So you’ve decided to build your e-commerce solution. What next?
Are you relying solely upon your eCommerce development partner to build the next Amazon or eBay for you? Or is there something you need to do at your end, before you hand the reins over to your development partner?
No doubt opening an online store or building a large scale e-commerce solution is a right choice, but no eCommerce solution in the market works like a magic wand that will multiply your revenues overnight. It takes various strategic measures to achieve substantial business growth, even with the best solution available in the market.
Therefore, before you even initiate building your e-commerce solution, you should consider the following factors that will make your project a success.
1. Alignment with business goals
Before you hop on to the e-commerce bandwagon, you need to have a clear understanding of your business goals.
At this stage you should have a clear understanding of the following attributes of your business so that your eCommerce solution development aligns with your business goals:
Understand your target market
Having an eCommerce site opens up endless opportunities for retailers. They can capture global markets with the help of an up and running eCommerce website.
The prospect of being able to sell across the world is quite enticing, however, you must explore your target market well before selling overseas. The key things to consider are:
- The applicable taxes
- Excise duties
- Shipping costs
- Compliance to international trade practices
Know your target customers
I believe there’s no need to reiterate the importance of conducting detailed customer profiling before you plan to sell either offline or online.
You need to segment customers based on their demographics, likes, dislikes, shopping habits, spending power, digital footprint, and more.
Knowing your target customers will help you identify what features, functionality, promotions, etc. you need to provide them to meet their needs.
Features and customizations
If you are building an e-commerce site from scratch, you would want to create a detailed features list. This can be achieved by conducting stakeholder meetings, user reviews, surveys, and several brainstorming sessions with different departments in your organization.
Having a detailed list of features and functionality at hand will give a direction to your e-commerce solution development project.
2. Beat the competition
Competitive analysis is one of the important factors most businesses overlook while building a new solution or migrating to a different one.
You can get useful insights from a competitive analysis which will help you make strategic business and technology decisions.
Identify your key competitors
The first logical step is to identify who your real competitors are. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the company operating in your same geographic location, selling same products and services, is your top competitor.
You should use some of your keywords on popular search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing to find out who all are ranking well against you. And you need to do this exercise on regular basis to keep a track of your competitors.
Determine what technology they are using
Find out what technology your competitors are using on their sites. There are several online tools available that can give you various statistics about the technologies used on a website (e.g. Wappalyzer and Builtwith).
During this exercise, you might come across certain useful techniques that you are not currently using on your site, or you didn’t make up your mind about those techniques in the past.
The next thing you can compare is the features and functionality your competitors are offering on their sites.
This exercise is specifically useful in scenarios when you are new to eCommerce, though it can also come in handy if you are transitioning to a new solution or re-developing your website.
The idea behind competitive analysis is to make informed decisions based on what’s going on in the market and what your competitors are doing, so that you can step ahead of your competition.
3. Address the project requirements
Now it’s time to define your project requirements. In this step, you’ll have to determine what exactly needs to be done in the development phase.
Things like what features and functionality need to be implemented, what third-party integrations need to be done, what customizations are required, and what will be the roles and responsibilities of your internal project team.
Document your features list
Based on all the analysis and competitive research you’ve done in the earlier steps, list down the final features and functionalities you want to implement in your eCommerce solution.
At this stage, you also need to prioritize the features, e.g. what needs to be implemented in phase 1, phase 2, and so on.
You can also list the must-have features and nice-to-have features that will determine the overall project scope.
Also list down the third-party integrations you want to do on your site and inform the vendors well in advance about your requirements to avoid any functionality or compatibility issues later on.
Extensions and customizations
The next step is to identify what extensions you require and what kind of customizations needs to be done to build a reliable and effective solution.
Having said that, customizations are always time consuming and challenging, so you need to figure out your requirements well in advance in order to avoid errors later.
Document your SEO transition plan
Determining your SEO transition plan is also an important step in defining your project requirements, and it’s relevant to the projects where you are migrating to a new platform.
Take care of the following things in your SEO transition:
- 301 redirects
- Appropriate tagging
- URL optimization
- Navigational hierarchy
- Internal linking
- Keyword analysis
Define internal roles & responsibilities
Defining internal roles and responsibilities is also a key part of defining your project requirements. This includes:
- Assigning internal champion or point of contact for taking technical decisions
- Who will conduct the design review
- Who will conduct the development and QA review
- Who’ll be responsible for data import
- And who’ll have the final sign-off authority on the project
Define a realistic timeline
Don’t expect exceptional results in a short time. The ideal thing to do is to divide the project in different phases and make incremental progress through the project.
