Hello owner or manager of an online store.
I’m guessing you’re reading this article because you’ve got an existing online store (maybe it’s your second or third version of the site) and you’re looking for a partner with deep experience with online stores that can help you maximise the potential of your online presence, enabling you to dominate your market segments.
Or maybe this is your first store, and you’re looking to do it right the first time, rather than find out the hard way that there’s more to getting your aunt’s best friend’s daughter’s boyfriend, a uni student, who can build you an online store over a weekend – sure, how hard can it be anyway?
Either way, you want and expect more from your online store and the team behind it.
You know what you want, and perhaps more importantly, what you don’t want. You don’t want:
- An online store that’s slow, and loses customers before they even add your products to their cart. The site must be fast. Lightning fast!
- An online store that’s hard to update and manage, often requiring web developers to make seemingly simple changes. That’s so last decade – you should be able to manage all aspects of your site, simply and easily, via a web browser.
- An online store that isn’t easy to use on smartphones – which now accounts for more than 50% of online traffic to most of our client’s sites. It MUST be designed with the mobile user as the first priority.
- An online store that poorly presents your brand and products. No – you want to instil trust in visitors to your site the moment they land on any page of your site – you want them to love your brand and want to buy from first contact with you. And at the very least, you want them to ‘follow’ you even if they don’t buy on first contact, so you can convert them to a customer in the future.
- An online store that doesn’t or can’t evolve with the needs of your business, based on new trends and technology. You demand a solution that can be upgraded and rapidly enhanced to implement new options and features that result in happy customers and increased revenues.
Over the years we’ve worked with many many clients and we’ve taken the experience and knowledge we’ve obtained and incorporated it into a ‘framework’ that is applied to all of our clients to ensure they have the highest probability of success when it comes to their online stores.
We call it our ‘Faststores Formula for Online Stores that Sell‘, (or FFOSS) – it’s not a ‘secret sauce’ formula – in fact we openly share it with all of our clients (and anyone else that’ll listen) – it’s a formula based on common sense, experience, reports and data, and by monitoring and following other leaders in the field. We’re constantly reviewing the formula on day-to-day basis, and as we obtain new insights, we share them with our existing clients so that they can benefit from our collective experience too.
So here’s the ‘basics’ of the formula. Future blog posts will be dedicated to expanding on aspects of the formula as we continue to evolve the FFOSS.
Selecting an Online Store Platform
Like any purchasing decision, there are a multitude of options to choose from when it comes to online stores.
There’s fully hosted solutions that only require a month-to-month payment, and there are solutions you can host anywhere. There are open source solutions that require no up-front or ongoing licence fees, and there are others that do.
Based on feedback from you and our other clients, there are a few key requirements when considering the Online Store Platform to go with:
- Ease-of-use – you don’t want an online store that requires a 3-week training course to learn how to operate it. Nope! You want something that’s dead-easy to update and maintain. From changing the layout and images on the homepage, to uploading your latest collection, it should be something you could comfortably get your mother to manage (figuratively speaking, or perhaps not). And if by chance how to do something isn’t immediately obvious, you want to be able to pick up the phone and speak to someone that can ‘remind’ you of how to do that something.
- Constantly improving – it’s been said that a year on the internet is like 7 years in ‘traditional’ business. It moves and evolves so quickly. So it stands to reason that you want an online store that is also evolving and keeping pace with changes. You don’t want to have to invest in a new online store every few years – that’s just crazy – it’s all about continuous, incremental improvement.
- Take your online store with you – people can outgrow one another. It’s sad, but it’s a fact of life. And in business it’s no different. You might outgrow the developers of your online store. So what then? Do they hold you to ransom because they’ve built your store on some proprietary software. I hope not – but it’s happened with many of our clients. There can be massive pain moving away from a proprietary online store – so it’s better to avoid that potential pain by choosing a platform that’s portable. Something you can transfer anywhere if and when the need arises.
There are other considerations, such as features, scalability, and performance too, but most online store solutions have or are actively addressing those considerations, so we won’t dwell on them now.
And we’ve had experience with many of the options available for your online store platform. We’ve built sites on BigCommerce, Shopify, Magento, PrestaShop and Drupal, and we’ve also had exposure to many other platforms when we’ve migrated new clients away from there ‘old’ online stores.
