(This is a guest post authored by David Rosenfeld, Director at Infinite Conversions)
Before the internet came along, engaging consumers was hardly rocket science. You simply sent your best advertisements off to magazines and newspapers or – if you had the funds – to TV and radio stations. Once you had your clientele, all you needed to retain them was simply being nice to them. Service with a smile went a long way.
Then the World Wide Web came along and changed everything. New engagement channels opened up, and suddenly customer’s expectations of how they wished to be treated exploded through the roof.
When online retailing commenced, it was largely a faceless experience. The user plugged their details into an ordering page, and eventually the items got delivered. All that has changed now, as online customers expect to be treated just as nicely as real-world customers. A WSJ report says that studies show 70% of 3000 online shoppers prefer visiting their preferred retailer online.
The eCommerce world has never been so competitive, and if you’re a retailer who fails to listen to the demands of your customers, then you’re soon going to be wondering why your ordering page is gathering dust.
The Online Shopping Experience
The online shopping experience is now an extremely dynamic one. In many ways, shopping on the internet is now just as customer-facing as real-world shopping. Online retailers make the extra effort to make the retail process a pleasurable one. Making this happen is not a Herculean task — good companies have already showed us how to make real-world shoppers happy, so it’s just a case of applying the same logic to the online shopping experience. And it starts with understanding your customer.
Marketing companies can really seize opportunities here, as they can use their abilities to make the purchase journey a much more pleasurable one for online consumers. This applies to both retail sites with products and services to sell, and even to websites that are competing to attract visitors.
If it Happens Online it Happens in Reality As Well
Most brick-and-mortar stores now have an online presence. If the website of a real-world retailer is poorly thought-out and full of dead links and out-of-stock items then not only is it unlikely to flourish, the poor quality of the site is likely to have a knock-on effect on the way its real-world business is perceived by consumers. Studies have been conducted that show this to very much be the case.
Alternatively, real-world retailers who have an excellent, functional website, find that people are more likely to use their real-world stores. An online relationship often blossoms to create a lasting real-world one.
Despite this, some companies still make the mistake of engineering their sites so they read just like online brochures, instead of being a fully-functional online version of what they offer in the real world.
This article will outline the ways in which a website can be used as a way of increasing conversions, primarily by using it as a way of enhancing a consumer’s online retail experience.
What Affects The Consumer’s Online Experience
The number of factors that affect the user experience of a consumer can be pared down to three:
- What the site contains
- How the site functions
- Psychological Factors
Content is (rather obviously) what the site contains. It is perhaps the most important of the three factors, yet it is the one that’s most often ignored. A site with poor content is very likely to be overlooked, no matter what other factors may come into play. Content helps shape the aesthetics as well as the marketing communication of the business website.
The aesthetics of a site deal with how the site looks. The ‘marketing mix’ aspect of the site deals with the ‘four Ps’ of how a website attracts traffic: Products, Promotion, Price and Place.
Functionality comes in next, once the content helps grab a visitor’s attention to engage with the site. A site may have the best content going, but if it takes too long to load, is confusing to use, or gives consumers the run-around, then content barely matters.
The Psychological factors govern how trust is built up between the consumer and the retailer. Handing over cash (or at least your credit card or PayPal details) is always a leap of faith, so trust is crucial. Consumers need to be reassured that they are going to get what they paid for, and not a sub-standard item that bears no relationship to the hi-res product image on the checkout page.
The best way of creating trust is to have a site that’s full of good content and that works as it is expected to work. Consumers have warmed up to the online experience and become extremely internet-savvy; they will easily spot a site that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Consumer Engagement Is Not Done in Silos
Studies about the entire end-to-end process of the consumer experience are notoriously hard to find. It is not surprising, since there are many factors that create the ideal shopping experience. Studies have been done on each individual aspect of the experience, but very few on the process as a whole.
It is important to note that you should never take each element of the consumer engagement process as an isolated process. Each part should form an important aspect of what makes the site function well as whole. If you take this approach when constructing a site, then you will be much more likely to create a site that creates a satisfactory, end-to-end experience for your potential customers.
How to Create a High-converting Website
To create a well-rounded website, you need to work on all three factors – content, function and psychological – and make sure they are fully integrated. If you work as hard as you can on this ‘holy trinity’ of website design, you’re guaranteed to end up with a site that will engage your customers as much as, or even better than its real-world counterpart. As far as your customers are concerned, you site will appear as if it was uniquely tailored for them.
