Saturday, May 31, 2008

Tips & Tricks: Home page design workshop with Borders

I love huge redesign projects (as long as it's not our Web site getting redesigned). There's often a lot to learn from good companies releasing a new version of a Web site or a Web store. Both good ideas to keep in mind and mistakes to avoid.

A couple of months back we focused on how apparel giant Eddie Bauer had updated their Web store. Now, let's look at what books & music powerhouse Borders has come up with.

Why? Because a $3.8 billion dollar company like Borders has a lot more money and human resources than you and I to spend on figuring out the best way to redesign their store. They spent a year on the project, and recently re-launched their storefront. When that kind of thing happens, I'm listening.

Let's see what they've done and whether there is something we can learn from their experience, and maybe apply it to our own e-commerce Web sites.

Specifically, we're going to focus on their new home page. There are 5 things that I want to point out about their new home page design.

(1) Search

As mentioned here, many leading e-commerce stores are now placing the "small search box" centrally, in one of the most important, most visible areas of the store design. That's simply because search is absolutely key, as many studies have shown. If I were you, I'd do the same.

Interesting how they put a category drop-down next to the keywords input field. That's a good idea too, in my view, and easy to implement on your Web store as well. Specifically, if you have a bit of experience with HTML, you should be able to rather easily change the HTML form that makes up the search box to include a category drop-down. In a nutshell:
  • Visit the advanced search page on your store (most e-commerce systems have one)
  • Save the page with your browser
  • Open it in an HTML editor
  • Look at the code used for the category drop-down (assuming there is one)
  • Copy and paste it in your small search box, then style it to make sure it looks OK.
  • That will do the trick in most cases. If not, ask your Web designer to help you.
(2) Tell them what's new!

If you've got new and existing stuff happening on your Web store, tell your customers! Don't expect that they'll find out. It's not a bad idea to place a visible interface element right at the top of the Web store design, just like Borders did, and then link to a page that talks about what's new. For example, this page could talk about...
  • New products or categories of products
  • New promotions
  • New reviews that have been written about your products or services
  • Changes you've made to your Web site (e.g. how to use a new feature), etc.
  • ...
Be proactive about informing your customers about what's happening on your Web site, or within your company. This is not only important as you're providing useful information, but also relevant marketing-wise, since it delivers the idea that yours is a dynamic business that you keep investing on!

(3) Main category navigation

In most cases, it doesn't make sense to have a huge category tree available on your home page (even if it's a fly-out menu). Instead, only present the main categories. Don't overwhelm the customer, but rather invite them to simply click for more information.

On the landing page you can certainly help them locate the exact place they want to go to with a list of subcategories and other ways to browse (e.g. browse by price, browse by brand, etc.) or search within the selected category.

This brings about an important topic: should navigation be different on your home page? Yes. It should. Pay attention when you visit most of today's leading e-commerce stores, and you will see this pattern repeated over and over. The home page is typically a very different page from the rest of the store, in terms of how navigation is presented.

And this prompts the next question: should the home page be a page you control completely? Should it not be controlled by whatever template system controls the rest of your Web store? Yes, in my view, it should. Your home page is crucial. It should be a page that you:
  • manage yourself (e.g. using an HTML editor)
  • update regularly (e.g. weekly)
  • does not use the same navigation menu as sub-pages
  • presents information in a graphically engaging way that invites the visitor to "come in"
Of course, it needs to be graphically consistent with the rest of the Web store, but it does not need to be managed through your e-commerce system. Will this create more work for you? Yes, but it's worth the investment. Your home page is too important.

(4) Magic Shelf

The main area of the Border's new home page is what they call the "Magic Shelf". Designed in Abobe® Flash®, it allows the visitors to browse featured products in a few different categories without even leaving the home page.

The idea is to replicate the experience you have when you walk into a Borders store and spend a few minutes looking at the main displays where they're presenting new products or pushing hot selling items.

This is certainly not a "must have" on a Web store. Having a few featured products and categories on your home page will work just fine. As long as your graphics are nice and your marketing pitch is compelling, your home page will successfully invite a lot of visitors to learn more.

That said, the "Magic Shelf" is a pretty cool idea. I like it. In my view, it successfully helps replicate the "let's see what's new and what's selling" experience that many of us have when they walk into a bookstore.

Can you do it on your store?
Does it have to be done in Flash?

  • Yes, you can do it too!
  • It's not easy to do. You're going to need an expert hand to help you.
  • It does not have to be done in Flash. Flash is one option, but not the only one.
  • In fact, I would rather use JavaScript and CSS to accomplish a similar effect, and in a more search engine friendly manner too! Technical users: check out the Tabbed Panels Widget in the Spry framework (look at the vertical tabs example).
(5) The rest of the page...

Nothing compelling in the lower part of the page. I doubt a lot of people even look at it. The top is where most clicks will happen. However, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that you should not have a "bottom" area on your home page.

In fact, the "bottom" area of your home page is very important. That's where you need to place well-written, well-organized textual content that will serve two purposes:
  1. Tell visitors there's "a lot more" to view, read and buy on your Web store.
  2. Tell search engines what you store is about.
Number 2 is key. Lots of graphics at the top of your home page are fine and make a lot of sense as a strong "welcome" to your store visitors. But it's important to accompany them with well-written textual content in the lower part of the home page.

Imagine that you're serving the page to two completely different visitors: potential buyers will like the top (graphics, Flash animations, you name it!); search engines will mostly ignore it and focus on the bottom (text).

Happy home page redesign!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tips & Tricks: Leveraging Gift Certificates

Automatic new customers
Electronic Gift Certificates (paper ones too, for that matter) can be a great way to acquire new customers.