Follow the time vs. quality approach, which means putting more time into development will ensure higher quality. That obviously doesn’t mean that you let the things to get delayed.
Just assign a realistic timeline and make sure the project sticks to it.
Define a realistic budget
Remember that your budget is directly related to the types of features, functionalities, customizations you want to implement on you eCommerce platform.
So if you have $5000 to $10,000 budget, you really can’t expect your e-commerce solution development partner to build Amazon for you.
However, you can think about how you can cut costs by using your internal resources in activities such as QA and data migration, if you already have such resources within your organization.
4. Take care of data migration needs
This is applicable to the businesses who already have an eCommerce platform, and want to migrate to a different one.
Data migration can get extremely complex and challenging, so getting it right is critical to ensuring success in your migration strategy.
Identify what needs to be migrated
You might want to look at the following elements that needs to be migrated:
- Catalog data migration
- Customer accounts, including customer data, usernames, passwords, addresses, email addresses
- Order history
- Product review
- Promotions/ coupons
5. Review existing solution
This is specifically relevant to businesses who are transitioning to a different eCommerce solution.
The existing site or solution review should be focused mainly on SEO and site structure. The reason for doing this is to figure out where you stand at the moment, so that when the new solution is implemented, you can clearly distinguish between new issues, if any, and the old issues that were present in the previous solution.
This way, you’ll be more aware of what’s going on and how much you’ve improved or if there’s still a room for improvement.
The first thing to analyze is the search engine optimization status of your existing site. Especially after the recent Panda and Hummingbird updates by Google, you might want to analyze things such as:
- Your current keywords list and how you can improve it
- Your top revenue generating keywords and landing pages
- How your existing site ranks at the moment and what you want to achieve through the new platform
- Link analysis to keep an inventory of all links you have
- Setup Google Webmaster for your site to keep track of the progress you are making
Navigation and sitemap review
Conduct a review of your site’s existing navigation structure and sitemap, and the overall information architecture of your site.
Document things such as, categories, sub-categories, content pages, blog pages, sitemap, layout, and more.
Again, all this is required to help you understand what your site is and what you want to make it, and also to make sure you don’t make any complex changes that repel your visitors.
For example, if you realize that your site users are comfortable with left navigation, then it makes no sense to change it to top navigation or mega menu. In the end, you are the best person to make these kind of decisions, and knowing your website well will help you make wise decisions.
List down the third-party integrations you already have in your existing solution. It would be good to ensure that these integrations work well with the e-commerce solution you select.
These can include shipping partners, sales tax data partners, and other kind of third-party integrations. In addition, determine if you need to calculate taxes, and on what basis – city, state, country.
Identify how much you should change
This is the tricky one. Most business owners would like to make big changes in their existing e-commerce site. However that would be a recipe for disaster.
E-commerce sites usually have far higher traffic than non-ecommerce sites, and most of the times the online shoppers get used to the order processing system or any other process on your site. Changing too much in the first go could bring drastic changes in customer behavior and buying patterns, and since the volume of shoppers is high, the impact will also be big.
Therefore, it’s advisable to outline the minimal changes that you want to make live in the Phase 1, and take it from there. Making incremental changes will help users adapt to the changes easily, without affecting their user experience.
6. Hosted or custom eCommerce solution
The next most logical step would be to select an e-commerce platform that’s a right-fit for your business processes and requirements. You need to choose between a hosted solutions and a custom/open source solution.
It all depends on your business volume and budget requirements to choose between these two. Let’s see how hosted e-commerce solutions are different than open source solutions.
Hosted e-commerce solution
Hosted e-commerce solutions like Shopify are probably the fastest and economical way to build an eCommerce site. Hosted solutions are the off-the-shelf solutions that are not owned by you. Some of the key characteristics of a hosted solution are:
- Low setup costs
- Easy to implement and maintain
- Cost includes hosting, and downgrades/upgrades are easy
- Limited flexibility
- Full support from the solution developers
- Automatic bug fixes, upgrades and new feature implementation
- Third-party integration with limited vendors
Custom/open source solution
Open source solutions like Magento are highly customizable solutions and require specialized developers to implement and maintain.
