The vast differences among 3 types of e-commerce sites

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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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