E-Tail: Four More Barriers to Entry

In March, I wrote about five barriers to entry that dissuade people from transacting with your company. At the end of the column, I asked you what other barriers you find in your daily online life. Here are four more barriers collected from that column’s feedback.

Bad Error Messages

There are two different types of bad error messages: those that are invisible and those that blame the user.

Invisible error messages are those the user simply doesn’t see. There have been many times when I’ve filled out an order form and clicked “continue,” only to be left at the same page without moving forward. Did I not click the button? Did the browser freeze? So I click it again, with the same result. Only then does it occur to me perhaps I entered something incorrectly or forgot to enter something.

Sure enough, somewhere on the page (either at the very top, when my eye is fixed on the “continue” button at the bottom, or somewhere below the fold, where I can’t see) is an error message telling me I entered something incorrectly. These error messages are basically invisible and an endless source of aggravation.

On the other end of the spectrum are error messages that yell at users. They’re usually in bolded red print and say things like, “Error: You entered an invalid Zip Code,” “Error: You entered invalid information,” and “Please correct your errors.” These messages criticize users and make them feel like they’re idiots.

Error messages should instead be comforting and hold users’ hands through the process. They should say things like, “Sorry, I didn’t understand the Zip Code you entered” and “Please confirm your e-mail address is in the format ‘name@domain.com.’ I’m having difficulty understanding what you entered.” These error messages place the blame on the computer, not on the user. They’re friendlier and offer help, not chastisement.

Platform Compatibility

A number of readers e-mailed about platform compatibility issues. My creative director and I talk about this a lot, as he’s a Mac guy and I’m a Windows guy. Although it’s true not all browsers and platforms are equally used, it is important your site work with all current browsers and platforms. Some sites get away with not doing this by saying “This site was designed to work with IE, which you can download here.” It takes plenty of hubris for a company to think its Web site is so important the visitor will change his browser for it. Do the extra legwork to make your site cross-browser and cross-platform compatible.


On a related technical issue, several people flagged plug-ins as barriers to entry. This is especially true now that you have to click to activate ActiveX and Flash. Most browsers come with Flash already installed, however, so this isn’t such a big deal. But many sites use proprietary plug-ins users must download and install manually.

In this day and age of computer viruses and particularly spyware, expecting someone to install your company’s own piece of code is very risky, especially if your company’s relatively unknown. Flash, AJAX (define), and other built-in technologies have advanced to the point at which you can hopefully write your code using one of these preinstalled languages and not require an additional download.

International Credit Cards

I’ve experienced this issue personally, and a few European readers e-mailed about it as well. The issue isn’t with shipping overseas. I spend a lot of time abroad for conferences and clients. If I’m in Germany for a month, for example, odds are I’ll eventually need to buy something online. Even though I’m on a German Web site and want a product shipped to my German location, I often can’t pay because my credit card isn’t German and my debit card isn’t issued by a German bank. On the flip side, many foreigners live in America and can’t use American Web sites (even to ship to their U.S. addresses) because their credit cards are foreign, too. European ex-pats, for example, can’t send their friends and families gifts from American Web sites because their credit cards are from Europe.

So Many Barriers, So Few Customers

The barriers to entry listed in my previous column affect everyone who visits your site. Some of the above are niche issues. But even niche issues add up. Say only 5 percent of your users are on Macs, 4 percent use Firefox, and 5 percent come from overseas. Individually, those aren’t terribly large numbers. Taken together, you’re turning your back on 14 percent of your traffic. If your sales are so good and your conversion rates so high you don’t need this 14 percent, congratulations. But if you’re like most retailers, you can’t afford to slam the door on potential customers simply because you didn’t do the work required to support them.

Other barriers to entry that irk you? Let me know!

Until next time…


Meet Jack at E-Mail Marketing, the first in the new ClickZ Specifics conference series, October 24-25 in New York City.

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