12 Hacks for Picking Web Apps

The world of web services has mushroomed in the past few years. This is great for buyers, except the vendor selection process has become more time-consuming.

You can easily build a comparison chart in a spreadsheet with feature comparisons, integrations, support and prices, but you’d miss the qualitative part of the story.

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A shopping cart usability hangnail

It’s high season for ecommerce, and showtime for shopping carts all over the world.

Good marketing managers should have spent the entire year reviewing how their checkout experience is converting customers, since a problem in the Christmas season hurts twice as much as in the summer.

Marketing Rule #1: Make it easy for the customer to buy. Specifically for shopping carts, don’t do things that confuse people, cause hesitation, or prompt rework. You are delaying or losing sales.

Here’s an example. Today we were buying magnets online, and saw this at the first checkout page:

cart

(A partial screen shot, crunched down to fit in the column.)

 

Note how the first set of contact information is split into two columns. The fields for Email, City etc are way off to the right. It’s too easy to miss them at first, which is just a little usability hangnail that only increases the chance — however minimal — that the buyer bolts.

That screen shot was taken at 1280X1024 resolution, which represents a plurality of users these days. At 1600×1200 or higher, which is about 10% of visitors, the desert of space separating the columns is even wider.

My guess is that the cart allowed these fields to be set to one column or two, and the designer thought the page looked too sparse when set to one. In that case, you should put clarity first and layout second. Don’t be afraid of white space when someone is checking out. It’s a purely functional process.

 

Nine Marketing Tasks You Shouldn’t Be Doing Anymore

For the marketer at a medium-sized company, the development of web-based apps has made some tasks obsolete. With some effort and startup costs, by 2009 you can stop:

Running your business without an intranet. A simple intranet can help you share files with remote staff, have discussions, host a wiki, and remain very secure. Open source website software Drupal is a perfect tool for this. Its user and group permissioning is particularly easy, and you can easily extend it into an “extranet” where your partners and commissioned sales reps get access to a portion of the site’s content.

Guessing at what your customers are saying in public. A few ideas: 1) Do a Google search for “better than [your-product-name-here]” or “similar to [name] — remember the quotes. There are a number of variations to this for tire-kicking customers; i.e. “also considered [name]” “looked at [name]“. 2) Yahoo Answers, especially if you cast your net to include competitor names. 3) an RSS feed of your keywords from Tweetscan. 4) an RSS feed of a Bloglines search. The signal-to-noise ratio of these channels can range from bad to good depending on your company name and sector, so it will probably require some tuning. And you’ll need someone to draw generalizations from the little data points. (Hello, summer intern!)

Paying to host webinars. For the medium-sized business that only does the occasional webinar and remote presentation, WebEx is a luxury. It’s a great service, but you can get the same effect with Zoho.

Asking someone else to change some text on your website. In 2001, websites were usually made on a PC and uploaded to the webserver. Dreamweaver was the norm, along with tools like FrontPage. Altering a page (e.g. adding news, updating a headshot) meant asking the IT guy or the web developer, who might have been offsite. Thus began the dance of request prioritization and email tag for reviewing the page. Now, there are sophisticated and near-free content management systems (CMS) that live on the webserver. To make a change, you log into the system through a web browser, and make the change yourself. The key is that you (and the other editors) can be permissioned to make only certain low-impact changes, and changes can be rolled back if you screw up. Good CMS’s include my current fave Drupal, Expression Engine, Joomla, and Movable Type.

Relying on a PR firm to monitor the news for you. A PR person still helps interpret news and coaches you through a response, but there’s no reason to lean on them as the source of breaking news about you and your company. For media monitoring, Google Alerts and Factiva ($) will get you 90% covered.

Paying lots for development of embeddable website widgets. Seen all over Facebook, widgets might make sense for your marketing. If your widget audience is in the tenthousands, then it probably makes sense to get professional agency work. But if you’re just running an experiment, DIY widgetmaker Sprout is worth a go.

Wondering which half of your advertising works. I’m looking at you, Ogilvy. There are a bunch of ways to reduce that “wondering” to a third or a quarter. Namely: Landing pages, conversion tools for PPC ads, custom URL’s for print ads and DM campaigns, and the filtering tools in web analytics. Integrating lead management tools like Eloqua and Salesforce helps you track conversions.

Speculating on how people get to your site. Knowing where your web visitors is not a new development, but it’s worth mentioning here for the smaller companies whose website statistics are accessible only through their webmaster or web developer. The point is that you can have online, free access to reports that show you the following: 1) which other sites are linking to you and how many people are coming from them; 2) what locations your visitors are coming from; 3) which ads they clicked; and 3) what search keywords your visitors used. Google Analytics is the best free tool out now, but there is a new free package called Piwik that bears watching. With GA, You can add fiters and goals to track these people through to conversion.

Paying for shopping cart software. I admit that the integration and setup of a cart will cost you much more than the cart itself. The bigger point is that quality of free ecommerce software is a lot better now than it was several years ago, and better-supported by a developer/user community. Old and confusing: OSCommerce, ZenCart. New hotness: Magento. Our pals at Avenue Verve, who are our preferred developers of ecommerce sites, swear by Magento.