If you sell stuff via e-commerce, you’ve probably noticed … it’s getting pretty crowded out there.

With potential competitors popping up everywhere, plus the clutter of more than one billion web sites with nearly five billion web pages, it's becoming harder and harder to stand out from the virtual crowd so that prospective customers can find you, let alone choose to buy from you.  

Search engines may help people find you, but ending up 63rd in a 10-page list of results doesn’t do much for your unique message either.

So what can you do to keep your e-commerce business healthy and hopefully growing?

Start by understanding what is happening.

E-Commerce Moves from a Transactional World ...

The web and the world that uses it is evolving from a “transactional” stage in which:

  • E-commerce users can easily find your goods
  • Assuming your selection and prices are — or appear to be — competitive, they will buy from you if you provide a simple, convenient way for them to complete their transactions
  • Being creatures of habit, they will buy from you again rather than finding an alternate
  • If you don’t drive them away with poor pricing, selection or transaction support, they will stay with you

The model still works to a certain extent: you will drive customers away if you make your goods hard to find, too expensive or provide poor service. 

But this model no longer works to attract and keep customers — it’s getting lost in a web where everyone, including your competitors, can provide the same level of convenience, selection and price, and where the sheer volume of websites and messages makes it increasingly difficult for customers to find you.

In short, providing good transactional support is no longer enough to motivate people to buy from you.

... To a Relational World

E-commerce has entered a “relational” phase — in which people will find you and buy from you because:

  • They have learned something about you — often on social media — for reasons that have little to do with buying something from you, or anyone else for that matter
  • They see and interact with others saying nice things about you, and find links to your website so they don’t have to go looking. They may even learn something that will help with the item they want to buy
  • They can enter into a virtual relationship with you by exchanging posts about subjects that interest them, and by adding their thoughts to conversations with other people there for the same reason

A major, perhaps the major, element in this evolution is social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat et al have enticed billions of people to join in the conversation and share their lives online. 

Want e-Customers? Make e-Friends

Chances are high you'll find your current and prospective customers on one or more of the social media sites — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram being the most likely — and where you find them is where you can influence their behavior, if you play your cards right.

Retailers have long recognized social media's growing importance and have established Facebook, Twitter and other social media pages in the hopes of riding the wave.  But just having social media pages isn't enough to replace the quickly fading transactional relationships.

For its users, social media is a destination. The goal in being there is … well, being there. But for sellers it is a tool to encourage people to think about you and to drive them to your e-commerce site in ways they may not fully recognize as marketing. And you must do it without driving them away by being too pushy.

Learn From the Social Media Pros

Some brands have successfully used their social media presence to increase revenues — both online and offline. And not all are upstarts: Old Spice, Starbucks, Pampers, Staples — successfully use social media to build emotional connections with their customers.

The following takeaways are far from comprehensive, but give you a good place to start:

  1. Think two-way: Social media isn't the place for passive sales messages. Interaction is the name of the game. Create an engaging presence with blogs, newsletters, "tell your story,” “ask the expert” areas and more. The important thing is the relationship users have with you and with others on your site.
  2. Don’t just thinking volume, think connection: Experience has shown that in most cases, a moderate sized audience of friends or followers with active connection to you is better for your sales conversion than trying to interest everyone. Counting “likes” may be fun, but it isn’t very useful.
  3. Don’t be afraid to “ask for the sale”: While you must be careful not to be too salesy, you have every right and reason to provide opportunities for visitors to click and be taken to your e-commerce site. Some successful social media vendors have even built e-commerce transactions right into their social media sites.
  4. Offer something of value to visitors: Helpful hints, “how to” presentations, success stories, even paid articles and tutorials by industry experts (your industry of course) can engage visitors and make them repeat visitors.
  5. Embrace immediacy: Social media users think in very short time frames. Any delay in response — to news, events, comments and questions — will frustrate them. Commit the resources to deliver quick turn-arounds.
  6. Match your media to your market: While Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should probably be part of social media planning for most B2C companies, other social media outlets can prove valuable in certain cases. Look to analyses of how demographics map to various sites as you decide where to position your presence.
  7. Remember your goals: And be ready to defend your social media activities and spending when management asks you to demonstrate the ROI of your social efforts. A number of measurements can help you, from the relatively simple Net Promoter Score (NPS), to the more complex like Agent Based Modeling (ABM). Select at least one that fits your efforts during planning.
  8. Think and prepare before you leap: Once established and active, a social media presence is difficult and can be costly to abandon.
Title image "High five" (CC BY 2.0) by  Carolyn Coles