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Frank Remarks: Dying Is Easy – eCommerce Is Hard

Email goofs, shopping cart kludges-these problems on your site can add up to customer irritation and loss of sales. Frank Fiore explains how you can avoid some of the simple (and not-so-simple) errors that prevent the cash register from ringing.
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Being a parent of a teenager has its responsibilities. One of them is staying up late at night waiting to hear the front door open and close, thus knowing that your offspring has returned to the roost safely. During one of these bouts of guard duty, I was doing my "man thing" with the remote—hunting for channels—when I ran across an infomercial hawking a new weight-loss product that burns fat while you sleep. It went on and on, offering medical research supporting the product's claims. Then came the testimonials from those who swore they lost three dress sizes in three weeks.

You know, the usual hype.

After a while, I got bored watching the attractive lass pitching the product, switched channels, and hit on another infomercial. This one was how to get rich doing business on the Internet.

Now, I'm not up on burning fat—exercise is all well and good if you don't overdo it. Besides, I believe you can't outlive your genes. Case in point: About a dozen or so years ago, Jim Fixx took up jogging after his heart attack to stay healthy and made a lot of money selling a jogging program.

He died of a heart attack.

But back to the Internet infomercial. Fat burning may not be my forté, but e-commerce is. So I diligently listened as the head sales guy stated that lots and lots of people are making money on the Internet—and so could I.

You know, the usual hype.

All you had to do was buy their Internet money-making package. It was mine for the asking. (THEY were asking $79.95—paid out in three equal installments.) Like the weight-loss guy, he went on and on, offering testimonials and telling me how I can make money selling just about anything I could think of on the Net while I slept. I started thinking, were these two companies related?

Take it from me. Making money on the Net is not easy. To paraphrase an old investment quote—"If you want to make a small fortune in e-commerce—start with a large one." Just look at the many dot-bombs that litter the Net today.

So why is it so difficult to make money on the Net? There are a variety of reasons and they come in all sizes—small, medium, and large. There's the cost of building and maintaining a full-blown e-commerce site. Web servers, database servers, email servers, and a host of software applications are only the start of a long laundry list of expense items. Then there's the personnel—programmers, web designers, IT specialists, businesses developers, marketers, customer service and warehouse people. Finally, there's warehousing and shipping the products themselves. The money needed to run a successful e-business flows like a river. Money to create it, maintain it, advertise and promote it. And if you're lucky enough to do better than Mr. Bezos and turn a profit, you have to contend with comparison-shopping agents that threaten to drive profit margins to near zero.

And don't think the brick-and-mortar crowd can do it any better. Being successful in meatspace doesn't guarantee success in cyberspace. Take Toys-R-Us for example. Here's a company that was at first "Amazoned" by eToys. After much ado, they teamed up with a top Silicon Valley venture capital firm to teach the upstart eToys a lesson or two in selling toys. As it turned out, what they had to give up in equity to the venture capitalist made the deal go sour. The costs—in their mind—were prohibitive. They have now partnered with a dotcom called Amazon to help them sell their wares in cyberspace.

Many of the dotcoms that were spun off from brick-and-mortar businesses are being brought back into the nest. Barnes & Noble is a good example. BN.com was once a stand-alone business but now is being brought back into the corporate fold as just another B&N division.

No, e-commerce is not easy. To paraphrase Edmond Gween's deathbed quote, "Dying is easy—e-commerce is hard."

There's a universe of ways for an e-business to fail. But as it turns out, it's the simple things that can be fatal. Simple everyday mistakes with email, shopping carts, and just disrespect for customers can drive shoppers from an e-business like the plague. Now please don't get huffy about the following simple mistakes made by e-commerce companies, saying to your self that no self-respecting business can do such a thing. You'd be surprised how many still do.

Simple Email Mistakes

Want to really anger your customer base? Do these.

If you have an email address and at least a dozen email buddies, you've probably received jokes via email. In a lot of cases, along with the jokes that have been forwarded several times comes a long list of everyone that the joke was sent to in either the To line or the CC line for every recipient to see. This happens because the sender didn't know of or understand the purpose of the BCC address line.

Receiving an email with a long list of other people's email addresses is either funny or annoying. But no real damage is done—unless it's done by a business. Oh, you say company IT departments and employees are much too sophisticated in the ways of the Net to do such a thing? Think again.

Just a few years ago, an employee at a major corporation sent an email to their list of suppliers, who were unaware of each other. Unfortunately, they became aware of each other's presence as soon as the email was sent because the sender entered all the email addresses in the CC line and not the BCC line. Very embarrassing for the company and probably didn't do the employee's career any good.

Another example of a fatal email mistake happened just recently.

Internet consultant firm Razorfish launched its first email newsletter several weeks ago to its clients. Now, being an Internet consulting firm and living the Internet on a daily basis, you'd think that Razorfish would know the ins and outs of sending an email newsletter. But you'd be wrong. Recipients of the newsletter were given the option to unsubscribe—so far, so good. But all unsubscribe requests were inadvertently sent to everyone on the email list, and—to add insult to injury—subsequent complaint letters were also sent to the entire list. Razorfish, a company troubled by poor earnings and a dismal stock price, apologized and terminated its email newsletter.

And here's a tip for unsubscribing people from your list. Let them do it themselves. When a customer or client sends an email requesting to removed from a mailing list, that request goes into a black hole with usually no confirmation that the proper action was taken. But you can avoid this by providing a special web page on your site for unsubscribing those on your mailing list.

Create a special page on your web site where recipients can unsubscribe by just clicking a URL in your email. As soon as they click the link, your server recognizes it as an unsubscribe action and presents them with a web page that says that they have successfully unsubscribed from your list. It also gives you another chance to interact with them once they're on that page, perhaps asking if they want to subscribe to another list or join your new preferred shoppers club, etc.

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