Pimp My Shopping Cart

A former computer special effects artist, Christina Hills, ditched her star-studded career working magic for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and The Perfect Storm to move to Northern California’s Sierra Nevada and launch her business as a shopping cart consultant.

As owner of ShoppingCartQueen.com, an affiliate of 1Shopping Cart.com and a few other related merchants, she quickly found that "the more affiliates can match the look of the merchant’s site to the look of their website, the better their sales will be."

Industry watchers say customers clicking from one page to the next don’t want a disconnect; they don’t want to realize they’re suddenly on another site. That makes them wonder what page they landed on and if they can trust that site. It also makes them nervous about entering their credit card information. Internet experts cite these reasons, even if they’re not always conscious thoughts, as chief among why customers abandon the purchases in their shopping carts and move on.

A solution for these issues is affiliate-side shopping cart functionality. Orders go from your affiliate site to a software system that requires only one input of customer purchase and shipping information and then parcels out the individual orders to the respective merchants – all while counting toward each of your merchant’s affiliate program sales.

It’s a tricky endeavor when you consider all of the routes an affiliate sale can take and the different order coding each merchant requires. But resourceful affiliates are making it work.

"Most of our clients are affiliates," says Martin Toha, founder of OrderMachine .com. "They started marketing for a company, realized they could do it for themselves better, started becoming affiliates and did it that way. Many even buy the shopping cart to resell it." Sure, it’s easy for customers to make purchases using Buy Now buttons that send them straight to, say, Amazon.com. But the merchant’s sales message isn’t specifically honed to your customer’s needs. And once the buyer jumps off your site, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to find their way back to shop your other merchant options. Besides, the payoff for affiliate-side carts is more than just continuity. It also boosts sales, says Martin Wales at 1Shopping Cart.com. "We’ve seen 300 to 400 percent increases in sales when [affiliates actively upsell and start using] their own carts." The percentage of affiliates using their own shopping carts is small, but growing.

"How much would you pay the worst support person in the world to follow up with all your customers and take phone calls?" Wales says. "Compare that to a cart that takes 15 minutes to set up and does all of the work and reporting for you."

Return on Investment

Even 1ShoppingCart.com’s most expensive version, selling for $15,000, is still a deal, Wales says. "There are people getting that money back in two and a half months."

Advanced functionality also makes today’s carts the ultimate in affiliate branding. "Because our system includes the warehouse and the affiliate functions together," says Dan Steinberg, an international payment consultant at OrderMachine.com, "the invoice can actually indicate the name of the affiliate that brings the sale in. The entire process, from beginning to end in a sale, can be private-labeled."

OrderMachine’s partnerships with Yahoo’s store, Amazon.com and other merchants and payment gateways simplify the process: Any products sold through these partners can be imported into its system so customers can create an order right at the affiliate’s site. For 3 percent of gross sales, affiliates can now offer customers an easy, one-step process to order all kinds of affiliate products directly from their own site. That’s a huge plus.

Other advances in affiliate-side technology include 10-year-old WebCart.net, which now offers new customer-friendly features, such as regular credit card alongside PayPal processing (also offered by 1ShoppingCart.com), affiliate gift certificates and even affiliate-generated coupons.

"It’s up to the merchant and affiliate to negotiate how the commission and the coupon will be paid," says WebCart CEO Jason Ciment. "If you negotiate well, you can credit the coupon against your commission."

Plus, WebCart offers private-label capabilities and is programmed with freeware database software MySQL. "MySQL gives it the power of an Oracle-based system; it could store 30,000 products and it wouldn’t blink," says Ciment, who developed the software initially for his sites Mountain Net.com and MagMall.com. It sells in $500 (no private labeling or subscription modules), $800 and $2,500 versions.

Even more shopping cart vendors are integrating behind-the-scenes functions that help affiliates’ businesses run much more smoothly. The new shopping cart model, says AISMedia.com CEO Thomas Harpointner, is to "really integrate the website into just standard business instead of something on the Web. From a modular standpoint, I think we’re going to see a lot more integration in the future, like shopping carts integrating Peachtree software for accounting."

His company’s newly revamped Excerpo Storefront integrates features such as OrderMachine-like manual filling of orders, robust product comparison engines, automated cross-sell engines and couponing based on the amount of business customers have previously done with the site.

"These are features common on enterprise sites, but not readily available for small businesses," Harpointner says. "And an average increase of 10 or 15 percent on every order can really add up over time." Built from custom software upgrades originally done for big-name merchants, it also allows affiliates to enter all of their products – along with affiliate links – into their choice of high-functioning, merchant- quality site templates.

Unlike carts such as OrderMachine and Yahoo Small Business, Excerpo doesn’t charge transaction fees. It’s $99 to set up, with one-time licensing fees from $99 to $199.95 plus $39.95 per month for hosting (includes technical support, 250 megabits of data space, updates). It, like many others, can grow with you, so customers can consistently use the same functionality they’ve grown accustomed to even if your site goes from 10 items to 10 million.

1ShoppingCart.com’s cart pages can even be hosted on up to 100 different sites; a great solution for those hosting multiple sites who only want to purchase one cart and gather reports on all online income.

"A basic shopping cart can really just take orders," says Rob Bell, creator of 1ShoppingCart.com. "But it takes so much more to even get a potential customer to that point. That’s why [the new] services provide it all."

Typical costs to run 1ShoppingCart.com – if you opt not to purchase a one-time license – is $29 per month for the basics and $79 for added functions like autoresponders, affiliate tracking, customizable layouts for private-label partners and newsletter database management.

"There’s a big advantage to having a hosted solution like ours, which has invested a quarter of a million in appliances just to protect from server attacks and has 99.9 percent uptime; it takes all the technology worry out," Bell says.

Affiliate-only sites frequently use the system to build prospect lists and qualify sales, even if they plan to send customers to merchants for actual purchases.

Templates Make It Easy

For shopping cart functionality without all the bells and whistles, templated services have sprung up. Sites like open-source developed osCommerce.com, ZenCart .com, AlgoZone.com or CubeCart.com offer shopping cart functionality in freeto- download catalog templates with standard administrative back-office functions. Most allow PayPal or AuthorizeNet for customer payment, so affiliates won’t need a merchant account or online gateway to make use of it.

For $59 to $159 there are off-the-shelf shopping cart programs from Atomic Shops.com or eCommerceTemplates.com. Off-the-shelf options vary. AtomicShops automatically secures credit card payments through Verisign certificates (a monthly hosting fee applies). ECommerceTemplates offers fully customizable stores with drop ship features for affiliates to manipulate in Frontpage, Dreamweaver or Adobe GoLive. Many facilitate PayPal and back-office payments. Some even negotiate merchant accounts, like those through MBank Card.com: "They allow people like momand- pop shops, maybe with a little less credit, to be able to sell online," says Patrick Schrodt, Atomic Shops’ affiliate manager. MBankCard.com charges $10 a month, plus 0.25 percent of the transaction and a 29-cent transaction fee.

A templated site works best when used either as a complete retail site, with its own domain name, or as a stand-alone storefront accessed off of an existing site offering things outside of products – such as advice, forums or newsletters. Some templates, however, do include functions like newsletter databases and distribution software. Mal’s e-commerce freeware, at Mals-e.com, even allows affiliates to design the cart to match the look of their sites and incorporate PayPal as the payment option.

