Driving Customer-Acquisition Traffic
By Kelly J. Andrews
Let It Ride
The business-transforming power of e-commerce seemed unlimited just two years ago. Back then, the door was open for direct marketers to apply their knowledge to a new direct-to-consumer medium that had reached mass acceptance at unprecedented speeds.
Business plans were laid, money was invested, and glossy front-ends were seamlessly integrated with flawless back-ends.
But for many marketers, results didn't live up to the hype. Blame the economy, blame overblown expectations, but don't blame the medium itself. Says Will Tifft, senior vice president and general manager, mail and network product marketing, 24/7 Real Media, "The promise of e-commerce has lagged because it's taken time for e-commerce companies to figure out how to do it properly. Customers clearly are thronging to sites that can make it work."
The high-flying companies with a dime's worth of marketing experience and a C-note worth of bluster are gone. What's left are the power players who executed the fundamentals: driving traffic, making the sale and building customer relationships that last. With the shakeout comes the opportunity to stand out in your product category and drive acquisition traffic that once went to an upstart competitor. Here's how to make it work.
Be Sure Customers Can Find You
Of course, your domain name must be intuitive and easy to remember. Your company or catalog name probably fits the bill, but don't stop there.
At one time, nearly every English word and combination was gobbled up by domain squatters and fly-by-night companies whose only business asset was a great Web address, but many of those simple domain names are back on the market at affordable rates.
Consider registering and redirecting variants of your name, major domain extensions, common misspellings, all of your registered trademarks, products for which you're known, and generic product categories and keywords.
For example, Barnes & Noble's Web site owns not only bn.com, barnesandnoble.com, barnesandnoble.net and barnesnoble.com, but also book.com. Amazon.com owns the equally powerful bestsellers.com, potentially attracting the few people on the planet who haven't heard of Amazon.
Now that Web growth has slowed and newbies have matured into old hands, users have abandoned AOL, Yahoo and other easy-to-use guides, right? Wrong.
"No matter how long people have been using the Web, some people still have a general misunderstanding of how to surf the Internet because there's no training on it," says Doug Wagner, president of 24/7 Website Results, the search-engine optimization arm of 24/7 Real Media. "Instead of typing a URL into a location window, people will go to a search engine and type Hotmail.com."
Regardless of how easy your domain is to remember, you still need prime placement on the best real estate on the Web. The best Internet penetration continues to be found at AOL, MSN, Yahoo!, Google, Lycos and About Network—all of which were among Nielson/NetRatings' top 10 Internet sites the week of March 10, 2002. Traffic from major search engines can account for more than half of a successful site's traffic, and to a large extent, your Web site's traffic will be directly proportional to its position in the major search engines.
The key is to get a top engine placement for the searches that count for you. If your potential customer sees your competitor above the fold and you're listing is below it, don't expect that prospect to see your listing, much less your irresistible offer. While submitting your site to many search engines and directories is free, the best placement requires an investment—either in fee-based directory listings or search-engine optimization services or both.
Much of search-engine optimization is a matter of programming the page correctly so the search engine finds it on as many searches as possible. When robots visit a Web page, they read the page's HTML text, including meta tags, page titles, image alt tags, comments and links. But simply seeding your meta tags with keywords isn't enough. Says Wagner, "The search won't convert well unless the description matches the search. It used to be that people would click anything, but now we see that they read the description, and they'll click on the site when the description matches their search." An optimization service can create and update those customized listings for you.
A few years ago, portals, content plays and other ad-supported sites proliferated. Today, another silver lining to the dot-com bust is that it's easier to decide where to spend your advertising dollars. Put your online ad budget where it counts.
"It's critical to take full advantage of capturing people when they're in a buying mode," explains Tifft. "You can capture perfectly when they have the propensity to buy. It's very difficult to target this based on demographic data or other behavior. The best way to succeed is to find people when they self-select."
His advice: Look for sites with buyers at the beginning of the buying cycle. Shopping portals like Yahoo! Shopping are pricey, but since Yahoo! has a 44-percent reach among all Internet consumers, according to Nielson/NetRatings, the price may be a bargain if you can capture browsers the moment they become buyers.
Response rates have dropped, but so have CPMs. Says Court Cunningham, vice president and general manager of DARTmail at DoubleClick, "Everything works at the right price. Any response is decent if you're paying the right price."
One way to boost response is through innovative creative using interactivity. Says Tifft, "Even with the Internet's incredible penetration, users who are on it even a short time tend to behave like early-adopters. And what early-adopters like is the 'new.'"
Pop-ups, pop-unders, Flash technologies, any sort of animation—the clicks will come for awhile, but continue experimenting. "Any new technology will perform, but then performance will drop," warns Tifft. "Pop-ups have dropped, but then they have two issues. One, it may be difficult to place your ad. Two, people see pop-ups the way they see blow-in cards in magazines. Everyone says they hate them, but they still perform at three to four times the rate of a standard ad."
Regardless of the technology, maximize your ad dollars with rigorous testing, a principle that applies to
e-mail lists, as well as direct-response banner and interactive ads. Says Cunningham, "Most of our strategic services are teaching people how to do cell testing. They're used to testing, but what's new is how much of it you can do and how quickly."
Don't turn your back on e-commerce now when your more faint-hearted competitors are dropping out. "Smart companies are finding [the Internet] is not in itself the Holy Grail. Rather, it's part of a set of distribution channels," says Tifft. "Any company that walks away from a distribution channel that meets the needs of a large cohort of potential customers is making a mistake."
Kelly J. Andrews is a freelance writer and former staff editor at Target Marketing. She currently develops online products for a major direct marketing company.