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Back to Basics

Building blocks Regular readers of this column know that I like to take “deep dives” into fairly technical subjects like pay-per-click advertising, landing pages and analytics. I firmly believe that none of this is too complex for the average business owner to handle, but the nuts and bolts of marketing and selling on the web aren’t for everyone. Many of you just want to know – at the most basic level – “what do I do with my website?”

It’s a good time to revisit the basics, because while general best practices for marketing and selling online don’t often change, the specifics sometimes do. And with the explosion of mobile access to web sites, it’s become critical to understand and adapt to the growing percentage of users that will be visiting your site on a tablet or smartphone.

These basic rules aren’t meant to dictate how you should approach every detail, but they represent an overview of where you should be now and what you should be aiming for in the coming years. Think of them as guiding principles for a modern website.

Rule #1: Keep it simple.

Websites were once showcases of the web builder’s art form, a place where you could show off the latest technology and gimmicks. Heck, some websites used to play music the moment you landed on their page (for the record, this was always a horrible idea). Over time, the web has evolved into a place to do serious business, rather than a venue to show off your web-building chops.

That means one thing: Don’t get in your customers’ way. If something seems even slightly extraneous or unnecessary, it probably is. Anything that doesn’t directly contribute to an easy, transparent process of shopping and purchasing should be jettisoned. Don’t even give it a second thought; just get rid of it.

Keep your layouts simple and straightforward. Got a ton of content? Vertical scrolling is preferable to more complex methods of getting around, like tabs, drawers or expanding/collapsing sections of content. If it’s a pain for visitor to get to your content, they’ll likely never see it. Keep it out in the open, well-organized and clean. Think Apple Store, not K-Mart.

Rule #2: Get ready for mobile

Your web site doesn’t have to be perfectly mobile-ready the moment you roll out of bed on Monday morning, but you need to get the process rolling, if you haven’t already. Mobile web access via smartphones and tablets is growing every day, and it won’t be long before a third or more of your visitors come in from some kind of mobile device.

And that number will continue to increase, likely for many more years. While you don’t necessarily need to have a mobile-optimized e-commerce experience, you need to make sure that you present at least a mobile-friendly one. What’s the difference? A mobile-optimized distributor site or company store often presents a different experience solely for smaller devices, with less menu choices, simplified layouts and big tap targets (a tap target is a fancy term for a button or link that you tap on with your finger; since your big fingertip isn’t as precise of a pointing device as a mouse, mobile-optimized sites often make the buttons bigger relative to the other content).

A mobile-friendly site, on the other hand, might not change radically for a smartphone or tablet, but it doesn’t present any unusual barriers to those users. What does that mean? Well, there are things you can do on a desktop computer – say, “hovering” your mouse over an item to get some kind of information about it without actually clicking on it – that are impossible in a touch interface (a touch interface is any device where you use your fingers to navigate and press buttons).

These types of features don’t work on touch devices like smartphones and tablets because these devices don’t know that your finger is hovering over something – they only know when you actually touch the screen (this may change as technology improves, but for now, very few touch devices can detect the proximity of your finger and use it in this way). That doesn’t mean you can’t use things like hovers and complex flyout menus, but they won’t be available for mobile users, and they might even get in the way of a good mobile experience.

Mobile-friendly also means not overloading your site with so many images, graphics and other visual assets that a mobile user gives up before a page even downloads. This is a common problem when web site builders don’t test their sites over a cellular connection. If a visitor can’t get a page from your site to load in a few seconds, they will often just give up and go somewhere else.

Rule #3: Build for speed.

Another aspect of mobile-friendliness is speed. Getting your site to load quickly for every kind of visitor is incredibly important, and not just for the reasons above. Sure, no one wants to have visitors bail out on their site because they couldn’t get a page to load in a reasonable amount of time. But, did you know that speed is now an important ranking factor for search engines?

That’s right – if your site is slow, Google may lower your ranking in their search engine results. Google tests mobile-friendliness (they even check the size of your tap targets!) and focuses in particular on page speed – how quickly your pages load. For mobile users of Google’s search engine (millions and millions of them), Google may actually alter the search results shown based on which sites will load quickly over a mobile connection. Speed isn’t everything to Google, but it’s becoming more and important, and if your site is slow, expect to suffer in ranking over time.

