You step into a garden-variety department store.
Today, you're purchasing a burgundy leather belt. You orient yourself; you scan for visual cues that may steer you in the right direction. Hanging from the ceiling in the far corner of the store is a sign that reads "Footwear." You start in that direction.
We have a lifetime of experience with shopping and learning the way retailers categorize and layout their selling space. Belts are usually surrounded by other accessories, typically near the shoes. In the grocery store, milk is usually near eggs.
The offline shopping world is rich with textures, colors, tastes, smells, lights, sounds, and the bustle of people. Buying offline is a richer experience, because the retailer has more control over the shopping environment. On the downside, it's short on space and thereby product choices and information.
The online world is a flat, two-dimensional screen. It's often daunting, overwhelming, and lonely. The upside is product choices are endless, information abounds, and you have 24/7 access. Buying online should be a more convenient experience because the buyer has more control.
By trying to mimic the offline experience, many online retailers only underline how inferior the sensory experience is. Other online retailers present a tangled pile of links and images, leaving prospects confused and frustrated.
It's no surprise more and more people shop online and buy off-. Is this because the offline world is a much better experience? Or is it because most e-tailers have failed to create convenient online shopping experiences?
Online, Expectations Are Different
Not only do we log on with a life history of offline buying experiences and expectations, but we've also developed additional expectations. We demand immediate relevance.
Online, we're a teeny needle in a haystack of bits and bytes, searching through a maze of interconnected digital data. It's not like we feel lost; we know where the back button is. Heck, we know where the nearest department store is. What all those billions of bytes of surrounding data do is magnify our sense of urgency in finding the relevant data we seek, that product we're looking for.
For the online retailer, the center of this struggle is the category page. This is where the experiences of the offline world seem to clash with the realities, advantages, and limitations of online. How does an e-tailer present wares effectively for maximum selling opportunities while meeting the plethora of needs a prospective customer has as she arrives? How do we present her with immediate relevance as she shops? Worse, how do we categorize, present, and introduce potentially thousands of SKUs on a flat, two-dimensional, 800 x 600 screen?
The following three questions will bring you closer to better category pages.
Who's on This Page?
Start by making a list. If this is a category page, it's likely a long list. Don't just consider demographics, also list specific needs and motivations as they relate to the products you sell. Sort these into different visitor types, or even create personas.
Contrast the left-hand column links on Lands' End's men's category page with its women's category page. Notice the position of the accessories link. On the men's page, it's near the bottom; on the women's page, it's near the top of the list. A subtle difference, but accessories are more important to women. The link position reflects that. Often, these categories pages are simple templates. The link list on both pages are identical, usually alphabetical. Why?
What Do We Want Them to Do?
Now that we've identified several visitor types, we must assign at least one or more actions we want each type to take on this page. Do we want to give them the opportunity to dig deeper, buy now, browse, or all of the above? Again, the list of actions could be long. That's OK. Later, you can prioritize these actions on the page by assigning a dollar value to each action.
BrookBrothers.com presents only one clear action on its men's category page. Big problem. What if I don't like that outfit?
In contrast, look at the variety of actions I can take at KineticFountains.com. This site does an excellent job dealing with the customer in the middle of the buying process, a customer who knows approximately what she wants.
The ultimate purpose of a category page is to help the visitors evaluate alternatives and choose the product that's right for them based on their needs as they define them. If visitors don't see this on your category page, you'll see pogo-sticking in your analytics. If visitors engage in too much pogo-sticking and keep clicking back and forth from category page to product page, they'll abandon your site. That leads into the third question.
What Must the Visitor See to Take Our Desired Actions?
Take into account where the visitor type is in the buying cycle and her needs and motivations.
If she knows exactly what she wants, does she perceive how she can quickly get there from your category page?
If she knows approximately what she wants, does she have a way to browse products in the context of her specific need or use, or is she forced to browse your self-named categories?
If she's early in the buying process and she's just identified a need, do you provide a way to learn more about the category? Are you doing what you can to narrow her choices? The Buy.com TV category page actually considers the buyer in the early part of the buying process, but the link to its TV buying guide is nearly invisible. Compare that with CircuitCity.com's TV category page.
Again, KineticFountain.com does an excellent job of considering early-stage buyers and presenting them with variety of ways to learn about and browse products. It uses customer-centric language, like "I'm looking for" and "I need."
Our senior persuasion architect, Anthony Garcia, was shopping for a RAM upgrade for his Apple notebook. Having an account at MacMall, he arrived at the memory category page. The active window presented him with a clear question, "Need Memory?" Of course, he did. The question Anthony was really asking was, "What type of memory does my notebook need?" The answer was difficult to find. He bailed.
He ended up spending about 33 percent more on his memory upgrade on Apple.com because it answered his question quickly with a clear and easy-to-understand process.
Any profitable brick-and-mortar retail store meticulously plans its lighting, floor plan, product presentation, and so forth. The idea is to provide shoppers with a path through the store that allows them to find what they're looking with minimal effort and, along the way, to be presented with additional products. You can do this with your online category pages. Simply plan your category pages by answering and accounting for the answers to the above three questions. Let me know what you've done to improve your category pages.
Meet Bryan at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.
Bryan Eisenberg is coauthor of the Wall Street Journal, Amazon, BusinessWeek, and New York Times bestselling books "Call to Action," "Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?," and "Always Be Testing." Bryan is a professional marketing speaker and has keynoted conferences globally such as SES, Shop.org, Direct Marketing Association, MarketingSherpa, Econsultancy, Webcom, SEM Konferansen Norway, the Canadian Marketing Association, and others. In 2010, Bryan was named a winner of the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation's Rising Stars Awards, which recognizes the most talented professionals 40 years of age or younger in the field of direct/interactive marketing. He is also cofounder and chairman emeritus of the Web Analytics Association. Bryan serves as an advisory board member of SES Conference & Expo, the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit, and several venture capital backed companies. He works with his coauthor and brother Jeffrey Eisenberg. You can find them at BryanEisenberg.com.
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