For some reason, the templated sites also show up more frequently in natural search listings, a boost for past customers who just can’t quite remember your site’s name. Search engine placement is critically important these days. Shopping service Shopzilla found that 59 percent of Internet buyers start shopping at a search engine rather than going directly to a merchant, up from 46 percent three years ago.

But maybe a single shopping cart doesn’t offer the bells and whistles you’re after. Or maybe you’d like to try your hand before committing. Aside from trial versions there are other strategies for giving customers a faster and friendlier checkout process.

My Credit Card Information

Visitors create their own wallet-type information at a secure section on your site, where the contact and credit card information is logged for later processing. Most merchants allow back-end fulfillment, which means that you can take the information you have and manually send individual orders to their individual merchant – all using the same customer information for that order. Some merchants even give incentives to affiliates who do their own processing.

Taking an active part in processing orders also gives affiliates a real-time sense of what products are selling best. They then start stocking the products that sell well, cutting deals with merchants for wholesale prices on those items, forwarding the orders to designated dropshippers for fulfillment and passing the savings along to the customer.

Personalize for Customers

Bring visitors back by helping them create wish lists, or personal "homepages" with links to items they’re interested in. Remind visitors to actually make the page their homepage (or at least bookmark it) and refer friends there for gift ideas. Encourage wedding, birthday or new-home registries – anything to make a hectic person’s life easier. Keep logins simple by having them just type in their email address. Capture the email addresses and you can send out helpful suggestions for new, similar items they might want to add to their list.

Automate Clickthroughs

When it comes to helpful emails, some shopping carts have the ability to automate this for you. CEO Joshua Baer of Unsub Central says a number of affiliates are using automated programs for "time-based" emails, staying in touch with customers as soon as they click on a link. The program automatically sends them an email, written based on the link they clicked, that suggests similar merchants or products they’ll find on the affiliate’s site.

If this feature isn’t offered with your shopping cart, then Baer has this suggestion: When customers click the Submit button, have the merchant’s landing page open in a separate browser. That way, when they’re through placing the order and close the window, they are already back at your site.

Program Submit buttons to open a new screen on your own site, and then you also can immediately show your customers alternate selections to the one they just clicked. "For those that are using it, the results are incredible," Baer says. "[An affiliate] that normally might get a 10 to 20 percent open rate might jump to 40 or 50 percent." The implication, of course, is that this strategy also works for customers.

Niche Gateways

Let’s say you manage a travel site making money from clickthroughs to various travel merchants. World Choice Travel, at WCTravel.com, has an integrated shopping cart feature that searches all airlines and travel programs online for the best fares.

By opting to go with one merchant that supplies links to all of your potential product options, you greatly simplify the search for your user and can even brand the process all the way to the credit card statement.

If you offer five types of product categories, you often can find one merchant for each category offering an affiliate program for all the products you normally would sell separately. This makes it easy to structure your sites as either a "gateway" for products in different categories or create five different landing pages, where visitors will go when they search, that are your branded pages for the new all-in-one merchants.

Back-End Fulfillment

Chris Malta, an eBay-certified solution provider and CEO of drop-ship directory provider WorldwideBrands.com, has seen more people combining affiliate techniques with their own drop shipping. As mentioned above, this method enables you to pass along discounts your customers wouldn’t normally get by ordering with the merchant’s Buy Now link. Drop-shippers handle the software portion of getting orders to the merchants. Only about 30 percent of drop-shippers handle shipping for orders placed outside of their respective countries of origin, so shop around if you’re looking to add international sales.

Thanks to advances in shopping cart technology, affiliates now have a lot of ways to help their customers through the online process – even if those affiliates aren’t filling orders themselves.

 

JENNIFER MEACHAM‘s stories have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, the AARP magazine and CBSMarketWatch.com. She’s a former reporter for the Seattle Times.

Know Your Audience

When designing a Web site, you must take the intended audience into careful consideration. Whether the Web site is business-to-business or business-to-consumer, the design will require a format that caters to the desired type of visitor, and it must also guide them through the intended process as comfortably and efficiently as possible.

First, take into account whether the target demographic is business- or consumer-oriented. In the B2B arena, and particularly in the business service industry, the primary goal is to establish trust in the prospective client.

Business-to-business Web sites usually avoid the kind of hype and pizazz that a consumer Web site may have. A highly sales-oriented site promoting an immediate purchase is simply not appropriate for establishing trust to promote a sale that may require a large risk on the part of the purchaser. The prospective purchaser will perceive this risk as being higher when little information is given to back up any claims that have been made.

It is best in this case to provide easily accessible information to the visitor to make them feel more comfortable with the offer before presenting any extensive hype about the product or service. It is also advisable to make testimonials or case studies available to the visitor, as well as comparisons of the competition.

Instant Visual Clues

In addition, a more visual tactic for establishing trust would be to present the logos and names of well-known clients. These provide instant visual references for the visitor and can help keep their interest long enough to make the sale or establish contact. If the product or service is complex or the value is not immediately obvious, it may be advisable to lead the customer to call and talk to someone one on one. Highly specialized services and products are likely to raise a lot of questions in the customer’s mind. Most of these questions would be best answered over the phone rather than having the visitor perform a tedious search through FAQ pages.

In contrast to business-oriented sites, consumer-targeted sites offering low-risk purchases should make the process of buying as easy and straightforward as possible. Clear presentation of a good offer on the home page will help establish a different kind of trust in the visitor than that of a B2B site. This type of trust tells visitors that they are receiving a fair price and quality service. A simple two- or three-step sales process will encourage the customer to return to make more purchases. In consumer-based Web sites, ease of use and good value mean everything for customer retention, and customer retention means everything for robust profit margins.

Knowing how much information to present about the product or service is critical in working with the attention span of the consumer. First, take into consideration the financial risk that the product presents to the consumer. Obviously, a customer looking to purchase asset protection online, for example, would not jump into the purchase without knowing that he or she can trust the service. This scenario presents a huge financial risk on the part of the visitor. In this case, you would want to provide complete information about the service and comparative information regarding the competition. Presenting a low price point immediately in this case can actually break down any trust that has been established as it cheapens the offer and its reputability. The consumer may have many questions as well. For this reason, the entire emphasis would be to establish enough trust so that the visitor calls or acquires some form of consultation.

By contrast, a low-priced item such as a magazine subscription can be sold with very little information because it does not require a large financial risk on the part of the visitor. Also, if a product is well known due to extensive branding, the visitor may not need as much information before being pushed toward the purchase. In these cases, the emphasis should be put on the value of the offer and the price point.

Visual cues such as starbursts, arrows or bright red writing can capture the visitors’ attention just long enough to present the offer to them. Save these tactics for impulse buys, and use the information you acquire from the visitor to promote other offers on your site through auto responders or newsletters.

Purchase Price Is Key

You must also take into consideration the wealth of your average visitor. Most sites are aimed at a middle-income family. However, there are products and services that cater toward very high-end customers. If this is the case, price point is not nearly as important. In fact, wealthier visitors tend to directly correlate price with quality. Because of this, a low price may actually deter a wealthy visitor from the purchase. For wealthy visitors, don’t present the price immediately, but make it available, and pay much more attention to the style and artistic aspects of the site.

