There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for the challenges that await you in the fast-paced cauldron of competition that is the ecommerce industry. It’s vastly too complex, moves much too quickly, and has far too much money on offer for a myopic strategy to get much purchase. That’s why all the top dogs have huge marketing teams — if they could avoid the expense, they surely would.
To the average retailer, this might sound very intimidating. When you already spend so much time dealing with stock levels, complaints, updates, shipping, and all the other everyday challenges of buying and selling online, the last thing you want to do is take an in-depth look at marketing strategy.
But it isn’t as bad as it sounds. While you probably can’t afford to bring in a top-shelf team of expert marketers to cover every angle, you can still establish a solid strategy and set of smart procedures by spreading your efforts across several areas of the digital marketing world (particularly since there’s a lot more overlap than you might think)
In this piece, I’m going to look at SEM, SEO, and CRO. Let’s recap what exactly they involve, and see how you can bring them together to achieve greater success for your etail business.
Recapping the basics
SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing: marketing a product, site, brand, page, or person to increase visibility in search engines. What exactly the marketing involves will depend on the circumstances and the marketers, but it will typically consist of a combination of paid search ads and efforts to make pages rank better.
SEO is Search Engine Optimization, and it’s actually a subset of SEM. SEO is purely about altering and improving web pages and online content in general to help them look, perform, and rank better in search engines (mostly Google). Since organic search traffic comes at no cost — aside from the preceding investment in SEO work, of course — it’s a vital element of long-term ecommerce viability.
CRO means Conversion Rate Optimization. Your conversion rate on any given product is determined by how many people who reach the page ultimately choose to order it, and it’s one of the strongest indicators of how effectively your site is performing. It doesn’t stop with product buys, though — it’s often useful to treat every user action that you believe has real-world value as a meaningful conversion (e.g. downloading a brochure or submitting a contact form).
How they work in combination
Combining SEM and SEO is no issue because the latter is part of the former, so it really just requires you to pursue SEM without focusing exclusively on paid search advertising. That isn’t to say that SEO is always vital — paid ads are fast, scale up powerfully, and are reliably effective if used correctly.
In fact, the current trend towards dropshipping is driven near-exclusively by PPC, and it’s hard to imagine there being so many Oberlo stores up for grabs in the online marketplace without it — but its results don’t compound. When you stop paying for clicks, those clicks evaporate. Without the SEO component of SEM, it’s a short-term strategy at best, and not even a good one unless you have the budget to keep it going indefinitely.
Following SEM work, once you’ve started driving traffic to your website, any alterations you make to your website with the intention of getting more visitors to buy will be CRO work by default — you certainly don’t need to be aware of the term to engage in it.
Leaving money on the table
Imagine that someone has just launched their retail business, selling assorted gadgets (possibly even using dropshipping). Now let’s think about what would happen if they committed to just one of these practices:
- SEM minus SEO (so just PPC) might get them good results, as noted, but the resource drain would be consistent, and without CRO to make the most of the traffic, the ROI would be very mediocre.
- SEO would take a long time to gain any traction (it’s a complex and arduous process), during which there’d be very little traffic and thus no sales — and anyone who did find their way to the site would be unimpressed by the unoptimized content.
- CRO would nicely polish the landing pages and product pages, but with neither PPC nor SEO to bring in traffic, it would essentially be pointless. Even a massive conversion rate is useless if there’s no one visiting the site.
Even using just two of the three would be suboptimal and constitute leaving money on the table. If you can eventually build up enough SEO equity, you can pause PPC advertising and see if you can get by without it — but you may not want to. Most big retailers run PPC ads in perpetuity because they continue to turn a profit.
How to give your work the most impact
When you’re pressed for time and have limited resources, you need to operate with tremendous efficiency. By prioritizing tasks that involve each of these practices, you can get significantly increased value in return for your effort. Here are some examples:
- Build compelling landing pages. One of the best things you can do for a core product is create a strong landing page to serve as the target of your traffic drivers. Mix together excellent content, design and UX to boost the product conversion rate and thus improve the on-page SEO factors to give it strong ranking potential.
- Produce cornerstone content. Through creating high-quality advisory, informative and/or entertaining content for a store blog or guide section, you can achieve several things that will affect everything we’ve looked at, such as:
- Raising your brand authority. The better your content (and the more useful information it provides), the more you will be seen as an authority in your area of the ecommerce world. This will reduce user reluctance while shopping (particularly for high-cost items), earn you better Google rankings, and give your PPC ads some convenient name value.
- Establishing consistency. Users and search engines alike prefer businesses that are consistent in what they say and how they act. Pushing out strong content on a regular schedule with no duds along the way will encourage prospective buyers to listen to you and search engines to trust the quality of your site.
- Winning social shares. People like to share content with their friends and communities. Having some great guides or articles on offer will boost your social shares, which will lend social proof to your core business, get you further attention, and feed back into a positive public perception.
- Target multiple channels. With so many popular digital channels competing to occupy our time, it’s unwise to focus on any one of them in particular. If you’ve spent time and resources on making your website and blog content extremely impressive, you need to get that content in front of as many eyes as possible — and that means cross-platform and cross-channel. What’s more, it isn’t even that difficult to achieve this using tools like Hootsuite (though you need to be careful about the formatting).
- Run extensive A/B testing. A/B testing is simply the practice of alternately running two versions of a page. You might change an image, a piece of text, or even a button — you might even change multiple things, though that would make the results less clear. Applying A/B testing across your entire marketing funnel (going all the way from the formatting of your PPC ads to the central CTA of your landing page) will get you the best results, because even a slight improvement to each step will add up to a meaningful improvement to the overall process.
The marketing process doesn’t often succeed through one particularly-convincing step, because it’s a slow build, and even the most captivating introduction can be undermined by a weak follow-up. A funnel with no weak links will work considerably better than one with a couple of standouts and a solitary clunker. Remember that mostly everyone who ends up buying from you will need to have made their way through the entire process — one weak link can ruin the chain.
Assuming you’re an ecommerce entrepreneur aspiring to achieve further growth, my hope with this piece is that it gives you a better understanding of the level of awareness you must have to make the most of the online opportunities available to you.
No matter how tempted you are to overlook one part of the process (you might hate writing product copy, for instance), it’s vital that you don’t. Whether you do it all yourself, or bring in some assistance to get it all done, make sure that your strategy encompasses SEM, SEO, and CRO — your bottom line will benefit soon enough.
About the Author
Patrick Foster gives his input on the latest and most interesting events and topics affecting online entrepreneurs through his posts for Ecommerce Tips, an advice-based blog created to help aspiring traders achieve their ambitions. Take a look, and follow along on Twitter @myecommercetips.