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Nov 20, 2009 | 5 minute read

Holiday Season: Are You In the Game or on The Bench?

written by Linda Bustos

This week I had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with Shawna Fennell of One Choice for Your Store for an interview on her Webmaster Radio show, Ecom Experts titled Holiday Preparations for Online Retailers (on-demand link).

One of the questions Shawna asked was What should retailers be doing during the holiday season now that it’s too late to be working on the site or strategy? This post is a recap of what I believe retailers should be doing now to really be "in the game" rather than a benchwarmer this season.

Monitor and Optimize Performance

Even the largest, most famous online stores have gone down on Black Friday and other peak traffic days, or at least slowed down significantly. We know that page load speed affects whether a person is going to stick around on your site. It is the “first impressions” that count, because if your first page loads slow, the customer expects the rest of the experience to be painful. This affects your bounce and abandonment rates and ultimately your conversion rates.

If you’ve seen Forrester Research and Akamai’s latest report, almost half of broadband shoppers expect your pages to load in 2 seconds or less, and top retailers are setting the bar at sub-second loads.

While your site may not crash, other performance problems like slower page loads often fly under the radar because you’re still making more sales than the rest of the year. But when these performance problems happen, you have no way to quantify the sales you could have made if your site was tip-top.

You need to be aware that performance typically suffers most in the checkout. Your payment gateway may be very slow, or your tax and shipping tables live on other servers or on another website. So it’s really important that you know what to monitor. And don’t give yourself a false sense of security by testing only your home page.

Sometimes your performance takes a hit because IT and marketing haven’t been communicating. So marketing deploys a major midnight madness sale by email – and the site isn’t prepared. Did you know our next webinar is on IT-marketing relations in January? (/End shameless plug for upcoming webinar).

There are lots of services that can help you with performance monitoring like Akamai, Gomez and Keynote. Our site performance webinar recap is full of tips you can do to reduce your load.

Use Your Web Analytics

How ridiculous would it be for a football team to only bring in a coach at the end of the season, and all the coach does is drop off a video tape of all the playoff games and says: “Here you go.” That would be insane but it’s how a lot of online retailers are doing web analytics. They wait until the season is over to see what happened, rather than using that data to make better decisions while the games are on. (This is especially sad when the web analyst does nothing but send reports without any analysis or actionable insights).

Perhaps it's because web analytics tools spit out so much data - ecommerce managers are not sure what to care about. I have 3 suggestions to get you thinking:

1. Use your site overlay reports. These can show you where people are clicking, right now, this season, every day. Which offers and calls to action are working? Which navigation categories are clicked most? Gifts? Sale? Top rated? New arrivals? Brands? These are all clues to what your customers are interested in, and this can give you ideas of what to promote more heavily on your home page.

2. Look for high bounce rate pages. Bounce rate refers to the percentage of visitors that abandon your site in under 5 or 10 seconds (depending on your analytics tool). Are the top bounce pages different than the rest of the year? Is there a problem you were unaware of? For example, you may discover that a paid search ad for Tickle Me Elmo uses the wrong destination URL and is sending traffic to Tickle Me Cookie Monster and it's bleeding money ten times faster than it did during the rest of the year.

3. Segment your traffic sources. Your site conversion rate may be 4%, but look under the hood you may discover your pay-per-click campaign converts at 0.5%, your email at 20% and your affiliates at 10%. You may take that money from your PPC campaign and turn off underperforming ad groups, and instead reach out to your top performing affiliates and offer higher commissions to promote you more heavily.

4. Boost your intelligence. Google Analytics has a new feature called Intelligence (rolling out in Beta and not available to all markets yet). Intelligence has a feature that sends you an alert when there’s a sudden statistically significant increase or dropoff in traffic, conversion or any metric you’re tracking. Avinash Kaushik has a nice explanation of Google Analytics' new intelligent features.

Keep Testing

You may be in a code freeze, but this winter's no time for a testing freeze. Shopping behavior is different during the holidays. The shopper's purchase role is geared to others, and there’s more at stake. Customers may be more interested in customer reviews when buying for someone of the opposite gender or a different age group. Or, they might be on tight budgets and are more persuaded by your sales promotions than at other times. You really can’t rely on headline and offer tests you did in May.

You can also take advantage of the high traffic volume which means shorter test durations.

We discussed a lot more in the 35 minute interview, please check it out if you haven't had the chance. There are a few other ecommerce episodes you can listen to, and watch out for more ecommerce tips from Shawna and her ecommerce expert guests.