Taking Your Business to the Net

Making Your Market

Gwen isn't sure she wants to risk hurting the company's profile on search engines. That's because online marketing experts believe that, hands down, that's the most important place for an e-commerce entrepreneur to build visibility.

"It's probably the best and easiest way to start," says Jason Cohen, founder and CEO of MediaWhiz, an online performance marketing company in New York City. "Most of the search engines are offering tools you can use to track the results; you can start to measure the effectiveness."

Cohen suggests you start by submitting site information via paid search services, which allow companies to "bid" on terms they want to associate with their websites. The more money you're willing to pay for a certain word, the higher the visibility your site will receive on the list of options presented after someone enters a search query. Upward of 90 percent of paid search traffic is related to Overture, a service provided by Yahoo!, and the Google search site, Cohen says. "The more targeted words are better," he advises. "And you want to be straightforward in your descriptions about what you're promoting."

Zoske takes his business's profile on the major search engines very seriously, and he manages 10,000 different keywords across 12 different sites. He used to devote much more time to this activity but now spends about an hour daily ensuring SaltWorks isn't spending more money than it should. "You can spend thousands of dollars a day if you're not careful," he says. There are services you can use to handle this activity, but they can cost upward of $1,800 per month, Zoske says.

Gwen Richardson has used e-mail newsletters to good effect. Indeed, before Cushcity.com launched in December 1998, she began sending e-mails to potential customers. Now she uses the opt-in newsletter to send information about new items and promotions. Gwen also developed a special program for book clubs and started one in Houston to host book signings by new authors.

For his part, Allen Michaan actively promotes his eBay auctions with an extensive catalog on his website and through national advertising. The company is even flirting with doing a pilot for a weekly reality-TV program for a local station, tentatively titled "Bay Area Treasure Hunt" and hosted by Sandra, an acknowledged expert in vintage clothing.

Ringing up Sales

Once customers find you, your checkout process can make or break your e-commerce site. That's one reason Zoske actually built SaltWorks' shopping cart area from scratch-to keep the design consistent.

DoubleClick Inc., a leading provider of website analytic services, reported in August that while online consumers today are more likely to select items and place them in their shopping carts, they are also more likely to abandon the sales than in the past. Roughly 57 percent of carts were abandoned during the second quarter of 2004, and consumers were less likely to re-initiate the transaction, according to the company's quarterly "E-Commerce Site Trend Report," which includes data representing more than $1 billion in e-commerce sales. The bottom line: DoubleClick believes that for every dollar spent online, about $4.51 is left in a cart.

Some experts believe abandoned carts are a natural part of the evolution of e-commerce. After all, consumers browse real-world malls, too, without necessarily buying. Still, there are ways to improve your conversion rates.

Lauren Freedman, president of the E-Tailing Group Inc., a Chicago firm that provides merchandising advice to e-commerce companies, says online merchants can decrease the likelihood that a customer will give up on a transaction simply by making sure the shopping cart feature works. Recently, merchants have run up against problems with customers who use software that blocks pop-up ads, she says. Moreover, she says to concentrate on making sure the purchase process doesn't take too long and that your customers know exactly what stage they are at in the transaction. The average number of clicks needed to complete a typical purchase is around six, she says, and making the process easy can definitely be a point of differentiation.

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This article was originally published in the January 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: E-Tail Therapy.

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