Branding with web design and the art of online shop-keeping

David Walmsley, head of web selling at John Lewis Direct, discusses how online strategy can deliver a uniquely personalised approach

Online and in-store experiences will always provide different experiences for consumers. Shopping on the web may well be quick and convenient – but it’s a world away from the sights and sounds of the store. However, as brands are built on customer loyalty, it’s vital that the web experience can complement real-life shopping. Successful e-commerce should offer all the choices, personalisation and price promises you’d get in store – while capturing the right look and feel to suit your brand.

Setting up a brand online is much more than creating a homogenous user experience. While online tactics need to be closely aligned with your business strategy, they also need to take into account the individuality of each and every customer. Naturally, customers want to be treated as individuals – whether they’re on your shop floor or browsing your website. So just as you’d treat them in real life, so you should on the web.

So the biggest challenge here is personalising the impersonal. In stores, you can achieve the ultimate personalisation simply through dialogue between our customers and our shop-floor partners. The online experience is by definition more generic, but must appeal to the same sense of customer loyalty. How?

1. Understand. As always, success begins with knowing your audience. At John Lewis, for example, nine out of ten of our online customers also shop in our stores. They choose to shop with us because they trust our brand – so we in turn must understand how our online experience fits in with their behaviour.

2. Create. Your editorial and functional choices make up your online language. Instead of friendly and helpful staff to show your customers around, your choice of words, pictures and design are there to do their work. (In fact, one tiny change to our website’s formatting led to an extra £1 million in revenue over the course of a year – so details really do make the difference!)

3. Challenge. Personalising the online experience as much as possible can only really be achieved by challenging e-business orthodoxy. There should be no set-in-stone strategies. Instead, gradual and small experimental changes can achieve huge results – both in terms of brand value and in terms of revenue.

4. Reach out. One advantage of personalising the impersonal is the enhancement of your marketing techniques. But e-marketing is more than just remembering who bought what and knowing that this customer also bought that. Web 2.0 technologies – such as company blogs and social network outreach – can boost consumers’ engagement with your brand.

5. Drill down. Through analytical measurement and multivariate testing, we can get a really good understanding of individual customer behaviour. For example, technology can tell us exactly where and when a particular customer abandoned their online shopping, and give us a view of the frequency and specific times of visiting, browsing and buying.

Essentially, a successful online strategy is led by central business strategy. In most cases, the technology is secondary to its actual application in practice – and for this to deliver the best possible return on investment, it needs to match with customers’ real-life expectations. Already, we’re making small and gradual changes to maximise online sales. In future, we may even come to understand the discrepancies between a customer’s actions and their actual preferences or personality.

And in this way, online strategists will be able to brand experience – as well as simply branding the web.