It's a new year, and that means that in our work and personal lives, we are reflecting and looking ahead.
Sometimes, my personal and professional lives parallel one another and enlighten me in surprising ways. Such was the case in December.
Professionally, I started working with a new e-commerce client. They have a terrific product that's very desirable and priced fairly. They have a great cause tied to their company that is impressive and admirable. The founders are passionate and smart.
What's wrong with this picture? For one, they're not doing a lot of business, nowhere near as much as they should be. They're frustrated. The riches of e-commerce seem to be passing them by.
Personally, my husband, dog and I adopted two young kittens, Vincent and Theo. They are adorable, as most young kittens are. They are delightful to be around. They are thrilled to be in a home instead of a shelter, surrounded by food, toys and comforts.
What's wrong with this picture? We have a very steep, open spiral staircase in our house. The cats would hang out in the upstairs bedroom, but were too scared to come down and spend time with us, so we either had to make special trips upstairs to visit them, or only see them at night when we went to bed. All of us were frustrated. The riches of being a family were eluding us because we couldn't get the cats over their fear of the stairs.
At the start of December, little did I know that I'd be solving both of these problems concurrently, nor did I realize how related the two problems really were. Call me the crazy cat lady, but in the end, the 4 month old kittens provided a lot of insight into how we make buying decisions and why we engage with and commit to brands.
First, a bit more about my client. After doing a full audit of their e-commerce website, their competitors' sites, their business and their customers, it really boiled down to 3 big things.
Big thing #1: They weren't acting like merchants. Everyone who sells online is, by definition I suppose, a retailer of sorts. But many, especially in e-commerce, don't take that role to heart or understand the obligation that comes with it. It's so much more than simply putting your product online and providing a shopping cart. It's so much more than showing up in search results. It's about powerfully and consistently persuading your customers that what you have is something that they want. Persuasion can take on many forms: a)compelling, rich product imagery, b)informative and engaging copy full of features and benefits, c)suggestive selling and product recommendations, d)removing barriers via things like free shipping, alternative payments, and a clear, liberal return policy, or e)helpful tools that allow for easy comparison, sorting, filtering and sharing of products.
Interestingly, in person, my client is a vibrant and skilled sales person. Yet, her site is lifeless and impersonal. The product, as wonderful as it is, can't be seen as special or desirable without a merchant doing their job. Remember the phrase "may I help you"? You can't exactly ask that of an online shopper (well, you can if you offer live chat; in this case, they don't), but your site should reflect that you've thought through the answers to that all important question. If you don't have the experience/instinct for retail, get educated or hire someone (a merchant!) who "gets" the nuances of persuasive selling in an online environment. If you are thinking about becoming an online retailer, do yourself a huge favor and work in a brick and mortar store for 6 months waiting on customers. You might not like it, but you will learn lessons that will help you enormously in the e-commerce world.
Big thing #2: They weren't being story tellers. As I mentioned, this company has a compelling cause, and buying their product truly does make a difference in the world. When I asked my client how she expected customers to find her site on the web, she replied: "Word of mouth. We thought that with our great product and great cause that word would get out there." So, here's the thing about word of mouth: First, you have to have customers (see #1 above). You have to tell the story yourself really well at least a few times before your customers will tell other people. Then, you have to invite customers in, give encourage them to engage, and give them a megaphone. Customers need to a) understand the story b) be compelled to tell it c) be invited to be a part of it and d) given the tools to tell it easily. No matter how passionate they are about you and what you sell, you're going to need to give them a little help. One of my favorite sites that does this well is TOMS Shoes. Take a look at the home page and you see a page bursting with how to do it right.
This leads me to Big Thing #3.
Big thing #3: They weren't making conversation. My client, despite the struggles with their e-commerce store, had set up a Facebook page and Twitter account. Good things. However, both were being used like billboards vs. conversations. Every post and tweet was about themselves; what they were doing, what sale they were having. The few followers they had weren't participating. Some self promotion is ok, but the power of these tools is in the dialogue, the listening, encouraging conversation and engagement. Without that, it's hard, if not impossible to stimulate and foster the word of mouth and storytelling that is so critical to my client's business.
Ok, so what about the kittens? Surprisingly, when I dissected the problem, I found that I was making the same errors in cat training that my client was making in operating her e-commerce store.
Once Vincent and Theo were big enough, I removed the barricade that we had put up at the top of the stairs. I expected that they would eagerly come down the stairs to explore the rest of their home. Wrong. Days and weeks went by, and they showed no desire to leave the bedroom. They occasionally ventured to the top landing, only to run away in fear. At one point in my frustration, I picked them both up and carried them downstairs, forcing the issue. They freaked out, and quickly went back up stairs, showing no intent to return.
Then, I decided I needed to act like a merchant. It wasn't enough to simply open the store (in this case, the barricade) and expect results. I needed to point out the benefits of being downstairs. Delicious food. Special toys. Lots of affection and laps to sit on. For several days, I tempted them with how wonderful life could be beyond the bedroom. I was persuasively selling the concept of coming downstairs. Within a week, it was clear that they finally wanted to come downstairs. They just needed continued encouragement and persuasion to get over their fear.
So, I also had to be a storyteller. I had to tempt them numerous times, in different ways for the message to sink in. One time it might be luring them with a feather toy. The next time a dish of favorite food. The next time praise and affection. Every time, the ending of the story was the same: see guys, downstairs is fun, and it's fun every time. Word of mouth, if there is such a thing in the cat world, did eventually do the trick. Vincent, the braver of the two kittens, eventually took a deep breath and made it, slowly down the stairs on his own. Theo protested and wouldn't join his brother. But, later that day, Vincent made it up and down the stairs 2 or 3 times, each time seeing the benefits of good food, fun toys and lots of affection. The next time Vincent descended the steps, Theo was right behind him, eager to experience what his brother had no doubt bragged about. Word of mouth in action.
Wallowing in my success, I nearly made a critical error. After a couple of days of the kittens coming downstairs, I noticed that they had reverted back to their usual habit of hanging out upstairs for most of the day. Why weren't they coming downstairs with the enthusiasm they'd had before? Maybe because I hadn't worked to keep the conversation going. I acknowledged them when they came downstairs, but had done little to keep them interested. I was tending to my own work while they wandered about aimlessly, sometimes getting bored. I quickly learned that I didn't need to be involved with them every second, but that I needed to create an environment where they could entertain themselves and stay engaged in being downstairs, with occasional guidance and participation from me. Sound a bit like your social media/engagement efforts?
My client is a bit like my kittens. She's at the top of the stairs, taking it all in. She's starting to see the benefits of acting like a merchant, being a story teller and encouraging conversation online. I must continue to help her, show her that it's ok to take that deep breath, that first step and come down the stairs to a better place. Be the same vibrant person on line that she is face-to-face.
My client's customers are like kittens too. They are at that scary top step when they come to her site every day. My client needs to persuade them to join her, to experience her product and to engage with her brand.
As for Vincent and Theo, they have become vocal advocates of exploring their new downstairs home, and have earned their spot as "junior partners" in my consulting practice, reminding me often that I need to take my own advice.
Happy New Year.