One of the greatest challenges facing a business selling its products or services over the internet is converting “visitors” into “buyers”.

Bringing the potential customer to the website is just half the battle. The real challenge is making the sale. It is no secret that selling is hard when done face to face or over the phone. When you consider that a website is the first contact a potential customer has with a business, the challenges to selling online are obvious. Even if a website is designed to generate a personal contact by phone or e-mail, the site still has to create the interest.

However, despite the obvious challenges to online businesses, the sales numbers are staggering. Just in the year 2000 alone, internet commerce totaled $354 billion (IDC Research Group, as reported in PC Magazine, July 2001). According to projections, the number for internet commerce will reach more than $5 trillion by 2005 (IDC Research Group, as reported in PC Magazine, July 2001).

In the retail sector, online sales during the Christmas season increased about 15% from the year before, despite the sluggish economy. By comparison, traditional retail sales during the holiday season only increased by 2% (Business Week , 1/9/02). Overall, holiday season sales reached about 13.8 billion.

In addition, just the sheer number of internet users bodes well for online commerce. According to Nielson/Net Ratings there were nearly 103 million Internet users in the United States alone, up almost 25% from the year before (Reported in PC Magazine, July 2001). In addition, according to Nielson/Net Ratings, 38 million of these internet users are in the workplace, up 21% from the year before (Reported in P.C. Magazine, July 2001). What is even more impressive is that nearly one third of Americans shop online (Neilson/Net Ratings, reported in Business Week, 1/9/02).

In light of the growth of online sales as well as the increasing number of people using the internet to make purchases, websites are one of the most important sales channels for any business. However, the challenges to selling online still exist and too many websites just do not work. So what can a business do to ensure that its website can make a sale or create interest? One good way to start is to know why people buy online and why they will not.

According to a report by PC Magazine, citing a Forrester Research Poll, people buy online for the following reasons:

  • Convenience - 84%
  • Product depth - 41%
  • Better experience -36%
  • Value - 26%
  • Brand - 20%
  • Customer service - 11%
  • Interactive tools – 7%
  • Novelty – 4%

* Forrester Research 2000 Poll, reported in PC Magazine 3/20/01. Note: multiple responses were accepted so the numbers exceed 100%

When asked about the greatest obstacles to buying online, the responses were:

  • Lack of touch and feel - 40%
  • Lack of fulfillment - 27%
  • Online adoption curve (i.e. getting use to using a website) - 23%
  • Customer Experience – 21%
  • Site Security – 20%
  • Customer acquisition – 19%
  • Trust – 19%
  • Profitablity – 14%
  • Brand – 13%

* Forrester Research 2000 Study, reported in PC Magazine 3/20/01. Note: multiple responses were accepted so the numbers exceed 100%

The responses basically reflect that what people look for in a website is really no different than what they look for in any sales process, i.e., convenience, good experience, value, service, trust, product depth, etc. These marketing goals apply in any sale whether over the internet, over the phone or face to face. Therefore, marketing concepts should be the driving force behind the e-commerce strategy and website design. Everything done while building a website and e-commerce strategy should be done asking questions relating back to what turns people on or off. Will the customer get a sense of convenience? Will they see the products and services in depth? Do they have a good experience? Is there a creation of trust?

Because each business is unique, meeting these goals in an e-commerce site becomes more difficult. For example, “convenience” or “fulfillment” for one customer can mean something very different to another customer in a different industry. One marketing strategy or technology does not fit all. Developing an e-commerce plan and website requires an in depth analysis of each business, understanding its goals, its products or services. Most of all developing an e-commerce strategy and website requires an understanding of each particular customer.

The process becomes more complex when done over a website. Ultimately, turning the marketing strategy into an e-commerce site will require an in depth knowledge of the available technology that can be used to execute the goals. If you look at enough websites, you will notice that there are myriad different technologies and methods for presenting a business. Not all website methods work and some actually defeat the goals.

It is a delicate balance. However, a business owner who is able to turn a sound marketing vision into reality will reap the rewards of the online world.

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Ronald Maggiore is a Major Accounts Executive at Keyword, located in the Research Triangle, North Carolina.