Rule #4: Be unique.

I’ve spent many columns evangelizing the importance of unique content, and this continues to hold true. The uniqueness of the content on your site – whether it be product info, specials, your about us page, or any number of custom landing pages you might create for your marketing and advertising campaigns – is the primary ranking factor that you control completely.

This is still the case, and it’s actually become even more important with recent changes to Google’s ranking algorithms. Your site should be an island of cool, unique stuff, as different from your competitor’s as you can reasonably make it. That doesn’t mean you need to rewrite every product description and take all your own pictures. But it does mean that you need to do the best you can to make it unique.

Uniqueness isn’t easy to come by when you’re selling the same products as a lot of other people, but as a business owner, you should be able to communicate what makes your business different from everyone else. Talk about you, your products, your employees, your special services – whatever you can think of. Make it part of your story.

Simplicity, mobile-friendliness, speed, uniqueness – these are the hallmarks of a site that performs well in search engines, is inviting to visitors, and turns visitors into purchasing customers. If you can master these, you’ll be successful online in no time.

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


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Surveying the Payment Landscape for 2015

Credit card payment transaction Whether you think credit cards are a boon to your business or a necessary evil that chips away at your bottom line, you probably accept them for payment, along with checks and (in rare cases) cold, hard cash. Visa alone saw over 2 trillion dollars in charges last year, generating billions of dollars in fees for everyone involved in the credit card processing chain. It may not be the most cost-effective way to collect payment, but few would argue that it’s not incredibly convenient for both merchant and customer.

That quick “swipe” of a card has been the de facto method of paying for goods and services (especially at “point of sale”, e.g. a cash register or similar service experience) for decades. Dozens of companies have tried to challenge this; a few have succeeded, albeit partially – PayPal, for instance, has successfully built a payments system that both embraces credit cards and circumvents them whenever possible (using bank accounts). Most innovation, though, hasn’t really changed the basic “swipe and wait” interaction we all know so well. Recent innovators such as Square (and its imitators) simply make the swiping more accessible by enabling it on a tablet or smartphone.

There are many reasons that this landscape changes so slowly; primarily, it is because entrenched players want to keep it the way it is. Every party in the credit card processing chain takes a small cut, and those half pennies here and tiny percentages there add up to billions of dollars in fees every year. But it’s also because of the rapid rise of fraudulent transactions; credit card companies claim (in some cases correctly) that they are best equipped to make sure that a given transaction is legitimate. They’re understandably hesitant to hand the keys to mansion to anyone else.

2015 could be the year that we see a big shake up in the payments industry. To understand why, you just need to remember two names: Apple and Walmart. Both companies are big enough players to push a lot of people into new ways of doing things. And, interestingly, each company is attempting to change the way we pay for things in completely different ways.

Note: When I talk about this shake-up, keep in mind that I’m mainly referring to “mobile” payments. The term “mobile” payment is an odd one, since most payments are still “mobile” payments in the sense that you make them with a credit card at a merchant’s place of business. What “mobile” really means in this context is paying with your smartphone.

Apple Pay

Apple’s new payment system has only just launched, but CEO Tim Cook says it is already bigger than any of the other mobile payment systems on the market. Apple’s approach is, as you might expect, very consumer-centric – they are endeavoring to make the payment process easier for the consumer, without much regard for the merchants themselves. This means that the process of paying is as simple and seamless as possible – when it works right, it’s actually easier than pulling out a credit card, swiping it, and signing a receipt. You just bring your iPhone near a compatible credit card terminal, authenticate with Touch ID (the fingerprint sensor), and you’re pretty much done.

Interestingly, Apple worked directly with the big credit card companies to make this happen. Much like when they launched the original iPhone, Apple is not afraid to walk in and push around established players (they famously extracted a variety of concessions from AT&T for an exclusive launch on that carrier, including not allowing them to put their logo on the iPhone). In the case of Apple Pay, the established credit card companies still provide the credit cards and process the transactions, earning their standard fees. Apple adds in a very small cut, and assumes some of the fraud risk in the process.

The difference is in the mechanics of the transaction. First, Apple uses NFC, or Near Field Communication, a technology that has been around for many years in the form of “wave your card” terminals such as PayPass. NFC is only available on Apple’s newest phones, but it’s been available in other forms for a few years, including Google’s largely unsuccessful Wallet payment system. The benefit of NFC is that so many payment terminals already accept it.

