Ecommerce design is, in many ways, similar to retail store design. The moment you walk into a store you get some pretty specific ideas about merchandise quality, uniqueness, and pricing. The cues are sometimes subtle, sometimes overpowering, but in a short time you have a clear picture of whether or not the store is “your kind of store.”
Ecommerce shoppers are presented with images that create similar subjective responses. Some of the more obvious visual aspects they will encounter are the number of items on a page, headline approaches, font type, models, and use of color. Each of these elements conveys a certain feeling. Consider the impact of the following alternatives:
- A site with one item per page has a better chance of conveying an upscale image than one with 15 items per page.
- Headlines can scream messages or whisper them.
- Font can be five varied sizes with call outs, banners, and exclamation marks, or it can be of uniform size chosen for aesthetics rather than readability.
- Models can be people who work in the office, or they can be ultra-chic professionals.
- Colors can be “raw” or muted.
Merchandise Presentation: “Image” Techniques
Ecommerce marketers should be aware that a prospect will look at their sites and be stimulated to browse. This is accomplished by various image techniques, which encourage customers to perceive your products as distinctive in a particular way. Merchandise image and techniques used to achieve it include:
- Price. Large price blocks that slash through old prices to invite “comparison” shopping.
- Uniqueness. Unusual border treatments, editorials, lengthy copy, exclusivity messages.
- Sophistication. Soft fashion colors, elegant fonts, few items per page.
- Utility. “Efficient” layout (grid), helpful hints, straightforward copy treatment, lots of items per page.
- Avant Garde. Strong, unexpected design elements, unusual font, innovative angles, intense colors.
Importance of Consistency
The major and more successful ecommerce sites have established completely unique graphic identities with image techniques well suited to their merchandise theme, scale, and packaging.
Well-tailored to their targets, they maintain a uniform approach from one campaign to the next (vital to stimulating consumer recognition) and demonstrate consistency in both the marketing messages and graphics images within each promotion.
These two creative aspects are inseparable when considering that the online store’s sales “establishment” can be so closely scrutinized by consumers in the comfort of their living rooms.
Evaluation of Three Online Stores
The significance of consistency can be illustrated by examining an ecommerce offering presentation that does not work.
I found an excellent example of this, a now defunct midscale online store dubbed “gift store.” It was actually a specialty home furnishings online store in disguise. That was my first clue of a conflicting marketing strategy and I had not even looked beyond the home page’s header.
When you clicked just anywhere to start browsing, merchandise images that were virtually unrelated poured out. Pages offered such a high ratio of merchandise to non-merchandise space (about 70%) that practically nothing stood out.
(The most basic rule of ecommerce site creation is that each individual product appears to “pop” off the page.)
While sites such as Amazon do contain dissimilar merchandise categories within the same page, their offers are presented in a way that conveys a natural, balanced flow across the page, with visual impact from one product enhancing that of another.
This worst-case example, on the other hand, does not stimulate browsing – it prohibits it. The mismatched offers are randomly dropped into a highly compartmentalized unit-space format which breaks up the page into a confused array, detracting from the very products it is meant to sell.
Apparently, this ecommerce marketer had attempted two conflicting strategies: large photos, and as much merchandise as can possibly be crammed into a constricted, bargain layout. Undoubtedly the objective was maximum page views of each item with maximum visual impact, but the result is a glut of confusing images.
I also looked at a very viable medium-scale ecommerce site that offers luxury-at-affordable-prices-oriented collectibles, home décor and gifts. Its presentation emphasizes special values, “sale” prices (on overstock items) and practicality.
Photos are tightly cropped and chopped to expose only key features of the merchandise. Copy is correspondingly abbreviated with a “snappy” tone that enhances the functional simplicity of the products offered and the bargain image created.
To contrast with this bargain image, I examined a famous international brand ecommerce program for some clues to its upscale imaging technique.
I found that it successfully exploited the notion that “less is more.” The spacious layout employed minimal use of copy and focused on stunning graphics, generous amounts of white area on the description pages and dramatic use of impressive background photos and celebrities as models.
These elements combine to create a clean, entirely uniform appearance – a modern graphics identity owned by no one else, totally appropriate to (and mandated by) upscale imaging techniques, and, indeed, cost effective by virtue of the higher price points.
Your competitive analysis should include numerous evaluations along these lines. Look for strengths and weaknesses in the strategies of every online store in your market – same product, different scale; same scale, different product.
The implications for such comparisons are manifold, but what consistently emerges are techniques on how to balance volume/margin motives with budget limitations.
Organizing Information for the Creative Team
In ecommerce promotion dates must be quite precise, creating time constraints as grueling as any in the advertising industry. The more thoroughly organized web, photo and copy production is on the front end, the more likely it will be executed on time, and within budget.