- High or very high setup costs (for code customization, template integration, testing, and implementation)
- Complex solution, easily implemented and maintained by a specialized developers
- Complicated upgrades and downgrades
- Great flexibility and customizable features to meet your unique needs
- Support must be contracted privately
- Manual customization of code for upgrades
- Root files are accessible, so any third-party software can be integrated
7. Mobile commerce capabilities
The next thing to consider is the mobility capabilities of the e-commerce solution you are planning to use for your e-commerce website. In order to step ahead of your competitors, you must be able to sell through mobile devices.
ABI Research predicts that by 2015, shoppers worldwide will spend $119 billion via mobile phone sales. In addition, customers are increasingly adopting mobile lifestyle and they prefer mobile devices to research about a product and make purchases.
Therefore, the e-commerce solution you are choosing should be mobile ready. Having a mobile version or mobile optimized version of your e-commerce site will help you expand your market reach and bring more traffic to your website.
In addition, make sure that the e-commerce solution has mobile marketing features such as:
- Page layouts preview on mobile screens
- Workflow notifications to approve and publish site updates on the go from your smartphone
- Trigger SMS and MMS messages when visitors sign up for special offers or take other action on your site
8. Online marketing features
Your e-commerce solution is incomplete without online marketing capabilities. Things such as search engine optimization, social media integration, paid search optimization, and affiliate marketing are the techniques that will drive visitors to your website.
Therefore, make sure that the e-commerce solution you are building has effective online marketing capabilities such as:
In order to keep track of the visitors’ behavior, you need to have a strong web analytics integration on your eCommerce website. Without web analytics, you’ll have no idea what’s happening on your website, how the customers are using your site, and what changes you can make to improve their user experience.
You can start with the free tools like Google Analytics.
Search engine optimization (SEO) & PPC
SEO capabilities will help you increase the online presence of your e-commerce website. Make sure your eCommerce solution integrates seamlessly with SEO activities to drive organic traffic to your website and help you keep ahead of your competitors in search engine rankings.
Similarly, you need to have strong PPC campaigns in place to market and promote your products online.
The important thing here is to understand the difference between SEO and PPC. SEO is done to enhance your organic/natural search rankings, and PPC are the paid campaigns that you run online to attract visitors. You need to keep a right balance between SEO and PPC marketing techniques to drive relevant traffic to your website.
Social media integration
Social media is the strongest medium to promote your business online. The e-commerce solution you plan to implement must have social media capabilities so that your products or services get relevant mentions across various social media channels, like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.
Remember, customers use social media to a great extent to talk about products and brands online. They write product reviews on various social channels, recommend products to their contacts, and make purchases based on recommendations made by their social contacts.
Therefore, social media tools on your website will make it easier for your customers to talk about your products and services on social channels.
9. E-commerce development partner
Whether you choose a hosted e-commerce solution or an open source eCommerce solution, you’ll need a development partner to implement the solution for you.
Choosing a right solution partner can be a highly tasking job. Therefore, you need to consider the following factors to make the right choice:
- How many implementations the solution provider has done on the e-commerce solution you have chosen?
- Has the solution provider implemented the solution in your industry?
- What type of clients they have worked for?
- Do they follow industry best processes and methodologies?
- Have they won any awards for the solutions they have developed?
- Do they have technically qualified resources?
- What certifications and accreditations they have relevant to the solution you have chosen?
In addition, you can talk directly to a solution provider’s previous customers to know whether they were satisfied with their services or not.
10. Feedback and continuous improvement
Once all the implementations are done and your eCommerce website is live, you’ll actually know how your customers respond to your website.
Now is the time to actively monitor what’s happening on your website. You need to drill down deep into the web analytics stats of your website and identify the areas of improvement based on those insights.
You also need to have a strong feedback mechanism so that users can submit suggestions and feedbacks easily. All the data that you collect through analytics tools and customer feedbacks will form the basis of improvements that you need to make.
Continuous improvement is the key to keep up with changing customer requirements. It’s an ongoing process and you need to keep monitoring the data that you get from analytics, SEO, social media, and PPC campaigns to make continuous improvements.
Adopting a new e-commerce platform or building the entire e-commerce solution from scratch is not a piece of cake.
Most organizations have this misconception that it’s all about finding the best solution available in the market, and the rest will all fall in place. On the contrary, no matter how big the solution is, the success depends on how you strategize its implementation.
Just like driving Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari won’t make you win the F1 championship, choosing the best solution won’t guarantee your e-commerce success. It’s all about how you plan your eCommerce strategy and how the solution is implemented.