Ultimately, every brand wants to reach the pinnacle of consumer engagement. In e-Commerce, that might mean having the latest and greatest technology or the coolest new features. Regardless, the ability for a company to differentiate its site is of utmost importance in an increasingly competitive market. Unfortunately, even some of the most established brands don’t build from the bottom up. Just the slightest slowdown in page load speed, an awkward design, or any inconvenience while checking out can alienate customers. Unless a brand already has highly engaged users, disaffected customers — and their business—can easily move to your competitor’s site in just one click.
When charging toward the e-Commerce pinnacle, merchants should execute a four-phase strategy. Each ensuing phase builds on those before it. More to the point, later phases cannot succeed unless the previous phases have been completed. The four phases are simple: Start with the basics; make things easy; make things familiar; and create an ongoing conversation. As each level of engagement is achieved, the overall user experience improves and the lifetime value of the relationship increases.
Phase I: Get Back To Basics
In e-Commerce, at a minimum, the site must be live and available. Remarkably, some of the largest brands in the world still fail at this. Take, for example, Apple’s day-long site problems when it launched the iPhone 4S last year. Tens of thousands of new phone purchases were aborted. Apple, of course, already is one of those brands that will get a second chance from engaged customers. Not every merchant is so lucky. Potential transactions abandoned mid-purchase because a site is slow, or down, cost online merchants big bucks. We call this basic level “utility.” Achieving utility must be the first goal any business selling products and services sets for itself. Selecting the right e-Commerce platform and agency is crucial to this effort.
Ignoring the basic utility of an e-Commerce system—namely that it is up and performing well—can create damage that outweighs any benefits that the latest features and functionality might provide. Before implementing a new capability, merchants must ensure that their e-Commerce system clears this essential bar.
Phase II: Make It Easy Once basic utility has been achieved (and maintained!), the second phase merchants should address is ease-of-use. That sounds obvious, but like utility, this is a critical step that too many neglect. Consumers want a hassle-free process when they shop online.They either know exactly what they want and want to find it quickly, or they want to search around just as they would in a traditional brick and mortar retail store. In the first case, navigation must be streamlined and intuitive; in the second, on-site search must be fast and efficient and never lead to a dead-end search (in other words, with whatever terms a customer uses to search, an item should always be displayed). Once customers have found what they are looking for, the site must deliver a smooth and painless checkout process. Some sites experience upwards of 90% shopping cart abandonment with a major reason being an overly convoluted checkout. After they complete the purchase, customers may want to log into their accounts and manage their orders. They want the experience to be simple but personalized. In all cases, working with an experienced e-Commerce agency with proven UX design capabilities is essential.
Phase III: Make It Familiar
To achieve the next level of eCommerce success, businesses must understand that a modern eCommerce platform entails multiple-delivery channels. With smartphones, tablets, apps and ubiquitous wi-fi, there are more ways to shop in more places than ever before. In order to fully exploit these channels, there must be consistency across them. For retailers who have brick-and-mortar operations as well, digital channels should also capture the essence of the experience that a consumer gets when he or she walks into the store. In all cases, a shopper should get a consistent experience of the brand whatever channels they use to engage.
Achieving this consistency extends well beyond the web site’s appearance. The underlying technology platform must be well-integrated with other crucial systems to ensure that the entire order and shipping process — from shopping to shipping — is both consistent and coherent. In-store inventory should be reflected online if it can be drop-shipped. Gift cards and coupons should be available online and offline and redeemable in any combination in any venue. The website design should scale elegantly across the form factors of different device. It should come as no surprise that achieving this goal requires detailed planning and a holistic view of one’s business. The effort pays off, however. The more familiar the shopping experience across all channels, the more customers will engage with the brand. And as with any brand experience, it’s often the very first encounter that defines a brand in a customer’s mind.
Phase IV: Create Conversation
The final stage of e-Commerce engagement manifests as a conversation in which customers are interacting socially and with your brand through the eCommerce platform. It is indisputable that greater engagement leads to higher lifetime value of a customer. Some aspects of this engagement can actually be quantified: time on site, pages viewed, reviews submitted and, of course, purchases made. Harder to measure is the value of enthusiastic customers who recommend your products and services to their friends. Nevertheless, more engaged customers buy more, buy more often, and buy through more channels. This is the ideal state of consumer engagement for any business.
Too often businesses try to start at this level hoping to achieve instant success. Afterall, loyalty programs and social networking have an undeniable and increasingly important role to play in a fully realized e-Commerce strategy. Nevertheless, the value of these efforts can only be obtained after the three phases described above have been achieved and maintained: basic utility, ease of use, and familiarity. Once in place, the sky’s the limit on all of the creative ways to engage with customers. If the platform basics are in place, businesses can then exploit “the Next Big Thing,” whatever it may be.
Michael Harvey is the COO at CorraTech, a premiere eCommerce Agency and systems Integrator with offices in New York and LA. The company was recently honored with the Magento Partner Excellence Award, one of only five U.S. companies to receive the distinction. He leads CorraTech's delivery team overseeing the firm's project management, analysis, marketing, and award-winning design. He is a keen observer of the eCommerce industry and has been quoted in a number of notable publications on topics as diverse as enhancing the customer experience and the future of Amazon.