Every business needs to plan an e-Commerce strategy in advance of setting up online to make sure they’ve researched the benefits, drawbacks and overall impact of introducing an e-Commerce system to their organisation. Once they’re committed to the idea of e-Commerce, they then need to formulate a plan for how e-Commerce can help them achieve business objectives. Below are a list of items that should help to plan an e-Commerce strategy.
Structure of e-Commerce website
Users form an opinion of a websites (and businesses) within seconds of viewing a page. If the website is cluttered, difficult to read, full of broken links, slow to load or breaks conventions users are used to, this will frustrate users and they’ll quickly move on to a competitor’s website.
Sitemap / Navigation
Developing a sitemap is a good way to start structuring an e-Commerce website. This forces you to think about all the possible pages, sub-pages, categories and subcategories you may need. A sitemap also helps you to create a navigation structure and helps you to think about how all the pages fit will together.
Ease of Use
The usability of a website and the end user experience has become very important in modern day e-Commerce websites as research consistently shows that users interact more with websites that feel natural to use. When designing an interface, it’s therefore important to follow standard conventions and guidelines from the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) and from companies like Google and Apple who publish their own web design guidelines. Going against all of this advice will result in poor website performance both in the eyes of users and also in search engines.
It’s extremely rare you’ll see a right aligned logo for example on a website… or breadcrumb navigation at the bottom of a page. In order for a website to be easy for users to navigate and use, they need to be able to look at it and intuitively understand what everything does. If users don’t immediately understand what everything does or why it’s in a certain position, that makes them feel uneasy.
Display of Products
All product pages should be displayed with large, high quality images, descriptions, prices, technical data (if applicable) and any other relevant information that may help customers to learn more about the product. Reviews, videos, PDF brochures or comparisons with other products may also be worth including on product pages.
Products should also be clearly grouped by category with easy to use filters in place so that users can quickly view products within a certain category. Having an option to sort by price or alphabetically is another common feature on many e-Commerce websites.
User Registrations / Personal Details
Allowing users to register on your e-Commerce website enables them to save items to a shopping cart or create wishlists for viewing at a later date or from other devices. Securely storing email addresses, passwords and personal information is not only crucial for a customer’s peace of mind but is also a legal responsibility of an e-Commerce business.
In general it’s a good idea not to store credit card data on your own server and instead to use trusted third parties who specialise in payment processing and credit card security such as Stripe, Realex, Braintree or SagePay.
All of these payment providers have an API and are easy to integrate in to all major e-Commerce systems. Additional payment methods might include Paypal or cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Customers should be able to use whatever payment method is most convenient for them.
Delivery costs must be stated up front as should the terms of delivery, the third party delivery services used and the estimated time it will take an order to arrive to the customer.
There are various ways of determining shipping costs. You can choose a flat fee, base the cost on the weight of the order or base delivery costs on the total value of the order. It’s important to liaise with couriers and delivery companies to determine their costs up front for delivery to all regions / countries you may want to ship to. It’s also important to formalise insurance, tracking and returns policies.
Style & Design
Creating a brand style guide which outlines the company colours, fonts, taglines and descriptions is important in order to maintain consistency across the website and any marketing or point of sale material.
A website style-guide should also be created to show what common website elements should look like including menus, buttons, forms, headings, paragraph text, tables, tabs and images. This makes maintaining the website much easier for developers and designers, plus it ensures they (and any future developers / designers) have a point of reference when making or presenting any changes.
When hosting an e-Commerce website, it’s important that the service is reliable, fast and secure with support available 24/7 if needed. For most e-Commerce businesses, it makes sense to host the site with a dedicated hosting company such as RackSpace or Bluehost. Amazon, Google and Microsoft also provide hosting and storage solutions. Alternatively, a business could host the site on its own server but the downside is that someone would need to manage it, plus it would have to be physically secure and switched on 24/7. This is often not practical for small businesses so they opt to go with a dedicated hosting company.
