Introduction to Effective Ecommerce for Brands
After surveying, interviewing, and testing effective site design with thousands of our client’s customers, we’ve put together a compilation of ecommerce best practices for brands.
About 50 percent of potential online sales are lost because customers can’t find information. Another 40 percent of users do not return to a site when their first visit is a negative experience, according to Forrester Research.
There’s no reason for either of these things to happen, and we’ve compiled this report to give Athletic and Outdoor brands better ways to think about, build, and manage their websites.
- Outline the key expectations of Athletic and Outdoor customers.
- Highlight common issues and areas with the most potential for positive change within the industry.
- Offer new ways to think about aligning customer goals with company goals.
We interviewed athletes, parents, coaches, trainers, and customer service representatives by phone, asking a series of open-ended questions designed to help us understand as much as possible about their experiences on Athletic and Outdoor websites.
In addition to telephone interviews, we gathered survey data, site analytics, and ran usability tests to provide a holistic picture of the effectiveness of brand websites in meeting visitor expectations.
- Telephone interviews with 50+ customers of Athletic and Outdoor brands
- Online surveys receiving more than 5,000 total responses from athletes, trainers, coaches and parents
Customer Service interviews
- Telephone interviews with customer service representatives from 5 major brands
- User feedback submitted through brand sites
Online user testing
- Video and audio recordings of male and female site testers asked to complete specific or open-ended tasks
Google Site Analytics
- 1 year of active data for 5 major brand sites surveyed
Stats and findings from respected industry studies
Part 1: Customer Goals
Understand and Serve Customer Goals
Site performance can always be tested and tweaked, but real improvement starts by knowing where you want to go, and understanding how your customers want to get there.
“When I go to a brand site, I’m looking for detailed product information directly from the source.”
-Kaley, Avid Road Cyclist
It’s easy to get caught up in internal politics and priorities, forgetting that the reason your site exists is to help your customers accomplish something that is important to them. Creating a great website that serves your customers isn’t difficult, but it requires a shift in your organization’s thinking.
Every topic we address in this report is directly related to helping your customers find and buy your products online. We’ve outlined common industry-wide areas of opportunity, as well as suggestions and solutions to overcoming common problems.
Many issues with content and navigation can be addressed quickly with an immediate impact to both business and consumer. Conversion rates go up, sales go up, and calls to customer service go down. This success ultimately results from an alignment of business and customer goals. It may be a struggle to align the two at first, but the results are definitely worth the effort.
The Web is a Self-Service Medium
“If I go onto a brand site, I’m looking for something in particular.”
-Adrian, Competitive Athlete
When a visitor arrives at your site they have a goal in mind, or something they want to accomplish. If the content and organization of your site doesn’t naturally support their goal, they’ll leave right away.
Unless your site is actively designed to save people time accomplishing the things that are important to them, it is losing sales and frustrating customers.
We’ve surveyed and interviewed thousands of Athletic and Outdoor customers to understand what is important to them on brand websites. This report combines industry standard best practices with straightforward ways you can support your customers in accomplishing their goals.
There are two primary tasks Athletic and Outdoor customers want to do online: research and buy products. Unfortunately most brands see their website as the perfect platform to cover all phases of the sales cycle when their customers expect it to handle two: evaluation and action.
Think of Your Site Like a Store
Rather than customers walking in and asking an employee for help, your site acts as both a product display and a sales rep. Thankfully, it can effectively serve both roles with the right supporting content.
The top business goals we hear for ecommerce site owners are to increase conversions and sales. The top two goals of Athletic and Outdoor customers are to research and purchase products. If you deliver a site that helps customers easily find and buy the right products for their needs, your site will deliver on the higher sales numbers.
Help Your Customers Find What They’re Looking For
Brand websites play a critical research role for users, and these customers have extremely high expectations of the online shopping experience from them. Because there are countless brands with innumerable products, helping your customers easily find what they’re looking for is critical to online success.
“I want to see a list of new products because sometimes I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for and in this business you have to keep things fresh.”
