If you needed more evidence that the hard sell on the Web is the wrong approach, check out this article in the Harvard Business Review. (Sorry but you need to buy the article. I found an excerpt in the Dallas Morning News of April 6th.) The article, by Andreas Eisingerich and Tobias Kretschmer, suggests Web retailers are thinking too narrowly – hewing closely to the traditional approach focusing on price and product – and seeing disappointing sales as a result. The suggested prescription to increase sales: try for more engagement rather than more hard selling.

According to the authors, many retailers are unhappy with their online sales and see online customers as disloyal and unwilling to spend. But the article argues these disgruntled web retailers are paying the price for having sites that focus – almost exclusively – on information about products and services for sale. Many marketing managers apparently believe that anything that diverts the consumer from an easy purchase is negative, and should be avoided. This article, along with other studies, suggests just the opposite.

From what I’ve observed – and based on my personal experience – consumers often take a circuitous path to purchase and are sometimes interested in information and services related to the core product that can help them select solutions based on their needs. That’s where contextual information and user rankings and recommendations come in. Though studies repeatedly show that consumers put peer rankings or references at the top of their decision-making criteria, many retailers are still fearful of allowing this user scorecard on their sites. (This may be a naive stance since the reviews exist on other sites anyway.) What consumers are looking for, according to these authors, is information, advice and ideas that help them think of how products can bring add value to their lives. This soft-sell approach in turn wins their loyalty and entices them to buy…sooner or later. All of this describes the concept of consumer engagement: listen to consumers, provide them with valuable information and resources, provide a forum for dialogue and sell them the products and services they want…when they want to buy.  

The research quoted in the article found that only 17 percent of e-commerce managers planned to change their sites to improve sales despite the fact almost 60 percent were disappointed with online sales. Most believed that price was the only (and best) way to attract online customers. That’s a disappointing reflection of the obstinate, insular stance of some marketing leaders. The customers that were polled, meanwhile, said they cared most about the following (in order of importance): personalized shopping; clear categorization; order tracking; in-depth products or service-related information; and, customer engagement through information on related products and services. The authors site Ralph Lauren’s website as an example of a smart, engaging online presence. Not surprisingly, sales for the RL site are strong.

Plenty of good food for thought. Let’s hope marketing executives start paying attention to all these studies and trends.