Designing for the proper demographic is one of the more difficult aspects of creating a site that converts well to sales. There is so much to take into account, including the audience, the industry, the financial risk of the visitor and more. These suggestions are just the beginning as far as special considerations that must be made to ensure high conversion rates. Be as aware as possible of the state of mind of your visitors. Jumping into the visitors’ shoes, so to speak, is the best way to really know what will work. In fact, a great way to do this is to simply research your competition from a visitor’s perspective.

GREG SHEPARD is CEO of NetTraction.com, an online marketing company found at GotRevenue.com. He has eight years of experience in online marketing and 16 in business development.

Spying Your Way to Profits

Don’t start thinking James Bond thoughts. Instead, think of spying on your competitors and yourself. Illegal spying? Perish the thought. I’m talking about legal spying. Follow my reasoning here.

A 10-year old boy walks into a hardware store. He asks the person in charge if he might make a local call on the telephone. The manager hands him the phone. The boy dials the number and says, “Hi! I’m calling because I want you to have the most beautiful yard on your street.”

“We already have a beautiful yard,” comes the reply.

“I’m really calling to offer you the services of the best yard boy in town.”

“We think we already have the best yard boy.”

“Well, that’s great and thank you for your time.”

The store manager says to the young boy, “With an attitude like yours, you’re going to go far in this world. With that attitude, you’ll have a job as a yard boy in no time at all!”

“Oh,” says the kid, “I already have a job as a yard boy. I’m the yard boy for the people I just called. I was just checking up on myself.”

As the kid knows, a mandatory weapon in a guerrilla’s arsenal is a clear picture of reality.

Reality? What’s that? It’s the difference between the way your company is conducting business compared to the way your competitors are conducting their business.

The whole idea is to do absolutely everything better than your competitors.

But how can you accomplish that? Answer: by spying.

Guerrillas spy on their competitors, their industry and especially themselves. Business information is more plentiful than ever, and your competitors aren’t really dummies. They’re getting smarter every day, and the only way you’re going to know how you measure up to them is by actively engaging in regular spying. It’s a habit with guerrilla affiliates.

Contact a competitive company and request some information. If your voice is too well known by those who would deign to compete with you, have a friend make the call. See how you are treated on the phone. See how your information request is processed and how long it takes. See if there is any follow-up and how good it is.

Then, call your own company and request the same information. Again, since they probably already know the sound of your voice, engage a friend to help you spy. Are you treated as well as your competitors treated you? Is your information request processed as well and as fast? Is your follow-up better than your competitor’s?

If your competitors are doing anything better than you, make the changes so that you are doing everything better than they are. Because many sports are games of inches, being an affiliate is a game of details.

When you spy, direct your efforts at the best in your industry, your community, your chunk of the Internet. Seek out competitors in your own field, in your yellow pages, on your planet. If you ever find one who operates a business better than you do, feel good about it because you can learn from it, then make the necessary improvements.

Spying is both inexpensive and informative. It should be practiced regularly, at least four times a year, if you’re serious about being a wealthy guerrilla. Guerrillas know in their bones that the truth is a valuable ally. Truthfinding is a painful job, especially when you learn that you are falling behind, but the opportunities to transform that knowledge into profits make up for the pain.

Here are five ways you can snazz up your snooping:

1. Order something. Buy something from your own company. Then, buy something from some of your competitors. It always helps you to own the product or use the service of your competitors, because owning is the essence of down-and-dirty spying and enables you to spot your own deficiencies as well as your own advantages. Do it by phone or mail or in person. Keep an eagle eye for the smoothness or rough edges in the entire process. There will be more differences than you think. Note especially when they do their follow-up. If your competition is a public company, buy a share of stock so that you can spy by means of their annual report and shareholder meeting.

2. Visit your competitors. You or your trusted co-spy should visit your place of business as a customer might, and then visit the premises of your competitors. Note the little details that win or lose prospects. Keep in mind that all of them are probably nuclear-powered details.

3. Phone your competitors. Focus on the personality and attitude of the person who answers the phone. If it’s friendlier than the person who answers your phone, teach your phone answerer how to do it.

4. Request something. Maybe it will be a price list, a video or a brochure. Do you handle requests as professionally as your competition? If you’re a guerrilla, you handle them with aplomb.

5. Compare everything. Look through the eyes of your prospects and compare your own and your competitors’ service, pricing, packaging, people, selection, follow-up, signs, quality, delivery and attitude. Guerrillas know they compete in many arenas and must be the superior entry in all of them and at all times. Only spying will give you honest feedback on how you’re doing. The opposite of a spy is an ostrich.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but be prepared to face up to some awful truths about your business. Yes, I know there’s a tiny chance that you’re doing everything better than your competitors, but if you learn from your espionage, there’s a great chance that will happen. Guerrilla spies don’t have to cheat, don’t have to peek, don’t have to engage in sabotage. All they have to do is observe keenly, keep their minds open and be committed to improving.

JAY CONRAD LEVINSON is the author of the Guerrilla Marketing series of books, the most popular marketing series in history with 14 million sold in 39 languages. He also publishes the Web site GuerrillaMarketingAssociation.com.

Converting Visitors to Buyers

While affiliate Web sites can measure how many visitors and clicks they receive and send on through to merchants, that’s only part of the story when making decisions on maximizing revenue potential. There is still that magical measurement of conversions; how many of the visitors that affiliates send to a merchant actually buy something?

“It’s really all about nuance now. Web sites work and are more or less efficient, but retailers [and affiliates] want to know exactly what their customers respond to online,” says Patti Freeman Evans, retail analyst at JupiterResearch.

And “customers,” plural, is the key. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that can work to attract the interests and buying decisions of a broad range of customers. Instead, affiliate marketers need a multi-pronged plan of attack. It’s not just trying to appeal to the types of products and services buyers want, but figuring out how they go about deciding to buy.

According to Freeman Evans, 60 percent of online buyers do research online before they buy, while the remaining 40 percent don’t like to do research and just want to buy what they like or need and immediately move on.

So how do you convert this wide range of visitors to your site into buyers? High search engine rankings coupled with a landing page can lead relevant buyers to your site, but companies often forget to do the rest of the work. “Once you get a customer to your site, you want to use all the assets merchants make available, like product photos and marketing material, that will help the buying decision,” notes Gary Stein, senior advertising analyst at Jupiter. “Conversion rates go up when companies develop their content and give visitors a reason to be there.”

Content-rich sites with an edgy passion for their subject matter have an advantage. Sites that reflect passionate, informed views, and articles with real value, win the respect of their visitors and often their purchase orders.

For some affiliates it’s almost a Zen-like strategy. Kathryn Finney, founder and owner of TheBudgetFashionista.com, says she’s never tried to design her site to make sales; it’s always been about serving her readers. Started as a blog, Finney’s site has become a smart and sassy provider of unvarnished information for budget-minded buyers of women’s clothing and accessories. Ads from major women’s clothing retailers adorn the site, courtesy of LinkShare.

“We are getting cash flow and solid partnerships with retailers, and also our leads translate into offline sales for them,” says Finney. “Our focus isn’t on selling, but by providing valuable, relevant information, we end up a great selling platform.” TheBudgetFashionista will accept only those ads that fit with the focus of the Web site Ð clothing-related items for the budget-minded.

Gimmicks That Work

It’s virtually impossible to appeal to the broad needs of all your visitors even if you have a very targeted site. “The amount of attention a browser receives is staggeringly small,” says Matthew Roche, co-founder of Offermatica.com, a hosted service that runs multiple variations of landing pages and measures which aspects of each are most effective at converting browsers to buyers.