Customers demand that a website is online 24/7 and it’s up to the business to ensure there is as little downtime as possible. This means planning for and anticipating an increased volume of traffic to the website and introducing changes to the website late at night when traffic is generally at lower levels than during the day. Hosts often provide guaranteed uptime service agreements where they’ll ensure the server is online for a minimum amount of time, expressed as a percentage. Man hosts offer 99.9% uptime meaning that over the course of a year, the server will be down for no more than 8.76 hours… 99.99% means downtime will be no more than 52.56 minutes and so on… the higher the percentage offered, the more the service usually costs.
Page load times can have a dramatic effect on conversion rates and sales on an e-commerce website. Additionally, page load times also play a role in Google search rankings (Google reward faster sites). For these reasons it’s important for a business to choose a hosting solution that is optimised for speed. Dedicated servers that use solid state hard drives for example are much faster than a shared host that uses standard hard drives. Through caching techniques and content delivery networks (CDNs), page load times can also be improved. A CDN is a distributed server network that delivers webpages to users based on the location of users. For example if a business uses a CDN that has servers in London, New York and Sydney, European users will receive data from the London server whereas Americans will receive it from the New York server. This reduces the physical length data needs to travel between server and user therefore increase load times (also known as improving ‘latency’).
All hardware fails eventually. Servers can get hacked or corrupted. Human error can result in things getting deleted that shouldn’t have been deleted. All e-commerce businesses should be taking regular backups of their website to give themselves and their customers peace of mind but also to protect the business from losing valuable orders, customer data or data produced by the business itself which may not be backed up anywhere else.
Businesses should also have a disaster recovery plan in place in the event of power failures, fires, floods or other disasters (man made or natural). This usually includes storing recent backups of data in multiple geographic locations in order to minimise the risk of data loss and reduce disruption for customers.
Sometimes servers need to be physically rebooted or have failing components replaced. A good hosting provider will do this automatically and routinely replace hardware once it is out of warranty but it’s important you have 24/7 support on hand, if necessary that can troubleshoot problems and help you solve them. If your business is operating in the UK targeting UK customers but your hosting provider is in the US, then there may be problems getting hold of customer care or technical support due to time differences.
All businesses need to promote themselves and the most cost effective method of promotion is word of mouth promotion. Word of mouth promotion can only come about however once existing customers have had good experiences and talk about the business to their friends.
Acquiring customers initially usually costs money as the businesses will have no reputation, no reviews and no presence online which can make it difficult for new customers to trust it. As a result, businesses sometimes run competitions to give away free products / services to certain communities. An example might be a new business selling chocolates online – they may give away a free chocolate hamper to readers of a large wedding site. This will result in exposure of the business to lots of brides and grooms who may be willing to place large orders of chocolate for their wedding. At the very least, the business should be able to build a mailing list and generate some traction on social media whilst getting some traffic to their website.
Pay Per Click (PPC) ads are another popular form of advertising online. Google Adwords is the most popular PPC service offering businesses the chance to advertise to a highly targeted group of people who are searching for related products or services online using the Google search engine or who are browsing websites that display Google ads on them.
Businesses can create a text-based ad with a title, description and link to their website or they can create a media based ad containing an image or animated graphic. They can set a daily budget, target a specific group of people and target specific phrases that they want their ad displayed for.
In the case of a UK chocolate business, that business can set a budget of £10/day targetting individuals based only in the UK over the aged of 18 who are searching for phrases like ‘chocolate hampers’ or ‘chocolate bars’. Every time somebody clicks on the ad and visits the website, the business is charged a small fee (which can range from a couple of pence to a couple of pounds).
Search Engine Optimisation
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the process of making changes to a website and its content to help it perform better in search engine results pages for certain keywords and phrases. Backlinks from other websites, clear navigation, sitemaps, original content and accurate titles / descriptions on all pages help to bump a website up the pecking order in search engines but there are many other complex criteria that can make a difference. Investing in an SEO expert or company to help ensure the website is fully optimised and adhering to SEO best practices would be a common business strategy. Many businesses pay SEO companies monthly fees for them to generate backlinks and carry out regular SEO maintenance work.
