There are many reasons why someone might buy something on your ecommerce site, aside from the promise of free cake and endless Gifs of kittens yawning.

Here are the three most glaringly obvious:

  1. Because you are selling exactly what I’m looking for.
  2. Because you’re selling it for less than everyone else.
  3. Because you are Amazon and it’s just easier if I just do all my shopping with you.

The first two are so glaringly obvious, that they’re hardly worth talking about. But I will anyway, because I like the sound of my own voice...

1.Because you’re selling exactly what I’m looking for.

If I have an intention to buy a specific product, then obviously I’m only going to visit your site if you have the item listed and it’s in stock. However, your site has to be easily discoverable first. Let’s assume the majority of your traffic comes from search, then your number one marketing priority is a decent grasp of SEO. Amazon has paid search and organic search totally in the bag, so you can assume you won’t beat it here.

2. Because you’re selling if for less than everyone else.

We are no longer the creatures of habit we used to be. Your nearby retail store may offer convenience in terms of distance and opening hours, but when it comes to ecommerce, it’s so much easier to find a cheaper deal elsewhere, and if all customer service related differentiators are equal, it will be the best price that wins out. You can probably assume that Amazon will beat you here too.

3. Because you are Amazon and it’s just easier if I just do all my shopping with you.

Amazon is banking on the Prime membership you forgot to cancel to keep you using its site. If you’ve paid £79 then it just doesn’t make financial sense to shop elsewhere and pay shipping costs. It’s also very easy to become accustomed to unfettered next day or nominated day delivery. You can assume that you won’t win over any existing Amazon Prime members, as they’re locked into a year of convenience and self-loathing.

So if you can’t beat Amazon on search and price or win over its increasingly spoilt 50m worldwide Prime members, what the heck can you do?

Don’t be a giant evil corporation

Easier for startups obviously, but If you have an ethical code by which your business operates (and isn’t lying about) then you can certainly attract the sort of right-on customer that Amazon typically repels.

Make a big thing of your ethically sourced goods made by non-exploited workers, the above-average wages you pay, the carbon footprint you rebalance, the charity work you do, the kittens you found and rescued from the canal… whatever sets you apart from the retail behemoth that wouldn’t spit on you if you were on fire.

Go big with images

Amazon uses only what promotional materials are thrown its way from the manufacturer of the product. These images are placed on the product pages in often eye-straining form.

Although thankfully there is a hover-zoom option allowing for a closer inspection, there is a certain immediate visual appeal that is lost.

You can certainly differentiate by making your product look as big, bold and brassy as possible.

Clean up your clutter

Amazon is a cluttered, messy place full of detailed text, navigation options, links, marketing messages and menus.

Why not brush away the junk with a more streamlined and less ‘shouty market stall owner’ feel.

Be great at social customer service

Social media is a great way to prove publically that you have excellent customer service. As long as you reply in a personal, fast and most of all friendly manner.

@AmazonHelp isn’t good at this.

Replies are often robotic and take the customer to a different channel from the one they began communicating on.

Replies often push the one-hour patience-wearing limit.

And whoever wrote these tweets hasn’t been taught that if you don’t put a space between the handle and your text, the recipient won’t see it.

Being better at Twitter than Amazon is an easy win.

Have a better algorithm

This is going to be tricky, as obviously Amazon’s strength is in its ability to personalise the experience for every signed-in customer.

Amazon is regularly held up as the go-to example of personalisation working at its best. I don’t personally think there’s anything particularly complicated or fancy in the way it presents its regular visitors with tailored products, Amazon merely succeeds by simply using a customer’s wishlist and browsing history.

Although this is prone to errors. Just because I once bought a Disney Princess toy for my niece, it doesn’t mean I want to be presented with this every time I visit...

So to labour a point we often make on the blog, you need to personalise, it’s a sure-fire way of making you stand out in an increasingly level playing field.

However if you really want to excel, than you’re going to have to figure out how you can use data in an even more tailored way than Amazon.

You can do it, I believe in you.

*backs slowly away, whistles*

Use your customers' wishlists as sales opportunities

Amazon has a wishlist function and it’s a good one. I particularly like the way it tells me clearly if a price has dropped. 

However I do have to keep checking back for this information. You could improve on this by alerting your customers to this drop in price with an email.

You could even offer specific discounts on the customer’s wishlist items if they’ve been in the list for a long period of time.

Be better at email marketing

Amazon’s approach to email is ‘hit and hope’. This is my current folder of marketing bumf...

There’s very little personal or relevant to me here. Even the one that says my name then follows through with…

By varying your messaging, mixing up interesting content with personalised relevant offers (see the wishlist suggestion above) and perhaps not blitzing an inbox three times a day, you will definitely be doing better than Amazon.

#PrimeDayFail: don’t be a trending hashtag

Perhaps when running your next sales event, don’t build it up in quite such a hubristic manner as Amazon’s Prime Day, and maybe follow through with some genuinely appealing bargains.

