Pop Goes the Weasel

Nah, I’m not about to go licking weasels with sticks, nor am I heading out to pawn my coat (depending on which version of the song you grew up with). Actually, I’m shaking my head. A much-hated but sometimes very effective feature of ebusiness, the pop-up, is going down.

It may not be doomed permanently, but it’s in serious trouble. And if your Web site depends on pop-ups to communicate critical information to your visitors, you might want to spend some of the upcoming holiday time thinking up alternative strategies.

Most of us associate weasely pop-ups (or pop-unders) with annoying third party or self-promotional advertisements – exactly the sort of stuff we want less of on a daily basis. I’d never heard someone say, “@%#$, but it really irks me when online businesses put their shipping rates in a little pop-up window.” That’s simply not the sort of thing you get worked up over. A business offers you an option to review its shipping charges, and it puts that information in a nice, small, separate window so you can still see your checkout page and know where you really are in the process.

Now it turns out, I’m one of the ones grumping, because with all the pop-up filtering going on these days through browsers, spyware, adware and search engines, lots of sites don’t work as their makers intended. I can’t get the shipping information from a business, because they’ve put it in a pop-up.

And that’s a pity. When used non-intrusively, pop-up technology can do a great job of smoothing the path to conversion. In fact, when the application is used non-intrusively, lots of folks blissfully don’t even know they are dealing with a pop-up. They can view enlarged images or alternate views of the products they are looking at, read policies and assurances, get further details or definitions all via pop-ups. Handily. Painlessly.

Lots of folks are doing more than listening; they are offering information, linking to free scrub programs and building blocking mechanisms into their own technologies.

· Earthlink provides pop-up blocking software to their millions of customers

· AOL blocks pop-ups for their members

· Mozilla has a built-in pop-up blocker

· The Google ToolBar, downloaded by millions, blocks pop-ups

· The Service pack for WinXP slated for release next year will block pop-ups

... and Yahoo! is launching a pop-up blocking toolbar.

I set a browser to block all ads and pop-ups, and I was amazed at how much information I could not get. Information I wanted to get! Pop-ups got blocked. Lots of ads on Web pages got blocked. And when a site would try to open up a whole new page in a full-sized window, it couldn’t. Which actually could mean, depending on how your site has been coded, that the browser thinks your entire site, beyond the first page, is a pop-up!

Yeah, yeah … folks can reset preferences and allow pop-ups into our online experience. Some folks can do it with both hands tied behind their backs. I’m not happy banking on the chance that these folks are the only ones interested in doing business with me. I’m interested in Lowest Common Denominator applications. And the Lowest Common Denominator, in this case, is going to make life tough for pop-ups.

At the end of the day, it’s a case of the crummy kid spoiling the sandbox experience for everyone. So grimace and get your new strategies ready. Or start looking around for a good weasel to pop!

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P.S. Who do you think topped a recent secret-shopper program designed to scope out the most customer-focused online stores? Amazon? Another one of your favorite retailers? Find out in Future Now Inc.'s 2003 Online Retail Study for Customer Focused Excellence. Download the PDF from Future Now's Homepage.

Latest News: AOL is The #1 Converting Search Engine?

Our recently published (and special holiday priced) study reflects more than 29 million search engine visits to dozens of e-commerce sites using WebSideStory’s outsourced HitBox services (www.hitbox.com). The e-commerce sites used in the study cover a broad range of products and services, everything from gifts and electronics to shoes and office equipment.

Why does AOL beat out the likes of MSN, Yahoo and Google? Our analysis answer why different search engines have such different conversion rates, the factors that may be impacting those conversion rates and what marketers can do to improve their results. Find our more about our exclusive study What Converts Search Engine Traffic: Understanding Audience, Vehicle, Message and Perspective to Optimize Your ROI with exclusive WebSideStory's StatMarket data.

Have you checked out the other places to meet us on our latest event schedule?


10 Ways to Keep ‘Em in the Cart

After our discussion last time, you’ve decided the only critical leaky holes remaining in your conversion bucket are located in your checkout process. And you want to mine my brain for some ways you can evaluate where the problems are and what to do about them, right?

