Launching a New Ecommerce Site is Only the Beginning
Far too often, enterprising ecommerce companies will migrate to a new platform, or start a new website from scratch with a “set it, and forget it” strategy expecting the site to grow. While a fresh new design and perhaps new code will increase sales, it’s very likely that any increases will plateau. Without regular website maintenance, an ecommerce site may lose its relevance and the interest of anyloyal customers who happen to visit the site. The proper approach is to review every type of page on your site on a regular basis, whether it’s daily, weekly, monthly or annually. Although, not every page necessitates a daily review or update, and some pages require changes more frequently than once per year, but a regular review is necessary throughout each type of page regardless.
Home Page is a Portal
As a site evolves, home page changes should correlate with the evolution. While this may sound fundamental, many companies, both new and established, neglect this basic practice. In my experience, the home page could get anywhere between 10 and 45% of page views. A simple explanation of this is that when users fail to find what they need, they may try to reset their experience by going to the home page if they decide to stay on the site. In the early days of the Interweb, some websites were labeled portals, because they simply listed content and links to other sites that were related to each other some how. The home page is not much different providing the best links for users to get to the most important content. This begs the questions of “Important to whom? The Site owner or the user?” Ultimately, the user’s priorities should coincide with the owner’s as well. When new products populate the site, perhaps users want to know about them so they should be posted somewhere on the home page. Both promotional banners and informational banners ideally should link to other pages. While this sounds like a basic practice, some sites do not link banners to anything. As promotions change with inventory availability, seasonal changes, product life cycles, and so should the banners on the home page. As new inventory is introduced, perhaps new product categories are created. These new categories should be shown and linked from the home page allowing both people and search engines to easily find them. Why not show both users newly added content easily from the home page?
Define the best possible navigation. Then improve it over time again, and again. If every product could be easily shown from every page, users would only need one click from any page to get to their product. But, this is not feasible unless the site has one, or two products. For those ecommerce sites that offer more products, a thoughtful navigation is required. Whether a pre-designed template is used or a custom design is implemented, the site navigation still requires some planning. If a navigation for a large product offering is required, then it will remain a work-in-progress. But, it can launch with a substantial amount of confidence after following these steps:
- Group your products into the largest groupings possible. For example, if you are selling apparel, your largest groupings could be Mens, Womens, and Kids. If you are selling only women’s apparel, then your largest grouping could be something like Tops, Dresses, Shoes, Sports Leisure, and Accessories. Some products may actually fit into multiple groupings, but don’t get hung up on those details just yet; you’re working from large ideas to small ideas here.
- Next, group products within your high level groups into smaller groups. Keeping with the same example, identify how the dresses can be grouped. For example, formal dresses, cocktail dresses, sun dresses.
- Once you are comfortable with a good rough draft of these groupings, write them down on index cards. Write down the top level groupings and next level groupings on cards and lay them out on a large table. This give you a bird’s eye view of your first draft.
- Next use your common sense to sort the top level groups from left to right starting with the group that you think is the most popular to your audience. You will likely find that after the first 3 most popular categories the rest will all have the same lower level of importance, but do the best you can.
- Next, compare your sorting to your competition. This will help you stay on the right track to some degree. You’ll need to compare to at least 5 other sites, but the more the better. You’ll begin to see some consistency between sites; the top three categories will likely be the same. Any differences that you find could stem from bad navigation design, or they may be intentional because the site wants to push a particular category over another. Because you are using index cards at this point, you can easily swap positions to better match with the competition is doing.
- Now that you are comfortable with your new sorting, compare the terminology that you have selected to your competition’s terms. Ideally, the category names you choose are at least comparable to the competition and at best you are improving over what the competition is doing. Keep in mind that mostly likely some of your competition are large, well-established retailers with teams of people tasked to do this particular job.
- Changing the menu is guaranteed over the life of the website, but you still need to dedicate enough time to create a respectable menu, but don’t let it hold up the site’s overall progress. Now that you have a solid menu, apply it.
Over time, as your offering changes, buying habits change and as technology changes, review the menu structure and product categorization to make sure that its terms and structure are keeping up with the market. You can use heat mapping or user tracking services from companies such as Hotjar.com to record visitors’ behavior. This provides much more context into viewed pages and will provide real insight on what changes to make to the navigation and the site in general down the road.
Another common scenario that some etailers fall into is failing to update their product offering. This happens when a company neglects to assign the resources needed to make these updates. Some product data is difficult to standardize, and some platforms are confusing to update. When this happens product updates tend to become neglected. This should not be the case. If product data is cumbersome, find an Excel or a database expert to sanitize new product data regularly. If the platform is difficult, ask the provider questions, or switch platforms. But, new products, and content are mandatory for both your customers and search engines.
Some sites have cultivated a loyal customer base that purchase the same products regularly. They may be part of a monthly purchase program, or purchase the same consumables monthly. While steady business is good, it can be incrementally improved with attempts to upsell. By showing new products to new and existing customers, the site has a greater opportunity to increase order amounts. Imagine a world where Staples.com did not update their site with new products. It’s difficult to comprehend, but busy etailers sometimes fall into this trap and find their site revenue underwhelming.