According to the Nielsen Norman Group, about two thirds of ecommerce site visitors arrive with a predetermined goal in mind1. Of those, one third of people searched for a particular type of product, without a specific product in mind. Another third looked for a specific product. The final group visited simply to see what was available.
While high search engine rankings are necessary to organically attract visitors, it’s equally important to help them quickly find what they’re looking for once they arrive. This is especially true because users who arrive through search are typically less loyal and less likely to purchase than users who arrive directly to the site.
Only 39% of search engine visitors will complete a purchase on the first site they visit. Almost 2/3 of search users abandoned their first result to make a purchase elsewhere. In contrast, 71% of visitors who navigate directly to a brand site complete a purchase on site.
It’s important to treat each visitor differently and support easy navigation through your site catalog. Consider each of these specific approaches:
- Specific item purchase (predetermined goal, intent to buy)
- Category research (product goal, researching with intent to buy)
- Bargain shopping
Customers are accessing more content from more devices more frequently than ever before. Brand websites are struggling to keep up, most offering only one display of their content designed for desktop computers. Responsive Web Design accounts for current and future browsing scenarios. It saves the expense and infrastructure required to maintain multiple versions of a site.
“I often look at my phone on the field at practice or someone will bring something up at practice and we will all bring it up, tag it and check it out.”
Google recently released multi-screen use study reporting that 67% of online shoppers use more than one device when shopping online. It also reported that the average person spends 4.4 hours of leisure time a day on screens, and 90% use multiple screens sequentially to accomplish a task over time. Savvy companies are becoming increasingly sensitive to the many ways their customers connect with their brand.
Our research shows this is especially true for customers of Athletic and Outdoor brands. We hear that customers access their favorite shopping sites from various devices and locations ranging from their living room to a retail showroom. Customers not only expect to access the same content they’re able to from their desktop computer, but they have extremely high expectations of the mobile shopping experience.
A study by Google included other key stats important for Athletic and Outdoor brands:
- People shop spontaneously, especially on mobile: 81% of shopping on mobile was spur of the moment v. 58% of shopping on desktop
- Even spontaneous users are trying to complete a goal: 44% of all spontaneous searches were to complete a goal on mobile and desktop
- People use mobile even when they are at home and have access to desktop devices: Of the mobile traffic, 59% of shopping happened at home, 41% out of home
- Search and email are critical for driving ecommerce traffic: 30% of shopping content was accessed through search, 28% email, 36% direct
- Customers frequently look up reviews and compare pricing from their phones within a retail environment, but do not typically purchase from their phone while in the store. 65% of customers who begin shopping on a smartphone complete their transaction on another device
These patterns provide strong evidence that ecommerce sites need to build so that their content can be accessed on any device. We have tracked the performance of our responsive ecommerce projects and each has shown a large impact to a site’s bottom line.
To illustrate the typical effects of a responsive site launch, we’ve included a sample report from an athletic brand comparing mobile and desktop revenues after launch:
Not only have all metrics improved across the board, but they improved at a significantly higher rate for mobile than desktop. Within the first month of launch, this site paid for itself from the additional earnings gained by the responsive design alone.
Get Better Results
Most agency relationships aren’t structured to produce websites that are constantly tested and improved. Testing the effectiveness of a design after launch is a rare occurrence but it’s central to a sound digital product. Here’s a brief introduction to some of the best testing and analysis methods to inform your web strategy.
When you have established a baseline for your site, (i.e., a site design that hasn’t changed in months), then you can compare different versions of an interface, copy, images, navigation, etc. against your baseline to see what performs best.
Historically this has been done by comparing a single design against the baseline, known as “A/B testing”. However, this concept has been improved on by a technique called “Multi-arm Bandit testing,” the ability to test multiple designs against each other. Multi-arm Bandit testing has largely replaced A/B testing because it is faster and more efficient.
Uncover Customer Behavior Through Analytics
When looking at your site analytics it’s important to remember that “hits” and “visitors” aren’t just statistics, they’re real people in the “potential customer” category. Segmenting this data intelligently will help you improve site content, structure, search results, and conversion rates.
