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Do You GROK Dot Com?
A Martian Perspective On E-Commerce

Grok is a Martian word taken from the classic novel Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, and connotes intimate, exhaustive knowledge.

The Grok, our insightful and sometimes wry Martian mascot, wants to introduce you to a very un-revolutionary idea: as fast as the world is changing around us, people fundamentally aren't changing at all.


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New technologies may be dazzling, but your success in e-commerce depends on understanding that the medium is not the message. (Yes, The Grok is not a big fan of Marshall McLuhan, but then he's probably not at the top of Marshall's party list either.) The medium may change, but the core message must remain the same or you'll never move your customers.

Like the people at Future Now, The Grok is plain-spoken, saying what people need to hear even if "the price of clarity is the risk of insult". And what he has to say about e-commerce websites is simple: until e-commerce companies get the basic fact that sales is about selling, not technology or design or marketing, conversion rates will continue to be a tiny fraction of what they could be and profits will remain not just elusive, but impossible.

Roy Williams , the Wizard of Ads, says, "We're still the same, predictable creatures we've always been. That's why we are so frightened by the things we have created." Futurists in the 70's, influenced especially by Alvin Toffler and his landmark book, Future Shock, tried to forecast the impact of fast-changing technology. But when making their predictions, they didn't take into account that people will still be people. Regardless of the degree to which technologies both overwhelm our lives on the one hand and simplify them on the other, we still fill the vacancies in our lives with more life, underscored by the burning - and legitimate - concern about what's in it for us.

Williams shares with us his "unchanging secret of advertising" that, "The goal will remain what it has always been, a focused attempt to speak to a felt need." At Future Now we understand that this "unchanging secret" is also the unchanging secret for successful e-commerce. People may justify their purchases based on facts, but we all ultimately make our purchasing decisions based on feelings. If you want your business to succeed on the Internet, you must "always speak to the need your customer feels."

Consumer psychology is a complex field, but people have been buying and selling forever. Years of research have produced vast amounts of literature, and the actual practice of doing business itself has yielded a cornucopia of time-tested and proven techniques. The result: we understand the technological possibilities, we understand consumer psychology, and, at Future Now, we understand the expert selling process. What we need on the Internet is to merge the three in a way that results in increased sales rather than the customer bailouts, red ink, and accompanying doomsday predictions that haunt so many dotcoms these days.

The Grok doesn't mince words: "Hey, an e-business is a store." Roy Williams agrees, "Most business owners see the internet as a new way to advertise. It's not; it's just a new kind of store. Look past the hype and you'll see that cyberspace is exactly that; space; an electronic realm of unlimited, digital square footage in which you might build a digital store. Beyond this simple distinction, all the "old" rules of "brick and mortar" businesses still apply."

Because it is a store, an e-business is an arena for the interaction of people. Developing a relationship is critical to influencing the feelings of your customer and, as a result, promoting sales. Does your website act like an expert salesperson (does it even know how), or is it in reality just a catalog, however fancy, with maybe a shopping cart tacked on? "A human salesperson instinctively adapts their sales presentation to fit the preferences of the customer. Reading the customer's facial expressions and body language and listening beyond the customer's questions to interpret their tone of voice, the sales person "sells" each customer in whatever way that customer prefers to be sold. The foundational problem of the Internet is that all of its digital stores lack a digital sales staff. You don't think that a sales staff makes that big a difference? Fine. Dismiss your sales staff and let me know how it works out." (From that last comment, we secretly suspect Roy and The Grok are cousins.)

People. Ordinary people. No matter what you devise, they are still the bottom line. The goal of your business is to woo customers, not frighten them away, right? Then people must be your first and last consideration. Not so revolutionary a concept at all, is it? And that's why Future Now has developed Digital Salespeople™ (patent pending).

In future issues of GrokDotCom, look for The Grok's commentary on the e-commerce world as it is and as it could be. Just think about that fairy-tale child who revealed the folly of the leader by pointing out the obvious (cast in terms of our own perspective on e-commerce): The Emperor Has No…Close!