Roche believes a little experimentation can get you a much higher conversion rate. “If someone says they have the perfect landing page, they are just guessing,” Roche says. In general, buyers react negatively to tax and shipping charges and having to register. Free shipping has proven to win sales at many sites, while discount pricing is better for others.

One Offermatica client tried free shipping versus 10 percent off. Offermatica was sure free shipping would win, but 10 percent off proved far more popular for this client. There are additional factors to consider, such as how much to charge for shipping if it’s not free and how much the item costs. Ten percent off on a $1,000 purchase will surely be more enticing than free shipping if you can afford to market that way.

While Offermatica has a range of sophisticated tests and measurements, there are some simple, small-scale alternatives. Offer $10 off to the first 50 search engine respondents and free shipping to the next 50. This can be done in an hour or two if you’re getting enough traffic. But be careful going forward. Ten dollars off may work initially, but what if a competitor offers $11 off? You don’t want to get into a war of competing offers if you can’t win.

Here’s another angle on shipping charges Ð don’t hide them. “Consumers don’t want to wait until the shopping cart to find out there are shipping charges; it’s an unpleasant surprise,” says Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group, an e-commerce consultancy. Also, present recommendations to catch your customers’ attention: “Our experts suggest É” or “Others who have purchased have also bought É .”

Freedman, whose company has done extensive research in cross-selling and upselling, recommends gift cards and gift-giving offers at the shopping cart. After all, if you have a shopper ready to buy, he or she probably has a friend or relative who might like the same item. Gift cards are currently a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Roll Up Your Sleeves

Affiliates have to work harder than ever to get customers, notes Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder and chief persuasion officer at Internet marketing consultant Future Now. Eisenberg says the key to sales conversions is to give your customers a comfort and confidence level with the site the way an effective salesclerk connects on a personal basis with shoppers. He sites five central issues to making Web visitors feel comfortable:

  • Relevance The site has to be relevant or you won’t get to the first click in the sales process.
  • Trust The site should be well designed and convey trust with a voice or focus that speaks to the potential customers.
  • Security You don’t need to use valuable, high-profile space to detail what encryption technology you use, but place a brief two- or three-word reminder near the shopping cart or other relevant area that your site is “hacker safe” or “secure shopping guaranteed” (assuming this is true).
  • Value This is completely relative to different shoppers, but know your audience and communicate appropriately. For example, a site for bicycle enthusiasts might be more concerned with safety and warranty issues than rock-bottom prices.
  • Privacy Eisenberg says to put “we value your privacy” or a similar promise right next to the Subscribe or Submit button to emphasize your commitment in this area and to reassure customers.

Also, don’t count on a copycat strategy of blindly following what other sites do. Eisenberg sites the example of Amazon. com. The online retailer had a button that let shoppers later remove items placed in the shopping cart. Amazon replaced the feature and used the space to promote its used books. Eisenberg says “remove it later” is a useful feature that helps with conversions because it helps shoppers feel comfortable that they aren’t committing too soon to a purchase. However, many sites dropped it when Amazon did; yet Amazon had specific reasons for doing so that didn’t apply to the other sites.

Of course, there are also features well worth copying. Staples, for example, makes its shopping cart a component of every page instead of whisking the customer away to a separate shopping cart page every time they add an item. Analysts and Web veterans say building your site’s unique appeal is a key to conversions.

“Affiliate marketing is the ultimate contextual selling,” says Stephen Messer, CEO of LinkShare. He gives the example of high-end retail clothier Nordstrom, known to lavish attention on customers. An effective affiliate is like an online version of Nordstrom in that online visitors are much more ready to buy in an environment simpatico with their interests and needs.

“I believe the main reason for shopping-cart abandonment is that the customer hasn’t been sold,” Messer says. “When you go to a kite-boarding site, the banner ad for kite boards on sale is a call to action that speaks to that audience. The site provides an environment and content relevant to what’s being sold, and the reader is, in a sense, pre-sold.”

By comparison, having a one-paragraph description of a blender at a consumer goods site isn’t much of a call to action. “Affiliates convert better because they add value,” Messer says.

World Choice Travel, a division of Travelocity, runs an aggressive affiliate network through travel-related sites (some 4,000 Web sites in 40 countries). The company pampers its affiliates with site evaluations, search engine templates, free consulting, marketing newsletters and other helpful tools. Rick Schneider, VP of global business development at WCT, says it has the most sophisticated back office in the online travel space to help track conversions.

Schneider says there’s been a leveling off in the number of affiliates WCT supports as the company looks toward quality over quantity. “The affiliates that are and will be successful work to develop their business and work at keeping it unique,” he says.

For merchant Sierra Trading Post, the big attraction is discount pricing. The clothing vendor has thousands of affiliates ranging from specialty mom-and-pop Web sites to large shopping-comparison engines. “Our most effective affiliates get our value proposition across best, which is that we sell the broadest range of famous name brands for less,” says Andy Newlin, affiliate manager at Sierra Trading Post. The average conversion rate for its affiliates is consistently over 14 percent, according to Newlin, far above the rest of the industry, and the average order size is over $100.

A program called Sling Shot has been successful in helping affiliates with online tracking and marketing tools. Sierra hopes to tap the expertise of its affiliates with cash prizes to the affiliates for creativity, bringing in the most new customers and best presentation of Sierra’s value proposition.

From Offline To Online And Back

All in all, the secret to converting customers into buyers in the online world isn’t that different than in offline retailing. In fact, there are some indications that online sellers may someday get more credit for sales help they give their offline counterparts. “Everyone acknowledges advertising on the Internet has an impact beyond online,” says Tom Miller, Internet analyst with the Dieringer Research Group. “But how do you prove the impact or effectiveness?”

Some companies offer online coupons with bar codes that can be printed and redeemed at retailers who can track and credit which sites the coupons came from.

A recent DRG study showed that in the past year, US consumers spent $1 online for every $1.70 they spent offline after conducting online research. Clearly sites can do more to capture the purchases of the shoppers they’re attracting.

The bottom line is that offline or on, customers want a good selection of products, to feel they are getting a good value for their money and that they can trust the seller. Relevant content, and a relationship with your customers (encourage feedback), will help you raise your conversion rates.

DAVID NEEDLE has been covering the high tech industry since the 1980s as both an editor and writer for such publications as Infoworld, InformationWeek and Forbes ASAP. Based in Silicon Valley, he can be reached at davidneedle@yahoo.com.

Keeping Design Simple

When building a Web site to convert sales, one must make the visitor very comfortable and try to avoid the frustrating pitfalls that commonly plague online merchants.

It’s important to remember that keeping visitors on a Web site and guiding them through the sales process is just as important as getting them there in the first place. Here are several simple tips for attracting visitors, retaining them and getting your site to make money and reach profitability.

Design

Aesthetically, a site should be clean, clear and attractive to the eye, saving bright colors only for important sales process features such as the headlines, offers, important details and purchase links. Avoid offending visitors with vibrant animated GIFs or flash advertisements. They are not only disruptive of the sales process and may lead visitors away from your site, but they also distract and annoy the visitor causing many to abandon your site before buying. That is not what you intended.

Dimensions

Different screen resolutions require that you test your site to make sure that all relevant information is available at as low as 800 x 600 pixels. Make your site no wider than 750 pixels to ensure that no side scrolling will be necessary. A visitor that has to scroll for every line of text will likely leave. Use your space wisely. It’s probably better to have a small amount of empty space than to cram every detail into a small area. On the other hand, you don’t want to leave out any valuable information.