Some of the most actionable insights come from segments and custom reports include:
- Visits with conversions and transactions
- Visits with search
- Pages where search occurs
- Search result quality vs conversion rate
- Time on site and pages viewed after search
When analyzing data to make changes on your site, pay attention to the top 20% of popular content, products, search terms, etc., and ignore the rest. This is where the biggest positive impact can be made. Focus on understanding and improving content, navigation, and results around the following segments of your data:
- Top selling products
- Top browsing paths
- Top site content
- Top search terms
- Top exit pages
- Primary customer types
“I can tell when a company values their customers, and that makes me feel important.”
Open The Customer Service Feedback Loop
Customer Service departments are an underutilized resource in improving ecommerce for most Athletic and Outdoor brands. As a department, they are tasked with understanding customer frustrations before and after a purchase. With more and more purchases happening online, Customer Service has the most readily available data about where your website and content is preventing customers from accomplishing tasks.
The five most common digital failures that Customer Service departments continually address, and are most often deflected with a FAQ page, include:
- Technical jargon disguised as marketing copy
- Confusion caused by email failures
- Lack of useful sizing and fitting tools
- Complicated account registration or login requirements
- Poor warranty, replacement parts, and shipment tracking information
“There’s no way to return products online so people have to call us and we do it manually which delays their credit; it’s a frustrating process.”
-Jenna, Customer Service Rep
Initiate dialogue between your Customer Service, Sales, and Marketing departments with a call log. Ideally this dialogue would lead to informed content changes on the website.
The call log should capture the following information from each caller to Customer Service:
- Customer segment
- Product categories of interest
- Key issues prompting customer to call for help (e.g., purchasing, product info, sizing, warranty, return, shipment tracking, account log in, team purchase, etc)
- Open text box to summarize key issues and any related note
Part 2: Make Shopping Easy
It’s tempting to put up persistent links to everything on your site. Exposing every kind and category of content to users in one place seems like a great way to save people time. The problem is, most sites don’t have the right content in the right places in the first place.
More content means more to navigate through, more to search, more to manage, and more to keep current. This quickly becomes overwhelming from a content maintenance perspective, and quality content is spread thin throughout a site. Product descriptions and imagery become stale, videos lose relevance if they exist at all, nobody replies to questions, and sales drop as a result.
In order to avoid this, a consistent effort is needed to generally reduce the amount and types of content that are accessible online in the first place. In order for customers to find the right products, they must be able to intelligently assess their choices. In order for a purchase to be made, your site has to make the sale.
Navigation is always a site’s biggest challenge, often because the industry has the wrong way of thinking about content production.
Typically content producers are more concerned with volume than quality in the constant quest for relevant conversation. Meanwhile this content ages quickly and doesn’t help customers make a purchase decision.
Search engines assess the value of page content ranking their search results. They take into account how many people find your content useful in completing what they set out to do. This alone should be enough to convince managers that spending time improving your content will show up in your conversion rates.
“If I’m having difficulty navigating then my students will too and I won’t send them to the site.”
Sites with clear navigation are naturally accessible; they guide customers through their landing pages to product detail pages that provide exceptional information. It’s important to give prominent placement to popular content on landing pages, especially the home page.
Key Landing Page Content
- Links to top selling products
- Featured product videos
- Descriptively named product categories, prioritized by popularity
- Product search bar
- Store locator
- Customer service contact information
- Link to shopping cart
More content equals more complexity. Complexity stands in the way of people completing the research or purchase they set out to do. It frustrates managers and customers alike. The simpler the path to complete a task, the better. Adding product filtering can increase revenue by 76%. Sticky navigation is 22% faster than scrolling to a menu at the top of a page. Make sure it’s extremely easy to navigate your products, even at the sake of your brand story. Find the features that make sense for your customers through extensive testing.
A site’s search will play different roles for different ecommerce sites. Generally, the bigger the inventory, the more important search will become. Unfortunately, if there is one area where sites consistently fail their users, it is in their site search.
“I was looking for a particular product so I went to the brand’s site and had to dig around to find it. The search didn’t help at all.”