So what online store platform do we recommend as part of FFOSS? Glad you asked!
It’s WooCommerce – the most popular online store solution on the internet. It’s a plugin for WordPress, which happens to power more than 25% of all websites. Maybe you’ve heard of WordPress? If you’ve had any experience at all with websites and online stores then I’d say you’ve heard of both.
And why is the combination of WordPress and WooCommerce so popular? Well WordPress is very very easy to use – and WooCommerce just builds on top of the existing, easy-to-use interface of WordPress to deliver a feature-rich online store solution that can be extended in almost any way you can dream of.
And yeah, it’s ‘portable’ to – with WordPress and WooCommerce being so popular, there is no shortage of hosting and developer options. It’s a safe bet.
Designing your Online Store with your Customer in Mind
It may sound pretty obvious, but it’s critical that you understand who your customers are. I don’t mean on a personal one-to-one, first-name basis. I mean collectively – who is your ideal customer? If you don’t know, we can help you there, because knowing who they are is the first step in designing your site.
A simple example; If your ideal customer is a tradesperson that lays concrete for a living, then the look and feel of the site would be quite different to a site targeting a thirty-something mother of 8. That’s a pretty crude example, but you get the idea.
So our first step when we start designing a new online store for a client is to understand your ideal customer, and then making sure the site and branding speaks directly to them.
In addition, there are a range of consideration and checklists we use to ensure great online store design as part of the FFOSS, including:
- Responsive Design – the ambiguous term used to describe how the design of a site should look equally good on smartphone, tablet, laptop and large screen desktop. As already mentioned, many of our clients have more than 50% of their traffic and sales coming from mobiles, so much of our focus during the design stage is on ensuring the mobile experience is the best it can be.
- Intuitive and obvious – a visitor to your site should instinctively know what they should do next. They shouldn’t have to think about how to ‘find’ more information about a product, how to add it to the cart, and complete checkout – it should be intuitive and second nature to the visitor. Every point where the user has to ‘think’ about what to do is a point where they can be lost, forever.
- Avoid leakage – hmmm, that term might evoke some unintended visualisation, but before you dwell on it, in this case ‘leakage’ means visitors leaving your site before they do what you want them to do – that is, to purchase something. Here’s a very relevant example that almost all of our clients contend with. A visitor lands on your site via a Google search. Your product is exactly what they’re looking for, and the price is good too. And hey, look, you have a Facebook page. I’ll just go and take a look and see how many followers you have and check out your latest posts. And oh, I have a few messages in Facebook too. I’ll check out my newsfeed while I’m here. Three hours later, I don’t recall how I got onto Facebook but I better go get something to eat cause I’m starving. Sale lost because the visitor ‘leaked’ from your site. Get the picture?
So the first step in building your a brilliant online store is getting the design right.
Features of your Online Store
Today there is a growing list of ‘standard’ features you’d expect with a comprehensive online store. Those might include any or all of the following:
- Touch-friendly navigation
- Video banners
- Web font support
- Gift vouchers
- ‘Live’ search
- Product filtering, based on price, colour, size, brand etc.
- Discount coupons, product, category and site-wide discounts, role-based discounts (such as VIP and/or wholesale customers). Read more about discounts here. Read more at 14 Ways to Use Offers, Coupons, and Discounts to Increase Revenue and Customer Loyalty
- Image zooming and video on the product page
- Facebook, twitter, linkedIn logins so users can rapidly checkout
- Integration with your preferred newsletter/CRM tool so that visitors are automatically added to to your marketing lists when they subscribe and/or checkout
- Exit intent popups that track visitors’ behaviour and pinpoints the exact moment when visitors are about to leave the site. Read more about it at OptiMonk: What is exit-intent and how can it improve your conversions?
- And much much more
In addition to the various features that may be applicable to your particular online store, there are a couple of areas that extra special attention is essential:
- Product Pages – yep, here’s another obvious one – but something that is overlooked in so many online stores. Today visitors expect great images – often multiple images – as well as video. In addition, they want social proof that your product is great – so star-ratings and user feedback on the product page is becoming increasingly important in allaying any concerns or reservations visitors to your site might have with completing a purchase.