All e-Commerce businesses should be taking advantage of social media. It’s where customers are most likely to talk about a business and it’s important that if the business is being talked about, that (a) they’re aware of what’s being said (b) they’re able to respond.
Competitions designed to increase interaction with customers and potential customers also helps to generate free publicity. A chocolate business for example could ask their followers or fans on twitter and facebook what their favourite flavour of chocolate is.. out of everyone who responds, one person picked at random will get a free box of chocolates of their choice. This doesn’t cost the business much (they could even use this method to shift older stock or stock that is nearing it’s sell-by date) but it rewards customers, helps promote the business to new customers and keeps everyone engaged with the business on social media.
Content marketing is a more strategic approach to creating content. Most content on social media or blogs which is generally spur of the moment or created simply to keep a blog or profile active. Content marketing focus on creating high quality, valuable, useful content designed to attract and retain a specific type of audience.
An example of content marketing might be for a business to create a weekly infographic displaying interesting stats or facts about their industry. These infographics could be sent to newspapers or blogs who may be interested in running a story about any unique / interesting angle that the infographic may be showcasing.
A chocolate company could put together survey to find out what the UK’s favourite and least favourite box of chocolates is. They could conduct experiments where they blindfold people and give them a variety of different types of chocolates to see what chocolate people prefer and whether they choose more expensive or cheaper chocolate. This is the type of high quality, unique research & content that requires strategic planning and if it can be sustained in the long term it often yields excellent results.
Setup costs for an e-Commerce business can include domain names, hosting, security certificates, business email, website design, SEO, addition of products and content. Bank accounts and payment processing may also involve upfront fees. A business may also need a logo and graphic designs from a designer in addition to photographs of products taken by a professional photographer. Finally, a business must also be aware of regulations governing e-Commerce and make sure their site complies with all relevant laws.
Product descriptions, prices and photos may need to be updated regularly along with branding the website homepage for special events and holidays like Christmas, Valentines Day, Mother’s Day etc… Software updates, SEO and bugfixing should also be carried out regularly and it’s important that customer queries are handled in a professional and timely manner.
Ongoing hosting costs can include licences for operating systems or software, dedicated IP addresses, premium technical support, backups, expanding bandwidth, RAM, processing power or storage space and regular updates to server software and anti-virus / firewall packages.
Pay per click advertising, content marketing, social media marketing, traditional offline marketing and any other form of marketing you can think of all requires time (at least) and in many cases comes with a cash cost also. Businesses usually have a fixed marketing budget per month / year and it’s important to ensure that once a marketing plan has been established, resources are allocated as per the plan.
The cost of shipping goods to customers can either be absorbed by the business, paid for by the customer or else diluted by the business and partially paid for by the customer. When delivering products to the customer they also need to be packaged carefully with appropriate dockets and receipts attached, all of which takes time and requires packaging materials. Finally the products need to be sent by a courier or shipping company which may involve additional fees for tracking, insurance or shipping high value / bulky items.
Some of these costs could be cancelled out if they can be done in-house by existing staff, who of course themselves are another cost. Professional training for staff in how to manage the website would also need to take place before the website goes live (which could be considered an initial cost) and ongoing staff training may be necessary to keep up with changes in how the e-Commerce site works or to understand and take advantage of the latest trends in social media / digital marketing.
Prevention is always better (and cheaper) than cure. For an e-Commerce business that means introducing a security policy and performing regular audits to test whether security measures are being adhered to and enforced.
Regular software updates, anti-virus updates, firewall updates and monitoring of server logs for suspicious activity is needed. Automated alerts should be in place if suspicious activity is detected and best practices in server and web application security should be enforced in order to help reduce the risk of fraud, hacking or a virus corrupting or compromising data.