Ten E-Marketing Ideas for Building Customers Online

If you haven’t seen it yet, you owe it to your professional life to check out the Pew Internet & American Life Project, an ongoing series of studies examining the impact of the Internet on our lives.

Its latest look at the Net’s impact on our holiday shopping and socializing behavior provides a great snapshot of how consumers’ web usage has changed over the years. A deeper examination of the numbers reveals some fascinating insights on how the web will affect our lives in the future.

Let’s Look at the Numbers

First and foremost, the Pew study found that during the Christmas season, people used the Internet more for communication than for commerce. Of the 3,493 American adults surveyed between November 22 and December 21, 2000, 53 percent of Internet users sent emails to discuss the holidays or to make plans related to the holidays. In addition, 32 percent of Net users sent e-postcards, 27 percent of parents used the web to find information related to celebrating the holidays, and 14 percent of users looked for religion-related information.

As for commerce, the numbers were much lower. Of all the people surveyed, 24 percent of Internet users purchased gifts online. This quarter, all the users tended to be from higher socioeconomic demographics: college educated and earning $75,000 or more. Veteran users were three times as likely to buy than users with less than six months of online experience.

But don’t think that people weren’t interested in checking out merchandise online: 45 percent said they looked for gift information, and 32 percent used the web for comparison shopping.

Why Weren’t People Buying?

The usual complaints came up again in the survey: 85 percent of the respondents said they wanted to actually see gifts before buying; 79 percent of nonbuyers didn’t want to give up credit card information over the web; 52 percent thought they could get better prices via catalogs; 45 percent worried that their gifts wouldn’t arrive on time; and 41 percent said that shopping online was “confusing.”

For those who did buy, the news is encouraging. One-third of those who shopped (33 percent) said the web made their holiday shopping experience much more enjoyable. More than three-quarters (79 percent) said they saved time purchasing gifts online this Christmas season. People were spending and (they thought) saving: The average amount spent online was $330, and more than half (51 percent) said online shopping saved them money.

What Does This Mean for E-Marketers?

The easiest way to get to the heart of these numbers is to examine your own Internet behavior and ask yourself this question: “How has the web really changed my life?”

Before you answer, really think about the question. Obviously, if you work for a web company or use the web for marketing, the Internet has had a significant impact on your career and what you do every day. But that’s not the real question. The real question has to do with how the Internet has changed your behavior.

In most cases, the Internet really hasn’t changed behavior all that much. Sure, the Net has certainly streamlined behaviors: It’s never been easier to research companies, get product information, and keep up with the news. But as far as behavioral changes go, things haven’t changed all that much.

Behavior Changes Slowly

Email is the exception. If nothing else, email has transformed business. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to imagine working without it. The same goes for your personal life: At home, email and its instant-messaging cousin rule.

The story of the Pew study is that, for the moment, consumers are pretty slow to change their behavior with respect to commerce but quick to change their behavior when it comes to communication and searching for information. Overwhelmingly, the story of Christmas e-commerce wasn’t as much about buying as it was about looking and talking.

Sure, those who did buy online (and nearly one-quarter of all Internet users did) were generally happy with the experience. And a look at those who shopped shows that familiarity with the web is a good predictor of shopping behavior. Given enough time, people will shop and will probably be satisfied with the experience. But contrary to the conventional wisdom of the past few years, the revolution’s not going to happen overnight. So what can e-marketers do?

Ten E-Marketing Ideas for Building Customers Online

E-marketers need to understand that building customers online means understanding what customers want. Here are 10 e-marketing ideas to keep in mind, based on the Pew study:

  1. Consumers want to communicate with each other. Clearly, the amount of email planning and greeting that went on means that email is here to stay with consumers. Email is a quick way to keep in touch and a great way to plan joint family events. Email is also a good word-of-mouth tool. Marketers need to take advantage of the viral marketing aspects of the web (witness the popularity of e-greeting cards) and recognize that bad news will travel fast.

  2. People want to actually see stuff. For online-only retailers, this is a tough one. But new technologies such as LiveManuals can help provide some semblance of the actual physical experience of shopping. In addition, creative is very important: Catalog retailers have always been able to get over the “show me” hump by providing information and pictures that tell the story without the physical object. Adding live customer support can also help.
  3. Privacy is still a big issue. A no-brainer, folks. Post a privacy policy. Stick to it. Provide plenty of assurances of fraud protection. Get third-party validation (BBBOnline is a good place to start). Solve problems quickly. Respond to problems in the press honestly and swiftly. Don’t do what Egghead.com did and stonewall when there is a potential security problem.
  4. Getting people over their initial resistance is key. First-time customers may need some handholding. Give it to them. Show them how they’ll save time and money. Make sure it’s clear to them how long shipping will take. Heck, provide your own comparison-pricing service if your prices really are better. Let people talk to real humans. As the current dot-com shakeout is illustrating, “pure-play,” impersonal e-commerce sites are quickly moving from dot-com to dot-bomb.
  5. Service and support are vital. Again, a no-brainer. There’s been plenty written about this on ClickZ and other places, so I won’t belabor the point. But look at the numbers. People want (and need) handholding to get over their objections. Give it to them.
  6. Slow and steady will win. Many dead dot-coms expected that people would change their behavior overnight. If the predictions went as planned, we’d all be living in a totally cocooned world of drop-shipped groceries and Net-enabled pizza deliveries, buying all of our office supplies from B2B exchanges. It hasn’t happened. As the evidence shows, people will buy as they become more experienced. Give them time.
  7. Don’t expect behavior change; help streamline existing behaviors instead. Most of the satisfaction comes from taking a potentially unpleasant and/or inconvenient experience — fighting crowded malls, dealing with the USPS — and streamlining it using technology. As pointed out in number six, don’t expect behavior to change overnight. But you can score points by using technology to make existing behaviors easier.
  8. Information rules. People want info. Product info. Comparison info. Info about your company. Give it to them.
  9. Market to the channel. If you can, think of the web as one channel among many. It may be that your company is better off NOT selling online but rather using the web to drive offline sales. Maybe the web is one way, but not the only way. Don’t be afraid to pull back and re-evaluate your strategy.
  10. Make the experience easy. Nobody cares that much about your product that they’re going to put up with long delays, incomprehensible directions, long forms, and other sale-killing gyrations to buy your product (unless it’s porn, but that’s a totally different issue). People will shop online if you make it easier — not harder — than going to the mall.

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