Ad-Based E-Commerce Tools: Bye-Bye Buy?

The concept was simple enough. The client wanted to create a rich media banner that would offer — right within the ad — the client’s goods to customers.

A customer would provide the vendor with his or her mailing address, credit card info, and opt-in data before hitting the “send” button. Using the two-way data feed, the purchasing data could be sent from the ad to the vendor’s server, checked for validity, and then sent back to the ad so the customer could record the transaction number. Easy as pie. Transaction done. Merchandise on its way.

However, the vendor soon noticed that the orders weren’t exactly pouring in thick and fast from the ad. In fact, although there seemed to be plenty of interest in the ad itself, the number of orders was minimal. Even with this cutting-edge technology, the ad just wasn’t meeting the needs of the vendor. What gives?

I have seen this scenario play out several times in the past and have learned valuable lessons that should be shared.

To understand the reality of selling anything directly from an ad, one must first consider the situation of the typical customer who encounters that ad. For starters, unlike a purposeful visit to a Web site such as, where the customer most likely already has an interest in the books and other merchandise being sold, the recipient of the rich media ad is not initiating a visit to the ad for the purposes of buying; instead, the ad is coming to him or her unexpectedly. The potential customer is generally surfing around and minding his or her own business when suddenly a great offer appears. Though the offer might be appealing and the price acceptable, it is the rare person who impulsively reaches for the wallet.

We all have criteria that we use when making a buying decision. Generally, we buy things that fit a perceived need or make our lives easier. In many cases, the appeal of an item is based on special pricing; in others, it fits an immediate personal need. However, it is a fairly short list of items that the average person is willing to buy without additional consideration. For most things, the customer needs a bit of time to contemplate the offer. Considering that moments before encountering the ad customers may have been totally unaware that the product or offer even existed, is it reasonable to think that they now can’t live without it?

I look at e-commerce ads the same way I look at the checkout line at the supermarket. No vendor would ever consider hanging fine jewelry on the rack at the supermarket checkout. It is ludicrous to consider that any customer would wander into the aisle and, while the checkout clerk was weighing the bananas, pick out a lovely $700 tennis bracelet.

However, the supermarket model shows us that it is the perfect place for candy bars, gum, and glossy magazines. Why? Because we are willing to spend a few dollars to give in to our impulse for snacks and entertainment. We already know these items, and we are comfortable with what amount of sacrifice (money to be spent) is necessary to gain them.

For the rich media e-commerce ad, the situation is similar. The best products to be sold in an e-commerce ad are those that can be considered impulse buys. If you are offering a product that the customer is already familiar with and it meets a certain comfort level of spending for that customer, you just might have a sale. However, if you are offering a product that will require the customer to get a little more education about its benefits and pricing, then an e-commerce banner is the wrong place to sell from. If users cannot make a buying decision based on the readily available information in the ad copy and their existing knowledge of the product, then the product isn’t one that should be sold as an impulse buy.

Also consider that customers will have a range of price “comfort” levels. For some, it could be $4.99, for others, $19.99 or maybe $59.99. But it is important to price the product in a way that is consistent with (or lower than) customers’ expectations, so that they willingly reach for their wallets on the spur of the moment.

Also, not all purchase decisions are made only the customer who sees the ad. As most married people can attest, most decisions that affect one spouse affect the other as well. Changing a long-distance phone carrier within an ad banner might seem like a simple enough transaction, but doing so without consulting the other users of that phone could also result in some lively dinner conversation! Therefore, the offer is wasted.

Rich media e-commerce ads also need to be designed with the expectation that the average user isn’t willing to spend much time concluding the offer. By definition, the online ad appears before users (interrupting them) and pitches an offer. Then it is up to the customer to accept that offer or not. If the customer considers the offer to be good and the pricing solid, but considers the quantity or type of information being requested too much or too invasive, then the opportunity is gone, and so is the customer.

Not all products are good candidates for rich media e-commerce sales. But if a product does meet pricing comfort levels, doesn’t need to be over-explained to the customer, doesn’t take up much time or effort to purchase, and doesn’t affect anybody other than the customer when purchased, then you just might just have a winner.

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