In addition, Apple Pay doubles down on security. First, when you activate your credit card for Apple Pay, Apple actually generates a new credit card number that is only used for Apple Pay. The payments are still processed the same way, but the number is exclusive to Apple Pay. Second, Apple Pay uses the fingerprint sensor by default, so it is much more difficult for someone to steal your phone and use Apple Pay fraudulently.

Will Apple Pay succeed? Probably, by virtue of sheer volume. Apple’s iPhones have sold incredibly well, and Apple’s alliance with the credit card companies means that consumers get to keep the things they like about credit cards – float, miles, other benefits – while getting a little bit more convenience and tracking of their purchases.


If Apple Pay falters or fails, it may be as a result of another behemoth – Walmart. The retail giant has made no secret of its disdain for credit card companies, going so far as to sue them over the fees they charge. Walmart is leading a consortium of retailers – the Merchant Customer Exchange, or MCX – that aims to reinvent mobile payments completely.

Next year, MCX plans to launch a service called “CurrentC” that will attempt to bypass credit cards completely. Instead, CurrentC will withdraw funds directly from a customer’s bank account. In exchange for direct access to your checking account, CurrentC promises coupons and other benefits exclusively for customers that use its payment system.

CurrentC is built by merchants for merchants; its two primary goals are bypassing the interchange fees that credit card companies collect (these fees range in the 2–3% range; for a company like Walmart, with margins around 3–4%, you can see how this could make such a huge difference) and collecting lots of useful data about customers and their purchasing patterns.

This type of system has seen success in the past. Starbucks, for instance, operates a very popular payment and customer-tracking system, based around stored value cards and smartphone apps. Even more similar to CurrentC’s model is Target’s Red Card program, which offers you five percent off everything, all the time, in exchange for direct access to your bank account and information about your purchases.

But Target is a great example of how retailers have been less successful at fighting fraud than credit card companies; Target’s massive security breach last year was one of the biggest ever in retail history. It remains to be seen whether consumers will entrust merchants with so much personal information in exchange for special offers and coupons.

More troubling (at least to a nerd like me) is CurrentC’s clunky purchase process. It requires scanning QR codes, in many cases by both the merchant and the customer, and lacks the polish and single-tap convenience of Apple Pay. I’ve written (somewhat derisively) about QR codes before, but they live on in all their decades-old technological glory. If CurrentC’s only method of conducting transactions is going to be scanning QR codes, I can’t imagine that it will be a mass market success.

For the record, my money is on Apple Pay (literally – I put my reward Visa in there this weekend), but I don’t think Apple Pay will be the only player in this. I think the payment landscape will continue to be a messy one for years to come. There are just too many players with opposing goals, and far too much money at stake, for any of this to work out quickly and cleanly.


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

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Bringing Customers Back

Come back later! Many of you have explored online advertising, and some of you likely rely on it as a key part of your marketing initiatives. Whether you buy display ads locally or go all-out with pay-per-click advertising, you’re probably familiar with the benefits of online advertising. First, online advertising – especially on the pay-per-click side – offers precision that few other advertising formats can offer. If you want to reach a user searching for “pink foam stress reliever”, there is nothing more precise than online advertising, unless you’ve unearthed some mind-reading techniques that no one else has discovered.

Further, if you want to reach a content-oriented audience – let’s say you want to advertise on any website that is focused on high school football – you can do so using a “content network” strategy. The best online advertisers, of course, use a mix of all of these, tailored to the particular product or category they are advertising.

For instance, you might run display advertising on local news and business sites advertising your promotional and marketing services with a broad message. You might also advertise on sites for specific interests with a category of products – such as sports-related products like water bottles, flags and coolers on the aforementioned football-focused sites. Finally, you can advertise even narrower selections of products (or single products in some cases) to users who enter specific keywords into search engines – like the stress reliever examples above.

All of these are important strategies for the savvy online marketer, and they make even more sense if you are actively selling products online using an e-commerce shopping cart. But they don’t address the biggest problem plaguing any online advertising effort: getting users to come back to your site when they’ve left it without purchasing.

Why won’t they stay?

