Few marketing experts would argue with the notion that all businesses, regardless of size, should have a presence on the Internet. However, an issue that does cause debate among Internet experts is exactly how to turn a Web site into a profit center. On May 29, at BookExpo America in Los Angeles, BookSense.com Director Len Vlahos tackled this key question with the help of panelist Luanne Kreutzer of St. Helens Bookshop in St. Helens, Oregon.
"Just because you created a Web site does not mean anyone is going to use it," Vlahos stressed to booksellers. "Even though it should be considered a sales tool, more so, it's first and foremost a marketing tool. So, how do you get people to go to your Web site?"
With Kreutzer, Vlahos outlined his Top Ten Marketing Ideas to Make Your Web Site a Profit Center:
1. Train and Involve Your Staff.
Bookstore owners and managers should make sure that staff members are well versed on the store's Web site. Vlahos advised having a staff meeting to demonstrate the site. Furthermore, ask each employee to try placing an order through the store's Web site.
"We had an initial meeting about BookSense.com," noted Kreutzer. "One of our best [training] tools was to go home and place your own order."
Said Vlahos, "Employees are great evangelists and are great at turning customers into evangelists. Get your staff believing in your Web site, and you will see the results."
2. Put Your URL on Everything.
The bookstore's Web URL, or address, should be printed anywhere the store name and address appears, from bags, bookmarks, newsletters, to window signage, and more. It's a simple concept, but crucial nonetheless. "We stamp the URL on all our fliers and have a sign up in our store," Kreutzer said.
3. Create an Affiliate Program.
Through an affiliate program, other Web sites will direct traffic to a bookstore's Web site for a small amount of compensation, typically a percentage of sales. Vlahos recommended targeting Web sites of local authors, schools, and libraries, many of which currently link to the store's competitors. For example, a bookstore can ask authors to link to signed editions of their books on the store's Web site.
"An affiliate tool is the most powerful marketing tool a Web retailer has," Vlahos said. "When a customer sees a book on another Web site and makes the decision to purchase it, someone will receive that sale.... It should be your bookstore. It's a cost-effective way of driving traffic to your Web site."
Kreutzer reported that St. Helens has had great success through an affiliation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's Web site. The site, www.chuckpalahniuk.net, offers signed copies of Palahniuk's books. When a user clicks "Autographed Books," they are directed to St. Helens' Web site, where they can buy the book. The success of the affiliation "told me how powerful it is," said Kreutzer.
Vlahos concurred. "It is an incredible tool. I know you all know authors. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of affiliates. And, by the way, links work both ways. Our affiliation with Levenger is an example."
4. Create an E-Mail Newsletter.
"[An e-mail newsletter] is such a quick and efficient way to communicate with your customers," Vlahos said, and added that, more importantly, it allows the bookstore to communicate with customers when they are already online. For that reason, it's imperative that the e-mail newsletter promote and link back to the store's Web site. "Promote your Web site via e-mail, and your traffic will increase," he said.
Kreutzer explained that St. Helens' newsletter is simple and is sent out as a straight attachment. "There are no high-resolution graphics, and we have links to our Web site and the same with our events," she said. "We sell a lot of books [through the newsletter]."
5. Collect E-Mail Addresses.
The collection of e-mail addresses should be an integral part of a bookstore's Web marketing strategy -- waiting for customers to come to the Web site to sign up for the store's e-mail newsletter is not enough. You need to let customers know the newsletter exists.
Two simple ways to collect e-mail addresses is by putting sign-up sheets at the cash wrap or by renting an e-mail address list. Said Kreutzer," We often bring sign-up sheets to our off-site sales events. And people will often forward [the store's e-mail newsletter] to their friends."
There are countless products on the market to help the novice "list manager" with managing a burgeoning e-mail database, such as Topica or Microsoft's bCentral. On top of managing the list, "you want to be careful that your e-mails are not treated as Spam," Vlahos said. "Even when someone has opted in they may not receive your e-mail."
6. Create Special Offers.
The bookstore's Web site is like a separate branch of the bookstore. Customers patronizing the store's e-commerce branch need to know that they are special. "As Luanne did on her store's Web site, you can offer signed copies of titles" or other premiums available to Web site customers only, Vlahos said.
Additionally, the store should review its online pricing and shipping policies from the customer's point of view. Is the store providing good value for the shopping experience? "There does seem to be a different value system on the Internet," Vlahos reported.
"We discount online," Kreutzer said. "But it has increased sales."
7. Keep Your Content Fresh.
If consumers see that a store's Web site is not updated regularly, they will often lose interest, and traffic to your site will suffer as a result. It's important that a store keep the content fresh. Vlahos noted there are several, easy ways to do this: change titles on the homepage frequently, change Book Sense 76 titles with each new list, and keep the events listing up-to-date. Additionally, "BookSense.com national content can supplement the store's local content and save you time," he noted. Furthermore, be sure to check for typos and grammatical errors.
A bookstore's bricks-and-mortar location can be a huge advantage over virtual retailers. Booksellers should use that advantage to its fullest, Vlahos said. For example, booksellers can print reviews from the store's Web site and put them with books in the store, use the Web site to promote offline events, and create an "As Seen on Our Web Site" display in the store. "It helps to marry your store with your Web site," Vlahos said.
9. Provide Great Customer Service.
Don't leave the online customer hanging. Bookstore staff should check for orders at least once a day, if not more. "Never take more than 24 hours to respond to an e-mail or other electronic inquiry," Vlahos said. "As important as customer service is offline, it is even more important online. Your closest competitor is only a click away, and a bad experience will send potential customers clicking."
10. Claim Co-Op for Online Placement.
Claiming newsletter co-op for online title placement just makes sense, Vlahos said. "Publishers want you to sell their books and are willing to compensate your extraordinary efforts to do so," he explained.
Vlahos discussed the new BookSense.com Co-op Reimbursement Program, which acts as a bridge between booksellers and publishers, helping booksellers claim unused newsletter co-op and helping publishers promote their books. (For a previous article on the co-op program, click here.)
For a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation used at this educational session, click here. For more information on BookSense.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (800) 637-0037, ext 1234. --David Grogan