Organization of information can be facilitated by means of standardized merchandise information forms such as these shown below:
They should include details on manufacturer, retail price, item codes, sizes and colors, trademarks, special shipping requirements, as well as special selling features (e.g., unique materials and/or manufacturing processes) which may not be obvious in a photo. Additionally, photos or tear sheets of the item should be attached.
The art and copy production process is information intensive. Complete sets of merchandise sheets should be distributed to the production project manager, layout artists and copywriters.
Hands-on execution of the entire creative production process is seldom possible for the ecommerce company itself. Most ecommerce marketers do not have sufficient photo equipment or enough art and copy specialists on staff to produce larger creative campaigns within the tight deadlines of most production schedules.
Certainly, internal production can offer significant control and scheduling benefits. However, the overhead attached can prove to be a significant burden where campaigns are not frequent. Consequently, it is often necessary to use freelance artists, photographers, and copywriters, or to employ an outside, full-service, or outsourcing agency. Each of these options offers specific advantages.
Multiple Creative Suppliers
In many cases, this option can prove to be less expensive on a simple outside cost basis if:
- all the necessary individuals or companies are located in geographical proximity (coordinating distributed teams of more than 10 specialists will certainly require additional managing roles which means additional budget),
- you are familiar with your intended suppliers, and
- you have an adequate skeletal staff in-house.
However, the up-front organizational and ongoing management resources necessary to communicate and coordinate multiple creative production services can quickly outstrip any advantages of the arrangement, particularly if your organization has not worked with the individuals before.
Single-Source Creative Supplier
A single-source supplier is in many ways similar to having your own creative production department in-house. Since you are working with only one organization, logistical matters are more manageable. The primary disadvantage is reduced direct control in selecting certain creative staff.
However, most full-service agencies or outsourcing houses will accommodate clients by using talent (such as technical copywriters) from outside their organization. In addition, they may have other ecommerce or performance marketers as clients, providing them with expertise which can make them invaluable sources of advice.
The Creative Process
Whichever supplier option you choose, your people will need to follow the creative process, from concept to developed webpages, emails, scripts, banners, etc., on a day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour, basis.
Let’s summarize this process, from just after the merchandise selection phase through the following stages of creative development.
Typically, items with successful track records, items that will be extremely well-priced, exclusive items, or new items that you think are extremely well-targeted to your consumer segments receive more promotional campaign space than those included because of favorable past margins or inventory overstock (unless, of course, your offers are exclusively for bargain merchandise).
Also consider which products require additional photo, video, or copy attention, or any other special treatment. When all information has been noted, you are ready for the layout stage.
Dedicated Campaign Layouts
This is the critical stage in which your online store’s image, or positioning, is formulated. It is here that you make general decisions regarding the number of items per creative piece, headline approaches, design themes, etc., as well as font size and style (this is important in avoiding extensive copy rewrites or editing).
Typically, you should have three versions of the same concept campaign, each with variations corresponding to how clearly defined your design task was prior to the actual concept layout presentation.
Some typical considerations of design concept are as follows:
- Standardized formats have a cost advantage, but generally the more diversified your formats, the more sales effective they tend to be. For instance, one way to make the standard email + landing page combos more cost effective is to have the email part constantly rotated and keeping the same landing page each time the new email promo is sent out. (This will make your campaign last longer, especially if targeted to your house list audience.)
- Similarly, larger, studio-grade, pictures and videos usually sell better but limit the number of items that will fit within a creative budget.
- Insets (small views of merchandise seen from another perspective) can help explain the product but they take time and money that can be used to sell other items.
- Design elements like borders or elaborate page backgrounds add interest, but busy backgrounds or borders are confusing.
- Except for apparel ecoms, the best use of models usually is for product demonstrations only.
Once a final decision is reached as to the concept layouts, merchandise sheets are gathered.
Photography and Styling
Make sure your photographers and stylists understand the general design concept as fully as do your marketing and web production people. Provide copies of merchandise sheets and concept layouts of your site and scheduled campaigns, including LPs, banners, emails, etc.).
Well planned, precisely executed photos are critical to direct response efforts. They must be two-dimensional facsimiles of the actual product, while maintaining an artistic quality. Here are a few guidelines:
- Make the product as large as possible in the space allotted. You are not selling backgrounds or props.
- Lighting should impart a feeling of dimension and life to the product photography. Different planes should vary in light intensity.
- Do not let shadows obscure product detail. Remember, you know your products, but your potential customers probably do not.
- Use models that show off your product, rather than bring more attention to themselves.