I’ve addressed the abandonment issue before; shopping cart abandonment rates average around 70% across all industries, which is a pretty terrible number. That means that less than a third of the people who put something in your online shopping cart will ever actually complete that purchase. Even more troubling are high bounce rates – when users come to your site and immediately leave. You can try dozens of techniques to keep them there, but ultimately there are a lot of tire kickers and “browsers” in the world, and you’re not going to get all of them. Even those visitors that don’t bounce immediately may stick around for a few minutes and then bail. It’s brutal out there.

Now, there are a few things you can do while you have visitors on your site to increase the likelihood that they’ll stick around and make a purchase. Live chat is probably the simplest and least expensive technology to interact with a visitor who might be wavering about a purchase or needs to ask a question. But you may not have the personnel to man live chat all day long, and while many visitors use live chat, some of them find it intrusive.

Optimizing your site’s landing pages – that is, the pages where users enter from searches and online ads – is another critical step in ensuring that users find what they want and stick around to buy it. But optimizing landing pages is a time-consuming and often frustrating process – you make a change, wait a while, and then look at the analytics to see if anything has improved. Split-testing (also called A/B testing, such as that available in Google Analytics) can make this process less cumbersome, but it doesn’t get you results any faster. It’s just something you have to do over time.

Where did they go?

Ultimately, you have to resign yourself to the reality that a sizable chunk of your visitors will leave your site without giving you much of anything – not a purchase, not an email address, nothing you can really use other than some measurable indications of when they left and from where they departed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reach them once they’re gone.

Enter “remarketing”. Remarketing is a technology that raises the hackles of privacy advocates and might even provide a dose of the “creep factor” when you’re browsing around online. You’ve probably encountered it before – you went shopping at the Ford Motors web site for a new pickup truck, then a day or two later you notice that there are suddenly ads for Ford pickup trucks on a lot of the sites you visit.

The first time I encountered remarketing was many years ago; I was shopping for a new laptop bag from Timbuktu and left the site after not finding the one I wanted. A day later, I noticed while browsing news sites and technology blogs that I was seeing an awful lot of Timbuktu ads, and they all seemed to advertise the exact line of laptop bags that I had been looking for.

I was, quite frankly, a little creeped out by this. And I’m not the only one – plenty of web users who are very sensitive about their privacy take steps to block these ads, because the technology they use follows you around the web as you go from site to site. It can be a little unsettling to find out that you’re being watched.

But, as Facebook and Google have demonstrated time and time again, many web users will trade privacy for convenience, and the majority of users do not take aggressive steps to block this kind of technology. That means that it’s quite likely that the majority of visitors who leave your site can be reached later with advertising for your products and services. Best of all, this “remarketing” technology is now cheap to run and easy to implement.

How does it work?

Remarketing is devilishly simple: You add some code to your website, and the remarketing provider tracks your visitors by putting a cookie on their computer. When those users leave your site, the remarketing provider shows your ads on other websites that these users visit. You create the ads yourself and upload them (remarketing is most often done with display ads); and then enter where you’d like the users to go when they click. You can send them straight back to your home page or, if you’re a little more savvy, you might want to send them to a landing page geared specifically to what they were looking at when they first visited.

You can get even more precise than that if you have the time. Say a visitor shopped the T-shirts category of your website – if you so desire, you can show them a t-shirt ad. You can even give them offers that you wouldn’t normally advertise in your other campaigns; since they’ve already shown interest in your products, you might want to lure them back with a coupon that only gets shown in your remarketing ads.

How does all this work? Remarketing takes advantage of the massive amount of “inventory” online – that is, all the ad space sitting out there. Since a remarketing provider is showing an ad specific to a user, they (and ultimately, you) can pay a bit more for an impression than an advertiser who is showing the same ads to everyone else who visits that site. It’s a little more money for the site hosting the ad, a tiny bit of money for the remarketing company, and a higher likelihood that you get that click, since the user viewing the ad is already familiar with you.

Want to try it out? There are a number of remarketing companies out there; it’s built in to Google Adwords, but you have to enable it and set it up separately. Of the third-party providers; Adroll is my favorite, because of its simplicity and low cost, but you might want to look around if you’re going to give remarketing a try. You should – it’s inexpensive, easy to implement and gets results.

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

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Categories: Articles