If you build a website, will they come?

If you build a website, will they come?

If you’re in the business of selling product, an e-commerce site can be a tantalising way to boost sales without filling more desks with salespeople; it can also be a potential money pit that ends up delivering little in return for the investment.

Particularly in the IT space, online shop fronts are a crowded area, yet among New Zealand e-tailers, only a few truly do the job well and are successful as a result. But getting what you want out of your e-commerce site doesn’t have to be a mystic art.

A little bit of up-front research spent formulating what your business plan is for a site, can save you pain further down the track. Even the best web developer can only work within the parameters of the job. If you haven’t come up with a brief and budget that will allow the web designers to achieve what you want, then there’s no point in blaming them afterwards.

So what are the common mistakes New Zealand e-tailers make?

Assuming that if you build it “they will come”. Wrong. Build it, and they mostly won’t come. To get customers to your site people have to be able to find it. While the finer points of search engine optimisation (SEO) can be a black art, the basics of optimising your site for search engines (and let’s face it, we’re talking Google here) are freely available online. Google itself publishes guidelines and there are any number of SEO sites and blogs that give good, free information. Make sure SEO is a component of the site design. If you baulk at the cost of paying for SEO work, just stop and consider how much the site is costing you overall and how much you stand to loose if it doesn’t work. If you don’t get the basics right, you’re tying one hand behind your back from the start.

Beyond search engine optimisation you should also consider Google Adwords and online display advertising, always remembering that a call to action – such as special promotions and deals – will generate more response than generic brand advertising.

It’s all about the database. There are plenty of e-commerce sites out there that have obviously been designed by a programmer. Sure, technically they work. The site hooks into the back-end database, it even shows stock status. If you are lucky, there might even be a picture of (some) of the products for sale. Many IT e-tailers seem to have a distain for good design. But good site design is not about Flash, or neatly bevelled corners on your boxes. It’s about building a site that fits in with buyer purchasing behaviour, so they find your site a comfortable place to go to make online purchases.

Buyers – particularly IT buyers – typically do research online about products, and often will do some degree of price comparison. If your site doesn’t give clear information on products, including basic features, pictures and price, then you’re not helping the buyer make decisions. And if you’re not helping them, they’ve got no reason to buy from you. While it is hard to underestimate the importance of price in the buying decision, it is not the sole factor. If a buyer has a good experience buying from your site, then they could return, even if you don’t have the absolute lowest price on the product they want.

It’s e-commerce. We don’t need people. Wrong. E-commerce is just another way of forging a customer relationship. The job doesn’t end when the user clicks submit on the credit-card form. If you leave your customers hanging, with no email confirmation of purchases, or fail to notify them if there is any delay in order delivery, for example, then you’re eroding trust. Someone should always be available to answer customer queries, follow up order enquires and deal with return issues.

And don’t think incidents of poor customer service won’t come back to haunt you. With the boom in social networking, dissatisfied customers can and will air their grievances on forums and social networking sites. This will have an immediate effect on your reputation and can also persist long afterwards thanks to Google. So take your e-commerce customers as seriously as if they walked in your front door.

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