Load Time And Compatibility

Be sure your site loads efficiently and correctly on all the major browsers over a dial-up connection. Many novice site designers are reviewing their work over broadband connections. Just because an image is small does not mean the file size is also small. It is recommended that you compress your images so that your site loads in less than five seconds on dial-up when it is not cached on your drive. Try using JPEG format for images containing gradients or many colors such as photographs. Use GIF-formatted images for buttons and text art containing only a few colors. Also, try to use HTML color whenever possible instead of images.

Sales Process

Clearly present an attractive offer such as a discount or free sample and establish a sense of urgency. Your offer is your hook. Make certain it is attractive or you have nothing to help you stand out against your competition. Accompany your offer with a testimonial or guarantee to establish trust and summarize the features and benefits of the product. You can provide more details about the product on a different page for those who want to know more, but it is advisable to keep the front page of your site simple and sales oriented. Purchase links should always be visible.

Purchase Process

Be sure your purchase process is simple. Remember, at this point you have the sale. You should be doing everything in your power not to lose it. A visitor should be able to get from your home page to an order confirmation in no more than three clicks. This may sound difficult, but it can greatly increase your conversion. A huge mistake that is being made in online marketing is the long and involved registering process and subsequent requirement of customers to log in. The so-called benefits of this feature are to save customer information and acquire opt-in information. However, this process can greatly affect conversion. If you must have customers register, gather their information after they have entered their credit card number and avoid having them enter the same information twice.

Billing information should always be gathered first. Make the customer commit to the purchase prior to entering shipping information or upselling to other products.

Monetization

Monetization means squeezing additional revenue from sources on your site other than your primary offer. Unfortunately, many have misconstrued this concept to mean that one should place affiliate banners throughout the site through which commissions can be earned. This is a huge mistake. Try placing related offers on the order confirmation page or exit pop-under window. This way you can sell your product and make affiliate commissions without disrupting the sales process. Additionally the purchase can be followed by auto-response emails with special offers or reminders on a periodic basis to retain customers.

You can also earn additional revenue or gather valuable information from a non-buyer. For example, if customers do not have a cookie in their browser indicating they purchased from your site, a pop-up could be displayed which offers them an entry to win a product if they sign up for a newsletter. This is an offer many can’t refuse. Choose something you can afford for your sweepstakes, and don’t give it away until you know that the information you’ve gathered is worth the wholesale price of the product. You can then promote your product in your newsletter and retain the ability to promote your offer in the future.

Monetization can also be achieved through the use of an upsell. Upselling items allows you to offer the visitor a complementary item during the purchase process. These items should require a minimal commitment on the part of the customer and minimal explanation on the part of the merchant. For example, if a customer were purchasing a snowboard online, a snowboarding magazine could be offered at the point of purchase. This should only require the customer to click on a single button indicating that they want the additional product. The information can then be fed securely from the form on the merchant’s site to the purchase form for the product on the partner’s site through an affiliate link so that the merchant can earn commissions and thus monetize the site.

GREG SHEPARD is CEO of NetTraction, an online marketing company found at GotRevenue.com. He has eight years of experience in online marketing and 16 in business development.

E-Tailing Wrap-Up

SIX WEEKS. That’s all it takes for many merchants to make or break the retail year. From the day after Thanksgiving – Black Friday – to the Friday after Dec. 31, the holiday rush generates a major part of year-round sales. That translated to $135 billion in gift sales last Christmas, according to the US Department of Labor. An estimated 8 percent of those sales occurred online, leaving affiliates with a superb opportunity to give themselves a nice little holiday bonus.

Take toy and apparel affiliate SchoolPop.com. "The gift buying season has a significant impact on our sales," says Mary Beth Padian, the site’s vice president of merchant development. "Toy merchants are in our top 50 merchants throughout the year. Every fourth quarter – especially with Disney and eToys – they are in our top 10."

SchoolPop is a donation site that encourages buyers by promising to return a portion of each commission to a school or nonprofit of the buyer’s choice. Yet even it doesn’t rely on feel-good power alone when it comes to cashing in on the holidays. This year, it’s publishing a holiday edition of its new triannual magazine, distributed to 1 million parents through partner schools. "Our editor is writing an article about the hot toys and gadgets for the holiday season, and she’s talking to merchants to get a sense of what is really going to be hot this year," Padian says. "The product impact, especially when it’s contextual like that, should show us a significant lift in our sales over last year." Of course, holiday sales aren’t reserved for toys. Electronics, apparel, music, movies, books, airline tickets and collectibles are all huge holiday categories, often offering deep discounts to help promote holiday sales. For example, top affiliates for Ross-Simons, which promotes itself as selling "life’s luxuries for less," saw their sales double during last year’s holiday season and the company is hoping for a similar experience this year, said affiliate manager Felicia Lesnett. To encourage affiliates, Ross-Simons offers commissions of up to 10 percent for top affiliates during the holiday season – that’s double the program’s base commission during the rest of the year. Affiliate sales make up about 20 percent of the company’s total online revenue.

Just two years ago, the Internet was still viewed as a relatively high risk channel for Christmas shopping. Who can forget the horrors of Christmas past when sites crashed, orders weren’t processed and Santa missed the big day? The cybermalls have gained a lot of respect since then, according to Patrick Gates, AOL’s senior vice president for e-commerce. "We are finally seeing a true shift from offline to online," he says. "The pie isn’t getting bigger; people are shifting share."

ComScore Networks estimated online sales increased 35 percent to $18.6 billion in 2003, up from $13.8 billion in 2002. Sixty-four percent, or $12 billion, of that was made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 23. "November and December are humongous, humongous months for us," said Jennifer Willis at ShopForChange.org, the affiliate sales site for Working Assets. For the past few years, it has promoted its seasonal clothing – things like books through Powells.com and apparel through LandsEnd.com, of which half of the affiliate commissions go to nonprofit causes – through a holiday newsletter. The newsletter is stocked with listings for merchants, descriptions of promotions, free shipping options and a reminder to shop there first. This year, even without a newsletter, its now-established reputation as a site for gifting means that if people need to do holiday shopping "they sort of know to click over to us at ShopForChange," Willis says.

Certainly, Internet shopping is cutting into department store sales thanks to such features as convenience, wrapping and shipping. But the online market itself is also shifting. Home entertainment and travel are heating up while apparel and toys are losing share. Gift cards, offered by nearly every major merchant, are a dominant trend. Now that merchants have seen the strong improvement to their bottom lines as a result of gift cards, the push is on for holiday 2004. But watch out: Some merchants offer little or no commission on gift card sales.

"Gift cards were a $20 billion business last holiday," says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group in Chicago. "No one returns a gift card." And when you sell these, chargebacks can become a thing of the past. You can increase dollar amounts on card sales by pushing specific cards for specific uses, such as an entire January back-to-school wardrobe from Old Navy or a complete computer system from Office Depot. You can also promote gift cards as "the perfect gift for the undecided."