How you create the combination of these factors that works best for you will vary depending on your business’s specific goals, and the audience you are seeking to target. For example, if your products or services are typically expensive or of a sensitive nature, then your consumers will want to know that you run a secure business. If you sell confidential products, then your customers will need to understand that you are not going to be selling their information to third-party vendors. In both these cases, security is much more of an issue to the people using your site than the colour of your CTA buttons, or whether your users can select a personal skin.
Elements of content
Content serves to address two aspects of an online business — aesthetics and the marketing mix.
An ecommerce site doesn’t exist to big up your company and tell the world how great you are. It exists to increase conversions and make money. It must be state-of-the-art. It must work effectively in ALL browsers. It must look as good on a mobile device as it does on a laptop.
The site needs to capture a visitor’s attention and keep them hooked. The content must be interesting and compelling, and not just a boring sales blurb. The longer a customer engages with your site (here’s more on lowering bounce rate and exit rates), the more likely they are to make a purchase.
- Understanding the medium
The elements that define how aesthetically-pleasing your site is are as follows:
Managing to combine all four elements successfully is certainly not easy, but it can be done, and has successfully been done by hundreds of thousands of sites.
The choices you make fundamentally shape the way that your customers engage with your brand online, and they are particularly important when it comes to first time visitors. The atmosphere created has a crucial bearing on the way that your clients will make decisions.
Remember, shoppers online spend about 10-20 seconds on a webpage, much less compared to how shoppers behave in the real world. Online attention-spans are fleeting, so they need to be secured.
- Getting the design right increases your credibility
Your site helps you create credibility for your brand. If you site design is years out of date, and the content has not been updated for months, then your brand will be perceived as being out of touch.
Choose your domain name, colour scheme and layout with care, and the rewards will surely follow.
Marketing is the way you promote your site – not necessary by tangible elements such as email campaigns, but by combining factors that interact to promote your site and your brand:
The quality of information available on your site is crucial. Your products and services should be clearly defined. Your Terms & Conditions should be readable and not bloated with legal jargon. The more ‘human’ you are, the better.
Customers expect their orders to be delivered with minimum delay. If they are likely to experience a fulfillment delay, they should be informed of such. Customers who experience poor service are much more likely to file a poor review. Delays and mishaps are inevitable, but people are much more understanding if they are kept informed of anything that has gone wrong, than if they are kept in the dark.
Your site should offer multiple payment and shipping options, and you should make sure you deliver on your delivery promises
- Let Customers Experience The Product
Your customers cannot examine your products as they would if they were physically present in your store. You should always remember this and present your products in as visually appealing (and truthful) a way as possible.
It’s a slight debate as to how a brand’s pricing policy effects a consumer’s purchasing behaviour. Naturally, consumers will compare the price of your products to those offered by similar retailers, but they do not simply go for the cheapest, which is why brand reputation is so crucial. Keep your prices competitive, but don’t feel you have to go for the ‘cheaper than chips’ option.
Promotion equals bonus services, discounts, free offers and extra incentives. Promotion encourages visits to engage with your site and your brand, and helps to create repeat orders.
Functionality of the Website
There are two main aspects to functionality, usability and interactivity. You site’s success depends on these two factors. If your site downloads slower than dial-up, and navigation is impossible without an experienced guide, then consumers will abandon your site faster than people fleeing a burning building.
A customer uses the internet for the convenience it offers, not to waste time – at least the eCommerce side of it. Poor site performance will adversely affect conversions and – if you have a bricks-and-mortar store – real-world sales as well.
Your site is usable if a customer can find exactly what they are looking for within a few clicks. If site navigation is like steering a ship through a fog bank, then your website’s usability is low.
The main aspects of usability are as follows:
- How easy the site is to access
- How swiftly your pages load
- How easy the site is to navigate and search
- How easy the ordering and checkout process is
Usability is not simply a case of using the latest programming fads, but understanding precisely what your consumers want, and making the necessary adaptations to accommodate them.
The internet is in a constant state of flux, but over the past few years web technology has moved on to kick those days of static site design firmly into touch. All this has been made possible thanks to increased internet connectivity speeds, which have allowed the web to become a more effective retail platform. This means that it’s not just tech-savvy people who now make purchases via the internet.