While drop shippers rely heavily on their manufacturers to update their product images and specifications regularly, etailers can take their own product shots on top-selling products. When manufacturers deliver new product images, the product content on the site should be updated. Ideally, the images and specs are constantly improving. If you are the manufacturer, then you may be updating your own images and product data for your catalogs. This content should find its way into your website.
Shipping is tricky. Some marketplaces force sellers to set flat rate shipping tables which is the simplest way to set a rate. However, not every product can fit nicely into a 12 x 12 x 12 box. Many etailers ship multiple, oddly shaped packages to build a single product, which will require some finely tuned shipping rates.
To launch a new site, some retailers establish a shipping table that isn’t perfect, but works. This can be acceptable for some companies to launch. However, it is not acceptable to remain stagnant. Over time, as order volume increases, perhaps product cost has lowered or shipping costs have lowered and the savings can be passed on to the customer to achieve greater conversions. Or, perhaps costs have increased and with old shipping rates, the website is losing money. Whatever the case may be, shipping prices and processes ought to be reviewed at least once per year. When shipping is under control, merchandising becomes much more manageable.
I label content that is not product database driven, such as category structure or product pricing, “custom content”. It is content that your team creates, such as blog posts, how-to guides, buying guides, sizing guides, company news, upcoming product launches, shipping policies, about us, etc., and it can also be text, images, audio or video. The purpose is to provide users with additional information about your services, products, and often times to cultivate product demand, or community engagement. REI.com does a fantastic job of this as they create product videos, blog posts describing how to use their gear, excursions where customers can use their gear, and an overall, enormous volume of exciting content showcasing a lifestyle around their brand. As your product offering and business grow, so should your custom content. This is easier for some industries that constantly change such as the fashion industry. Every season new products are released which provide easy topics to discuss. But, more consistent industries have a more difficult time creating fresh content. Let’s say you’ve been manufacturing glue for the last 100 years. Well, this industry is slow moving, but if they find new uses for their products they can feed the content machine with them. The more resources a company has, the further they can extend this content outside of their website, but more on this later.
New Site Design
As the product offering evolves, new technologies emerge, and customer buying habits change so should your ecommerce site. A website that launched 15 years ago ought to have a mobile version by now. This is another fundamental progression, but surprisingly many long standing sites still do not have a mobile version. Some company owners may think that their site looks “fine” on a mobile device. While it’s difficult to change someone’s taste, when they ask how to grow their business creating a mobile version should be an easy sell especially when backed with data stating that 50% of users are on a mobile device.
Each area discussed here needs regular attention. However, changing simply for the sake of change can most likely be a waste of time. Redesigning a site should be a calculated thoughtful endeavor using customer feedback, website analytics, and sales data. Some minor changes can be simple. For example, if you analyze your site search data and learn that 20% of site searches surround a single topic, then create a banner on the home page pointing to products related to that search (if it’s not already there). Or, adjust your navigation to better accommodate that search. If you identify many minor changes such as this, then it’s perhaps time to rebuild the site and apply your research.
Here are two examples of small thriving sites’ revenue over the past 2 years. Both sites underwent a full redesign at some point and revenue increased nearly overnight. However, Site A continued to update products, home page banners, offerings, and merchandising and its revenue continued to grow. While Site B did not make any further changes after its redesign and its growth faltered.
Keeping Up with Ecommerce Technology
A big part of your site’s evolution is how it keeps up with technology. This includes changes that search engines make, changes in browser behavior, changes in devices, changes in third party integrations and changes in the core software that run your tech stack.
Nordstrom CFO Michael Koppel said in an investor call in early 2017 that the company planned to apply 40% of it’s $3.4 billion in capital over the next five years into its tech platform according to risnews.com. That’s roughly $272 million per year. Obviously, most companies cannot do this, but etailers of all shapes and sizes should apply the same principle: dedicate time to improve. Nordstrom’s focus on ecommerce is evolving as the market landscape changes. Since then, Nordstrom has acquired two digital retail startups in an effort to communicate easier with ecommerce customers and allow them to engage in a more social shopping experience according to cnbc.com.
While driving traffic to your new site may seem like another fundamental practice, many business neglect this effort and some businesses simply still don’t understand how traffic gets to their site. Even large companies with a broad reach over multiple channels sometimes launch new sites with a “set it and forget it” mentality. While, some sole proprietorships focus on their products they don’t make time for their website. Whatever the situation may be expecting a website to grow without making efforts to drive traffic will only reap disappointment. As I mentioned earlier, content is a critical ingredient for growth, and the more resources that are applied to this effort the more off-site content can be created. Ideally, new products, and content drives organic traffic growth. However, bolstering a position in the marketplace will likely require paid search ads. In addition, a strong social media presence will cap off the users’ awareness nicely. When each of these factors are in place and working well, customers become familiar with your brand and more likely to click through your SERP, postings and ads. It is then up to the website to convert that traffic.
Managing an ecommerce website takes work. There is no way around it. Automation handles many things for a manager, it takes capital and requires labor to set up, troubleshoot, and refine. The companies in the refining stages have already put in the investment and labor to build a successful website. But, the evolution never stops.