common, but has also proven to be an effective means of improving any number of ills associated with low performance.
3dcart, for example, recently released a Facebook Connect integration that enables shoppers to sign in using their Facebook accounts from the "My Account" and "Checkout" pages. Using the system enables shoppers to bypass creating on-site IDs and passwords, and in so doing provides merchants with immediate access to information related to their behavior and interests.
Social sign-on is by no means new, but it is effective and is gaining traction in the ecommerce landscape. Back in April 2011, social recommendation platform ShopSocially released its social commerce suite for online retailers and announced partnerships with some notable names such as Sephora, Cafe- Press, Zales and Rawlings Gear. The solution aims to turn shoppers into brand ambassadors and generate traffic through social recommendations.
It's common for merchants to make sales, but the best merchants are able to drive more revenue from their existing customers than their competitors. If your digital retail presence does not offer up suggestions on additional products, merchandising along the way, the bottom line will suffer because of the lower average order value.
Fortunately, there are numerous technologies available to halt the deadly disease of low average order value. Consider the use of recommendation engines, for example.
It makes sense for merchants to make the most out of every interaction with a customer, but there is indeed a balance that must be achieved. Too much or too little doesn't bode well. The solution is recommendation engines - the ecommerce applications that suggest additional products to buyers, ones that supplement, complement or are required for the first one to function. Most of the top-tier shopping carts available today provide merchants with ways to designate related products but, on the whole, adoption of these features remains lacking.
Another option is the use of optimized product search. If it's agreed that the buying cycle is long or complex, then it's necessary to both accelerate and simplify that process. One way to do that is by making sure the product search functionality is customer- centric.
Often, product search is seen by merchants as just another to-do item on the long list of improvements to be made to a digital retail presence. The reality is that the better the site search, the better the sitewide experience is for shoppers.
And more satisfied shoppers, as you might imagine, buy more product. Much like recommendation engines, site search is often bundled within the online retail solution, but standalone providers include SLI-Systems, Nextopia, and SearchSpring.
Constantly being bombarded with questions and complaints is akin to a digital headache, which no virtual aspirin will cure if the products are just plain bad. Some products and services, however, demand that users have access to a greater depth of information.
Sometimes, the lines of communication between merchants and their customers need to be as easy to access as possible, and many consumers like to be able to interface directly with a real person. A lot of times, the customer's concern can be alleviated with a small dose of live chat, and solution provider BoldChat (now a product of LogMeIn) offers features geared towards those "proactive chatters" who want to target site visitors and take the initiative to invite them to open a dialogue. With four different service offerings, merchants can find the solution that best meets their consumers' needs.
There is no one single cure to the pains you may be suffering as an ecommerce merchant. Fortunately, there are numerous software solutions and marketing tactics that can accelerate your success and provide a better experience for online shoppers. Live well and your ecommerce presence will prosper.
Merchants can leverage prestimedia to create a digital and interactive product catalog. This platform offers three solutions, which each come with various features, such as SEO tools, multi-language functionality, printing options, analytics, social sharing and product highlighting, as well as shopping cart and wish list capabilities. Merchants can also create animated pages and integrate their catalogs within their Facebook pages if desired. The Nanobook solution comes with essential features, while the e.print solution is fully customizable and includes a search engine. Lastly, the Premiumbook solution offers merchants the most features, including slideshow functionality and the ability to include rich media into catalogs, such as videos, sound and 3D animations.