Usability is key in embracing this platform, and generating sales. Usability can be split into five sub-categories:
 Access: finding your site in the first place
Until your company is a household name, your site is going to have to rely upon the likes of Google and Bing for your potential customers to be able to find it. The strategy you adopt to allow your site to be easily found via search engines and – most importantly of all – be found ahead of your competitors, much be consistent and use up-to-the-moment techniques. Google in particular seems fond of moving the goalposts every few months or so to keep webmasters and site owners on their toes.
This is where SEO (Search Engine Optimization) strategy and its importance comes into the picture. If you sell pet products, and your site doesn’t (at least locally) appeal in the first page of a Google search when someone taps in ‘pet products’ then it’s hardly worth having a web presence at all.
There used to be several sneaky tactics that could enhance a site’s ranking, but eventually Google became wise to them and outlawed them all. These were known as ‘Black Hat’ techniques and if used today, will do much more harm than good. The alternatives are (of course) ‘White Hat’ techniques such as having compelling, well-written, authoritative content that provides value for your customers.
 Speed: How fast is your site?
People who use the internet are an impatient lot. Everyone has long forgotten the dreaded days of dial-up, when loading even a single image could take a good five minutes or so. These days it’s all super-sexy bandwidth that can even stream live HD video. Consumers expect service with speed and efficiency.
The average time that a user is prepared to wait for a response from the web site they are using is four seconds, and even that is pushing it. The ‘buffering’ circle is a sight no one wants to see, and if people see too much of it, then they are going to go some place where they are unlikely to see it at all. If your site habitually leaves your customers twiddling their thumbs, then your customers are going to habitually leave your site.
You can combat slow loading times by getting your site’s architecture and design right. You don’t need cute animations, self-playing videos and fancy sideshows to grab a customer’s attention – at least not all three at once. If you keep things slight yet elegant, your site with naturally appear in a browser within milliseconds.
 Search and Navigation: finding the way around
Some people like to spend hours browsing around a site, but most people don’t. Most people want to be able to find what they are looking for at your site within two or three clicks. If they can’t do this at your site then they will soon be heading for a site where they can.
If you host a large number of products or services, then make sure your site has a dedicated search function. Don’t rely upon ‘generic’ search APIs, like those created by Google – it just looks amateurish. Your search facilities should be integrated as part of your site and not look like something that’s been tagged on as an after-thought.
If possible, your site’s design should be created with navigation in mind, with an easy-to-use navigation bar in prominent position.
 All Round Convenience
This is possibly the most crucial factor when dealing with buying online. As stated above, people use internet retailers to save time, not waste it. Convenience means they are able to quickly find exactly what they seek and with as little fuss as possible, and then complete their purchasing journey at the checkout just as easily.
A successful site is designed around the likely route a customer will take in order to complete their purchase. This can be gauged by considering the demographic of the target audience, and what the company’s site is trying to achieve.
Convenience is the key factor for vendors when they are working out their online strategy. Consumers expect to be treated speedily and efficiently. When the internet began to take shape, most online stores were strictly web extensions of existing retailers. Online-only operators, such as Amazon and Ebay, did not happen along until much, much later. Even then, the internet was only seen as a promotional tool, rather than a medium where purchases could be made.
But the technology moved on, and consumer expectations rose. Retailers who failed to respond in kind were swiftly left behind.
Consumers who use the net for purchases expect to find exactly what they are looking for only a keystroke or two away. Hearing One Direction’s new album no longer means a trip to a record shop, making a purchase, a return home, and then slipping a CD into a CD player. Someone hearing that One Direction have a new album out can have completed the purchase and be listening to the album on their smart-phone within five minutes.
If your site cannot respond to users in the manner in which they now demand, then you are going to lose sales, conversions and revenue.
 Ordering and Checkout Process: The Shopping Cart Experience
If there is one aspect of your site that you need to pay really close attention to, it’s the entire ordering process, from the moment a user places an item in their virtual shopping cart, to the moment they receive notification that their order has been placed and is being take care of. Anything that interrupts or puts your customer off from getting from the first step of the shopping cart journey to the last needs to be attended to.
There’s little that’s more off-putting when it comes to an online retail store than finding a static site. Online shopping is not the same as browsing through a catalogue and then making a phone call to give product numbers and quantities to an automated ordering service. The online shopping experience should be an interactive one, and the technology exists for this to happen.