When an existing customer buys one for a friend, the friend is an automatic (and FREE) customer acquisition (unless they were already shopping with you).

When a new customer buys a gift certificate for a friend, you acquire two customers in one shot.

Motivate them to buy Gift Certificates!
Given that the customer acquisition cost is ZERO for the new customer and that there is normally a real cost associated with acquiring a new customer for your business (very roughly: total monthly marketing expenses / total new customers per month), you can afford to build incentives into your offering.

For example, you could launch this promotion:

- If you buy a Gift Certificate
- ... and it is redeemed by a new customer
- ... we will give you another Gift Certificate for FREE

... where the redemption value for the second Gift Certificate should be lower than your average customer acquisition cost. E.g. they buy a $50 Gift Certificate, the person redeeming the Gift Certificate is a new customer -> you give the first customer a $10 Gift Certificate free of charge.

If you think about it, it's not unlike giving an affiliate a bounty for referring a new customer. The "affiliate" here is the existing customer that buys a Gift Certificate for a friend. The "bounty" is the free Gift Certificate that you give him once you have ensured that the referred friend was indeed a new customer.

Try it and see how it goes!

Why Not?
Even if Gift Certificates are not common in your industry, offering them is a typical "why not" paradigm: they don't hurt anyone, why not making them available? What do you have to lose? Nothing, other than taking a few minutes to set them up and make them visible in your store navigation.

If the name "Gift Certificate" sounds funny in your industry, just call them "My Store Dollars" or whatever you want :-)

Comparing shopping carts: this is one to look at
So if you are looking for a new shopping cart system or considering upgrading your existing e-commerce Web site, this is definitely a feature to keep in mind.

Not all e-commerce software out there includes the right kind of support for Gift Certificates. In fact, most e-commerce solutions don't.

Here are some of the features to look for:

- ability to easily add/edit Gift Certificate products
- ability to specific electronic vs. paper Gift Certificates (the latter require shipping)
- ability to specify whether the purchased Gift Certificate expires or not, and when
- automatic generation of a unique Gift Certificate code upon purchase
- find/view/edit purchased Gift Certificates
- allow customers to notify the recipient during checkout, with a custom note
- allow the recipient to partially redeem a Gift Certificate

Advanced features that it might be nice to have:

- ability create the GC code through an external script
- ability to import existing Gift Certificates (redemption code and value)
- ability to instantly generate multiple Gift Certificates in your administration area
(so you can print the redemption codes on paper Gift Certificates if you want to)

Get ready now
Gift Certificates become key around the holiday season. Don't wait until the fall to get your store ready for them. Get ready now. Start learning how to best take advantage of the Gift Certificate features in your e-commerce system.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Your store on your blog

Look on the right side of this page. See the "E-commerce solutions" section with the ProductCart logos? It's here not to promote my company (I promise), but rather to show you a (cool) little tool that we recently developed at Early Impact.

It allows you to very easily and quickly take some products from your store catalog, and show them on your blog (or other Web pages not related to your store).
  • If you are a ProductCart user, learn more here about the E-Commerce Widget For Blogs
  • If you don't use ProductCart, ask your e-commerce provider if they have something similar or if they can create it in the near future. It's not that difficult to design and it can be quite helpful.

How it works
For the techies out there: we like Adobe's SPRY framework for AJAX quite a bit and our E-commerce Widget for Blogs was created leveraging SPRY. Among other things, the built-in pagination is really cool, in my view (the widget on this page has 2 pages, for example).

Blogging and e-commerce
If you have a Web store, and still don't have a blog, consider adding one. Blogging can help you grow sales in a variety of ways, from better organic search engine rankings (search engines typically love blogs since they're mostly text), to further establishing yourself as a go-to place in your industry, to creating a more personal relationship with your customers.

Tips & Tricks: E-mail to sale: can you track it?

When it comes to marketing your e-commerce store, there is little doubt that understanding where your sales come from is key. Key to investing your marketing dollars as effectively as you can. Key to understanding what works and what doesn't (e.g. web pages, e-mail messages, etc.).

Web to sale
Google Analytics, by allowing you to integrate the e-commerce portion of your Web site into your Web statistics, does a nice job in trying to associate Web sources and sales. That is: if your shopping cart can communicate to Google Analytics that a sale occurred, you can then see which keywords entered in a search engine, for instance, turned into orders on your storefront.

This is really important information. For instance, you can focus on optimizing the landing pages that those keywords lead to in an attempt to reduce the bounce rate and increase the sales that come from those visits.

E-mail to sale
What about the large amount of visitors to your store for whom a program like Google Analytics cannot detect where they are coming from? It's typically a lot of unique visitors. What can you do to try to understand how they ended up on your Web site? Was it just word of mouth or marketing dollars you spent, for example?

Take all the e-mail marketing you do. A monthly newsletter, for instance. Or a e-mail promotion run through a third party. Many times those links simply do not contain enough information for your Web statistics program to understand where the corresponding clicks came from.

Luckily, you can rather easily add more information to the links and track them much more effectively.

Meet the URL Builder
If you - like many - use Google Analytics, one thing that you might not have heard of is the URL Builder. It's a simple Web page that helps you add meaningful, trackable information to your links.

Detailed instructions on how to use the URL Builder are available at the bottom of the page.

A tool like this can be really helpful. It can tell Google Analytics that your "April 2008 e-mail newsletter" - for example - triggered a certain amount of visits to your store. Once the traffic source is known, it's then used for all sorts of other statistics. So if any of those visits turn into a sale, Google Analytics will show it to you in the e-commerce reports.

Spend a bit more time preparing your links with a tool like the Google Analytics URL Builder whenever you send an e-mail to existing or new customers. You'll be surprised of how much more information you'll be able to learn from the clicks that originate from the mailing.