Converting Online Sales, Part III: What’s Working?

Charts and Graphs

Last time, I talked about the different paths that users might take to finish an order that started online. Depending on how your business is optimized, you might opt for a highly-automated, Amazon-like experience; an email-intensive, quote-based sales cycle; or even a very phone-centric customer process. Any of these are – as is a combination – as long as your visitors are guided clearly to the one that is most important to you.

Most of you are going to focus on a single path but still allow for sales through one or more of the remaining ones – that is, unless you’re so big that you’ve become the Amazon of promotional products and apparel (in which case, please call me – I’d like to write an article about you). Obviously, sales that begin and end online are fairly easy to track, because they go through your shopping cart. But you can still run a very successful web site without a single order placed through your shopping cart. In fact, you might be running a web site that is a sales-generating machine and not even know it.

How do you figure out what’s working? Online marketing and sales experts will tell you those three magic words over and over again: “Measure, measure, measure.” They’re right, of course – measurement is the key to understanding how any aspect of your business is performing, and you should do as much of it as you can (Google’s free Analytics software is a good place to start).

But, very few of us have either the time to spend poring over analytics reports or the money to pay someone to do it for us. You can set up KPIs – key performance indicators – to reduce the amount of information you need to review, but even defining these (at least with respect to a web site) can sometimes make a harried business owner’s head spin.

Remember, we just want to find out what’s working – your sales may be going in one direction or another, but you can’t factor in your web site if you don’t know how to track sales back to it. In our business as a web site provider, when customers don’t see orders flowing directly through the web site they often assume that the web site isn’t doing its job. In many cases, it’s actually working quite well; they just don’t know where to look.

Which Way is the Wind Blowing?

Other than the basics of top and bottom lines, we’ve each got some “gut” methods for determining how well our businesses are performing. Very often, these are just measurements or statistics that we’ve internalized – a sense of how many customers are coming through the door, or how often the phone is ringing. When you launch (or re-launch) a web site, it’s critical to be able to break these down a little further, so you can attribute performance correctly.

Let’s talk about some of our “gut” performance indicators and how we can break those down so the web site gets the credit (or blame!) it deserves:

General interest in your goods and services: You know what this is – the feeling of “momentum” in your sales. Are you stuck in first gear or are you cruising down the highway? Either way, it’s likely that your web site (unless it’s just a perennial afterthought) has something to do with it.

Inquiry volume: How many phone calls do you get every day? Do you know how many actually originate from customers visiting your web site?

Quote requests: Are you getting a good amount of quote requests every week? Where are they coming from? Email? Fax?

Existing customer interest: Are your existing customers re-engaging with you? Do they call you with a question about a product they saw on your site? Do they use it as a way to do a bit of research before getting on the phone with you?

How on earth do we track this back to the web site? Luckily, there are a few best practices for ensuring the proper attribution. Some of them are simple, while others require organizational buy-in (and probably a little trial and error) to get right:

Easy: Get a web-only phone number. Additional phone numbers, including 800 numbers, are relatively cheap. No matter your phone system, you can track the calls coming in from a second number. This is a great way to make absolutely sure a phone call is originating from the web site. Sure, some callers may have only gone to the website to get a phone number, but this is less common these days since Google puts phone numbers in its local results and users don’t have to go all the way to the site to get your number.

Of course, you may argue that you shouldn’t give credit to the website just because someone went there to find your phone number. But why not? Your web site is your business’ face to many existing and potential customers. Whether they get a phone number or fill out a quote request for a dozen products, the site still got them to you.

Easy: Use web-specific offers, coupons and codes. Many site owners make the mistake of promoting great deals online but then losing track of those deals when they go offline. The simple solution is to use a different code for an online offer, so that if that customers calls or emails (as many of your existing customers might do once they’ve seen an offer online), you’ll know (without having to ask – you’ll see why that’s important in a moment) that they came from the website. Got a 10% off coupon for new customers? Make the code “WEB10″ on the website, and make sure your salespeople track the codes religiously.

A Little Harder: Ask: This one may require a culture change for some businesses, but if you advertise in multiple media, you’re probably already familiar with it. You’ll need to hammer this home as a best practice with your salespeople, your customer service staff – heck, even your receptionist: Asking “How did you hear about us?” Yes, it’s tough to reinforce this habit, but it’s mandatory.

Finally, if you do any online advertising, affiliate marketing, or any other web-based promotions, you’ve got a massive (and sometimes bewildering) arsenal of techniques for tracking inquiries and sales back to your website. If you’re entering that world – which can be very rewarding, provided you have realistic expectations and a decent budget – you’ll need to have all the above in place as a foundation, because attribution can be tricky when there are many different paths that have to be tracked just to your web site itself.

Your web site is (or will soon be, whether you like it or not) a critical, strategic part of your business. If you take the time now to establish a few basic methods for attributing business to your site, you’ll be very thankful in the future.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

Brent on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Tumblr | Flickr

Converting Sales Online, Part I

Buy Button

My company runs hundreds of e-commerce stores for promotional products and wearables, and I’d like to share with you the big, dirty secret of online sales in this industry: A huge portion of online transactions don’t actually get completed online. How can it be an online transaction if it doesn’t get completed online? That’s simple: If it starts online, it’s most likely counted as an online transaction. But if it doesn’t finish online – if the final amount isn’t calculated and paid for right then and there – what is it, really?

