Updating an Ecommerce Website: SmartBarn Case Study

by Diana Ecker on September 23, 2014

alpacasIt’s the little things that can really drive you nuts.

The chapped hands that just won’t heal. The handle breaking off of yet another bucket.

The expensive medication that gets all over the place because your alpacas just can’t stand the taste.

But farmers and animal owners can rejoice! Thanks to inventor Mary Parker of SmartBarn, these problems can be a distant memory.

Based in Burton, Ohio, Mary developed GreenSalve, TubTugs, and SmartGel —“innovative solutions to barnyard dilemmas.”

As a relatively new company, SmartBarn has focused on product development and building a presence organically on Facebook, with over 900 likes. Since launching, they’ve shipped products to customers in nearly every state — and they’re now ready to step back and start to look at their ecommerce website.

When Mary agreed to take part in this website review, I immediately started thinking: What changes are most strategic for a new and growing company to make to its website?

Here they are, from suggestions that can be implemented today at no cost to bigger-picture investments that are well worth considering.

1. Emphasize benefits on the home page

SmartBarn products actually solve real problems. That’s not something to take for granted! Here are three potential ways to play this up on the home page:

  • A headline that emphasizes benefits
  • Testimonials that lend lots of credibility
  • Simplifying other elements that distract from a powerful headline and testimonials

For each product, and for the company overall, there is a story to tell that is authentic and likely to resonate with the target audience. And all of those stories can start on the home page.

Lead with a Benefits-Oriented Headline

Right now, the headline is “Welcome to SmartBarn! Innovative Solutions for Barnyard Dilemmas.”

If the goal is to emphasize SmartBarn as a company, a version of the tagline could work well as a headline (examples: Finally — Innovative Solutions for Barnyard Dilemmas! Or Easily Solve Your Barnyard Dilemmas with SmartBarn’s Innovative Solutions).

smartbarn-homepageIf the goal is to promote one specific product, the headline could be about that product: Now Your Horse Will Actually Enjoy Taking Medicine.

Enhance the Testimonials

The opportunity to use testimonials here is very exciting. As a young company, SmartBarn does not yet have the brand recognition of a larger organization.

So testimonials contribute to a visitor feeling that they have indeed discovered a diamond in the rough.

It’s great that there’s already a testimonial right on the home page. What we can do now is make it even stronger.

Here’s what the original testimonial looks like:
“After having tried everything to disguise medication,
SmartGel was the easy, quick solution with no mess!”

— Kimberley B., Solon, Ohio
That is a fine testimonial. But it can get even stronger!

SmartBarn can contact Kimberley B. and ask for her photo. And why stop there? Ask her for some background information (does she know about animals?) and for details on the problem she was trying to solve (how bad was it, and what happened?).

Here’s what the result could look like:
The Easy, Quick Solution With No Mess
“We have six horses and two of them need regular medication. They really hated taking it, and the medicine would get everywhere. After having tried everything to disguise medication, SmartGel was the easy, quick solution with no mess!” — Kimberley B., Solon, Ohio

Now on multiple levels, the testimonial can be more impactful — convincing more visitors on the home page that SmartGel will solve their problem too.

Reduce Distractions

Once the major emphasis for the home page has been identified, a benefits-oriented headline is in place, and testimonials have been enhanced, the key is to cut down on anything that distracts a visitor away from these powerful elements.

smartbarn-imagesFor instance, instead of several images plus a logo near the headline, SmartBarn can select just one powerful image. For a headline with a company focus, a great choice of image here might be a picture of Mary herself on the farm. For a headline highlighting the benefits of a specific product, one solution-oriented image may do the trick nicely.

Interestingly, it may not even be necessary to include product images on the home page just yet. First SmartBarn needs to convince visitors that (a) it has solutions to their problems and (b) it is a credible, reliable company. The products themselves come after that.

Another way to reduce distractions is to simplify elements that attract extra attention. This could be done by replacing current display fonts that have multiple colors with versions that have only one color. Removing the current logo from the top-left of the page would also help bring the focus to the new headline.

It’s excellent to have a how-to video available for visitors. However, this particular video is extremely specific, as it includes a detailed demonstration of how to use a product. It may be better suited for another page for a visitor to view farther along in the process.

Add Key Elements for Credibility and Direction

Now that distractions are reduced, before we leave the home page there are two important elements that can be added to it. The first is contact information. Yes, there is a Contact Us section.

