At its heart, e-commerce — indeed, all commerce — remains all about making the sale. Though necessary, it is no longer sufficient to simply hang a shingle on the web and start accepting credit cards. Successful merchants must now engage customers on a higher level by creating a seamless experience across all the channels through which they conduct business. This is especially true for apparel brands that have traditionally maintained a stronger foothold in brick-and-mortar retail stores because you can't try on clothes for fit and style when you shop online. Creating a seamless and superior online platform is critical to turning a consumer's private in-store fashion show into online purchases.
But while many businesses try to engage their tech-savvy customers, most lack the tools and strategy needed to get there. Some focus too heavily on the back-end technology of their platform, while others are more concerned with the appearance of the front end. These elements can no longer be considered separately. They must be treated as intertwined drivers of user experience within the context of an all-inclusive e-commerce strategy.
As e-commerce has grown in size and importance, customer engagement has become the Holy Grail of online success. Despite its importance, few organizations have actually defined what engagement really means. Fewer still have identified what it actually takes to achieve customer engagement. The dictionary definition of engage is, "to attract and hold by influence or power."
But what does that mean in the context of e-commerce? It means developing an e-commerce platform that attracts and retains consumers at every level of its execution. It means a platform that relentlessly focuses on the user experience in every single detail, not just the most obvious ones. To create true engagement, businesses must identify how to reach this ideal state.
Work your way up
The "E-commerce Engagement Hierarchy" is a practical model designed to provide a clear path for organizations to follow in order to engage customers in every aspect of their e-commerce business. It outlines the four distinct levels of e-commerce engagement and the functionality and strategies it takes to achieve them. As each level of engagement is achieved, the overall user experience improves and the lifetime value of the customer to the merchant increases. To scale the engagement ladder successfully, however, merchants must put a solid foundation in place at the lower levels.
The most basic level of e-commerce engagement is Utility. In e-commerce, Utility requires an operational storefront. For example, at a minimum the site must be live and available. While it might seem that in this day and age Utility is a given, remarkably some of the largest brands in the world still fail in this regard. Recall, for example, Target's high-profile site outage last year. For big brands, website downtime can lead to millions of dollars in losses. That's why the Utility of an e-commerce platform is the very first thing businesses must consider in the design process and in the selection of an e-commerce partner.
Users expect websites to be accessible and work properly, so simply having this basic functionality won't win you a ton of points with your customers. But if you overlook or take for granted the Utility of your e-commerce system, the potential damage outweighs any benefits other features or functions of your platform may provide. In order to achieve Utility the technology supporting the platform needs to be robust and the design of the site needs to include everything a user expects — from a shopping cart that accepts payments to a search box that works well.
Once a shopper connects to your site, the design and back-end technology that keep the platform running are put to the test. Usability marks the next level of e-commerce engagement and it requires a platform that not only functions on a basic level, but is also intuitive and easy to use.
Consumers want a hassle-free process when they shop online. If a consumer knows the product she's looking for, she wants to be able to find it easily and quickly. Using smart, error-tolerant search as a sales tool – Searchandising – is essential. If she doesn't have a specific purchase in mind, she wants to be able to browse around just as she would in any traditional brick and mortar retail store.
Consumers also want their checkout process to be smooth and painless. And after they complete their purchase, they want to be able to log into their account and manage their order. While the Usability of a website should be simple enough to appeal to the masses, it also needs to be robust enough to provide shoppers with a highly customized experience. Striking this balance creates a platform that works for the customer no matter what their individual needs are.
In order to ascend to the next level of e-commerce success, businesses must understand that a successful e-commerce platform requires multiple delivery channels. With smartphones, tablets, apps and ubiquitous Wi-Fi there are more ways to shop in more places than ever before. But in order to fully exploit these channels, there must be Consistency among them. In-store inventory should be reflected online if it can be drop-shipped. Gift cards, gift certificates and coupons should be available online and offline and be redeemable in any combination in any venue. The website design must scale elegantly across the form factors of different devices.
Customers should have a similar experience when shopping with their mobile device as they do when shopping on their laptop. If you're a brick-and-mortar retailer, these channels should also reinforce the experience a consumer has when they walk into your store. This is particularly important in the fashion and apparel business where brand image and consistency is so essential.
By providing a seamless shopping experience across all devices and channels, e-commerce Consistency removes all obstacles to allowing consumers to identify with your brand. But it's not just about the way the site looks. The technology that drives your platform needs to be integrated to ensure that the entire order and shipping process — from shopping to shipping — is both consistent and coherent. It is no surprise that achieving this goal requires detailed planning and a holistic view of one's business.
At the pinnacle of the e-commerce engagement hierarchy is Community. In an e-commerce context, Community means that your customers are interacting socially with other customers and with you directly through the e-commerce platform. The notion is indeed accurate that greater engagement leads to the higher lifetime value of a customer. By effectively using social channels and the e-commerce platform to create a two-way conversation between the end-user and your brand, a stronger level of engagement is forged. Unfortunately, many businesses try to start at this level thinking they'll achieve instant success. Rather than first laying the groundwork with proper Utility, Usability and Consistency, they jump right into loyalty programs and social networking. While there are rare, viral exceptions to the rule, a successful e-commerce community can only be built once the other levels of the hierarchy have been properly established.
A true community is built over time — with careful planning and strategy. When done properly, building a community around your brand can encourage lasting engagement with your customers. Some aspects of this engagement can be measured: time on site, pages viewed, reviews submitted and, of course, purchases made. Harder to measure is the value of enthusiastic customers who recommend your products and services to their friends. Nevertheless, more engaged customers buy more, buy more often, and buy through more channels — the ideal state of affairs for any business.
It is important for businesses to remember that community is the culmination of the preceding levels of the engagement hierarchy, levels that too often go overlooked in the rush to the top of the pyramid and the shiny promises it holds. Community is only possible when the strategy, technology and design around your platform are focused relentlessly on the user-experience at every step of the way, much like the attention to design, detail and manufacturing that successful fashion companies bring to their garments.
Michael Harvey is COO of CorraTech, a leading provider of e-commerce and multichannel commerce solutions.