-Mark, Basketball Player
Customers who know exactly what they are looking for often turn to the site search with the expectation that this will get them what they are looking for faster than navigating through the site. Search terms customers use range from exact product names down to product SKUs.
An excellent site search engine will:
- Return accurate and expected results
- Auto-suggest relevant keywords
- Account for:
- Plural case
- Singular case
- Unique branded spellings
- Category search (return product category listing page)
- Offer helpful suggestions and top links on pages that return no results
If you have tracking for site search through Google Analytics, try this quick analysis.
- Login to Analytics and navigate to: Content > Site Search > Top Queries > Export top 50 queries
- Go through and test each query by taking the top query first
- Evaluate the quality of the results you find. To get started, categorize the search results into four main groups: Excellent, Good, Poor, Zero Results, Irrelevant
- Measure the how each of these search results compare to see how your site search is performing. Make sure to consider quality by search volume, prioritizing higher ranked searches.
If you do not have site search set up in your analytics program, you can usually get the same data by identifying the first parameter when a search is made. If this is the case,
- Go to your site and perform a search
- Look at the URL in the address bar and identify the search parameter (such as /search?q=)
- Go into your Analytics program and navigate to Content > Site Content > All Pages > Search for your unique parameter
- This will list all the pages that include this parameter in the URL
- Export this data
- Clean the data by removing all parameters and substituting dashes for spaces, etc. Once the data is clean, you are ready to evaluate the search quality (See item 2 in the box above)
“I’m constantly comparing products to make sure I’m getting the right gear.”
-Meghann, Avid Skier
In our experience conducting user tests and interviews, we’ve found that users want to compare products side by side to figure out which one will work best for them. After narrowing their choices to two or three options, they’ll compare every last detail right down to user reviews.
Over half the customers we’ve conducted tests with abandoned their session because they couldn’t find enough information about a particular product to make a confident purchase. Detailed product information can’t be compared if it’s not there in the first place.
“Everything out there has basically the same description but a few hundred dollars difference in price, it’s really hard for people to know what to buy.”
-Todd, Baseball Coach
The best way to promote useful product comparison is to provide easily comparable information about similar products. Without this kind of information, differentiating your products from each other requires wading through a sea of marketing jargon.
“There’s no way to tell the difference between one kind of product technology and another, it’s all proprietary language.”
-Eric, Avid Cyclist
Typically when users do try to compare products side by side, they’ll open links in multiple tabs and jump between them. We’ve even seen people put together extensive spreadsheets in an attempt to determine the best product, cataloging the smallest details. Some sites offer a product comparison tool, but comparable information is often not available even within these tools.
An excellent product compare tool:
- Provides the same kind of information about similar products
- Contains detailed technical specs
- Offers sizing tips based on performance need
- Describes the best use case for each product
- Helps customers choose between similar products within a series (basic, standard, pro, pro xl, etc.)
- Has prominent links for:
- Removal or addition of items for comparison
- Returning to a product detail page
- Adding items to the shopping cart
Finding a Local Dealer
No matter how good an online shopping experience may be, there will always be customers who feel more comfortable completing their transactions in a retail store. This makes easily findable store locators a necessary component to any ecommerce site, especially since 40% of customers who search for a store nearby actually go in and make a purchase.
“Fit is so important, I usually have to try something on in person before I’ll buy it.”
-Mary, Softball Player
Based on a Nielsen Group study, 96% of users found a location near them, but 32% reported that they had difficulty in the process. Many users couldn’t easily find the store locator feature, and 73% used a search engine to find a nearby store instead. If a store locator fails, it typically fails in one of these key areas:
- Identifying where to start searching
- Using the store locator
- Getting directions
A successful store locator:
- Is easy to find in the main menu and on product pages
- Is easy to use and includes key contact information for each store
- Provides directions from any starting point to a store’s location
- User success rates in finding and using the locators increased from 63% in 2000 to 96% in 2007.
- 73% of users went to a search engine (mainly Google) when asked to find a nearby location for a specific company. Only 13% went straight to that company’s own website, while the remaining 13% went to a dedicated mapping service.
