Use The Brand Building Strategies Of Bloggers And Social Media Startups To Grow E-Commerce

Read a great post recently at Twist Image on selling 2.0 – letting the customer do the communicating.  Mitch writes on the great strategy used by e-commerce sites for empowering consumers to be vocal about products and what they like and don’t directly on the same page as the product.

Amazon comes to mind as a site that does this extremely well.  When making a purchase (which is pretty frequently as I’m addicted to reading) I always read the consumer reviews there, especially when it comes to new authors.  The consumer reviews always tell the real story about the product.  And everyone knows it, I am willing to bet a heat-map of an Amazon product page shows consumers spending more time reading reviews than the publisher copy someone painstakingly drafted.

Why is this?  Simple – we know the publisher copy is going to gush praise.  While it is worthwhile in getting someone’s attention and providing them an intro, what provides real value in a consumer site that is unfamiliar territory with a potential new visitor is other consumer’s opinions and thoughts.  It is social proofing.

Use the tools available to work for you…connect and empower your customers on your site

Consumers are smart, and can tell authenticity from a mile away — when looking at ad copy online they are skeptical.  And who can blame them, they are interacting with something nebulous.  In a physical store a product is tangible.  On the web, user reviews and social proofing for your product or brand are what create a digital sense of tangibility.

Injecting authenticity into the mix through giving your customers a voice is both disarming and empowering.  It’s also a way to provide tangible value and build trust with your biggest fans while helping new ones get into your brand.

Amazon goes a step further than most and shows you not only the most helpful positive review but also the most helpful negative review.  Have a look at this example from Richard Dawkins book:  “The God Delusion” (I chose this because it is a highly controversial book – I knew there would be strong opinions for and against it):

This shows just how much Amazon cares about informing the customer, in fact the fact that there were a slew of negative and glowing reviews says to me the book is probably worth reading, if nothing else to see what everyone is talking about.

Showing the negative review next to the positive review makes it more authentic.

This is all well and good for Amazon, they are the 800 pound gorilla. How do you get thousands of reviews on your site?  How do you even bring people to your site in the first place?  The answer is not advertising, at least not if you want sustainable, organic growth.

Getting into the conversation off site…

This is where you’ll have to get creative and where the time commitment comes in — the real opportunity for an emerging e-commerce site is to take the conversation out of the store and into the social web.  That’s how popular blogs are built, that is how popular online services are built and that’s how sales are ultimately made.  You may have a remarkable product, but what good is it if no one is talking about it.

The web is not a broadcast medium, it is a communications medium.  When you merely broadcast messages, you’re never viewed in as authentic a light as competitors who are actually communicating.  Your brand will have less personality than competitors who are a part of the conversation if you choose to ignore it.

Lessons from popular social media sites and bloggers

For bloggers, there is incredible power of building word of mouth buzz, links and posts for your blog external of the blog itself.  This is obvious and is how blogs grow and get popular.  What are you giving to a blog?  Time, the absolute most precious resource.

The only way you actually gain a subscriber on a blog is by being visible, by being talked about, by being shared, and then ultimately providing something of value the visitor can’t get anywhere else.

Your online store needs to do all of these things too to ultimately be successful.  Conversation and community really help here.  They are what make Digg, a social media site no one had even heard of a few short years ago, consistently more popular than USA Today (and more hip, relevant and influential):

Digg’s influence extends far greater than this graph tells too.  The traffic numbers are just one piece of the puzzle — the fact that Digg has created a product tens of thousands of content providers salivate at the prospect of being a part of is another piece.  So is the amazing, tight knit community that thrives on spreading Digg as a brand and culture on and off the web.

The fact that USA Today now even has Digg buttons on their stories shows you how much they want to be a part of a product which in a few short years has built greater community than their brand ever could.  Reddit may be flirting with the future of social news, but today is Digg’s day in the light.  A monolithic, national influencer of American society has been eclipsed by a few passionate tech wizards in their garage.

Your e-commerce site has the same opportunity…

The innovators dominates the old players in a fresh landscape

I would argue Digg is even more influential than any other singular media outlet on the web, if only because they have injected a part of themselves next to millions of stories and conversations.  In many cases, they are the conversation itself.  Digg is ubiquitous, and when the early adopter crowd thinks social bookmarking, Digg is probably the first thing that comes to mind.

