Growing Pains: Are You Ready to Play With the Big Boys?

Many early e-commerce businesses were based on an innovative idea or as the outgrowth of a hobby. Many surviving businesses are quite successful. Over the past few years, they’ve grown due to the founders’ hard work, chance opportunities, and trial and error, rather than by executing a well-defined business plan. Many of these entrepreneurial ventures have reached a size at which they must make some big changes in their management approach to position themselves for continued growth.

As companies reach this critical point, one aspect of their business mix that’s probably missing is a systematic approach to marketing. To help them get to the next level, here are some strategies used by the big boys.

Monitor the Competition

Monitor both direct competitors and major players in your larger category. Consider online competition, direct marketers, and retailers. Often, small businesses know who else competes in their niche, but don’t spend much time assessing competitors’ actions. Regularly monitor competitors’ sites. Register and purchase from them using personal email addresses.

Major factors to track include:

  • How’s the home page laid out? How are product or story pages arranged? What products or stories are promoted?

  • How are email newsletters used? How often are they published? What do they feature? Is RSS offered?
  • Monitor popular search terms to see who appears in paid and organic results.
  • For e-commerce sites, examine the purchase process, including shopping carts, order confirmation, follow-up, and return processes.

Review and Enhance Your Site

Having watched your site evolve, you may be too close to see features that may need upgrading. Take a fresh look at it, and its usability:

  • Ensure every site page functions as an entry way to the site. Since visitors may come through search or email links, highlight your depth of content on each page. Also, promote related content or merchandise.

  • Allow multiple navigation options, as all users don’t follow the same path through your site. Include search boxes at the top and bottom of each page, except purchase pages. Use information from these searches as research for keyword buys. Also, add footer links to additional functionality and topics.
  • Include referral marketing in the form of forward-to-a-friend functionality to allow users to easily suggest content and product to others.

Expand Customer Communications

Expand communications with prospects and customers across all customer touch points, on- and offline:

  • Build your email list. Assess your site and communications to ensure you maximize email address collection:

    • Include email address collection boxes at the top and bottom of each page, as well as in footer links.

    • Include email address collection boxes in existing email newsletters to capture readers who receive them from colleagues.
    • Request email newsletter capture as part of the checkout process.
    • Add a link to your privacy policy near your email collection box to assure subscribers who may have security concerns.
    • Send an email to confirm registration. Use it to engage readers and get them back to your site.

  • Develop newsletter offerings that give readers real value, not just a means to distribute promotions. Engage readers to develop a communication channel. Post newsletters on your site to add valuable content that can aid search.
  • Use purchase confirmations and related billing communications to up- and cross-sell buyers. Make it easy for them to buy from you again. Send purchasers thank-you email to gather valuable feedback on their experience.

Engage Consumers

Solicit consumer feedback on your site using footer links as an inexpensive means of gathering research. Though it perhaps not statistically valid, it can provide useful insights. Track public forums to see what people say about you.

Measuring Up

As companies transition to the next level, they must examine internal metrics. Most entrepreneurial business people know their exact number of customers, revenues, and costs, but not much more. This may be the point to move to more sophisticated tracking systems that can put these figures into the proper context and assess progress with more granularity.

Major indicators to assess:

  • Traffic. Measure the number of unique visitors to your site as well as repeat visitors. Track time on site. If a large percentage of your traffic stays under 15 seconds, they aren’t finding what they want.

  • Registrants and purchasers. To put these numbers into context, assess the number of registrants divided by number of unique visitors. Do the same for purchasers. This puts these indicators into the context of your overall traffic. If customers must register before purchase, track the ratio of purchasers to registrants to see if there are any trends.
  • Page views per visitor. This metric is important for publishers. Also assess whether a small number of users drives a large number of page views, as this can have a negative effect on advertising revenues.
  • Revenues per purchaser. This indicator shows your average sale. Break this out by your major product categories. Track your percentage of repeat purchasers. This is important when you consider how much to spend to acquire a new customer.
  • Cost per acquisition. Divide the fully loaded marketing costs to acquire a customer by the number of new customers. If the cost to acquire a customer exceeds your contribution margin (i.e., net revenues less variable costs), you must ensure you’ll get repeat business from these customers.

More mature businesses can also profit from an annual marketing reassessment. Take a fresh look at your site, competition, and marketing analytics. As you begin to budget for next year, consider learning something from how the big boys play.

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