But adding the phone number at the top right of the page (or even a 1-800 number) with a friendly phrase (Questions? Call us at…) will contribute to a visitor’s sense that the business is credible — even if they don’t call it, it feels reassuring to know they could.

Similarly, adding the mailing address to the bottom of the page will have a similar grounding effect.

look-rightThe other key element that belongs on the home page is a call to action. What is the number-one action that visitors should take? Right now they don’t know.

A button following the headline that clearly states what visitors should do next will help direct them to the right place.

For a company headline, that button might say something like Browse our products, which could link to a new page with all three products, or even Read our story, which could lead to a new page that tells the story of how Mary came to invent each product, along with links to each one.

For a product-specific headline, the button would play off the headline — See how it works or Find out more — and could lead to that product page.

The most important thing about a call to action is that it takes the visitor on a specific journey — it’s the difference between arriving at a dinner party and just walking in through the front door, versus arriving and being greeted by someone who says, “Let me take your coat — now head into the living room and help yourself to a drink.”

2. On the blog, pretend you’re selling swimming pools

“What?” you might say. “Swimming pools? What does that have to do with farm products?”

swimming-poolWell, nothing, really. Except that one of the leading experts on content marketing, Marcus Sheridan, famously got his start in content marketing by writing blog post after blog post for his swimming pool company.

And his approach was outrageously successful.

The key was using customer questions as blog post topics. Any question that a customer might conceivably search for, he’d have an informative post ready and waiting. This taps into the tremendous opportunities presented by long-tail search — when someone searches for “How to get alpaca to take medicine,” SmartBarn is ready with a blog post.

The strategy is simple, but it actually requires a phenomenal amount of discipline: it means writing over and over about things that feel like small details. Many of us have a habit of trying to consolidate ideas together to be efficient. This strategy requires you to unpack each small idea one by one.

Content marketing takes time to be effective, so this is a long-term strategy. The key is to start thinking in these terms as soon as possible. Marcus Sheridan has an article — “How to Come Up With 100 Articles for Your Business in 10 Minutes or Less” — that is a great place to start.

There are also tools that can help with figuring out what to write about. One example is HitTail, which will capture keywords that people are searching to get to a website and recommend blog post topics.

(The SmartBarn website is on the Weebly platform, so the first step to trying out HitTail is to get set up with Google Webmaster Tools: Weebly provides directions for that here.)

Also keep in mind that Weebly currently does not offer a way to write a separate meta-description for a blog post — meaning that when someone finds a blog post in Google or posts a link to it on Facebook, the description will come from the beginning of the post.

For that reason, as long as SmartBarn is using the Weebly platform (more on that later), it’s especially important to make the first sentence or two extremely relevant, clear, and connected to the headline.

3. Consider investing in visuals

It’s essential that a young company be strategic about its resources. Rushing out to spend thousands on marketing without a well-thought-out plan has been the undoing of many.

But if SmartBarn is seeing traction, it may actually be strategic to invest in visuals. Here, we’ll look at three: Product photography, logo and packaging, and site photography.

Product Photography

Product photography is terrifically important. Ultimately, people are going to be buying a solution, not just a product. But professional-looking product photography conveys trustworthiness and credibility to a visitor.

toy-truckA big part of it is lighting — professional lighting of a product can dramatically increase its appeal visually.

Right now, the product photography on the website has the potential to harness the added appeal that comes from professional photos — OR photos that just look like they were taken by a professional.

If a friend with an excellent camera and photo-editing software is on hand, a lightbox can be made at home or purchased from Amazon starting at around $30.

It may, however, be simpler — and less stress in the long run — to ship the products off to a professional photography studio that specializes in shooting products for ecommerce websites. Examples include ProductPhotography.com and ProductImage.com. On both sites, a handful of individual product photos will run about $40 to $45 each.

But wait — before committing time or money to product photography, it may also be worth considering questions of logo and packaging.

Logo and Packaging

Again, it simply may not make sense to go all-out on investing in marketing at an early stage for a company. This is a perfect time to figure out where style and functionality meet affordability.

KudzuMonsterWhile a full-on logo redesign product can easily run thousands of dollars, often well worth it, there are a range of solutions available across the spectrum. 99designs has a “logo store,” where pre-designed logos may be purchased for $99. Similarly, there are logos available for purchase on Etsy as well.