The best social media and social networks cultivate culture and personality with incredible precision.  Your online store needs to as well.  When people think social bookmarking, Digg comes to mind.  When people think buy shoes online, Zappos comes to mind.  When people think online books, Amazon comes to mind.

You have to take the opportunity to fill this:  when people think -insert product here- your e-commerce store comes to mind.  If it’s books, you’re facing an uphill battle.  If it is mystery books, you have a real opportunity.  Niches win.

When you think visual communications blog, what is the first thing that comes to mind?  To me, it is Smashing Magazine, and I bet to a lot of you it was too (read about their tipping points here).

What Digg and Smashing Magazine, Zappos and Amazon have successful done:

  • Carved out a niche
  • Reached critical mass in the conversation, which built their popularity in a self-reciprocating format
  • Gave a compelling story to tell, have a sharp personality and a strong brand
  • Never gave up, persevered no matter what
  • Have remarkable, unique and functional site designs
  • Engage their fans through community building and gave them all a voice, leaving them empowered

Why I am comparing e-commerce, blogs and social media:

Hopefully you’ve read this far and I can tie this together.  Studying blogs and successful social media sites is vital for people running online stores because gaining an RSS subscriber to a blog is actually more difficult than getting someone to make a purchase at an e-commerce site.  Getting a new active, loyal user to a social media site like Digg (at least, in the beginning) is also more difficult than getting someone to make a purchase at an e-commerce site.  Oh, and neither of those two charge anything to that visitor.

Yes, you read that right, it is harder to give something intangible away free than it is sell something tangible.  The only way it gets easier for the intangibles is if they persevere and don’t give up.  The same is true about tangible products too.

Don’t think so?  Go ask a new blogger or the people at a new social media startup what their conversation ratios (or bounce rates) are.

Time is a deeper commitment than money…

Selling someone that your blog content or is worthwhile interacting with for hours, potentially days in aggregate is a deep decision, deeper than purchasing a product.  Yes, it is free, but the opportunity cost of that time is high.

The ratios of visitors to subscribers to even the best blogs looks to be well below that of e-commerce sites.  Darren Rowse has had nearly 10 million visitors to his blog, ProBlogger — probably far more, as I do not think he started the site-meter monitoring from the beginning.  Yet he only has around 50,000 RSS subscribers.

That is a mere .5% conversion ratio by a blog with some of the best, most useful content on the web, read by people who are well aware of what RSS is.

Is this due to poor content?  Not enough subscription options?  No, it is the time commitment someone knows they have to make when they subscribe to a blog.

The industry average for e-commerce conversions is around 2%.  In other words, 4 times greater than the ratio for Darren’s blog.  But he’s highly successful, despite that paltry half a percent of visitors who actually subscribe and he has built a tight knit, loyal community around his site that will do his marketing for him and keep loyal fans coming back for more.

**Side note:  readers who have blogs, I would love for you to comment on the ratio of RSS subscribers to unique visitor numbers on your site to see how some other numbers stack up.  

Conclusion

Great bloggers build a relationship with those few who subscribe over time.  This leads to increased traffic due to building value and mutual reciprocity with those people and in turn more subscribers, even if the ratio is small (some people have figured out clever ways to inch this up, I am sure).

The same strategy can work for e-commerce with even higher returns as the conversion ratio is clearly higher.  Just like blogging, however, you have to stick with it, be in it for the long haul, and have the patience, passion and drive to outlast your competition.

Have you read Kevin Kelly’s essay on True Fans?  You should, there are key lessons in it for bloggers and online stores too, not just artists.  RSS subscribers are the true fans of bloggers.  Loyal customers are the true fans of your e-commerce site.  They are your vital visitors.

People who are serious about e-commerce could learn much by studying the blogosphere and consumer tech startups and how they build audiences and conversations.  With US eCommerce and Online Retail sales projected to reach $204 billion, an increase of 17 percent over 2007, there is good reason to learn what the web’s power users and influencers are doing right.

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