The Humbug Factor

Although the 2004 gift buying season looks strong, sales may still be affected by the economic outlook. When times are tight, so are wallets. That’s why comparison sites are predicted to be the biggest winners during the 2004 holiday season. Affiliate Ben Chui predicts sales through his comparison shopping site BensBargains.net will be "huge" in November and December because of his reputation as a bargain hunter. "I find the best price on any particular day on numerous products, and that resonates well with people right now," Chui says. "If you go into a store and everything there is the cheapest you’ve ever seen it, I guarantee you they will be coming back." He doesn’t have a newsletter, doesn’t send out emails and doesn’t pay for search engine placement. His firsttime visitor traffic is driven by natural search, message boards and word of mouth. The rest comes from people that have his site bookmarked. Yet he’s still able to pull in an excellent income from the work he does finding promotions and searching for best prices by hand, without the aid of software. Although he holds a master’s degree from Berkeley, he’s now "doing this full time."

Even with the uncertain economy, the number of first-time shoppers on the Internet continues to grow with the richest households expected to register the largest increases in holiday expenditures. "Here we’ve got, now more than ever, more people familiar with how to buy online and more ways of doing it than ever," says Carol Baroudi, an analyst at Baroudi Bloor International in Arlington, Mass. "More and more people see less and less reason to go to the mall in a crunch."

The way to a holiday shopper’s heart is in the details. Holiday Retail Strategies 2004 from Packaged Facts, a publishing division of MarketResearch.com, concludes the things that will help e-tailers are: unique products, wide variety, a strong reputation, a holiday atmosphere and a consumer confidence in their ability to take orders securely and ship them in time for the holiday.

Shopping For Shoppers

Of course, getting people to your site takes work, but try the five key strategies suggested by Packaged Facts. Differentiating your site can be done through links or landing pages specifically for your audience. "We help people find science fiction and fantasy books that are hidden in plain sight on the merchant’s site because they don’t know how to get there," says Olivier Travers, owner of Portugal-based SciFan.com. December is SciFan.com’s peak selling month. "We spend a lot of time hunting for books in a series, and finding the reading order. That’s information you hardly find anywhere. It’s very important for us not to just be another price and comparison tool, because we think you can find that in other places. What we want to do is provide some context on the books that you can’t find in other places." This brings up another differentiation strategy: offering products not readily found elsewhere. Your site could either be the only one with a hot toy, for instance, or the only one that still has it. "A lot of times what happens is shoppers buy the hot product early, and it starts to sell out," Freedman says. "When it gets down to Christmas, you could be the little guy that has it."

Try to develop a decidedly holiday atmosphere. Change site background colors or selected text to red and green, or apply other holiday color themes like white and silver or gold. Create a catchy gift-oriented phrase to use on the home page and all email/newsletter promotions for the holidays. Add themed art such as wrapped gifts, big red bows or evergreen foliage. Place decidedly holiday merchandise on the home page, and replace year-round merchant banners with new ones that focus on the holiday theme. World-Luxury.com is one affiliate that has seen better sales after adding holiday products and services to its home page, ranging from ornaments to Christmas teddy bears. "I start to feature newly released, especially limited edition [holiday] items on my home page as soon as they become available," says Marilyn Olsen, publisher of World- Luxury.com, American-Luxury.com and French-Luxury.com. "Last year I started in September and had good sell-through immediately, particularly in the smalledition, hand-crafted items." Olsen uses product photos provided as affiliate creatives at Gumps.com and Macys.com, which also takes the holiday theme one step further for its affiliates. "Our whole site will have a holiday theme, with gifts being the main focus," says Alison Zemny, Macys.com’s director of marketing. "We’re known for our in-store Holiday Lane, hundreds of different trees decorated in different themes. This year, we’re taking that online, with holiday dinnerware and servingware, ornaments, decorations and home décor – even more selection than we have in the stores."

Increase selection beyond one product category. In books, add upsell items like bookmarks and reading lights. In apparel, offer ideas for ensembles down to jewelry and shoes. In home, offer complete holiday table settings from napkin rings to centerpieces. In electronics, cater to every age group on the gift list. Macys.com took this suggestion. This holiday season it has added several new merchandise categories, many not found in its stores, including MP3 players, TiVos, DVD players, a wide selection of children’s apparel, toys and gourmet food gift baskets. "What we will be working on with affiliates is some sort of special holiday gift promotion for them that focuses on our holiday gift assortment," Zemny said.

Lesnett, the AM for Ross-Simons, says her top affiliates smartly position her links in multiple categories, which makes sense because the company sells a wide range of gift ideas ranging from tableware to jewelry. "A lot of times, opportunity is missed because affiliates think you’re only in one particular category. So we’re looking at where we’re placed on their sites and we’re trying to optimize their sales, and our sales," she says.

Build consumer confidence. How do you get it? The merchants you work with will obviously need to use a secure server for the credit card process. They’ll also want to have a posted shipping policy and a reputation for shipping on time. You can check out how consumers have rated shopping sites at Shopping.com’s Epinions section or BizRate.com’s "Store Ratings" search drop-down option. "Merchant ratings can really be a factor," Freedman says, noting that if there’s "a product that’s $50 cheaper, but from a site that’s rated only one star, then consumers don’t want to chance it."

Consumer confidence also comes from having a site that’s easily navigated and quick to respond, with merchants who offer the same. "We have to pay more attention to the behavior of a site at peak; if people get frustrated, they leave," said retail analyst Baroudi. "Seconds count in terms of transactional fortitude." Make sure the site is optimized and graphics are at the lowest DPI or the most effective resolution. Mitigate extremely heavy traffic by bringing functions closer to the user with intelligent routing software such as Akamai’s EdgePlatform, or by allowing seasonal capacity with on demand infrastructure from providers like IBM or DEA. "This is the season that makes or breaks," Baroudi says. "If you can’t handle the peak load in season, you may as well not bother."

Another factor to consumer confidence is guaranteed pre-Christmas delivery. Macys.com, for instance, guarantees Christmas delivery if ordered by midnight Dec. 21. "We’ve worked very hard with our fulfillment centers so that the customers can order up to the last minute," Zemny says. Consider posting holiday shipping cutoff points by your merchant links, then capitalize on late buyers by posting which sites offer express shipping. Consumers will be looking for that.

Customers also use a slew of other factors to judge whether they’ll shop your site or your merchants’ sites for gifts. These factors are product availability, gift wrapping, good return policies, Web research, informational pieces, whether or not they get help with gifting ideas and shipping options. One e-tailing study found only 30 percent of gifting merchants offer gift wrap or boxing.

"Make your suggestions, merchandise by price point and recipient type and have an aggregated gift center on the site, so there is one specific location for gifting," Freedman says. "Then it gets down to things like gift cards and gift wrap, but that really depends on the merchant."

Establish your site as a destination for gifting. Gap.com did that with its 2003 theme: "Get it. Give it. Gap." Barring a snappy slogan, there are a number of ways that affiliates can effectively lure gift buyers. The biggest producers use "gift idea" newsletters, gift suggestion pages on the site and the purchase of gift-oriented keywords in major search engines. Eighty percent of the gifting merchants in a recent E-tailing Group study already had gift centers and provide gift suggestions. This year, even sites like SciFan.com may take advantage of this feature.

It’s considering the addition of an online "gift list" of science fiction books site regulars could buy to introduce their children to the genre. It also helps to affiliate yourself with sites already known for their gifts. Affiliates for The Sharper Image, a quintessential gift buying destination, "tend to give us premium placement during the holiday because it pays off," says Roger Benton, its senior vice president of marketing. "And because we have an eclectic assortment that covers many shopping categories, we often get multiple placements."