Part 3: The Perfect Product Page
“I visit brand sites to get detailed product descriptions and reviews.”
Customers depend on web content to make purchase decisions. The importance of useful product content can not be overstated. If the quality or the delivery of your content is poor,customers will let you know by not buying your products.
Great content acts as a stand-in for a knowledgeable salesperson. It is a way for customers to guide themselves through your products. It allows them to compare benefits across product lines and between brands, and to confidently choose the right product for them.
“You have to be able to convey the tangible product online, figure out how to relate the touch and feel online as close to the real thing as possible.”
-Gary, Watersports Enthusiast
A clear outline of the performance-based differences between products, supporting video content and user reviews will make it much easier for users to sort through your products. This kind of content allows customers to find something they feel confident purchasing directly from a brand website.
“I want one place to see everything, don’t make me hunt around for info. The sites I like put everything in one spot and make it easy to see how things are made, the materials, ratings, reviews, etc.”
People won’t buy from you if they can’t get all the information they’re looking for at a glance. Nobody wants to “call for price”. Success in online sales only comes when the right type of product information is available to allow the customer to sell themselves on your products.
Content Quality Checklist
Quality content leads to a confident purchase. If customers can decide through video (80% of shopping customers who watch product videos will search and buy), photos, reviews, and guarantees that they should buy from you online, they will. The following checklist provides a comprehensive framework for purchase-supporting online content.
- Plain english, jargon-free, unique to product
- Sell benefits not features
- Tell brand story with product focus
- Offer clear product differentiation:
- Explain what a product is “best for”
- Explain differences between products within a line
- Multiple high resolution angles
- Detail level close-ups
- Product-in-use & lifestyle shots
- Close up product views
- Voiceover explains how to best determine size & fit
- Highlight unique product benefits, explaining choices within a product line
Sizing & Fit
- Detailed charts for correct sizing
- Sizing preferences based on performance need
- Will a different size provide better grip or protection?
- Is this product sized differently than most?
Pricing & Availability
- Always show pricing, even if MSRP
- Expected shipping & delivery times
- Offer free shipping if possible and display this offering prominently
- Studies regularly show a consumer preference for free shipping (even over larger price discounts not related to shipping)1
- Offer free shipping if possible and display this offering prominently
- If a product isn’t in stock, direct customers to a nearby store
- 40% of customers who search for a store will visit and purchase in-store
“I always read user reviews, it’s the easiest way to determine if something is worth buying or not.”
-Gordon, Avid Cyclist
When purchasing online, most customers rely heavily on user ratings and reviews to find the best product for them. User reviews are most helpful when they are specific and comprehensive.
Effective user reviews contain:
- Star ratings
- Specific to product features
- Description of reviewer
- Description of pros & cons or likes & dislikes
- Explanations of how the equipment has performed for them personally
“The more expensive something is, the more reviews I’ll read.”
-Jeremy, Avid Golfer
Incentivizing the submission of user reviews after purchase will build brand value and customer community as they share their experiences with products, making it more likely that others will buy online in the future.
The more specific the professional endorsement is and how they use it, the more weight it carries.”
- Video format
- Athlete testimonial
- Performance footage
- Educational or inspirational content
- Athlete shares preferences around product, explains why they choose brand and product in particular
- Authentic athlete voice, free of branded copywriting
“Know your customer, and put it in a way they can understand, rather than like you’re speaking to a scientist or an engineer.”
-Michael, Customer Service Rep
- Complete for each product on the site
- Comparable between products, especially within the same product line
- Appropriate level of detail for ease of understanding
- Helpful to customers researching products across brands
Warranty information & registration
- Provide top level warranty information
- Offer easy access to product registration
- Don’t rely on social share buttons, focus on creating excellent content and it will be shared
- Social media users know how to share content
- Social share buttons often slow site load times and reduce content trust if share counts are low
“I see what my other coaching friends are using, usually on Facebook.”