Package design may also be something to consider at this stage. Again, while custom package design can run quite high, there are options across the spectrum here as well — some quite delightful, like this example by designer/illustrator Tiffany Everett (you can see her Etsy listing for it here.).

Site Photography

The final significant visual element to consider revisiting at this stage is non-product photography. Again, a crisp and professionally edited portrait or a beautiful image of a farm can be worth a lot.

One common objection here is that customers of a certain product don’t care about details like this — and true, some don’t. But the main reason to invest (strategically and thoughtfully) in elements like product photography, logo and packaging, and site photography is that it inspires credibility and opens doors to new opportunities.

Beautiful product photography may help get a product featured in a product round-up on another blog. A delightful portrait can be featured next to a guest post. Many people underestimate the value of visual elements. But like so many aspects of a website, they may carry unexpected power.

4. Look into switching ecommerce platforms

Astute readers may notice that we haven’t jumped in to site architecture, product pages, or the checkout process here. That’s because it may actually be the best idea to switch ecommerce platforms altogether.

There are many, many options and it’s incredibly difficult to find objective reviews online. So in this case I turned to a developer who had already done his own research and picked a favorite.

zak-avatar-mediumFor insight on this topic, I went to Zak Hardage of the fabulous design and development team Hardage & Hardage. Zak is an expert in Shopify, a popular ecommerce platform — and he’s also an actual Shopify Expert.

“Most of our clients are either migrating from another ecommerce platform or starting their first shop,” Zak says. “The intuitive back end, good support, and thorough documentation make it relatively easy for our clients to learn the system quickly.”

Speed, Security, and Tools

“Shopify is great for growing businesses,” says Zak. “One thing I love is their content delivery network (CDN). It’s super fast and robust. You’ll never have to worry about traffic spikes or crowded servers. And the security is top of the line, so you don’t have to worry about hacking or maintaining SSL certificates. There’s tons of tools for marketing and reporting, as well as shipping and inventory control. And there’s a large community of shop owners and designers and developers — so you’ve got answers to questions at every stage of your business.”

Blogging Platform: Pros and Cons

“The blogging features in Shopify are solid, but there are limitations. You can’t export your blog content — not yet, anyway — which should be a big concern for a business that relies on their blog.” There are also features, Zak adds, that WordPress offers bloggers that are not available on Shopify.

On the plus side, however, it has the benefit of not being too complicated: “The best feature of the Shopify blog is that it’s straightforward and easy to use — you’ll be up right away with your first post. Your blog is also on that same CDN, which means you don’t have to worry about visitors slowing down your site or warning emails from your hosting provider. Shopify blogs are simple and elegant and fast, if not feature-rich.”

Getting Started

“If you’re new to ecommerce,” says Zak, “you can be selling the same day. They have solid themes and apps. Support is smart and polite and 24/7, including chat. Shopify makes it relatively easy to have a truly professional ecommerce site up quickly. It is a lot easier if you have help, and for that you can hire a setup expert to walk you through every aspect of your store. Their mobile sales (selling from your iPad/iPhone) is also super easy to use and looks great. I know I sound like a commercial for these folks, but I’ve seen a lot of clients use this platform to build very successful businesses.”

The Chicken and the Egg

The question of when to undertake big moves and investments — like shifting to a new platform, revisiting a logo, or getting professional photography — is ultimately a strategic one. On one hand, how much traction should a company like SmartBarn have already before considering big decisions?

And on the other hand, how do these kinds of moves increase the likelihood of gaining traction? For instance, does switching to a platform with built-in inventory tracking free up time and energy to focus more on writing blog posts? How much of a difference would it make in customer spending to have a “free shipping on purchases over $X” feature built in?

The most important thing is to have a map of all of these possibilities, from changes that can be made today — like emailing testimonial authors to ask if they’d send a photo — to ones that require more consideration, like shifting platforms entirely.

And in the meantime, if you’re a farmer or an animal owner, or know someone who is — now you know exactly where to go to make life just a little bit easier.

Alpaca photo by Arbutus Photography; swimming pool photo by Jarrett Campbell; all modified and used under a Creative Commons license. Logo image by Tiffany Everett, used here with permission; original here. Toy truck photo by digital4047, used under a Creative Commons NDW license. Arrow image by Mark Hillary, used under a Creative Commons license.

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