August 1, 2013, 3:39 PM

The rules of engagement

Zappos designer Alice Han highlights retail sites that know how to engage consumers.

With today's crowded e-commerce market, compelling distracted users to engage with our e-commerce sites is becoming increasingly difficult. Unlike bricks-and-mortar shops, we can't simply hire someone to put on a costume and stand on a corner with a spinning arrow to direct people to our business. Instead, our sites float in cyberspace, demanding we experiment with creative strategies to attract first-time customers, get them to engage, and entice them to return and bring friends with them. Luckily, many of our e-commerce colleagues are testing and trying different methods from which we can glean insights.

To attract customers, you must first paint a clear picture of your target shoppers by identifying their lifestyles, budgets, shopping habits, frequently visited web sites, social patterns and other characteristics. Use this understanding to focus on intelligent marketing over the misguided strategy of dumping ad dollars into a wide, yet ineffective, net.

This valuable customer information should be used to build your site's personality. The appropriate voice and imagery will resonate with your customers and establish a personal connection. A great example of this is Betabrand, an online retailer whose quirky personality appeals perfectly to its customers.

Consumers know they'll find something humorous in Betabrand's e-mail marketing messages, and that means they open them more often than they open run-of-the-mill messages. The open rate for the e-retailer's e-mails can be up to 38%, Betabrand says, which is well above the 17% industry average, as reported by digital marketing services provider Silverpop. On top of that, Betabrand's e-mail click-through rate measures up to 7%, significantly higher than the 3.1% industry average. Betabrand drives results by understanding who its core customers are and giving them what they like.

While humor is always effective, today social sharing has become an important way to get the word out about your site and products. The virality of successful sharing can grow your customer base dramatically. Providing simple sharing opportunities with Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter allows for widespread product exposure.

Many online retailers already have social network links on product pages to help shoppers share their experience, but you should also explore other sharing opportunities. For example, try prompting a consumer to broadcast his purchase after checkout or give a user the chance to share product reviews he has just written.

The best way to engage customers is to deliver an amazing first-time user experience. Greet new shoppers with a clean design, a clear value proposition and an intuitive call to action. Understand what your site offers that sets it apart from the competition and convey that message clearly. A classic example of a site that does this very well is Apple.com. Known for its impeccable use of white space, strong product hero imagery, succinct value proposition and clear calls-to-action, Apple.com nails it. It presents the user with a simple, yet compelling, interface that even the least tech-savvy user can navigate.

It is important to keep in mind that first-time visitors don't always arrive on your home page. The product impressions we scatter around social sites often link to other locations, including product detail pages. That means we have to understand each and every potential point of entry and think about how they will appear to a customer who has never visited the site before.

New customers are great, but converting them into repeat customers is better yet. Keeping your site fresh and frequently updated with new content can bring people back. Explore different ways to make your web site look dynamic. Zappos.com does this well with "Glance," a shopping experience launched early this year that allows users to discover the products most likely to excite them via curated collections. Glance offers multiple new collections daily, which serve to keep the site fresh.

Glance also features an animated live feed of products that people "heart" and allows users to view the top trending products based on customer engagement. Glance gives Zappos' customers a reason to return, browse and spread the word about their finds.

Another effective strategy that may lead consumers to check in with your site periodically is to give them a sense of ownership. ModCloth achieves this quite beautifully with its "Be the Buyer" program where consumers can vote to determine which products will be sold on the apparel site. ModCloth then offers notification options for when these products become available and showcases products that stem from the program with a "Be the Buyer Pick" emblem everywhere the product appears on the site. Having that personal investment with the web site builds brand loyalty.

There are endless strategies to acquire and retain customers, and experimenting is crucial in setting your site apart from the sea of "templatized" shopping sites. To set up an environment for successful experimentation, your team must be flexible and capable of acting nimbly. For Zappos, that means having a separate team dedicated to improving and innovating its shopping experience. The San Francisco-based team that makes up Zappos Labs is charged with creating and testing new ways for consumers to shop Zappos.com.

The Zappos Labs team uses A/B testing before deploying new strategies. By isolating a new concept and testing it against the current design, it gets a direct comparison of the performance between the two.

While a poor-performing test may appear to be a failure, it can also provide valuable information if you take the time to analyze the data to comprehend why the new concept did not yield positive results. At Zappos Labs, this is precisely how the team approaches new ideas; filtering out underperforming concepts and building out those that show promise for success. These learnings are what strengthen the team going forward in iterating new, more intelligent, strategies.

These creative experiments have the potential to reveal industry-changing solutions. With a vast library of testing tools and plenty of social sharing opportunities, now is an exciting time where we are capable of evolving e-commerce and of redefining the online shopping experience.

Alice Han is a user experience designer at Zappos Labs in San Francisco. Han develops products through experimentation with emerging web technologies. Her focus is on the social domain and the challenge of integrating Zappos commerce with the leading social sites.

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