I shut down my browser and left the room. After looking at bad websites for over an hour, I needed a nice hot cup of jasmine tea to calm me down.
While I was waiting for the water to boil, I had an epiphany. Many of the reasons why over 80% of e-commerce businesses fail have to do with financial and business management (d’uh). But I’ve also seen my fair share of horrible marketing practices. Which inspired me to write this article.
Here are 5 reasons why your e-commerce marketing is failing and how to improve.
1. You’ve entered an overly competitive market without differentiation.
Why, in the 7 heavens, should anyone care about your product? Your answer better be: “because we’re doing something no one else is doing”. If it’s not, your entire marketing strategy, maybe your entire business, will fail.
Since the barrier to entry in the e-commerce field took a trip to the old family farm, every Tom, Dick, and Harry has decided to try out this “entrepreneurship” thing. And there is nothing wrong with that when done right. But it’s rarely done right.
Seems easy enough – you hire someone on Fiverr to create a website for 200 bucks. Then you throw in a few poorly lit photos and you start re-selling whatever happens to be the rage right now. It’s a foolproof plan to get rich.
Except it’s not. Entering an already saturated field without any differentiation is a sure way to fail before you even begin. Your competition will bury you. Or you will bury yourself. Either way, if you can’t get to be number one or two in a category, you won’t make any real money.
What can you do?
You’ve already started your store. You quit your old job, told your boss to stick it and you bragged to all your friends how you’re going to be an e-commerce owner. You imagined a life of private jets and huge mansions. But as it turns out, things aren’t as rosy as you’d pictured. So now what?
Now it’s time to differentiate. What do I mean by that? Let’s say you’re selling ties. The market is already oversaturated so what do you do? You pick a niche with less competition. For example, you start selling ties for lawyers.
A quick Google search revealed there is a lot to be desired on that front. Most so-called “lawyer ties” are horrendous. What you can do is offer a nice selection of ties that “boost confidence and leave a nice impression on the judge and jury during those long litigations.” Good copywriting would come in handy. But getting there would require some work on your part.
Talk to actual lawyers. Ask them about their ties. What matters and what doesn’t. What issues they’re facing. Identify the problems and try to solve them in the best way possible.
Then make sure your blog is the most authoritative source on how a lawyer should dress for court. Or client meetings. Address the issues you dug up. Reflect this in your social media activity.
Is this is a fool-proof plan? No. But it’s definitely better than doing what everyone else is doing. At least this way you have a fighting chance. You’re no longer competing in the field of selling ties. You’re competing against other people who are selling ties to lawyers. It’s a new category. And the competition is not as steep. Once you pivot and start making some good sales, you can expand into other, related categories. But make sure you’re out of the ditch, first.
2. Your product photography is poor.
Shopping online involves more risk than shopping at a brick-and-mortar store. Sure, you might have a great return policy, but this would still mean I need to waste my time returning a product I didn’t like.
This is what makes product photography especially important for both e-commerce and digital marketing (and yes, there is a difference). It reduces the risk by showcasing the properties of the product.
Poor photos send the message that you don’t take your business seriously. So why should anyone risk shopping with you? Not to mention, if your photos are crap, your prices need to match that. No one wants to risk more than a few bucks if the store doesn’t even bother with a good visual presentation.
Does this mean you can’t take good photos with your phone? Of course not (well, depends on the phone). But you need to know what you’re doing. You need to know how to properly light the subject, what angles to shoot, and you need to be at least a little bit creative. There’s a huge difference between shooting jewelry and shooting watches.
If you’re just taking random snapshots of your products and your site doesn’t convert well, this is definitely one of the reasons.
What can you do?
Before fixing this problem, you need to ask yourself what is more important – your time or your money? If you’re in a position where you have more time than you have money, then you should probably take care of the photos yourself. This means you need to dig into product photography guides and have at least a clue what you’re doing.
Once you go through the guides, you should spend the time to prepare. Product photography, if done right, takes preparation. You need to be patient and somewhat creative.
If that doesn’t sound like you, then you can hire someone to create the photos for you. I say “create” because this is pretty much a creation process.
Whichever option you choose, you should test it out and see how it works. If the new photos are driving more conversions, then that was your issue. However, if the problem remains, then you need to look at other facets of your overall e-commerce marketing and search for the problem elsewhere.
3. Poor product organization
Marketing doesn’t end with bringing people to your site. That’s where it begins. The essence of marketing (and that includes e-commerce marketing) is creating happy customers. Marketing is about establishing a connection.
If your site is difficult to navigate and your products aren’t well organized, this makes for a poor user experience. Poor user experience rarely results in happy customers.
People are busy. Why would they waste their time in your poorly scraped together online store, when they’re a few clicks away from a competitor who is much better?
I recently had a discussion about this with a friend when we talked about his online store. When I presented this issue, he said, “OK, I see your point, but we have a search function.” He was not pleased with my reaction, but I was not pleased with that whole notion, so we’re even.
The problem with this line of thinking, as I explained to my friend, is that the search function is limited. It works well enough when people know what they’re looking for. But it’s terrible for people who are simply browsing.
And let’s face it, many people like to browse. Especially when they’re at the office, bored out of their minds. Or they’re waiting for the bus. Or they’re waiting for their friend at Starbucks. These are far more realistic scenarios than the bulk of your customers coming to your site knowing what they’re looking for (unless you have a very limited selection).