And if you can do all of this without charging £79 for the privilege of experiencing it, then all the better.

Be innovative

If you’ve got the nuts and bolts of your ecommerce site nicely tightened and working with the customer experience fully as its focus, why not do a little bit of experimentation to keep things interesting.

There’s Ted Baker’s fully immersive 360 degree online store, various interactive fitting guides provided by ASOS, Running Warehouse and Sojeans, customisable product tools as used by Nike and Adidas, Augmented Reality technology from Ikea, Virtual reality technology from Marriot, Patron and Lexus…

Occasionally these are PR wins, but often they can lead to the development of genuinely helpful and useful experiences for the customer.

Go niche, become a lifestyle choice

Amazon sells everything. You probably don’t. Use that to your strength. Really get into the granular details of your products, look at every aspect of what you do and… I hate to say I but… build a story around your products, services and your brand and make it so shopping from you is a genuine adoption of a lifestyle.

Shopping on Amazon for a pair of Vans isn’t particularly cool, but visiting the House of Vans makes you feel like you’re part of something much bigger than a pair of sneakers.

Utilise the tiny yet awesome power of micro UX

Micro UX design is all about delighting the user by using simple innovative interactions that not only makes a task easier but also creates an engaging, human experience that’s a pleasure to repeat or watch. 

Ah, it’s the simple things in life.

Be there to help, instantly with live chat

Live chat is excellent. It’s a fast, easy to use tool that genuinely gets results and means you don’t have to hang on the end of a telephone for an interminable length of time.

Amazon doesn’t have live chat, so if your brand has the budget then implementing live chat is an excellent way of providing a personalised experience that could make you stand out.

Have a keen eye on quality copy

Amazon merely copies and pastes the press release that accompanies the product. Fair enough as it can’t be expected to write bespoke blurbs for 200m products.

You however don’t have 200m products, so you can certainly afford to take more time and effort with some entertaining copy.

The gains from creating quality copy for your ecommerce site are huge and widely varied: it can make your brand more trustworthy and foster a deeper sense of loyalty. Inventive, engaging or witty copy will entertain your customers and encourage them to stick around. The creation of original copy can also create a deeper job satisfaction because your writers will have more creative freedom.

Write your own reviews

One of the best features of Amazon is its community of customer reviewers. Opening the floor to people that have bought products (which can be proved with a ‘verified’ message) creates trust and a deeper sense of community.

You should definitely do the same, but also how about having your staff reviewing your own products too.

Longstanding friends of the blog Norman Records casts an often hilarious, expert and best of all trustworthy ear over the latest releases.

Run a blog

As some very astute writer pointed out in their retailer blogs that are genuinely worth reading article last week, a regularly updated blog gives your audience a reason to come back, as wells as improving your SEO and building your brand and tone of voice.

Amazon doesn’t have a blog, and frankly why would anyone read it? You just shop at Amazon for convenience not entertainment. 

Take some inspiration from Australian women’s fashion retailer Black Milk. Too Many Tights! is a brilliant, entertaining and honest read full of wit and personality.

Have a sense of humour

Moosejaw totally nails this, and because of this pure snarky gold I wouldn’t go anywhere else for my outdoor wear.

Have a personality

Basically what all 16 of the previous points could be summed up as. Hey, just be human. It's not difficult, you are one after all. Nobody likes dealing with a robot.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 22 July, 2015 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (5)

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Sian Barlow, Business development director at Beef Digital

Totally agree that presenting your brand personality is SO important. Taking the time to find a way of getting that across, CONTINUOUSLY,, makes such a difference. When people find a retailer/brand they really like or believe in they become loyal and go back and back! (I know I do)

over 2 years ago

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Oskar Kleine-Kalmer, Digital Marketing Technologist at Mondelez International

Great article which really gets to the point. I learned a lot and think it was time well spent. Again it turns out that it is important to distinguish from the market leader and create your very own, true thing - in order to be successful. It seems to be so simple, as this actually applies for all other area's in life as well, but then it's not. It is a long, tough journey with many small things to do to push your business to the next level. Those 17 tips can certainly help, as they offer very concrete insights on actions to take!

over 2 years ago

Kurt Dressel

Kurt Dressel, Director at KD Consult Ltd

Thanks for the great tips. I think the point about Amazon's pages being cluttered and a bit confusing is spot on. There are many graphically appealing ways to combine content and commerce to help your website stand out.

over 2 years ago

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ian richardson, Enterprise Sales at Acquia

Brand dilution is a massive problem, by linking content with commerce rather than having a two site syndrome, you can create amazing digital experiances that customers can add items to the cart from. It's all about reestablishing the connection with the consumer.

over 2 years ago

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Paul Morris, Director at Superb Digital

Great article, super relevant to a client I'm working with so thank you. One approach I've also used to compete with the likes of Amazon and Ebay etc is using 'barnacle SEO' . This has certainly helped on a local level but still difficult to compete nationally.

over 2 years ago

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