We have entered a new and exciting era. We are facing the fact that consumers, more than ever, have greater control over our brands. They've always had the power of the wallet, but it used to take months or quarters for marketers to react to how consumers wielded that power. Now, we receive instant feedback on virtual store layouts, messaging, products, and more. That information most often comes to us via online channels, through the use of analytics, qualitative feedback, and, most recently, social media.
So, how do we respond using the primary property we, as marketers, have most control over? How do we ensure the websites we operate have all the necessary features to support this new decision-making framework and response cycle? Here are some of the features that your site should have. This is not a "requirements document" -- and I truly hope that I don't see this return to me as an RFP. Rather, this article provides a litany of proven elements that marketers can incorporate into their sites to make them work harder day and night, as intended.
Value statements. First, when it comes to your company's website, you need to give users a succinct value proposition. Tell them why they should care. Ideally, they're there because they do care or because a friend told them they should. But that is not enough. Users today also need to see social proof that exhibits why they should believe what your company tells them. Do you have testimonials or case studies you can share? Highlight likely scenarios for users to help them see how they might receive the same benefits experienced by others like them. (Tip: Integrating targeting tools into your website helps you do this more efficiently.)
Comparison facilitators. Know that users are not insulated like in-store shoppers, and they're more likely to compare you to competitors while online. Help them on their path and provide them with the ability to compare your product or service to others you offer -- or even competitors' products. Expect them to consider others, so head them off at the pass and be clear about your unique differences. Make sure you know, through research, which are the most important differences to the majority of consumers and focus on those. (But don't overdo it.) Additionally, make those differences scanable either through the use of bullets or pictures. The point is to make understanding your differentiators easy. Be sure to focus on the 20 percent that make 80 percent of the difference.
Useful resources. Provide immediate value to the consumer. They're more likely to give you their money in the long run if you provide them additional value in the short term. Even in the short term, they may provide you with something simple, such as their email address, if you give them access to calculators, whitepapers, or other items of value during their time on your site.
The ability to share. Let your visitors take you with them. The web is social now, so jump on that bandwagon right away. Users expect to be able to put content in their pockets for later, or broadcast the things they like or are passionate about. Give them the option with familiar icons, such as YouTube for videos, Twitter for short bursts or shout-outs, or Facebook to indicate they simply like something. Content inevitably gets passed along, so facilitate that process. You stand to gain traffic in larger increments if you continually provide items of value.
Maps and directions. Be where you're needed. If a customer can buy your product or service in a physical location, then you should consider being mobile in some way. Be there when they need you. There are myriad ways to do this, and you can start small by providing maps and directions. But be prepared to get more sophisticated in the coming years as consumers and phones become more demanding when it comes to mobile capabilities. And, whether mobile or not, use Google Maps and/or other common mapping tools. Help customers find their way to your door in a familiar way.
Feedback portals. Don't be afraid of letting customers talk about and rate your products. Be confident that you're building good products or delivering good service, and then allow your customers to get vocal. Ultimately, the likelihood of people completely dissuading prospective customers from buying your products is minimized by the customers simply helping those prospective customers decide what is best for them. You'll find that you have fewer returns, better conversion rates (until this becomes a norm among all of your competitors), and more satisfied customers because their expectations were set in customer-speak rather than hyperbole.
A personal touch. Don't forget to highlight what is important to your company through social bookmarking, blogs, blog rolls, custom search engines, or other tools. Loyalists want to know what's on your mind or what's in your world. Let them know what you're watching, what you think is interesting, and ultimately, what is shaping your decisions about how you serve them as you continually improve product development, customer service, or operations.
Communication tools. Lay the groundwork for rapid, open communication to your customers, the media, and the public, should you ever need it. Start a blog and use Twitter, if you don't already. You need a social media strategy for a few reasons: to build fans and communicate with your loyalists, and to quickly handle crises should they arise. It is difficult to start these types of communications in the middle of a crisis, so you need to lay the foundation so that you can truthfully and openly respond to issues in real time. Be kind and open now, and it will yield dividends when you get into hot water.
A clear process. Walk your users through the experience of your website. If you're selling anything even moderately complex, then you need to be clear about the process. Additionally, the process needs to be the customer's process -- not your operational flow. This is often hard for companies to understand, but they have to take a step back and realize that people may purchase products in a manner that's different from how the company fulfills orders. Listen to customers and take them through a step-by-step process, while also communicating high-level information as to where they will ultimately end up.
Filtering options. If you have a medium to large product set, you need to consider filters to supplement typical navigation. In other words, most consumers have a better idea of what they don't want rather than what they actually do want. So allow users to filter content to identify sets of content rather than single channels, product lines, or features. In other words, help them narrow down their preferences rather than forcing them down a pre-defined path. This should be complemented with product selection tools to help those customers who need a lot more support than others. (Such tools typically provide a small, incremental gain and should only be pursued once you really know how to help a customer decide.)