The search function shouldn’t be a crutch. It should be there to enhance the experience, not to cover up poor structure. Relying on the search bar to save you is like counting on duct tape to hold a concrete building together. You’re free to try, but we all know what the result is going to be.
What can you do?
For starters, you can start thinking. Product categories aren’t there just to annoy you. They’re there to make it easier for your customers to shop.
Even without filters or search, it should be easy enough for me to find the category I’m looking for in your site. If it’s not, I’ll just go elsewhere. And so will many of your clients.
To fix your taxonomy (or categorization), you need to lay it all out. You’re the store owner – you know what you’re selling. You need to figure out the best way to lay it out for someone else. The end goal is to enable first-time shoppers to navigate your store with ease.
You can use a site like LucidChart to visualize your structure. It should help you get things in order without overcategorizing. Make it simple, effective, and intuitive. Last thing you want is for people to get lost while looking for something.
Proper categorization will also help with the search function. Product search is very much dependent on your site’s categorization, structure, and descriptions.
The main goal is to ensure you don’t frustrate your visitors. Frustrated people will buy from someone else.
4. You’re not developing a brand
In his book The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design, Marty Neumeier explains your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they (your customers) say it is. It’s what your customers perceive.
Many online retail stores today think that just because they have a logo, they have a brand. This is patently false. Ultimately, your brand is a mental headspace your business occupies in the minds of your customers.
If you’re not distinctive from your competition, then you don’t occupy any mental headspace. You don’t have a brand. And as such, the longevity of your business is in jeopardy.
Most e-commerce websites count on single sales. That’s why most of them fail in the long run. This is not a good strategy. If you don’t have a brand, your customers have no reason to look for you specifically. They don’t know what you offer and they won’t think of you when the need arises.
As a result, you will spend a lot of money on “buying customers”. The over-reliance on Facebook and Google ads to generate sales leaves little space for real growth. Not to mention your margins suffer greatly for it.
A business is built on return customers. If you can’t give your customers a reason to come back, your competition will. And you will lose more and more relevance. Besides, do you really want to keep shuffling piles of cash into the engine just to keep the train running? You’re free to that, but sooner or later, you will join the 80% who fail.
What can you do?
You can start developing a brand. Give your business a core identity people can categorize and tuck into their minds for later use.
Developing a brand isn’t easy. It requires a lot of careful consideration and answering some questions you might not feel like answering. Questions, such as:
- What is our purpose? Why do we do what we do? (Hint: “to make money” is the wrong answer)
- Whom do we serve? Who are our customers and what do they want? What do they expect from us? What can we do for them?
- Where should we compete?
- Why should customers choose us instead of the competition? What do we do better than anyone else? What do we do differently from everyone else?
If you don’t have the answers to these questions, it’s OK. Sit down and think about it. Hard. The more detailed and clear answers you can give, the better the foundation you will lay for your brand strategy.
5. You’re only in it for the cheese
Every business is trying to make money. That’s how you get to stay in business and keep doing what you’re doing. But while for some money is a means to an end, for others it’s a destination.
Listen, if you’re in it just for the cheese, chances you’ll make it are very small. Business is a tough racket, and that includes e-commerce. If you don’t have the fortitude, patience, and humility to fail, make mistakes, and keep going, you’re not going to make it.
Even if you get lucky and somehow manage to get some cheddar, guess what – now you’ve lost your drive because you accomplished your mission. Your business is never going to be exceptional and you’re never going to make it big.
Think about it – even Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, turns to his employees and says, “Amazon is not too big to fail.” In case you’ve been living under a rock, Amazon is a trillion-dollar company. They’re the face of e-commerce. And yet Bezos knows how easy it can be to get comfortable, which is what your competition is counting on.
But it’s easy for guys like Bezos not to settle and keep pushing. They’re not in it for the money, which is ironically why they make so much. Guys like Bezos, Musk, Jobs, Gates – they have a bigger vision. Money is there to help them achieve it. But money is not the end goal.
I’m not saying you should be as ambitious as those guys. You don’t have to be. But if you want to have any sense of fulfillment and success in your life, then chasing the dollar signs is the wrong way to go about it. And your business will suffer for it.
What can you do?
This is one of the most difficult aspects to change. It’s not impossible, but it requires some mental shifts most people aren’t willing to make.
One thing you can do is identify ways in which your business is truly serving your clients. Then you make it your mission to help them, not simply sell them stuff.
I have a favorite clothing store in my town. I usually abhor buying clothes, except when I go there. The owner is also the one tending to the customers, and he takes his time to provide a service, not sell you a shirt. His recommendations are always based on expertise and your individual structure. He’s knowledgeable, confident, and every time I leave the store, I leave with the certainty I will not experience buyer’s remorse.
Needless to say, I’ve referred many people to his store. And I’m sure many other people do the same. It’s a tiny place, but there’s always people inside. Customers become return clients.
You can achieve similar results with your website, your blog, or your social media presence. Helping people is not a bad thing and it doesn’t prevent you from making piles of cash. On the contrary – it enables it.
Another approach would be to only open a business related to the things you’re passionate about. Though this approach can be very limiting.
There are many reasons why your e-commerce marketing efforts might not be working. These five are the usual suspects. But there might be more. If you’ve tried everything on the list but you’re still not fixing the issue, don’t hesitate to contact me for a detailed analysis.