More than digital catalogs, the best e-commerce Web sites are chock-full of engaging features and interactive tools. Here's how to transform yours into an online destination for community-driven customers.
By Matt Alderton
Bill Rogers has seen a lot of Web sites. Most, he points out, are little more than static HTML pages posing as digital sales brochures. They're informational. They're two-dimensional. And most of the time, they're also boring.
"Ultimately, people come, they look around a little bit and within three clicks, they're off the site," says Rogers, CEO of Ektron, a Nashua, N.H.-based company that builds interactive Web sites via its suite of Web authoring tools and content management solutions. "There are literally more than 2 billion Web sites out there. Yours has to have some stickiness to it that brings clients back."
Indeed most companies use their Web sites to passively push their products, but Rogers argues that more should be using them to actively pull in customers. "People are starting to discover that their site can be much more powerful," he says.
In other words, your Web site doesn't just have to sell things. It can — and should — do more.
For many customers, online shopping is a hard sell. When they're in a retail store, they can pick products up, examine them, ask questions of the sales associates and solicit feedback from their friends. Until recently, they couldn't do any of that online.
Now, however, they can do almost all of it, says Ed Foy Jr., founder and CEO of eFashionSolutions in Secaucus, N.J. He helps brands like DKNY and Baby Phat build interactive online stores that are just as engaging as their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, thanks to polls, videos, social networks, e-mail alerts, 3-D visualization and more.
"If your Web site can handle transactions, God bless you," Foy says. "The holy grail, though, is having a Web site that's a lot smarter about your products and customers."
Mayer Balser, COO and co-founder of online electronics retailer Etronics.com, agrees. In the last year his company has expanded its online store to include customer ratings, competitive price comparisons, a blog and customer service via live online chat.
"We're seeing good results so far," Balser says of the new features at Etronics.com. "Our site's all about making sure our customers are happy."
Your Web 2.0 Toolbox
Perhaps the easiest way to make customers happy online is to engage them, according to Rogers. "The whole Web 2.0 toolbox is about creating stickiness," he says. True, when pundits and tech-heads repeat the phrase "Web 2.0," they're referring to an entire generation of interactive Web site tools designed to feed user engagement. Here are just a few of the most popular tools that online retailers can use to make their Web sites more engaging:
Polls: Quizzes, polls and surveys can be created easily and affordably thanks to companies that specialize in these types of content. They give customers something fun to click while helping retailers collect information about them.
Blogs: Blogs enable retailers to regularly publish fresh content about products and promotions. New posts and user comments encourage repeat visits.
Live chat: Live chat platforms help companies interact with customers in real time at the moment of purchase in order to provide instant purchasing information.
Ratings and reviews: Customer reviews improve user confidence by allowing shoppers to access user-generated information from like-minded consumers.
Social bookmarks: Social bookmarks help retailers tap into customers' existing social networks via online word-of-mouth.
No matter what tools you implement to make your Web site less static and more interactive, the key to success is to not get caught up in the hype of new technologies, according to Foy. "Focus on the basics first, then test new technologies that make the most sense for your business. It's easy to get overwhelmed," he says. "Think of it this way: I've got a 1-year-old; she walks, but she's not running marathons. Walk before you run."
15 Web 2.0 Tools
Looking for interactive tech tools? Consider the following Web 2.0 staples:
- Customer reviews
- Discussion boards
- Live chat
- Online communities
- RSS feeds
- Social bookmarks
- Social networking
- User-generated content
- Video sharing