- Checkout – here’s where you see the greatest sale-abandonment of your site – at crunch time when you want the user purchase your products and complete the order. And like product pages, this area is overlooked in a big way. Of course there are the obvious considerations like offering as many payment options as possible – you don’t want to limit how your customer chose how they give you their hard earned credit right? And providing a few shipping options, like standard, express, pickup and the like. That’s all pretty standard stuff. Where you can really start to see a return on investment are areas like pre and post checkout upsell, exit intent pop-ups, cart abandonment sequences, smart post-checkout communication sequences to build your relationship with your customer, and more.
With the average conversion rates for most online stores sitting at around 4% – you have two areas where you should be working to maximise your conversion efforts – the first is around getting that conversion rate up, and the second is leverage your relationship with those that did purchase, to build loyal, repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
Product and Site Content
Every piece of information on your site should be reviewed and prepared with your target customer in mind. It should speak directly to them as though you were face-to-face with the visitor, answering any questions they might have, and more importantly, addressing any reservations or anxieties they might have with purchasing from your site. Easier said than done right? Yes, but again, we have some guidelines on how to achieve this.
- General site content – we’re talking about your ‘about us’, FAQs, contact page, terms and conditions, privacy statement and the like. All of these pages must be crafted with your customer in mind. We have some tips for making these work for you. Read Writing an effective About Us page and Do your FAQs give a visitor a reason to do business with you, or go elsewhere? for more on this topic.
- Product information – Ok, product merchandising. Why do you think retail chains invest millions of dollars on window displays, shop fit-outs, lighting, positioning of product displays and counters, and even the type of music and volume it’s played at as your roam their stores? Because research and supporting data confirm that taking these details into consideration play a big factor in converting browsers into buyers. It’s no different for your online store. You need to present your products in the best possible light. This starts with product images. I can’t emphasise just how important this is. Photos taken on your iPhone usually won’t cut it, although they can if you do it right – see Capturing High Quality Product Photos With Your SmartPhone. Whether you’re on a tight budget and you have to do these things yourself, or you have a professional photographer, the quality of the images on your site can make or break you. Most experienced online merchandisers know this though. Beyond your product images, you should also include plenty of information about the product, but do so in a way that the page isn’t cluttered with text and tables – clever use of tabs and accordions can make the information easily accessible to the visitor when they need it.
Site Performance and Hosting
You might have a great looking site, with all of the best features available, but if your site is slow to load then it’s all for nought.
We’ve all done it – you’ve landed on a site and after 10 seconds the page still hasn’t loaded – so you’ve gone back to your Google search and clicked on the next listing in the search results. Game Over – that site will never see you again.
So there are a few areas to focus on in terms of ensuring you have a fast site that loads pages in an instant:
- Hosting – here’s the obvious one, and if you’ve had online stores in the past then you know that hosting is not hosting is not hosting. The ‘unlimited sites and unlimited bandwidth’ hosting plans for $4.95 a month (or year) are good for… for… well I can’t think of anything they’re good for. In fact, most ‘general’ hosting plans, whether they be shared hosting, VPSs, and even dedicated hosting options don’t cut it. You have to have a performance ‘stack’ that is optimised for your particular online store solution. We’ve tried many different options and technologies including Amazon AWS, RackSpace, and other ‘high performance’ options, and we know what works and what doesn’t work. AND, let’s not forget about where your hosting servers are located. They need to be as close to your target customers as possible, so if your target customer is located in Australia, then you guessed it, your site should be hosted here. Needless to say, clients that host their sites with us experience blazing fast performance and page loads, and that’s before we perform further optimisation. Read on…
- Page caching – Caching creates an ultra-fast load time, essential for improving Search Engine Optimization and increasing conversions. In a typical hosting setup, when you visit a page on a website, the server hosting the site will need to ‘build’ that page on demand. That means multiple database look-ups, file loads for php, html, css and js, more database look-ups and finally the page is displayed to the visitor. And that process is repeated for the next visitor to the same page, whether it be only a moment or two later, of an hour later. It’s quite inefficient. Enter page caching. All of the same steps are repeated the first time a visitor lands on a page on your site, but that page is then saved in ‘memory’ for future use. The next time a user visits that page, it’s instantly served directly from memory in microseconds – usually in the blink of an eye. And the best part – there’s usually little or no cost to implement a page caching solution. Bonus!