Part 4: Checkout
Sales and conversions can’t be improved without optimizing the checkout process. Your site can be full of excellent content and still lose the sale at checkout.
“I always check out as a guest, I don’t need another account to manage.”
The more fields a form has, the lower its conversion rate. Removing just two fields can improve a form’s conversion rate by 20%1. Customers need to see that their information will be sent securely. They don’t want to enter the same information more than once or create an account with you. A lot has to go right, it all has to be easy.
A recent Econsultancy / Toluna study2 found that over 25% of customers would simply abandon a site if they had to create an account to make a purchase. Checkout techniques and technologies are always changing, making constant attention and improvement a requirement for online success.
A Seamless Checkout Process
If it’s difficult to buy something from your site, people simply won’t. Some of the most frequent problems that we see on Athletic and Outdoor brand sites could be easily prevented, especially at checkout. If you need a place to start to improve your site, start here.
- Prioritize guest checkout
- Offer an unobtrusive account login option
- Provide an optional account registration after purchase is complete
- Preserve user-entered information
- Recycle and pre-fill information submitted by customers whenever possible
- Prevent information loss after a page refresh, validation or navigation error
- Request information efficiently
- Auto-fill as much information as possible
- Use geolocation to intelligently select defaults
- Request zip code, auto-populate city & state
- Use billing address as default shipping address
- Clearly denote required versus optional fields
- Provide persistent form labels
- Display errors in-line, with descriptive text to help correct the error quickly
- Organize form fields in a linear vertical flow
- Provide clear calls to action
- Focus completely on the checkout process, remove other calls to action that don’t advance a customer through the process
- Offer Customer Service contact information prominently throughout checkout
- Provide warranty and return policy information
- Leave opt-in fields (newsletter, social follow) unchecked by default
- Break the checkout process into logical steps and clearly indicate progress. For example:
- Order summary
- Shipping information
- Ensure all tax and shipping costs are accurately calculated
- Payment information
- Order confirmation
- Offer multiple payment options
- Prominently display security information, especially near payment entry fields
Follow Up After Purchase
Every customer wants to know that their order has gone through properly and when they should be expecting their new purchase to arrive.
“Any more than one email per month from a brand is annoying. Send names, photos, price ranges, and ship dates for new products. Put the product front and center, catch my eye and I’ll read more.”
-Kyle, Lacrosse Player
To keep your customers informed without overwhelming them, we suggest the following email contact structure:
- Account confirmation (if created)
- Product stock notification (if requested, when available)
- Purchase confirmation
- Shipping confirmation
- Post-arrival setup & usage help
- Post arrival review request (1-2 weeks after arrival)
Never Stop Improving
The web and the ways we interact with it change along with technology. It may seem daunting to keep up, but quality content will always be the foundation of sites that sell. Improving conversions begins by identifying with your customer and the experiences they have on your site.
Champion the perspective of your customer within your company, support them in every way you can. Fight for better content, fewer features, less clutter. Pay attention to the way people are interacting, the things they’re searching for, the pages they leave from. Use every bit of data you can find to improve your customer’s digital shopping experience.
Staying relevant isn’t just about participating in a social media “conversation”, it’s about making your products approachable to your customers online. Focus just as much effort on improving current content as you do creating new content. Your sales numbers will reflect the effort.
About The Good
The Good is a digital marketing agency that helps brands grow lasting relationships with active lifestyle consumers through rewarding digital experiences on the web, on mobile, and in stores.
The Good has helped brands like Easton Baseball, MasterCraft Boats, Bell Helmets, and SKLZ Athletic Training line up strategic digital experiences that meet revenue growth goals year after year. We’ve created successful marketing campaigns, retail installations, dot coms and ecommerce solutions growing brands as well as titans like Nike and Adidas.
The Good’s team speaks and writes frequently on how brands can best serve the active lifestyle consumer and in the process enable them to achieve increasingly ambitious business goals. We also conduct research and publish findings and insights on the state of digital, active lifestyle brands, and active lifestyle consumers quarterly. The firm is based in Portland, Oregon.
Contact The Good: email@example.com or 503 488 5935