December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

How information---not just shopping---boosts sales and keeps consumers coming back

(Page 2 of 3)

Both Garden.com and REI.com maintain their own in-house content departments. REI.com employs 20 writers, editors and web specialists who are part of its marketing department. This staff produces all of the product descriptions on three REI.com sites. It also produces and maintains the feature articles and interactive tools, such as the boot-fitting guide, in the “Learn and Share” section of the site. The primary qualifications for positions on REI.com’s content staff are experience either as a journalist or an advertising copywriter and an enthusiasm for outdoor activities.

Garden.com put its money where its mouth is by hiring Doug Jimerson, former senior editor at Better Homes and Gardens, to head its content department. Jimerson, whose title is editor-in-chief/vice president of publishing, directs a staff of three writers and three editors. This team works closely with Garden.com’s merchandising department to produce all of the product descriptions on the site, in addition to generating articles for Garden Escape as well as a series of both electronic and print newsletters.

Neither Garden.com nor REI.com would say how much they spend on content. However, in its content study, Forrester pegged the average salary for a web site content writer at $60,000. Junior writers responsible for drafting product descriptions and editing content from outside sources make slightly less. Senior writers, who typically create more magazine-style content, command slightly more. At those rates, REI.com and Garden.com are devoting close to $1 million and $500,000, respectively, to the generation of content, without even counting production and maintenance costs. And both retailers say the expense is warranted.

“If you really want to integrate content with commerce, you have to have an in-house staff,” Garden.com’s Sharples contends. “Our original idea was to partner with an existing gardening magazine. But if someone reads an article on peonies in Martha Stewart Living, or some other magazine, we might not offer the exact variety that they wrote about. We couldn’t ask an outside magazine to change their editorial to match our product line, and we wouldn’t want to change our product line to match their editorial.”

Don’t get in the way

Duif Calvin, director of retail merchandising strategy in the San Francisco office of iXL, an international e-business strategy and services firm, argues that web site content should be designed to take advantage of each shopper’s state of mind. “We don’t believe people can be classified simply as a particular kind of shopper,” Calvin says.

iXL has identified four modes that shoppers can be in when they arrive at a web site: pre-qualified, surgical, functional and recreational. “Content can be helpful in some of these modes and detrimental in others,” Calvin says.

“People move in and out of different shopping modes, depending on what they are doing at a particular time,” Calvin adds, “and their modes can change during a single shopping session. So web sites have to be designed to accommodate all of these modes.”

Put it in compartments

Pre-qualified shoppers know what they want when they come to a site, and they know the site has it. Surgical shoppers know what they want, but they don’t know if it is available at a particular site. Functional shoppers need to purchase something, such as a wedding gift, but don’t know what to buy. Finally, the recreational shopper, Calvin says, “enjoys shopping and wants to see what’s new on a web site.”

The biggest mistake most Internet retailers make in deploying content, according to Calvin, is putting too much content for the recreational shopper on the front page. That frustrates buyers who come to the site in other modes, and can be particularly annoying to pre-qualified buyers who Calvin says, “just want to make a purchase and get on with their lives.”

In general, Calvin says, content helps most with functional and recreational shoppers, although surgical shoppers can find it useful as well. “Surgical shoppers might want information to compare several items before making a decision,” Calvin explains. “For instance, if they are looking for a color printer, they may want to compare the features of two brands in order to determine the best value.”

Calvin says functional shoppers provide the best selling opportunities, because they are open to suggestions about products, and they often can be persuaded to purchase additional items, such as accessories, to complement their primary purchase. “But, you have to give the information they need to make a purchase quickly,” she advises.

The sites that analysts identify as using content well generally have followed the TravelSmith example of compartmentalizing content so shoppers can find the exact information they are seeking at any given moment. Calvin cites REI.com, Garden.com and Checkout.com (a site that sells music, videos and other entertainment items) as other good examples.

Each week, Garden.com highlights a new feature article from its Garden Escape magazine. But as Calvin points out, “When you enter the site, there is no question that you are in a shopping site.” That is because a link labeled “shop” is in the upper left corner of the page, and just below that is a search engine that lists products as the first category available for searching.

Scanning across the top of the page from the search link, site visitors see links labeled “design a garden,” “our community,” and “magazine.” The rest of the page contains products and their descriptions. There also is a headline that doubles as a link for that week’s featured article, along with a separate link to Garden.com’s chat rooms and message boards.

Calvin says this design works because it allows visitors to begin shopping immediately, while providing an easy entree to detailed content. “People interested in magazine content will take the time to find that content within a shopping area, those ready to buy will not take the time to pick through content to find the checkout stand,” she says.

The real value in offering content to recreational shoppers is building brand loyalty. “Recreational shoppers almost never buy,” Calvin says, “but they are deepening their relationships with a brand. And as they become functional shoppers, they will trust your brand more because you have established your site as a source of expert information.”

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