- CDN – ok, that’s short for Content Distribution Network. All clear now? Yep, I thought so (you nerd you). For those less nerdly folk, a CDN enables you to host your website assets, such as images, video, css and java scripts, on special high-performance servers around the globe. When someone visits your site, those assets are sent to their browser from the nearest server, rather than from the actual servers your site is hosted on. Shorter distance to users will not only reduce latency but also minimize packet loss. All these factors will result in a much better performance and page load speed.
A Faststores client was featured on the current affairs program TodayTonight – of course, we knew about the upcoming feature – we were given a few hours notice! But we had the three items above in place – blazing fast hosting, page caching, and our CDN, so that when the feature hit the airwaves. The outcome – 40,000 visitors to the client’s site in the space of an hour, with thousands and thousands of orders – with zero impact on the performance and loading times of the site for visitors to our clients’ website.
Marketing your Online Store
When it comes to marketing your online store, this subject is ‘massive’, and this article is pretty lengthy already, so I’m not going to go deep on this here, but I’m going to assume you already have a plan in place for marketing and driving buyers to your site that are interested in what you have to sell. The Faststores Formula for Online Store that Sell includes, but is not be limited to, the following marketing activities:
- SEO – a no brainer right? If you can’t get found with search engines you better have a brilliant plan to drive traffic to your site that doesn’t rely on them. And we’re talking about onsite and offsite search engine optimisation here. We have plenty of experience in this area, but you might already have your preferred SEO agency. Either way, it’s a critical part of you plan. Check out our article on 11 SEO Tips for E-commerce Websites.
- PPC advertising – using paid ads to drive qualified traffic to your site. The options here continue to grow, and give you great flexibility for targeting potential customers. Options include Google, Bing, Facebook, Instagram and more.
- Social media marketing – if your social media savvy, you can use your social media presence to really drive your business. We have many clients that use social media as their primary means to generate online sales. Their social media pages are used to engage with their customers, and their online store captures the sales. If done right, you customers can be your biggest advocates, marketing your business and brand for you. The best kind of marketing.
- Content marketing – ok, this is where you’re using blog entries and social media posts to drive your rankings with search engines to build consistent, targeted traffic to your site. Often it’s part of a well crafted SEO plan, but deserves mention in it’s own right, as it can delivery excellent long-term return on investment when done right.
- Newsletters – sending an email to hundreds, thousands or even millions of your loyal customers is still one of the most cost-effects ways to market your online store.
Review and Improve
So you’ve got your brilliant new online store, built to the Faststores Formula for Online Store that Sell. Great – you’re set to dominate. You can now relax and prepare for early retirement because you have a cash machine that just keeps the dollars rolling in.
I wish that were true, but just like your car (and your body for that matter), it needs to be looked after, serviced regularly, and maintained. Your online store is no different. Your business is unique, and there are always areas where you can improve the online experience and increase conversions and sales, but it’s all about Return on Investments here – you should be able to quantify and measure outcomes when changes are made, and confirm if they improve or adversely affect your conversion rates.
Split testing and A/B testing is a great way to try new changes and compare the results over time. For example, trying out a series of new product page layouts to see which one converts the best. Changing button colours. Removing and shifting footer links. There are countless ways you can test and refine your user experience.
New features and the next social media phenomenon might need to be added to your site. Great, your online store platform can handle rapid implementation of new features.
And there’s also facelifts to your site – you already know a year online sees great changes, and what looks fresh and engaging today could look a little stale and dated in 12 months time. Makeovers can be extremely cost effective in keeping your brand ‘current’.
So there you have it – the ‘basics’ of the FFOSS. If you’re still reading this then I say ‘thank you’ – we’ve covered quite a bit of ground here together, and I hope that maybe you learned something along the way, or at least got one or two ideas around what you could be doing better with your online store.
If you’d like to chat with us more about Faststores Formula for Online Stores that Sell and how we can apply it to your online store, please get in contact with us – we’d love to chat with you.