You can also build your reputation as a gifting site, and your email list, with automated or personalized messages – similar to standard refer-a-friend features – that let buyers send notes to recipients alerting them that their gift is on the way. Seventy percent of the gifting merchants reviewed by E-tailing Group already offer this service, but affiliates have been slow to take advantage of this opportunity.

Another idea is to change the text on your search bar to "Gift Search" during the holidays. An E-tailing Group survey of 10 well-known gift-oriented Web sites found that all 10 had a keyword search, six offered advanced search and six also specifically offered gift search. If you don’t already have a search bar, consider adding one. Many merchants now offer them as part of their creatives. Search bars that will look for related text on the site can be downloaded for free or at minimal cost online. If you are building your site in FrontPage, Microsoft also includes a search option as part of the program.

Your sales don’t have to conclude when you reach Dec. 23. Thanks to gift cards, January is a huge month for continued sales. Packaged Facts reports that price points aren’t as big of an issue during this time, because gift cards are often treated as "found money." Drive traffic with "Use your gift cards here" promotions, and make it easy for your visitors to redeem their cards by grouping products by standard gift card price points: $10, $25, $50, $100. Hunt your merchant sites for markdowns and any after-Christmas shipping or discount promotions. Some merchants are even getting ahead of the game by feeding discount codes for after-Christmas sales to you. The Sharper Image just instituted a program called "Hot Deals," which feeds its coupon affiliate sites with closeout offers on specific "end-of-life" products. It also offers closeout deals in its outlet store at SharperImage.com.

The weeks after Christmas aren’t just a time for closeout sales. It’s also a time for fresh merchandise. Found money, after all, often goes toward trendy items – and trendy translates to hot merchandise not offered pre-Dec. 25. For instance, AmericanEagle.com rolls out its spring merchandise on the day after Christmas – a savvy and intentional move to capture gift card sales from the trend-conscious set. "The most important thing is constantly updating, usually daily, and featuring the best that I find on my home pages," says Olsen, who maintains three luxury apparel and gift sites. That also means removing any out-of-stock items.

Whatever type of site or categories of product you have, the same rules for successful 2004 holiday sales still apply. Those sites that want to improve holiday sales will have: different products from their normal year-round assortment and their competition; a gift destination identity; a decidedly holiday atmosphere; multidepartment gift participation; and customer confidence in an affiliate’s site and their merchants.

SchoolPop, meanwhile, is already taking these lessons to heart. It launched its first gift-themed section for Mother’s Day, followed by back-to-school. It’s the same tab at the top of the page, but with the title and content changed for each promotional period. "So far this promotional page has worked really well, so I’m excited to have it for the holidays," says Mary Beth Padian from SchoolPop. "For anyone running around shopping for the holidays, it’s always good to have some place to go to get ideas."

 

JENNIFER MEACHAM is a freelance writer who has worked for The Seattle Times, The Columbian, Vancouver Business Journal and Emerging Business magazine. 

The Color of Success

Color is often a forgotten factor in online design. Online merchants spend millions to hone their Web site designs, but they sometimes forget to research their color choices as well. That interferes with their attempt to build a brand relationship with their customers and also affects purchasing behavior.

Color invokes a physical reaction in the human brain. These reactions can perpetuate the mood or tone of your customer in a quick glance, leading to an association of your brand, products or service offerings. You’ll want to make sure that association is favorable.

Psychologically, color can have many different meanings for different cultures, age groups and gender. One of the biggest mistakes an online retailer can make is choosing a color without first knowing how it could be perceived by their target audience. So the first positive step in choosing the appropriate color is knowing exactly to whom you’re selling.

For example, the color white is often associated with wedding celebrations in Western societies like the US, but in Chinese cultures it signifies funerals. Men have been found to prefer bright colors, while women prefer softer colors. Remember, just because you like the color orange doesn’t mean your customer does.

Typically colors can be classified into three categories: warm, cool and neutral. Warm colors like red and yellow are often associated with power, creativity and optimism. Cool colors like blue and green are often associated with beauty and calmness. Neutral colors such as white and black are most popularly associated with good and evil. However, white can also be associated as innocent, and black as elegant.

Plan Ahead

When you’re building your brand online, think about what a color means before committing to it. The following is a reference list of primary colors, their typical association with online viewers, and their possible uses.

  • Blue is many people’s favorite color, and is associated with honesty.
    Possible Use: Software.
  • Green is good to use if you want to symbolize growth or show your company’s power.
    Possible Use: Finance.
  • Red is an aggressive and exciting color that gets your customers’ attention.
    Possible Use: Hardware and automotive.
  • Black shows off power and elegance and works best for expensive or luxury items.
    Possible Use: Luxury Automotive.
  • Orange provides a feeling of satisfaction to your viewer.
    Possible Use: Online Content Provider.
  • Yellow works best to showcase feelings of warmth.
    Possible Use: Kids’ Products.
  • Purple suggests sophistication and passion.
    Possible Use: Jewelry.
  • White is elegant and clean.
    Possible Use: Heavy Content Sites.

Using Color Effectively

Once you’ve done your due diligence and chosen the colors that best fit your target audience, you can begin to utilize those colors to enhance your clicks and your bottom line.

One of the best ways to use color is to draw the customer’s eye to a specific point of interest on your site. One way to do this is by creating contrasts between colors. Contrast can be used to separate points of information, allowing the viewer to easily distinguish the difference between all the information presented. Just be sure to choose colors that are complementary to each other.

For example, colors based on the same hues, like red and orange, often don’t work well against one another. Green and yellow are another example of colors that should be blended carefully, if at all.

Contrast is also important when displaying ads within your site design. Typically, one might think that you should create direct color contrast with an advertisement. However, in today’s online ad space, it pays to look less like an ad and more like regular content.

Build Your Brand

What color is a Coca-Cola can? Unless you are color blind, you know that it is red. You know it so well that you can picture the can in your head and even visualize the shade of red. Imagine you are standing 100 yards away looking at a fence with three soda cans sitting on it. There is a red can, a blue can and a green can. Without being able to read the logos on the can, you’d still be able to know that the red one is a Coke can, right?

Color is a powerful way to drive your brand identity into the minds of your customers. Done right, through consistency over time, your customers will begin to associate your color choice to your products and services. So choose wisely.

Most monitors today can handle millions of colors; therefore, adhering to the browser-safe palette of 216 colors is not completely necessary these days. Unless you’re a stickler for exact consistency, it’s not something about which you should worry too much.

However, that doesn’t mean you should turn your Web site into a rainbow of colors. First, choose your primary color, and then choose two to three complementary colors to use as accent within your site design. This set of colors will become your color palette. Stick to your palette to create a sense of consistency across your designs.

White space is one of the most important graphic elements of any design. It is defined as the space in your design that exists between page elements like headlines, blocks of type, ads, photos, etc.

Too little use of white space can make your Web site look crowded. Too much use of white space can separate and distance your message. Use white space to create a Web site that has “breathing room” for your messages, which in turn makes them more readable and ultimately more attractive.

JIM F. KUKRAL serves as brand manager and director of e-marketing for KowaBunga Technologies, which makes My Affiliate Program tracking software.

First Impressions and Beyond

What’s worse than a poor shopping experience? Rank it down there next to a really bad haircut, or waiting in line at the bank on Saturday morning. It’s not fun.