The two key elements to interactivity are personalization and networking:
One of the most important aspects of online retailing is of course customer service. It’s extremely easy for a customer whom is having a poor experience with a site to look elsewhere. If they can’t find answers to their questions, they will look elsewhere as well. Having an online helpdesk is a great way of enabling your customers to get help.
It’s an expectation of customers to experience a hassle-free time online. Interactivity goes a long way in providing just that. Customers like to feel reassured that if they encounter a problem with a purchased project or service that they will be able to get help. It’s vital that you have an excellent helpdesk provision. Customers who experience bad service may even go as far as letting the rest of the world know on online forums.
Another important way of getting your users to engage with you is via forums and chat rooms. If you have a recognized online presence then customers will feel reassured that any issues they may have with you will be addressed.
When it comes to online transactions, networking plays a crucial role. Such transactions allow clients to step away from traditional online trading activities. Sites such as eBay and Craigslist have evolved from simpler networking methodologies.
One other important consideration in this area is the use of social networking. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ all play a crucial role. They can be personalized, and they allow for networking. Consumers can rely on speedy responses to their inquiries, and social networks act as a channel for user recommendations, product news and brand loyalty.
When you are designing a new site, online trust is a very important issue. Media channels thrive on news stories such as ‘One million credit card details stolen in security breach’. Many of us are aware of people who have had their identities stolen.
Clients need to be reassured that when they tap their credit card numbers into your payment page such details will not immediately be pounced upon by criminal elements. Users should feel secure when divulging sensitive information of any kind, and it can be difficult to engender trust online as it largely a faceless medium. New sites need to work hard to create the impression that they can be trusted.
Image and reputation cannot be underestimated in importance when it comes to creating a trusted impression. What goes on in the real world to enhance a brand’s image and reputation needs to be mirrored online. A strong, well-known and successful brand is perceived as one that can be trusted.
Endorsements and testimonials form the backbone of online trust. Thanks to Google, when a user types the name of a company into the search box, some of the results returned will include customer reviewing, including the ubiquitous five-star rating.
The customer has never been so empowered. They no longer just have to rely upon word of mouth when debating where to do their online shopping. Hence, a poor reputation results in poor sales.
Taking care of a few things can help establish trust in the users:
- Secure transactions
While most people feel secure in using their credit and debit cards online, you should not take it for granted. On a transaction a page it’s vital that encryption is used, and that your clients are told that encryption is used. Logos from the secure encryption software companies used are vital. Your ordering system should be easy to use, your payment and refunding policies clearly defined, any communication channels easy to reach, and everything should be secure. You need to breed confidence and give plenty of options where appropriate, including offering alternative payment methods such as PayPal, Neteller and Ukash, for example.
- Data Privacy
Never abuse your customers’ data. You should only ever use any information the customer gives you solely for the purposes for which it was given, and no other, and the customer should be reassured of that. No selling email addresses, or sending mail-shots to shipping addresses.
- Reduce uncertainty
Users are likely to have lots of questions. While it is crucial that you have an effective help-desk system, you can save yourself time, money and effort by having an effective FAQ page. Just think of the questions you yourself might ask, and write down the answers. If you observe that certain questions are asked regularly, add them to the FAQ page.
- Returns policies and guarantees
The fact that they cannot physically return an item directly to your shop undermines trust in your customers. If an item does become faulty, they need to know how they can return the item, how they can get their money back if they so choose.
Piecing Everything Together
It may seem that successfully gathering everything together that you need for your eCommerce site is akin to walking barefoot across a mile-long beach filled with razor-sharp pebbles. Not only do you need to attract customers, you need to keep them as well. You need to make your customers feel secure in their dealings with you, and that you’re attentive to what they require.
If you get things right, you can turn any first-time customer into a repeat purchaser, and the more repeat purchasers you have, the more business you are going to make.
If you are finding all these aspects of online consumerism difficult to piece together, then just picture the real-world experience, and adapt it to the virtual world. Treat your online customers just as well as you would if they were visiting a real-world version of your store.
What are your thoughts here? Apart from content, functionality and psychological factors, is there anything else that we missed out here? And of these three, what would your immediate priority be if you are just about to set up an online store?
Tell us in the comments section below.