Although it’s pretty easy to create an online store these days, marketing your products and making sales is still a bit of a challenge. Online retail marketers must face significant competition from big-box sellers, pure-play ecommerce purveyors, and, in some cases, even manufacturers selling direct, all while navigating dozens of promotional options like pay-per-click or email and while trying to use any number of “tools” aimed at collecting, analyzing, and automating everything.
Within this somewhat confusing and competitive landscape it can be a good idea to have some guiding principles or rules that help determine what is important and what sort of marketing you should be doing.
1. Always Focus on Your Customer
A successful marketer is continually listening to the customer, seeking insight and trying to provide products in a way that meets shoppers’ needs and wants, even as those needs and wants change.
Marketers must also help to shape a company’s internal culture so that customer focus and the desire to please the customer drives nearly every aspect of the business from how products are selected to how products are shipped and even to how customer complaints are handled.
This is no small matter.
Good customer service can be the difference between a profitable business and a failed startup. Consider that in 2011, an American Express survey found that 7 in 10 U.S. consumers would be willing to spend more with companies that provide excellent customer service. And repeat shoppers, those that come back a second or third time, spend between 3 and 10 times as much as a new customer, according to surveys from Adobe, Help Scout, and the White House Council on Consumer Affairs.
2. Create Deep Customer Relationships
“Customer loyalty and repeat business are the cornerstones of today’s market conditions,” wrote Lou Dubois in a popular Inc magazine article. “In the words of many industry professionals, losing a customer is the absolute worst thing that could happen to your company. This mantra has always stood true, but when you’re fighting with competitors for every dollar, customer retention is key.”
Online retail marketers may have a significant advantage where building deep customer relationships is concerned, and that advantage lies in the proliferation of social media and the information sharing culture emerging around those sites. Social media makes it possible to turn customers into friends on a massive scale.
Retail marketers should aim to post something 2-4 times a day on Facebook. The majority of posts should focus on entertainment or content marketing, while perhaps one-in-four may feature a product or service.
But don’t just focus on Facebook, pay attention to Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr as well. Use social media to answer customer questions and manage customer service too.
3. Be Patient & Set Long Term Goals
If an online retailer is aimed at building long-term, high-value customer relationships — relationships wherein shoppers return and make frequent purchases — that retailer’s marketing should reflect that goal and be patient enough to achieve it. By definition long-term relationships take a long time to build.
In the United States about 8% of online shoppers represent some 41% of online sales, according to the Adobe “The ROI from Marketing to Existing Online Customers” report that was released in August 2012.
Repeat shoppers represent the majority of sales for a healthy online business, and yet many marketers focus between 80-and-100% of their promotional budgets on acquiring new customers without worrying about keep those customers they already have.
Clearly it would not be wise to stop trying to get new shoppers to visit, but it’s equally unwise to ignore repeat business. Focus at least a portion of marketing budgets on campaigns aimed at long term goals, like increasing the number of repeat customers a store has.
4. Reach Beyond Your Own Website
An online retailer’s website should be that merchant’s marketing hub, in fact, this is one of the reasons that Shopify, as an example, requires theme designers to include a blog section. An ecommerce website should be the single source from which all campaigns emerge, but that ecommerce site should not be the only place that the merchant markets or sells.
As mentioned above, marketers should almost certainly communicate with potential customers on social media sites like Facebook or Pinterest. Beyond this, online retailers should also consider listing and selling products on via other channels as well. Submit your products to product feeds, comparison shopping engines, and if your product allows, why not sell at craft fairs or farmers markets?
5. Build a Usable Site
An online shopper should be able to visit an online store, quickly locate products, make an informed buying decision, and complete a purchase with ease.
If a site’s layout or design interferes with a visitor’s ability to shop the retailer could be losing sales and customers. Site usability is especially important in the mobile context given that IBM recently reported that mobile commerce had risen some 31 percent in the first quarter of 2013 (see more about this below).
6. Looks Matter
“Design and aesthetics have a profound impact on how users perceive information, learn, judge credibility and usability, and ultimately assign value to a product. To dismiss design as merely visual is to make a fundamental mistake. Style does not replace substance, but style and substance in balance work much better,” wrote the authors of a 2010 paper, “The Impact of Design and Aesthetics on Usability, Credibility, and Learning in an Online Environment.”
Put simply, a beautiful, well designed website conveys professionalism and trustworthiness, and shoppers are more willing to buy from retailers that they trust.
7. Build a Fast Site
There is a mountain of data demonstrating that a slow website reduces conversion rates. In 2009, Google found that a 500-millisecond slowdown in page load times resulted in a 20% decrease in revenues from pay-per-click ads.
Microsoft separately found that a 2-second increase in page load time generated a 2.5% decrease in clicks and queries.
In ecommerce, Amazon reported that a 100-millesecond increase in page load times decrease revenue by one percent. The bottom line is that shoppers don’t like to wait for pages to load.
8. Mange Changes in Technology
Ecommerce changed the retail industry, and it’s safe to assume other changes in technology will also impact how products are bought and sold. Ecommerce marketers need to be aware of potentially impactful technologies and manage both site changes and marketing campaigns accordingly.
As an example, IBM recently released its Online Retail Index for the first quarter of 2013, indicating that mobile commerce had risen 31 percent for the quarter. IBM further projected that mobile commerce sales might soon account for 17.4 percent of all ecommerce sales. And mobile is certainly not the last technology that will affect retailing.
9. Use Video to Sell
Descriptive product videos can significantly improve conversion rates and encourage shoppers to share product information.
Placing videos on its website can result in an incredible 160% increase in conversions. Other retailers have reported that product videos boosted conversion rates between 6 and 60%.
10. Plan to Have Narrow Margins
A final point for ecommerce marketers to remember is that online selling can be very price competitive. If you do nothing to differentiate your products, services, or company then you can only compete on price, meaning that you must be prepared for relatively narrow margins.
From a marketing perspective there are probably two ways to manage this. On the one hand, you can sell only unique products that cannot be purchased from other sellers, or you can plan lean campaigns that focus on long-term customer relationships rather than single sales.