Product details. When it comes to touching and feeling a product, online doesn't compare to offline. However, to overcome as much of the barrier as possible, you need to support dynamic imaging and offer oversize photos, zoom, color swatching, 360-degree views, and relative scale views of your products. This is another case where customer reviews can help. Such reviews provide real-life context to a product, which is all that your typical consumer wants. They want to know how your product will be put to use in their own lives.
Personalization tools. When possible, allow customers to personalize your product. When people begin the personalization process, they become invested and find it hard to let go. Let them be unique and get them invested in your product as if it were their own because, after all, it is. Besides, in the real world, personalized products become a conversation starter for the consumer. And believe me, you'll be part of that conversation.
A friendly shopping cart. When you get to your site's cart, remember that people are prone to change their mind on some of the subtle details, such as color or size. Don't make them restart the shopping process just to make a simple change. Allow them to make these changes (and add quantity, of course) without leaving the cart.
Added conveniences. Also, don't make a user do the same thing twice, particularly when they're in the purchasing phase. Email cart, save cart, and print cart are all options that should be available to the user. And you can probably come up with more convenience features like these if you get creative.
Special incentives. Incentivize people to talk about your company. Provide special offers that go to the people who pass your site or product along. Create exclusivity, buzz, and loyalty at the same time. Not everyone will put forth the effort, but for those that do, say thank you.
Multiple ways to discover information. Realize that every one of your customers fits into a different category when it comes to how they learn. I am sure many of you have heard that people are visual, verbal, or kinesthetic learners, so consider how you might cover all bases. Try to accommodate for all by providing images and/or video, writing clearly and succinctly, or giving people a feel for how they might use the product or service. You don't necessarily have to cram everything into one space, either. Each type of person will seek out what best suits his or her needs; you just need to ensure that people can quickly find what they need. But, whatever you do, you need to make it easy to see and read through good contrast and legible font sizes.
Shipping. Offer free shipping options on your website. Work it into the price or figure it out some other way. Nothing disappoints users, especially those already on the fence, more than giving them a big surprise charge at the end.
Easy returns. Also, if you make it easy to return products and you're clear about how to do so, you will likely realize that your sales go up and your percentage of returns remains relatively constant. People are more likely to buy if they feel like they can go back on a wrong decision, but they're not always likely to go through even an easy process to return something. Additionally, confidence and trust builds loyalty. Net result: You win in both the short and long term.
Payment flexibility. Offer alternative payment options to gain another incremental gain in conversion rates. Granted, if you're supporting the most common payment options, you're reaching the vast majority. However, particularly if you're the only one of your competitive set that offers particular payment methods, you may find that you reach a big group (often one that tells others) that hadn't been given this option before. If you choose to provide alternative payment options, promote that fact early on and site-wide, as well as in some targeted promotions in order to get the ball rolling.
Extended support. In addition, through your website, you must offer support beyond the life of your product. Let customers know that you always have their backs, even for discontinued products. Offer guides, a knowledge base, or other tools for products that are no longer available for sale. It not only instills confidence, but also speaks to your longevity as a company.
A live connection. Despite all the great content, pictures, options, and contrast, people sometimes still need to talk to someone. Live chat is an easy must-have feature for e-commerce sites, along with an option to reach a live person via a toll-free number. Ensure that whoever answers the chat or the phone can pick up where the customer is and facilitate the transaction. Often these dialogues, while more expensive than having a customer simply go through the process unassisted, result in higher average order values and build more long-term loyalty (assuming it is a good experience).
Data collection. The final and most important feature of a successful website is measurement and feedback -- analytics, internal search, qualitative feedback, contact forms, and other ways to view and optimize customer behavior. Establish your key performance indicators, put the tools in place to view these data objectively, and study the information day-in and day-out. You'll realize how "must have" all these features really are, particularly if you put them in place one by one to gauge each individual effect.
Now, I have covered a lot of ground here and to say that all these website features are "required" may be daunting; however, it really is possible. The best sites do all of these things elegantly and without the consumer often realizing it. In fact, there are many other things that the best sites and marketers do beyond this list, such as content targeting, CRM, and geo-location, which I didn't wedge into this must-have list.
The takeaway lesson is that you need to continually put the customer's needs in the forefront. Work to understand those needs, no matter how subtle or subliminal they are. Be as objective as you can. (Agencies and consultants may help you get out of your own way with a new perspective.) And above all, continually listen to feedback from your customers. Be confident in the value you provide to them, but ultimately, the customers are your constant guide, as they've always been.