Choice of Font
Font treatment is one of the most important components in establishing graphic identity. It can have tremendous psychological implications.
An upscale image can, for example, be enhanced by subtle use of understated type, same size font throughout, light weight font face and fine-line type. For a “value” presentation, a contrast of different font sizes and faces can be used to bring out special features or benefits.
A font that is hard to read will not be consistent with the strong convenience/service message that characterizes most (although not all) successful offers. Additionally, fonts that are inconsistent with the overall theme will cause confusion and depress sales.
For example, classic, serif type faces are much more likely to support a “conservative” online store image than off-beat display headlines.
Ecommerce copywriting is substantially the same as other types of direct response or performance marketing copywriting with one notable exception – the picture cannot be told in a thousand words. Copy length is a function of the product being sold.
For instance, electronic items, because of their complexity and specifications, require more copy space than a simple bookmark. Exclusive or “signature” items should be allocated more copy space than other products, since it is through these that your ecommerce site will, to a great extent, establish its identity.
Historically, ecommerce companies have relied on graphics – how the merchandise looks – for salesmanship, rather than on how the merchandise looks and sounds. Copy described the merchandise and stated the basic facts – with a meaningless superlative or two and a sprinkling of trite adjectives thrown in for “creativity’s” sake.
And, of course, the space allotted for copy was minimal. But this approach to copy is changing.
Copy: Creative Salesmanship
First, consider the difference between ecommerce copy and retail advertising copy (i.e., by general advertisers on TV, etc.). In the latter, copy is used to pique interest, to entertain and to impart to the consumer a good feeling about the product always with the objective of getting the consumer into some store, online or offline.
Then, with the aid of attractive displays, customer service and point-of-sale merchandising (plus store image and status), the sale can be made.
In an online store, not supported by general advertising, the sale must be completed on the webpage. Consequently, ecommerce companies have tended to be conservative in their copy – always protecting the sale. Today the trend is to be more innovative, less tradition-bound, with less emphasis on the “nuts and bolts” and more emphasis on copy with a unique story to tell.
Copy that is imaginative, that tells a worthwhile story, that is different and interesting can sell the product. That is “creative salesmanship.” A difficult task? Not if you have a plan. And the more complete the plan, the more rewarding the copy and any of your promotions.
The Basis of a Plan
Before a single word can be put to paper, there must be a sound working basis and background for copy. In other words, assemble your facts.
Know Your Customer
Who are you addressing? It is advantageous to know as much as possible about your “target customers” – those to whom your company directs its sales and promotional efforts for long-term maximum sales response. Gather as much information as possible about:
- Income level
- Taste/value levels
- Number of members in household
Knowing your customer profile is important. But customers do not remain “fixed.” Their lives, ambitions and status are in a constant state of flux. Keep up with these changes. Just as retail stores follow people (hence the convenience stores in new apartment blocks all over the cities), you must follow the subtle twists and changes in your customer’s attitudes and living patterns – and you must create copy in tune with the times.
Write to Your “Ideal” Customer
Try to project the image of what your customer wants to be. Write to this image rather than to a general customer. In this way, your copy will become a dialogue. Talking personally is much more persuasive than talking generally.
Put Yourself in Your Customer’s Place
Put your personal tastes aside. Look at the merchandise you are going to write about through the eyes of your “ideal” customer. Learn to appreciate merchandise in new ways.
Develop a “Voice”
Today’s customer is bombarded with sales messages daily – by the Internet, TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. It is estimated that people all over the world encounter 6,000 messages in an average day.
It is easy to see why copy should have a “voice” of its own, one that readily represents your company and the products you are selling. Developing and maintaining a “voice” takes daily vigilance and a total awareness of who and what you are. But once developed, a “voice” is an invaluable tool in putting your message across – and a way to achieve fresh copy with your special mark on it.
Know Your Company’s Image and Mission Statement
With a clear understanding of what a company stands for, a copywriter can more easily convey an image in the sales message. While mission statements may sound vague, they may provide some value. For instance, one company states, “We cater to the customer. We are geared to meet the needs of value-oriented, upscale customers who are interested in shopping convenience. As part of our commitment to the customer, we make at-home shopping more convenient.”
Your copywriters should write accordingly, with conviction and integrity.
Know Your Competition
It is especially important for your copywriters to know what others are saying about the same merchandise. The competition might know something not generally known about the merchandise, or might conceive of the merchandise in a new way. They may be more concise, or they may find an interesting “story” to tell.
Being aware of the competition can serve as an impetus for creative people to do something different with the same product.
