This traditionally slow post-holiday lull is a good time for online retailers to improve their marketing. One area of opportunity is enriching content to support the purchase process. Content consumes 47 percent of users' time online, more than three times the amount spent online with actual commerce sites, according to 2007 research from the Online Publishers Association and Nielsen Net//Ratings. Examples of major e-commerce sites augmenting their sites with customer-friendly content are 1-800 Flowers' Celebrations and Amazon's High-Def 101.
Content Meets the Purchase Funnel
E-commerce marketers should define content broadly and consider customers' information needs at each point in the purchase process. Remember, customers are looking to buy the optimal product at the best price within their purchasing timeframe.
Because consumer's needs vary based on where they are in the decision process, use the purchase funnel's five major phases to better understand the content needed. Some types of content may serve multiple purposes.
Phase 1: Research
Customer's goal: Collect information and determine the consideration set. Regardless of the channel used for a purchase, many consumers start the shopping process online. From a content perspective, this translates to:
Product information related to the broad product category or specific to a brand or model number
Company information so customers know with whom they're dealing, especially if the merchant isn't a major brand name
FAQs related to the product
Marketer's objective: Enter the consideration set. This goal is achieved when customers:
Bookmark a site or page for later use.
Use forward-to-a-friend e-mail or IM functionality.
Print or download information for future reference. Remember to include contact information.
Contact the company via online order function, phone, or e-mail.
Register for e-mail newsletters, RSS feeds, or catalogs.
Phase 2: Engage
Customer goal: Assess purchase options, specific products, and potential retailers. In this phase, customers look for information that distinguishes one product, brand, or merchant from another in ways they consider important, including:
Deeper product information, including pricing and specific brand or model details. They may review information provided in the initial phase or supplement it by seeking answers to additional questions or needs. Information can come from other forms of communication, such as newsletters and catalogs.
Customer reviews on your site and third-party sites. Amazon was one of the trailblazers on this front.
Company or dealer specific information, such as "about us" sections, to better understand the company, including phone numbers, physical addresses, and maps.
Customer service related to specific needs. Include an "e-mail us" option to answer any open questions.
Marketer's objective: Build the prospect relationship. Use communications and the site to expand the relationship and give customers a reason to continue to engage with you. Remember, there may be a time delay between initial contact and purchase. Among the indicators to monitor:
Traffic to more specific types of product information
Customer service inquiries via online, phone, and retail
Phase 3: Conversion/Purchase
Customer goal: Determine product specifics and complete the purchase. Information here helps customers with the details of a purchase and often includes:
Targeted answers to specific product questions, answered through customer service, the site, FAQs, or customer forums
Shipping and purchase information, such as detailed FAQ and robust "about us" sections
Dealer/store information, including phone numbers, addresses, and maps
Marketer's objective: Close the sale. Remember, your competition is just a click away! Whether the sale is online or off-, track whether customers did preliminary research online. Consider providing a toll-free phone number to let customer talk to a person to close the purchase.
Phase 4: Post-Purchase Support
Customer goal: Improve product usefulness. Customers want information to answer product issues and the ability to extend usage, including:
Customer service, to aid product set up and return and help with usage issues. The return process can help sell future products.
User support documentation can be enhanced beyond what's provided by the manufacturer and may appear on the manufacturer's site. Provide access to user manuals, installation instructions, usage hints, product updates for software, and the like.
Community forums to enable interaction among users and provide enhanced information. Intuit and Crutchfield are good examples.
Marketer's objective: Continue enhancing the relationship and ensure the customer is happy with the product. While many marketers view this support as a cost, use this process to enhance the customer experience, reduce returns, and up-sell customer-related products. Premium customer support can yield revenues. Assess the following:
Returns. Consider whether enhanced information helps customers better use products, reducing returns.
Customer service. Examine whether additional content reduces the amount of customer service needed, especially from representatives.
Related products. Use this process to sell additional or related products. Track sales of these referrals. Also, assess the potential for developing new information products to support your core offering.
Phase 5: Advocacy
Customer goal: Share the experience. This information may appear on the marketer's site or a third-party site and includes:
Customer reviews. Product reviews help customers assess products and feel comfortable making purchases.
Marketer's objective: Build customer loyalty and drive positive word of mouth, with the ultimate goal of attracting new customers. Major measures of success include:
Referred customers. These are customers acquired based on colleagues' and friends' recommendations.
Incremental sales. This includes related products as well as up-sells based on customers' recommendation of product.
Engaging customers by providing additional content is one of the underused strengths of the Web. Such information enables customers to better use your products and helps attract and retain customers. And plentiful content often aids your organic search efforts.
Heidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies, an interactive marketing consultancy. She has over 20 years' experience helping clients increase profitability by developing innovative marketing programs to acquire and retain customers based on solid analytics. Clients include New York Times Digital, AccuWeather.com, CheapTickets, and the UJA. Additionally, Riverside Marketing Strategies has worked with numerous other online content/media companies and e-tailers.
Prior to starting Riverside Marketing Strategies, Heidi held a number of senior-level marketing positions at The Economist, the Bookspan/Doubleday Direct division of Bertelsmann, and Citibank.