Good. ‘Cause I’m in a mood to be mined. And tactics I have in abundance. So let’s talk turkey … er, shopping carts.

One thing to keep in mind as you examine your checkout process: motivated buyers will hack their way through most any abysmal checkout procedure to accomplish their goals. When we have looked at elements such as “number of clicks,” we generally find no correlation between fewer clicks equals less abandonment. If they really want what you’ve got, most folks will persist with amazing tenacity.

Does that mean you shouldn’t worry about how many clicks your checkout process requires? Hardly! As a general principle, fewer clicks are better. But slashing your checkout procedure from six steps to one may not represent the best use of your time and money.

So consider some of these tactics instead. Not all will necessarily pertain to your checkout process, but you’re bound to find several that give your metrics a rosier glow.

It's about new customers. Make the checkout process even easier for new visitors than registered customers. Acquiring new customers is much harder than selling to the loyal ones. Registered customers will find a way to sign in (if they don't have a cookie). Don't position registration and log-in as an obstacle between new visitors and checkout. Lots of folks will bail if they have to register before the checkout process, so let them checkout without registering, then allow them the option to register at the end (after they’ve seen how sweet it is to work with your interface and how trustworthy you feel).

Include a progress indicator on each checkout page. No matter how many steps in your checkout process, let customers know where they are in the process. Realistically number the steps and label the task clearly for each step – avoid multiple pages that all fall under the “shipping” step. Give shoppers an opportunity to review what they did in previous steps and a way to return to their current step if they go back.

Make editing the shopping cart easy. It should be simple to change quantities or options, or delete an item from the shopping cart. If a product comes in multiple sizes or colors, make it easy to select or change values in the shopping cart.

Provide shipping costs early in the process. If possible, provide an estimated cost while visitors browse. They want to buy but want the answers to all their questions when they want them. Total cost is one of those critical questions. Also, if the shipping information is the same as the billing information, include a checkbox to automatically fill in the same information.

Offer alternate ways to place the order. People's concerns start to flare up during checkout. Let them know you're a real company by giving full contact info during the checkout process. If visitors have a problem during checkout or feel uncomfortable using a credit card online, offer a phone number. Devote a dedicated toll-free line for tracking purposes. Also offer a printable order form so customers can complete orders by fax, if they prefer.

Reassure customers at the right time and place. How often is critical information buried in tiny type at the bottom of the page or deep within a site? In a brick-and-mortar store, it's fairly easy to find product warranty information. Offer customers this same opportunity online, at the point of action (POA). Link to product warranties, shipping costs, return policies, testimonials, even optional extended service plans. Make the best use of your assurances at the right time and place.

Add third-party reinforcement messages. VeriSign, Better Business Bureau, and credit card logos either greatly boost conversions or at least keep them neutral. In other words, they can't hurt. A HACKER SAFE rating certification helps clients across the board, especially those with larger-than-average order sizes. Its maker, ScanAlert, claims the certification can increase average orders 15.7 percent.

Handle coupon codes with care. Don't decrease your conversion rate 90 percent, as our friend Brad did . Think carefully about where you present the option to enter codes and how you label it.

Track your mistakes. Develop a system to keep you notified of errors during the checkout process. One client noticed a portion of his visitors had cookies turned off. He developed a cookie-free checkout option. His conversion rate and sales jumped.

Make it your fault. If information is missing or filled out incorrectly during checkout, give a meaningful error message that's obvious to see. It should clearly tell visitors what needs to be corrected. Don’t phrase it so the visitor feels blamed for a foolish mistake; instead, say your system was unable to understand what was entered.

And that brings us to ten. Now, for a holiday special, one more suggestion: use an exit survey. If a visitor abandons checkout, offer an incentive to complete an exit survey. She may tell you why she didn't complete that order. And then you’re following the trail of even more leaks that are specific to your process.

Shazaam! And the happiest of holidays to all.

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Grokdotcom December 2003