The State of Ecommerce

Selling products online has never been easier. Or harder.

We built our first ecommerce-capable site in 1998. A band we were working with wanted to sell t-shirts and CDs online. They didn’t have room in the van for all the inventory they could sell on tour, so it was either get a bigger van, or try something new.

They tried something new.

When they’d run out of CDs or shirts at a concert, they’d hand out cards telling fans there were always more online. It’s an enviable model and one that made ecommerce seem pretty simple. They had a product, demand, an effective promotion channel, and an easy way to buy. *sound of a cash register*

All these years later, the basic model is the same. Retailers still need to clearly demonstrate the value of their products. They still need to build an audience, promote demand and make it easy to purchase. It’s rarely so simple as that site from 1998, though, especially if there’s an expectation for scale. (And there always is.)

Demonstrate Value

Let’s start with your value proposition. Simply put, explaining your product is key to selling it. Because online customers can’t physically examine items before they buy, you have some work to do. Your story needs to be clear, concise and on-brand. This is a matter of nailing both content and design, and it’s a fundamental part of building demand. This is also the place where most retailers get it wrong.

Customers need to be able to envision themselves with your product. They need compelling details written with familiar vernacular. They need to be able to see lifestyle photography and product videos to get a sense for your product in use. And your site design and overall buying experience need to match your product persona.

The right online experience can even beat a physical point of sale. Think of how Apple sells products. The experience they create online actually enhances the buying experience. Yours can too.

Find an Audience, and Build Demand

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is inevitably the first tactic you’ll use to tell the world you exist. It’s also the first tactic your competitors will use. So, while you need SEO to be a big part of your strategy, you don’t want to stop there. Smart marketers know there is a lot more you can do to find audiences and build demand. You’re smart. Let’s talk about those other things.

Go Where Your Customers Are

Maybe (probably) your customers are on Facebook, for instance. There are a lot of ways you can connect with customers on Facebook. You already know you can create a business page. Did you also know you can create campaigns with ads that target specific audience segments? Let’s say you sell bikepacking gear. You can target people who’ve expressed an interest in bikepacking and/or cycling and/or camping. You can target people who’ve liked Bikepackers Magazine. You can target people who’ve like Salsa Bicycles or people who’ve liked your competitor’s bikepacking gear or people who’ve liked SnowPeak or Big Agnes or people who are men or women or who live in a certain place or people of a certain age. You can target people who’ve been to your site or signed up for your mailings or purchased from you previously. It goes on.

Let’s take a breath. The point is simple: the Internet allows you to find specific audience segments–i.e., customers–and new technologies and platforms let you create relevant content they’ll actually want to see. That isn’t to say these methods aren’t misused–they are–but you have a huge potential as a smart marketer with a great product and a clear message to find an audience and build demand. You just need to…

Stand Out

Retailers today contend with a huge amount of online noise, both from actual competitors and from general distractions. Have you seen this video of dogs failing at being dogs?

Now that we’ve established how easy it is to learn what people are interested in, there’s simply no reason to create more noise. You know your product, you know your brand, and you should know enough about your audience to create relevant content–whether that’s an ad, an email or a post. All of these forms of content can be designed to stay on-brand.

Build Brand Loyalty

Q: What’s better than creating a relevant, targeted ad telling people about your product? A: having customers tell other people for you. We like to think of this less like advertising and more like karma–if you push something good into the universe, it will find its way back to you. In other words, create a great experience around your product, and customers will take care of your product evangelism for you. Peer endorsement is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say.

Stay In Touch

Now that you’ve built brand loyalty, let’s keep it. So far, we’ve been discussing how to find an audience. Keeping that audience is every bit as important–maybe even more so. Ask them to like you on Facebook, follow you on Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest and SnapChat and any other social space you’re active on. Ask them to subscribe to your newsletter. But then–and this is important–actually participate. Let them know what you’re up to. Give them early looks at new products. Offer discounts. These are your best customers. Remind them.

Make It Easy To Buy

In 1998, just being able to buy something online was still kind of mystical. The biggest point of friction was the nagging risk of evildoers getting your card numbers. Today, we’re dealing with online shopping pros. People buy online all the time, so long as you meet certain expectations. Your site needs to look professional. It needs to be secure. It needs to perform well on a phone. These are basic needs. Where you go from there is critical.

Choose the Right Platform.

It only took a thousand words or so to get to one of the first decisions you’ll need to make when creating your store: which ecommerce platform is best for you? Turnkey, hosted option? Enterprise solution? What does that even mean?

Hosted solutions like Bigcommerce or Shopify make it pretty easy to set up a relatively full-featured ecommerce store. If you have a few, simple products to sell or want to test market interest with a MVP (minimum viable product), this is a good approach. Hosted solutions lower the cost of entry by providing turnkey templates and themes. Those same tools, though, also limit design and functionality flexibility.

If you’re an established retailer, you probably need an enterprise solution. This is where platforms like Magento make sense. While they take more work to implement, you won’t run into design or functionality limitations. You’ll also gain merchandising options and the extensibility needed to tie into inventory and fulfillment systems.

It’s possible you don’t need a typical ecommerce platform at all. There are plenty of situations where sites need to be able to handle online payments but don’t need a “store.” If we were working on that same band merchandise project today, we’d probably still build something custom, perhaps using an ecommerce API like Moltin.

Stay On-Brand

It’s easy to say you need a great looking site to be successful, but it’s more accurate to say you need a specific looking site.

One of the reasons we’re talking about this again here is that the platform you choose has an impact on the experience you’re able to create. Those turnkey, hosted options that make setting up a store so easy today also clip your ability to customize the experience.

Your online presence is a very real extension of your brand–next to owning your product, it can be your customer’s primary interaction with you. Creating an experience that matches the lifestyle you and your products promote (and stands out from the see of look-alikes) reinforces the simple truths that you’re serious about your products and you appreciate your customers.

Here’s what we see: custom (enterprise) solutions take more to implement. They also result in greater sales success.

Choose Your Words

There’s no reason an online transaction can’t be personable. Tailor your messaging throughout the entire experience–from your site’s landing page through the entire checkout process–and thank them properly in confirmation emails. It lets customers know you care about their experience. And that you’re cool. Which you are.

Understand Your Analytics

This should be a post all by itself, but we’re mostly going to request a flyby today. Your analytics will tell you where people are coming from, where they’re going, when and where they’re leaving, whether anyone is clicking on that giant carousel, whether people are starting/finishing your product videos, how your site is converting on mobile devices, how each product is performing, what people are searching for, who is signing up for mailings, and much more. That band site really only told us hits and purchases. We’ve come a long way since 1998. Let’s use all this new data for good–focus efforts, reduce friction, sell more stuff, and make people happy.

With Feeling

Let’s zoom in on the point of this whole thing. Being able to sell your products online and getting people to buy your products online are two different things. The tools to do each aren’t necessarily aligned, and that “basic model” we suggest in the opening paragraphs might not always seem so basic.

Don’t let any of that dissuade you. There are a lot of variables and a lot of options, but there are always smart teams ready to help you through it.

And, we’re pretty sure this ecommerce thing is going to catch on.