Driving the Virtual Business

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The dot-com roller coaster (boom, followed by bust, followed by steady growth) of the past decade notwithstanding, we’ve seen a respectable and essentially continual progression in commerce on the Web since it became a mainstream channel for buying and selling. Today, the Internet is a mature and secure enough commercial platform for the majority of U.S. enterprises, which sell their products and services via the Web, and the number of companies conducting business transactions in this way is rising both here and abroad.

 

Companies that understand the power of the Internet and implement a plan that harnesses its sales and marketing capabilities will have a decisive advantage in the marketplace now and in the future. The approach to doing business on the Web, though, needs to involve more than just saying, “Internet = $$$!” Here are some of the crucial strategies to keep in mind when attempting to drive the virtual side of your business.

 

Patience Is a Virtue
Patience is a good quality to have generally, but it’s especially important in e-commerce. Entrepreneur Jeff Bezos founded online bookseller Amazon.com more than 10 years ago in his garage. (That seems to be a recurring theme in information technology startups, actually.) He based his business on the idea of volume. Initially, his Web site offered customers almost 10 times the amount of titles carried by most booksellers without the overhead involved with the operation of an actual store.

 

However, although the plan was sound, Amazon.com did not turn a single profitable quarter for the first eight years of its existence. Bezos was patient, though, and refined his business and technology processes as he grew his company and customer base. In 2003, the company experienced its first year in the black, posting yearly profits of $35 million. Amazon made almost $600 million the following year, meaning revenue had grown by more than 1,500 percent in a single year.

 

Therefore, it’s essential to bide your time when it comes to selling online and not get too discouraged if it’s not all gangbusters from the get-go. Being patient doesn’t mean being passive, though. You have to learn lessons from successes and failures along the way, and apply that knowledge as you progress.

 

Focus on Relevant Content
If you told me you’ve never been on a Web site where you’ve had to wade through reams of extraneous data just to access some important information, then I’d be inclined to think you’ve never been on the Internet. One big problem with many companies’ approaches to their Web sites—which are kind of virtual storefronts—is that they try to do too much. This can be in relation to superfluous content or to design elements like ostentatious Flash animation.

 

The truth is, most users are ambivalent about these features. And if they have a slow Internet connection, they’ll be downright averse to them. It doesn’t hurt to follow the KISS rule here: Keep It Simple and Specific. How do you know what they’ll want to see when they get to your Web site? Well, you should have some sort of function that tracks what pages are getting the most hits. Make sure you build your site in such a way that users have one-click access to this content, and make it easy to find. They should be able to track it down within the first 10 seconds of glancing at your home page. You don’t have to get rid of the more obscure stuff altogether—just keep it from cluttering up fundamental information.

 

To be fair, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Some companies should utilize fancy design in construction of their Web sites. A great example of this is Van Cleef and Arpels, a provider of expensive and extravagant jewelry. Their site is like a work of art, and the photographs are extremely sharp. They definitely understand the inclinations of the customers, as their upscale clientele will probably want to see up-close and in-focus pictures of their products.

 

Make It Easy to Find
Of course, building a Web site with customer-focused content and design will be all for naught if those customers can’t find it in the first place. Another aspect of making your site accessible includes external efforts like search marketing strategies.

 

The first step here is to ensure your Web site can be retrieved and organized by the crawlers that power giant search engines like Google, MSN, Yahoo and others. Also, it helps to get into other, more industry-specific search channels. (For an example of this, try out the CertScope search engine on this site.) In either case, you’ll want to try to match your content to keywords that users are most interested in to build traffic.

 

Also, online advertisements can be extremely beneficial if they aren’t too intrusive. Take a pass on the pop-ups and introductory ads that have a “Skip” option, and go for the ones that are actually inserted seamlessly into the design of other Web sites. Although more subtle, these ads are far more effective, perhaps for the very reason that they are understated. Additionally, if you have a database of e-mails, be sure to leverage that by sending out messages around new product releases, sales promotions and other announcements relevant to consumers.

 

–Brian Summerfield, brians@certmag.com

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