Five or ten years ago you might have been one of the only kids on the ecommerce block selling automotive tools, pool supplies, specialty fabrics, or a myriad of other niche products. But competition has increased and the “big-box” retailers continue to extend their online reach.
How can you fight the drive toward commoditization? As your product line becomes more common, what can you do to differentiate your business? Here are nine ideas to help.
1. Communicate Your Value Proposition Creatively
You possibly had a unique message or value proposition five years ago. But now that message has been eclipsed or borrowed by a few of your savvy competitors. It is time to take an honest look at how you present your messaging on your website and how it stacks up against your competition. If you were a shopper arriving at your site for the first time, would see a unique message that is immediately clear and compelling? Great products and terrific service might not be enough unless you can communicate what you have to offer with a bit of punch.
2. Build Your Business Around Customer Relationships
With so many competitors vying for your customers’ attention, you need to nourish your relationships with customers at every opportunity. Take an honest look at your customer communications: your order thank-you page, follow-up emails, and packaging materials. Are you injecting some personality and passion into these opportunities to bond with your customers?
On a technical level, have you implemented reward programs, coupons, time-released follow-up emails, and customer reviews?
3. Consider Custom Products, or New Methods of Selling Products
Offering a custom product might not fit with your business model. But it might otherwise be time to add a creative spark to what you offer. This will likely require an investment of time — or the development of new technology — but it could make the difference in setting your business apart.
One example of this is Manpacks.com, which takes the potentially generic product line of men’s socks, underwear, and personal products, and builds an terrific presentation around regular automated delivery. We discussed Manpacks here recently, at “Innovators: 3 Unusual Ecommerce Models.”
4. Utilize Unique Product Descriptions and Images
Search engine optimization is still critical for the success of most ecommerce businesses. A common problem we see with some of our ecommerce customers is that their product descriptions or images are identical to scores of other websites. Here is an example of a Google Product Search in which all vendors have an identical manufacturer image.
If you received your product descriptions and photos from a vendor and never updated or personalized them, it is time to rework them, making them original to your site. If twenty other websites have the same product descriptions as your site, it is unlikely that you will gain any traction in the search engines. If you write your own text, the search engines will likely reward you.
5. Evolve Your Business Toward Repeat Customers
Businesses that succeed in ecommerce often have built a loyal following. If your business has relied on one-time purchases from consumers, re-consider your product line and develop related offerings that will keep customers coming back.
6. Commitment to Social Media
We hear all too often from some long-timers that they just don’t get social media, or they hate using Facebook, and don’t want to waste their time. If you fall in this camp, I have a stern message for you: Take the time to understand social media and why it is such a powerful force.
Social media is not just Twitter and Facebook. In fact, those platforms might not make sense for your business. But, the fundamental idea of using technology to engage your customers and build relationships needs to be at the core of your strategy.
7. Shop Online
Are you just an online seller or are you also an online shopper? If the latter is not true, conduct you market research by shopping at a range of other ecommerce sites. You want to explore the big players as well as small niche websites. There is much you can learn about your own site by learning from others. As you do that, ask these questions, as a consumer:
- Do you get frustrated when searching for products?
- Does the checkout process give you pause?
- Do you go to Amazon see if it has the product for less?
By being an active shopper and seeing the world like other consumers, you can better understand the behavior of your own shoppers and focus your energy accordingly.
8. Research Advancements in Technology
Assess whether your one-time high-flying website is now showing its age. As a check, are you familiar with the terms “AJAX,” “jQuery,” and “API”?
Without going into the details — a quick search on this website will produce many articles on those topics — many web technologies have developed over the past few years that allow your site to be more interactive and functional, and to link your site with other valuable web services, such as product reviews, international shipping vendors, and email campaign management, to name a few. If you have not evolved your site recently, you could benefit from upgrading your shopping experience to match the more developed expectations of today’s online shoppers.
9. Talk with Your Best Customers
In their 2010 book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath suggest focusing on the primary strategies that work well, instead of dwelling on all that is wrong. In that spirit, identify your repeat customers, including those who ordered frequently in the past and have since lapsed. Ask them why they come back. Understand how you were able to build a strong connection with these customers.
Rising above the competitive crowd takes creativity and innovation. By gaining a deeper understanding of both your customers and new web technologies, you can often find a creative spark that will drive the innovation in your business. And innovation can take a common product and make it remarkable.