Know Your Merchandise
Research. Read. Magazines, newspapers, social media, online and offline trade publications – all are good sources for background information. It is difficult to be a good copywriter without being a good reader. The more knowledgeable you are, the more knowledge you will be able to give your customer – and your task of getting information across to the customer will be much easier. Research can make you more authoritative, more interesting – and your copy will reflect that.
Copywriters also should see and handle merchandise firsthand. When merchandise is not available, clear photos from the vendor, buyer’s spec sheets and buyer’s personal input are desirable aids to the copywriter. Keep a file on bits and pieces of merchandise information, ideas, etc., and refer to it often.
You may uncover a fact or, even better, an inspiration that can serve as a starting point for copy.
Numerous decisions affect the kind of copy approaches taken in all of your campaigns and product descriptions, whether it is one of your big seasonal promos or one of your many targeted specialty, personalized or segmented campaigns.
An integral part of your overall plan is to segment our customers and sales. Therefore, each of your promotional efforts should have a specific message and the copy that is pinpointed to that particular effort. This sets the tone of your performance marketing strategy.
- If the campaign is a sale campaign, then the copy features promotions, savings stories, hard-sell.
- In specialty campaigns, you have more opportunity to “romance” the customer with information, benefits, product comparisons, in-depth editorials. If a specialty campaign is targeted, for example, to petite women’s fashions, the copy is geared to factors such as the range of fashions for petites, complete wardrobe looks, color, fabric and style news, value in choosing investment fashions, customer service . . . all particular benefits to the petite fashion shopper. Your copy should say that you care enough to gather, select, and edit petite fashions and to present them beautifully, in a campaign, just for the petite customer.
- In your more general approaches or general pages your copy may be designed to convince the prospective customer to become a customer. The approach is much more one-on-one, more talkative. You may try to give more information about the convenience, the service, the value of being your customer, constantly affirming the multi-benefits of what it means to be your customer.
- In your large-scale seasonal campaigns, you may provide editorials for trends in both fashion and home furnishings. Promotions are geared for impact, department sections are more visible, entire sections are devoted to a single “shop” concept. Page pacing and flow are particularly important to keep up customer interest.
- Copy in B2B online stores can be more authoritative, since these generally have built up customer loyalty. Copy updates customers on trends. Section openers identify and sell merchandise. Copy anticipates customer needs, tells the customer what she wants to know, in the same way a salesperson would inform (one-on-one). But do not overdo it. If a product is well-known, a simple statement of fact often suffices.
Ecommerce Copy Checklist
- Read and research. It is the creative starting point of good copy.
- Rely on merchandise buyers or product managers for facts and information. But remember that they are not copywriters. Take their input and transform it into good, solid copy.
- Look for the “story” in a product.
- Put the customer benefit up-front.
- Do not be afraid of new ideas.
- Try the unexpected. Do not stay with the tried-and-true approaches,
- Develop your own “voice.” You will find copy is easier to write, and more believable, when you have your own point of view.
- Avoid trite adjectives and prosaic phrases. Even simple adjectives like “exquisite” and “elegant” become overused when they describe everything from inexpensive digital watches to pencils.
- Sprinkle adjectives carefully.
- Strive for consistency in tone.
- Write with a conversational tone – copy will be more palatable, more believable. And read your copy aloud. Copy that sounds stilted when you read it will be perceived as such by today’s more knowledgeable, discerning customer.
- Write specifically about the merchandise. Do not get caught up in trendy phrases or attitudes that are not really applicable to your merchandise. Be specific and your copy will do exactly what you want it to do.
- Make editorials specific.
- Standardize wording in areas that appear in all the transactional pieces you do, for instance, credit information, ordering information, size, price, etc.
- The creative process is very tricky and certainly the most subjective aspect of new ecommerce start-ups. Also, it is at this early stage that the greatest possibility exists for missing your original marketing objectives.
- If you do not keep your advertising needs (selling the product) in balance with user experience (displaying the product), you will lose everything you have gained in the final hour. An earnest ecommerce marketer in the upscale market can diminish site browsing by allowing the production staff to be overly zealous in economizing on creative aspects. On the other hand, a midscale or “value” marketer can mistakenly overplay the opposite tendency and jeopardize the profits.
- The creativity vs budget dilemma is avoided by working backwards from the production budget to determine how many of what items at what price points and margins in which media must be sold to break even in each of your campaigns. (You can devise a computer model that accomplishes this rather quickly.) With that as a more manageable starting point, you can begin to manipulate product in and out of the model to increase volume or margins (decrease creative budget), or vice versa, as required. You can thus fine-tune creativity costs as you proceed. It is all a matter of balance, and it must be customized; no two situations are exactly the same.
- Once you have costed out web and creative production, be prepared to make any necessary adjustments to creative elements and the production processes to ensure that the end result merits the work you put into its creation.