We call it a hybrid transaction, and it’s part of a big, gray netherworld of e-commerce that lives somewhere between the instant gratification of buying a Blu-Ray from Amazon and the laborious process of buying and configuring a car online. It often doesn’t sort out neatly and, for a lot of distributors new to selling online, this is a big problem. Too many businesses enter the e-commerce world hoping that the vagaries of selling face-to-face will simply go away and sales will magically get done right just by moving them online.

They don’t, and they won’t. Selling promotional products and wearables online is just as complex and maddening as selling them in the real world, but with an added twist: Your customers have been conditioned by the Amazons of the world to expect it to be fast and easy. When it isn’t, they tend to do what they do with any other website that frustrates them – they walk away. This phenomenon, known in web jargon as “abandonment“, is inevitably the primary problem for anyone selling online.

Bye Bye

Abandonment is easy for a consumer. Relatively few of your prospects hang up in your face on a daily basis, and even fewer start an anonymous sales inquiry process with you and then just disappear into the ether, never to be heard from again. In either case, you often know who they are, and at the very least you can follow up with them and ask them what went wrong.

Not so with online customers; you usually don’t know their identity, and they come and go at their leisure, sometimes starting a process one day and finishing it weeks later. Sure, there are some tools out there (some of them free; many of them quite expensive) that provide more detailed insight into visitor behavior, but with privacy rules growing ever tighter and the “creep” factor a constant risk, you have to adjust to a different reality – a reality with higher expectations for you and lower risks for your customer. In some ways, it’s the worst of both worlds.

Don’t despair – over the next few posts, I’m going to show you the best practices for dealing with the complex reality of online sales. This won’t be about getting customers to your site; I’ve covered that before in my columns on SEO. This is about what you do with them once they get there – using every means you have at your disposal to get your hooks into a customer before they give up and leave.

Some will leave, of course, and if you sell anything, you know that to be the case with any channel. You won’t always have the most competitive price, the strongest message, or the best offers. To succeed, you’re going to have to recalibrate some of your ideas about what constitutes success online, and open your mind to new kinds of sales cycles. If you’re willing to think differently about online sales, you’ll be rewarded with more sales, better loyalty and less of that cursed abandonment.

Background

Before we dive into strategy, let’s get a few definitions out of the way. For our purposes, any sale that materially occurs online is an online sale. The technical term for what we’re doing here is “attribution”, and attribution is actually a complex topic for anyone who sells online – you might run a print ad directing users to your website to get a special offer, and then a user buys the product on the site. Is that an online sale or a sale that started offline? What if the user went to the site but then the payment was taken over the phone after some details were worked out via email?

See what I mean? Because websites are ubiquitous (and have replaced phone books for finding most businesses) it can be hard to isolate a sale as being web-only. Certain types of products and transactions lend themselves to web-only attribution; for instance, a company store sale of a single t-shirt or an inexpensive custom pen order. But for many other types of transactions, the breakdown isn’t nearly as clean.

To keep things simple, we’ll be talking about anyone who comes to your website, at any time, and winds up buying the thing they looked at. They might buy it right then or a week later. They might check out through your cart or they might finish the order through phone, chat or email. No matter – they are an online customer for our purposes.

If you believe the numbers that PPAI provides, some 20% of all sales in this industry are online. That’s a huge number – almost four billion dollars worth – and is far above the average for most U.S. businesses. It’s somewhere between the most aggressively e-commerce-focused sectors, like books (almost half of all book sales are online) and brick-and-mortar retail giants that also sell online (Norstrom, for instance, pegs its online sales at about ten percent).

Whatever it is, it’s big (even if it’s half of what PPAI estimates) and I’m sure you’d like to get a chunk of it. But selling promotional products and wearables online can be challenging. Why? Here are a few reasons:

First, product data is a mess. Industry suppliers are still behind the curve in their ability to deliver high-quality product data to distributors. That means you’re either doing a lot of “massaging” (if you have the staff) or you’re using a more generic solution that already has all the data built in (in which case you’re probably suffering on the acquisition side because of poor search performance).

Second, configuring products online is tricky. Simple products and inventoried items are often no problem, which is why low-end orders and company store orders are commonly completed online. But the same customer that happily plugs in a credit card for an $85 pen order is going to hesitate before putting in that same credit card for $1200 worth of golf shirts. They’re just not the same thing, and our experience is that once you get around the $400-500 mark for an order, a customer wants to get a real person involved. You can’t blame them – a $1200 screw-up is a completely different ball of wax from an $85 screw-up.

Challenges, of course, create opportunities, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on for the next few posts. Once you accept the hard realities of selling these products online, the strategies and tactics to keep customers in your sales cycle become much clearer. Stick around; next time we’ll dig into one of the most important tools in your arsenal, calls-to-action, also known as CTAs.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

Brent on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Tumblr | Flickr

Sneak Preview: Company Store Infographic

We’ve been working on this for a while and we’re excited to release it into the wild. eBlox runs millions of dollars and tens of thousands of orders through the storeBlox CS company store system every year, and we decided to see what kind of interesting (anonymous, of course) information we could get out of all that data.

We’re happy to offer blog readers a sneak preview of the storeBlox CS 2012 Infographic this morning. We’ll be pushing it out to the industry at large via email blast later today, but you can get it right now, right here, absolutely free.

StoreBlox CS 2012 Company Store Infographic

Click on the image for a high-resolution JPG version

You can also get a beautiful PDF suitable for printing, framing, or whatever the heck else you’d like to do with it by heading over to the download page.