Don't Hide the Goods

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - Content may be king, but for retail sites, it doesn't pay the bills. Online retail startup Inc. learned to surround its products with relevant content, rather than the other way around. Another thing the company learned as it redesigned its site: Build an architecture that makes it easy to change, because you'll always be reinventing yourself.

Lesson 1: If You're Gonna Sell, Sell

Arlington, Virginia-based launched its community site for "the fun and finer things in life" last July. The business proposition was simple: The site licenses content from high-end magazines such as GQ, Vanity Fair and Elle, then packages the content to do what the publications usually won't: use the stories to blatantly sell products.

But consumers weren't buying the "content begets sales" shtick. They would click on section titles and read the stories but not click on the accompanying product links. Testing revealed that "people perceived our product links as ads," rather than as a place to buy products, says Philip Hawken,'s director of commerce and one of the site's founders. The very content licensed was preventing it from making sales.

To drive users to the products, Hawken inverted the overall approach. Instead of placing links to products in a separate shopping area next to articles, he gave the products more prominent placement and surrounded them with links to relevant articles. The separate shopping area that so confused users was eliminated and shopping was integrated into the whole site. Links to the customer's shopping cart and account information were added to the home page to reinforce the impression that, yes, this was a commerce site. User testing also indicated that the 40 to 50 products normally seen on a page were visually overwhelming and slowed download times to unacceptable levels. So Hawken allowed only six products on any one page.

Users responded. Product sales have risen from 15 percent to 20 percent of overall revenue to 25 percent to 30 percent, which is closer to the 50 percent the business plan calls for. So far, so good - product sales have already increased about 50 percent since the redesign.

Another important change involved axing, renaming or consolidating 10 lifestyle sections into four sections with more action-oriented titles such as Decorate and Entertain. In addition, "We killed about 150 products, and are going through and replacing them with items that relate to the new sections better," says Hawken.

Lesson 2: Plan to Rebuild

Serving up the right mix of content and products and figuring out how to package it all is a never-ending experiment. So launched with a site architecture that could be changed constantly. The company opted for Microsoft Site Server, with all pages fed from a SQL Server database running on Windows NT. Templates pull content from the database and mix it with such things as background color, graphics and relevant articles. "Using templates made the redesign a lot easier. This is a major redesign of the site, and we did a furious reshuffling of how the pages are designed," says Hawken.

Because the Microsoft Active Server Pages are dynamically served, changing the look of the site doesn't affect the back-end systems. Also, every product is tied to a specific department identification number. Using the netAnalysis tool from Cambridge, Mass.-based netGenesis Corp., tracks every query made on a product, so it can see not only how many times a product was viewed, but also how many units were sold. Because products have codes attached to them, site redesigns don't make it harder to see historical sales information.

Templates also make it easy to add new content. When a page is dynamically served, the database is referenced for the most relevant articles for the products mentioned on that page. So new articles have to only be added to the database, not designed into a new page. A range of custom Web administration tools makes managers responsible for maintaining their own sections. The higher the level of automation, says Hawken, the less redesign must be dealt with daily. "If history tells me anything, in four months we'll do it again," says Hawken. "Until then, there are other things to focus on."

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