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The vast differences among 3 types of e-commerce sites

Andrew Solmssen
The vast differences among 3 types of e-commerce sites Andrew Solmssen

Selling on the web has gotten increasingly complex with more channels and partners than ever before. For one thing, you have to make the tricky choice between using cloud-based e-commerce tools (easy, cheap, and fun, but prone to outages) or your own data center servers. You have to enable customers to complete transactions on not only their desktop computers, but also on tablets, mobile devices, TVs, digital out-of-home media, and more. In addition, you need to add a layer of targeting, be it business to consumer, business to business, or consumer to consumer. The list of e-commerce concerns goes on and on.

Let's look at e-commerce from a higher level and investigate how to vary the user experience depending on what is being sold. Too often, companies look at e-commerce as a single, monolithic concept -- either you're hawking products or you're not -- but this kind of thinking can result in an experience that's incomplete, complicated, and frustrating.

While there are many combinations, e-commerce sites generally break down into three basic categories: large online catalogs, commodity products and services, and freemium/paywall content sites.  I’ll start with the first category, since that’s what marketers see the most of.

Large online catalogs
The online catalog is the poster child of e-commerce, as it's what most of us think of when we imagine a commerce site. The most obvious example is the "massively multi-SKU," Amazon.com. The hallmarks of such sites are their vast numbers of products.

The toughest job on these sites is figuring out what the buyers are coming for and how to get them to where they need to go. The big issue for the user-interface on these properties is cognitive load (how many items the users can hold in their short-term memory at any given time). People become overwhelmed when viewing crowded pages that contain no hierarchy and too many options. So, when you have a site containing a variety of products like Target.com -- which sells everything from potato chips to flat-screen TVs -- you'll need to implement user-friendly tools to get your shopper to the right aisle, so to speak. These tools include:

Let’s be honest: -Search is the crutch of a bad interface. When you can't easily find what you want on a site, you start using the "search" field. So yes, it must be there, and it must  work well, but let's call it table stakes.

Global navigation
While it’s the most important feature on an e-commerce site, global navigation often gets short shrift. Or, on the flip side, retailers may go too far in the other direction, creating a bloated global nav that confuses more than it helps. We recently conducted user-testing for a large retailer to choose between "global nav" draft options. The main categories were set, but, as with any catalog site, there were far more categories than could possibly be displayed in the navigation bar. This test was to decide what should go in the nav's "see more" area. It was a great lesson on reported behavior versus observed behavior. Every user in the test said that they wanted the option with more items in it. But, when it actually came to finding an item, each person was much quicker with the list that had fewer items in it -- cognitive load in action.

Parametric browse and filter
How can you make it easy to shave down a huge number of results into a manageable few? Use parameters to filter the results. Zappos.com is the master of this: "men's shoes" yields 6,484 results while "men's boots casual size 10 moccasin" yields 12. Now, that's a number one can work with.

Upsell and cross-sell
Part of the difficulty with large catalog sites is unearthing the many thousands of products. Create ways for intelligent pairings to surface after a user has looked at the details of one product. Point them to additional products that make sense -- like batteries for a flashlight or a spatula for a frying pan. Or give your site the ability to cross-sell. For example, if users bought a flashlight and a frying pan, they might also be in the market for a tent or a sleeping bag.

Product recommendations
A little information can be a wonderful -- or it can be a dangerous thing. While "product recommendations" have in some cases gotten better -- thanks, Netflix -- a recommendations engine can be tricky. In essence, the site is predicting what you might want to buy next. The rule of this one is simple: Don't do it if you can't do it well. There's nothing more annoying than buying your grandmother a present and then -- for the rest of your life -- having the site assume you're deeply interested in cardigans and orthopedic shoes.

Commodity products and services
For these destinations, it's a numbers game based on one thing: qualified leads. This type of e-commerce site offers a smaller number of products, but they are items that everyone needs or thinks they need. The automotive category is a great example. Other areas in this category are service items like gym memberships. Commodity sites are all about the purchase funnel in its purest form for the two key consumer groups:

The goal with these shoppers is to increase conversion from awareness to familiarity. You need to clearly communicate the brand's promise and help users understand and internalize the different products by establishing a brand personality. Do this by:

  • using video content that presents the brand's story

  • demonstrating how the product fits one's lifestyle

  • encouraging advocates to use social media to share their feelings about products

  • using display advertising, high-level product email, and optimized mobile sites (as out-of-market shoppers are not going to commit to installing an app)

This is the group you're most interested in. This group is ready-to-buy, but it's a toss-up as to which seller will get their business. Here, we're looking to increase conversion from consideration to intention, primarily by highlighting product advantages and benefits. Do this by:

  • promoting reviews, testimonials, and other third-party content

  • geo-targeting users with local events and localized offers

  • focusing on product strengths

  • providing a virtual experience with the product

  • driving traffic with geo-targeted and re-targeted display ads

  • providing apps with utility and marketing them on the site

Copyright 2007, Harvard Business School Publishing

Freemium/paywall content sites
These sites are usually content sites that offer some free content, and the rest of the site is behind a paywall. You should make a clear delineation between the two. A user forced to continually click on links that say "premium members only" will become frustrated.

Freemium sites tend to be niche-specific and depend on deeply-interested consumers to pony up and pay (usually by subscribing) while the less zealous graze for free. Sports sites like Yahoo! Rivals and ESPN are great candidates for this model, as are finance and Hollywood sites aimed at professionals. Desperate to bump up revenue from declining print subscribers, many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, have adopted this model as well. These sites are not a "numbers game." They are highly self-selecting, and only dedicated fans are going to be willing to pay for the content. To maximize conversion, there are key decisions to make in the following areas:

Placing and selling paywall content
This is the most challenging part, as having too much free content available often means no one will feel compelled to sign-up and pay. If you put too much behind the paywall, users won't be enticed enough to sign-up. One common approach is a free-trial -- letting users enjoy the benefits of full-site access for a set period of time. The balance between content in front of and behind the paywall is the most important content strategy and interface decision you'll make.

Messaging premium content
Sites that act as relentless billboards for the service are going to turn off a potential customer (aka, the casual browser). We've also seen properties where you could spend time consuming information and never even know you were missing a level of content.

Be sure to understand the type of e-commerce site you are, as the tactics for success aren't universal. If you design an experience that matches what you're selling, you'll set yourself up for success.

Andrew Solmssen is managing director for Possible Worldwide.

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