One of the biggest pitfalls business-to-consumer (B2C) websites fall into is the lack of a primary goal, writes Adam Sarner, research director at Gartner.
Too many companies have too many goals for their website and have tried to act on them simultaneously. This ultimately confuses the organisation in terms of overall direction and investment, and even confuses the consumer, who cannot understand the value proposition for visiting the site.
Some companies have focused on the wrong goal. For example, some retailers have set up their websites to act solely as an online seller, when an influencer type website driving more traffic to the physical store would be more appropriate for their customers' buying process.
A difficult economy is expected in 2009, which will have an effect on overall retail sales, but the web has already become mainstream for businesses and consumers as part of the buying process.
Gartner says B2C websites already influence over 40% of offline transactions and we will continue to see straight-line growth for e-commerce as a percentage of total retail sales for the next five years.
Although many B2C websites are improving and gravitating towards a primary goal, even more organisations are not. To assist companies that continue to plan and develop their B2C website business model, Gartner has identified four major types of focus for B2C websites: the informer, the influencer, the facilitator and the seller.
The informer seeks to be the focal point or source of information. Its main goal is to provide information that drives traffic and derives revenue from advertising, membership or both. The informer also offers community functionality, such as the ability for users of a website to interact with other members about products, news events, companies and other areas of interest.
Consumers can post comments, respond to questions and express ideas and this environment for chatting is a powerful "pull" model to keep visitors engaged with activity on the site.
Another characteristic of the informer is explicit personalisation that enables the visitor or member to configure information according to what interests them. For the informer, web content management, social applications and web analytics are important technologies to gather and disperse information. Informer website examples include The New York Times, gartner.com and Engaget.com.
The main goal of the influencer is to drive sales, but the final transaction does not necessarily end with an online sale. Promotions, test marketing, product information and tools such as loan calculators and quoting engines, are all part of the influencer's activities.
The influencer also seeks to raise consumer awareness of the company or product. However, the end transaction is not necessarily on the web, nor does it have to be with the company. Consumer goods companies, for example, have sites that influence consumers to go to a reseller to pick up their products, avoiding channel conflicts, and pharmaceutical companies have marketing material online to coax consumers into asking their doctors for the product.
For the influencer, online campaign management, e-mail marketing, brand management, product marketing collateral and lead management are most important for influencing and increasing awareness to ultimately drive a sale. Influencer website examples include Toyota, P&G and Maytag.com.
The main goal of the facilitator is to extend the relationship online, creating a multichannel environment. The facilitator might allow consumers to transact online, but that is only one tool in its arsenal for extending the relationship.
The facilitator seeks to understand where the web fits best in the overall relationship or buying process, and to optimise online functionality, ensuring compatibility and integration with the applications that are used in other channels. For example, an airline company uses a multi-channel relationship in which the web facilitates the booking of flights, displaying frequent-flier mileage and publishing web flight updates while its call centre assists cancellations, seating arrangements and so on, and the airplane delivers the product, the actual flight. For the facilitator, customer analytics, online dialogue and multichannel integration are the most important technologies. Facilitator website examples include Bank of America, American Airlines and Fidelity.com.
The seller creates an environment for transactions, driving business online. Unlike the facilitator, the seller doesn't mind what you buy, as long as you buy it from the seller, and preferably online.
This type of website is transaction-oriented, and usually includes high-volume products and multibrands. Like the influencer, it uses marketing to drive a sale, often relying on push marketing and promotions to get customers to buy online.
E-commerce includes order management, catalogues, interactive selling tools, web analytics, e-mail marketing/e-mail response management, and customer self-service, which are all important technologies in the seller's environment. Seller website examples include Amazon, Overstock and Newegg.com.
Steps to clear direction
First, companies should determine which type of website they should be gravitating towards and whether it matches the company's overall value proposition.
Second, they should identify which type of website they already have, and reconcile this with the type of website they want for future development.
Finally, they need to audit current and future website technologies against the type of website and goal they're gravitating towards. This will immensely help B2C companies with defining and selecting the technology and the business processes used to support it.
Ultimately, companies with a clear direction and understanding of what they provide online will, in turn, be best positioned to demonstrate the value to their online customers.