Affiliates and merchants should take note. Just because you have a Web site instead of a retail storefront, doesn’t mean that you have it easy. In fact, some would argue it’s more difficult to sell online than offline. Unlike a physical store at your local mall, your Web site is one among millions. An offline merchant knows his customers might have to drive across town to find a competitor. Your myriad competitors are just a click away.

In the online world, the first impression that you communicate through your design means everything. It’s how your customer decides if you’re what they want, or if you’re just another speck of sand in the great cyber desert. Once they’re convinced you have what they need, you can concentrate on fulfilling your promise to deliver it. It’s getting past that first hurdle that stops most sites from experiencing great sales.

Here are some ways to help your site stand out from others in the increasingly crowded online community:

Gone In 8 Seconds

As soon as your Web site begins to download onto your potential customer’s screen, the “shopping clock” begins to tick. Typically, you have about 7 to 8 seconds to convince them you have what they need. If you can’t convince them in that short time span, they will most likely be off to the next site on the list, which could be your competitor. So what are they looking for?

Unique Value Proposition

You must always assume that no visitor knows your brand. This is especially true for affiliates who focus on building niche sites that have little or no brand preparation or recognition. Therefore, you need to successfully introduce your unique value proposition (UVP). A clear UVP is essential. It should answer the one question that all online shoppers want to know: “Does this site have what I want? Because if it doesn’t, I’m outta here.”

Here’s a poor UVP for a fake company called ABC Co., and a preferred proposition that offers a bit more:

Poor UVP Statement: The ABC Co., a New York-based business established in 1908 and traded on the NASDAQ stock market, builds, distributes and ships widgets and widget-related products in the US and around the globe.

Preferred UVP Statement: ABCCo.com offers secure online shopping for widgets and accessories with international shipping.

Did you notice the differences? The biggest is that the poor statement is too long and focuses on too many topics, such as the company’s history and its stock. Customers want to know how the site is going to help them right at that instant. The other information can be provided later in the sales process.

The poor statement also incorrectly focuses on what the overall company does rather than what the Web site does. The preferred statement removes all mentions of anything except what the Web site can do.

Having a powerful UVP isn’t only for affiliates and small niche Web sites. Merchants must also be attentive to this, even if they have a well-established brand. Even large companies frequently review their UVP to make sure it is easily understood.

Logo

How you present your logo and tagline is also important to a customer’s first impression. Don’t get caught assuming that your logo or tagline effectively mimics your UVP. Logos are window dressing, and only truly effective in branding of your Web site over the long term. They are not a viable method of displaying your UVP. Lastly, to be truly thorough, try to keep your UVP message on every page of your site for visitors who may have followed a deep link into your site, or for visitors who are referred via an email link.

Home Page Makeover

What your site says isn’t the only thing to worry about when making a good first impression. What it looks like is equally if not more important. Don’t worry though; you can make huge adjustments with some tiny fixes. Let’s get started.

Speed It Up

Sure, more people now have high-speed Internet connections, but at the same time, those people now expect super-fast performance because of it. To give them anything less creates a poor first impression. Action: Optimize all home page images.

Focus and Display

You need a focal point upon which your customers’ eyes will naturally settle. Typically, online readers focus on the middle of a page first, and then move to the left side, then to the top and on to the right. Remember, it’s your job to guide them to your information, not their job to have to find it. Action: Learn from the successes of others. Look at sites like Amazon.com and notice how they focus their customers’ eyes into strategic points on each page.

Call To Action

Effective call-to-action statements should prompt your customer into taking an action. Whether it’s clicking through to your hottest specials of the day or signing up for your newsletter, it’s the best way to get your customer to see that you are trying to get their attention. Action: Use the main middle area of your page to create your most powerful call to action statement. Make sure that it provides some sort of value to the customer, or why would they bother to pay attention to it?

Heading Home

So now your customer believes you have what they need and have extended their “shopping clock” by another minute or so. Congratulations, you’ve gotten to second base. You’ve won the first impression battle that most Web sites strike out at. Now you need to concentrate on rounding the bases and getting back home with a sale. But do it quickly, because the clock is still ticking.

JIM F. KUKRAL serves as brand manager and director of e-marketing for KowaBunga Technologies, which makes My Affiliate Program tracking software.

Can You Relate?

Not all that long ago, we did almost all business with people face to face. Chances are, we knew them personally and had done business with them before. There was an established relationship.

Now, affiliates are doing business with people around the globe, and the chance of knowing them personally is pretty remote. But no matter where or how we do business, the need for a good relationship is still critical, perhaps even more so. People are not looking only for transactions; they’re looking for relationships. They’re looking for a positive experience, something that really enhances the trust and connection between the parties.

Several years ago, Jan Carlson, the former president of Scandinavian Airlines, wrote a best-selling book called Moments of Truth. Carlson’s belief was that every time someone had any dealings at all with a customer, it was a moment of truth. Whether it was a phone conversation or an actual one-on-one exchange, something happened. He knew that each time a customer had an encounter with his airline, it was going to either enhance or detract from the relationship itself, not just the value with the customer.

Marketing gurus recommend we be mindful of the lifetime value of a customer to look beyond the profit from an initial sale. It’s good advice, but I would take it a step further: Be mindful of the lifetime value of a relationship, not just a customer.

Relationships often go far beyond the customer. They extend to friends, family and acquaintances. How often have you done business with a company because your father, brother, friend or co-worker recommended them?

And it’s not only our relationships with customers that matter, it’s also with suppliers, coworkers, stakeholders, even competitors.

It’s a small world. And more and more people are checking you out before buying from you or partnering with you. Your reputation, which is largely established by how good you are at building and maintaining relationships, will determine someone’s willingness, or unwillingness, to enter into a business transaction with you.

And you never know how your relationship will evolve. I’m doing business with people today with whom I formed a relationship many years ago. We’re not in the same businesses, and in many cases we’re not even in the same industries. Our roles – customer, vendor, employee, employer are reversed. We’re able to do business now in our new roles because we had and have a good relationship.

In Mario Puzo’s screenplay “The Godfather,” a common expression was, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” I think business is personal, very personal. And the more personal we can make it, the better our relationship will be and the more business we’ll do.

Most business communications today are highly impersonal. When you communicate with someone, especially via email, you can get attention by making it more personal. A warm, friendly style can begin to build a rapport and a relationship that increases sales.

People like to do business with people they like and trust. It’s incumbent upon us to foster an atmosphere where all parties develop relationships of trust, respect and cooperation.

We need to realize that there’s really no such thing as business-to-business or business-to-consumer. It’s people-to-people that counts. Once we get that, we can start to look at ways we can improve upon those relationships.

And it’s actually pretty simple:

  • Treat people the way they – the way you – want to be treated;
  • Keep your agreements;
  • Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it;
  • Under-promise and over-deliver;
  • Train your staff to go out of their way to please the customer;
  • Do it consistently;
  • Reward your customers and your employees when they communicate exceptionally well;
  • Tell the truth with compassion; and
  • Never lie. Never. Ever.

Show people you care. When people get that you care, you’ve got an excellent chance of building a solid relationship. Up until then, it’s just a transaction. Remember that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Our profits and our ability to compete effectively depend upon how well we cultivate and nurture all of our relationships. Being honest, playing win-win and treating people fairly aren’t just moral things to do. They are good business, now and in the future.

MICHAEL ANGIER is founder and president of Success Network (at SuccessNet.org), which coaches people on personal and professional success strategies.