Business-to-consumer commerce is riddled with pitfalls, but if you follow Danny Bradbury’s advice, you can get a head start over the competition
So, you want to get online and exploit the Internet as a sales channel to consumer customers? Many companies have tried and failed to make money out of business-to-consumer [B2C] e-commerce, but there are some critical success factors that can drastically improve your chances of success. Here are some of them.
Building back-end applications
A pretty website is useless for e-commerce unless it provides some back-end functionality. Using a component-based development system like Java or Microsoft’s COM to produce your website will make it easier to maintain in the future. One significant factor here is that unless you are a greenfield operation you will need to integrate your application with legacy databases and order-management systems. Middleware does exist to help you do this, and products from companies such as BEA Systems and IBM will enable you to manage transactions and feed them through to your existing applications infrastructure.
The availability of website design tools that are cheap and very easy to use is growing. A case in point is Dreamweaver, the multimedia Internet development system from Macromedia, which you can pick up for less than your managing director probably spends on the average business lunch. Such tools enable you to include such functions as animation, forms and buttons in a site. The downside of such tools, as with other design systems that bring creativity to the masses (like desktop publishing), is that you can make a mess of your website if you don’t know how to use the tools properly. When designing your website, think simple; don’t weigh down your site with pretty graphics and flashy animations that take too long to download. The most important piece of advice is to map your website carefully before you begin designing. You should have a clear idea of how your site will be navigated, along with a standard template to achieve a consistent look and feel.
Brand building for a business-to-consumer e-commerce player is as much about intelligent use of content as it is about throwing money at advertising. Sure, running print advertisements (and, if you have the cash, TV commercials) will help, but on the Internet, viral marketing is a good way to get your message to lots of people inexpensively. Use personalisation features and any other innovative content that is pertinent to your market as a means of pulling customers back to your site repeatedly, and encouraging them to recommend others. Marketing organisations are now beginning to take advantage of new communication theories in books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Gladwell says that there are key individuals who are social hubs with the capability to spread your message to a wide variety of people - and to do it as a personal recommendation. Consequently, stealth marketing, where you find and engage such people, is a low-cost but work-intensive approach to brand building. Hang out in the newsgroups and in customer discussion forums to pinpoint those people who can help your cause.
Taking all those orders is no good unless your logistical operation is able to cope with them. Some companies who set up e-commerce operations early on in the game coped with order management by re-keying orders manually into a conventional ordering system. This may work for smaller companies with no ambitions for growth, but if your order levels begin to increase, this will become very labour intensive. It is also prone to human error. It will be more productive to link the online ordering process seamlessly through to your back-end system. But this is only the start of your logistics operation, which must ensure that all products displayed as available online are actually available. Inventory management will therefore be an important part of any fulfilment process, and you must make sure that these facilities are in place before you start. Issues like online payment processing must also be considered. You might think about handing the whole tangled mess over to someone else, like Web Fulfilment.
Assuming that your product is physical and not digitally downloadable, Web Fulfilment will also handle your delivery, or you may choose to directly engage a conventional courier service like FedEx or DHL. Needless to say, you must perform due diligence on any provider, and get service level agreements from them for delivery times. One of the most attractive features that you can provide for your online customers in this space is online order tracking.
Enabling your customers to find out where their parcel is and when it will be delivered is a no-brainer for a company already providing online ordering facilities. You must also think about the delivery options that you will offer to your end-users; both expensive next-day delivery and less costly, longer delivery periods should be available so that you don’t lose customers for whom immediate fulfilment is a low priority.
A common mistake that many companies make is to enthusiastically load up a website with content at the start of a project, and then fail to update it later on. You can syndicate content from companies such as NewsNow to provide regular updates to your site. Dynamically linking your e-commerce application through to a stock-control database will also enable you to provide up-to-date information about products and availability.
When putting new content on the site yourself, you should treat the process like any conventional publishing operation. Work out who is responsible for producing the content, and give them firm deadlines. Appoint someone to edit the copy and make sure that it is well-written and accurate. Microsoft has a guide to content management
Making sure that your website can handle everything that customers throw at it is one of the most difficult tasks for an e-commerce player. Many companies have experienced big problems as their websites have collapsed under the strain of customer demand. Some of the larger hardware vendors like Hewlett-Packard have offered initiatives under which they provide extra processors in a box that are not paid for until they are first used. Similarly, you need to make sure that you have enough memory in your hardware.
Software should also play a part here. Use a decent systems management tool that will consistently monitor your server load, and try to establish a baseline showing you how the load on the system changes at different times. You may identify, for example, that lots more people decide to visit your site at Easter, and will be able to plan your capacity accordingly.
Outsource vs insource?
Whether you outsource your e-commerce site or do it in-house will depend on your levels of expertise and how much you can afford to pay your staff. It is possible to outsource parts of the process without handing it all off to a third party, however. You may decide to let someone else handle the graphic design, or do that yourself while letting an external consultancy handle the back-end applications development.
One thing that you will probably outsource is the hosting of the site itself. Unless your systems administration staff are very competent, they will have problems providing the levels of support and constant monitoring needed by any good e-commerce site. You can either host your e-commerce site with your ISP or, for even greater reliability, post it at a colocation site that is independent of any single Internet service provider.