Online Retail’s Early Holiday Prep: 3 Engaging Steps

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Online Retail’s Early Holiday Prep: 3 Engaging Steps

Shortly after the last holiday shopping season, marketers whipped out their calculators and started crunching the numbers. The holidays are a critical revenue-generating time for retailers, but last year, instead of trees overflowing with gifts and tables filled with food, the country faced a painful recession.

Once the revenue analysis started rolling in, nothing could be done to increase lackluster holiday sales after the fact. However, the successes and failures of online retailers last winter provide lessons for operating businesses down the line. Now, nearly six months later, the time has come for retailers to begin implementing strategies based on those lessons, preparing their site for the holiday season ahead.

Back in January, with preliminary holiday sales figures rolling in, I wrote about some practical SEO considerations for e-commerce sites. Paying attention to content and design, a search-friendly CMS, an easy-to-use shopping cart and analytics data all play an important role. But there’s another facet of conversion optimization not represented there. And that’s engagement.

Facebook, Twitter, Digg and the Web 2.0 revolution have created an interactive expectation among Internet users and, specifically, online shoppers. By meeting these expectations, e-retailers improve their chances of establishing brand trust, developing brand loyalty and increasing conversions. A recent MarketingSherpa survey shows which tactics marketers find most effective for improving conversion rates:

It’s worth noting that at least half of the above tactics rely on the lure of engagement. Enhanced, display, live chat and product comparisons all pique user interest through interaction and mental stimulation. So how can you begin engaging your customers online? Here are three simple steps to get you moving in the right direction.

Generate Confidence

Consumers and retailers across the world are currently strapped to an economic rollercoaster. Over the past several months, violent stock market swings have become commonplace. Down one week and up the next, even temporary perceptions of confidence can have a positive impact on the marketplace. Unsure consumers are reluctant shoppers, but there are ways to build confidence among site visitors.

This approach begins on your site. Messaging, security measures and credibility indicators require your utmost attention as shoppers are weary of anything that triggers uncertainty. This means you must make sure messaging is consistent across the site and that any doubts about the product or service are addressed. Similarly, savvy online shoppers are all too aware of the dangers of providing personal information over unsecure connections, so leave no question about the security of your transaction system.

With sound messaging and security measures in place, go the extra mile to appease doubts about pricing and value with on-site product comparisons. Not only will the shopper be pleased that they’ve found the best deal, but the retailer will also gain trust by showing they have the consumer’s best interests in mind.

Generate Buzz

At some point, engaging customers and building confidence usually takes you off your site and into the social world of the Web. One of my favorite marketing mantras of the new digital age is: “Go where your customers are.” Social media has ushered in an age where marketers can no longer rely on the customer to come to them — instead the marketer must go to the customer. And those customers are hanging out in social communities, trusted networks where people can find reviews, endorsements and worthwhile opinions about things of interest to them and their like-minded peers.

An iVillage, BlogHer and Compass Partners study (pdf) released in April indicates that, more than ever before, women are looking to their social networks for advice and recommendations. As uncertain consumers, they are seeking assurance that they made the right choice in a product or service. Your retail site would benefit from positive representation in these settings.

Customer reviews, on your site or elsewhere, work in much the same way by providing the social proof that assuages doubts and boosts confidence. While most buzz generation tasks require ongoing labor and attention, there are several good customer review solutions that can be found in a box. Obviously, there are many ways to generate buzz online, but the main objective is to get that word of mouth flowing.

Buzz Back

With user generated buzz building, it’s time to add your official voice to the choir. This kind of communication can occur on your site or just about anywhere your audience expects to hear from you. General rules to keep marketers in the safe zone when initiating customer contact include keeping pitches to a minimum, adding value to the conversation and not overstaying your welcome.

Newsletters and email communications have been the subject of research for years now, and a recent study shows that tolerance for email marketing is rising. Irrelevant content is followed by too frequent contact as the top two reasons people unsubscribe; stay clear of those pitfalls and see positive results.

A less-explored communication tactic is on-site live chat. One study suggests that shoppers who turn to live chat on retail sites have a tendency to spend more money. The findings don’t indicate a causal relationship, but rather a common, conversational behavior among those eager to buy. You may be able to help cultivate such behavior by including live chat on your site. Just be sure that, whatever channel you use, you’re building trust through your communication.

Virginia Nussey blogs about SEO, PPC, social media marketing, branding and online reputation management for search marketing company Bruce Clay, Inc. She also coordinates and co-hosts the weekly podcast with Bruce and the gang, SEM Synergy.

Virginia Nussey

Virginia Nussey

Virginia Nussey blogs about SEO, PPC, social media marketing, branding and online reputation management for search marketing company Bruce Clay, ... [Read full bio]