1 Roy H. Williams is a principal of Roy H. Williams Marketing, Inc., a marketing and advertising agency near Austin, Texas. He is the author of The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads, both best sellers on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Business book lists. Mr Williams is in no way affiliated with Future Now, Inc. However, we find his philosophies delightful, and highly recommend reading his books and subscribing to his newsletter, Monday Morning Memo, at www.wizardofads.com.

2 Roy H. Williams, "Is America Scared Silly?" Monday Morning Memo (1997).

3 Roy H. Williams, "To 'e' or Not To 'e'." Monday Morning Memo (March 27, 2000).

4 Ibid.

click here for a printable version of this whole article

Want Help With Your Site?  Ask Your Mom!
Are you designing your website to lose sales? Could you be ignoring the fastest growing segment of the population without knowing it? The last thing you'd want to do is alienate one of your biggest buying audiences, right? So here's a simple question for you: could your Mom buy from your site?

Boomers and their parents arethe largest growing segment of the buying population. Money and numbers; a match made in heaven. But most e-businesses out there aren't paying attention to the fact that these folks didn't cut their teeth on computers. Many would even admit to having computer-phobia, afraid the wrong click will bring about the end of the world as they know it. Faced with uncertainty or the risk doing something wrong, they'll just leave your site. And when they leave, they'll spend their money elsewhere. You do want to help them buy on your site, don't you?

Here's what you do. Grab your Mom or a friendly person about her age (your Dad in a pinch, although women account for a greater share of online purchasing decisions) and spend five minutes with her on your site. See if she can navigate her way through, find what she wants, and complete a purchase. Completely.

Yesterday I was watching my friend Lisa's Mom go shopping on the JCPenney site, (http://www.jcpenney.com), so she could save a trip to the mall. The first page took forever to appear. She tapped her pencil distractedly and then muttered something I don’t think moms are supposed to say. When the page finally loaded, she was overwhelmed by all of the small type. At her age she can’t see as well as when she was 25. She scootched closer to the screen but that didn't help much. Then, it took a long time for her to make sense of the "strategy" of the site. She did have a moment of triumph when she discovered how rollover menus work. But then they kept disappearing under her cursor just as she was about to click!

Eventually she got to a page that had teeny pictures on it. The web designer guy calls them thumbnails. After squinting and staring for a few minutes, she was still puzzled and paralyzed. Quickly, she decided a trip to the mall was going to be much easier. She logged off. The result: not just a lost sale but also bad feelings. When she got to the mall, JCPenney was not where she shopped.

How could JCPenney have avoided this? Larger type, bigger pictures, simple and consistent navigation, information that stands out, lots of clear instructions and online help, an intuitive process that reflects how people buy … all of these things would have made a big difference. Lisa's Mom could have had a much more enjoyable shopping experience and JCPenney could have had a happy shopper. Happy shoppers tend to buy. When they buy, they tend to buy more, and they tend to buy again, and they tell others about their wonderful shopping experience.

Bells, whistles and gimmicks don't impress these folks or help them feel like buying. Nor can they make up for fundamentally bad designs and confusing processes. These people want text they can read, pictures they can see, help in every form available at every moment, and simple, obvious links. Oh, and if you give them a search engine, it better return relevant and comprehensible results. Next, present them with every viable payment option at check out: via an online secure and a non-secure shopping cart, an e-mail order form, a fax order form, a phone number. Finally, reinforce them after the sale. Don’t leave them in omigod-what’s-gonna-happen-next land. If they can find what they are looking for quickly and can purchase it easily, you have a new - and happy - customer.

People come to your site because they want to buy. Don't make it hard for them. So spend five minutes with your Mom or another Mom-like human and see if your site passes the Mom Test!

click here for a printable version of this whole article


GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledge and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

  ©  2000 Future Now, LLC 

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