Business Essentials: Southpaws get to grips with the problems of selling online

A retailer serving left-handed people wants to know the best way to market itself on the web, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

It's a southpaw specialist with a small but high-profile shop in Soho, and Anything Left-Handed punches above its weight in retail. But while it welcomes customers who visit the store and use its mail-order service, the main part of the business and its biggest growth potential lie in its website.

It's a southpaw specialist with a small but high-profile shop in Soho, and Anything Left-Handed punches above its weight in retail. But while it welcomes customers who visit the store and use its mail-order service, the main part of the business and its biggest growth potential lie in its website.

"We are constantly wondering how best to use our limited budget and equally limited manpower to attract more customers to our website," explains Keith Milsom. He and his wife, Lauren - both of whom are left-handed - have owned and run the business for the past 17 years.

Anything Left-Handed has a £400,000 turnover and just four staff. Among its dilemmas is whether to pay for advertising on the internet or rely on its own web pages to generate visitors.

"At the moment we are focusing on both, but it's hard to measure the results," says Mr Milsom. "We are busy buying pay-per-click keywords from search engines - such as the word 'left-handed' for about 12p per click - and we are pretty sure we're making a profit from that.

"But obviously, the profits are less than if people come to us direct from a free listing on a search engine. So is it best to bring traffic in by paying for it, or are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Because in most cases we have a top spot for our natural listings, anyway."

Mr Milsom wants to know whether Anything Left-Handed should develop its existing "small affiliate" programme to encourage like-minded websites to send it visitors for a commission payment on completed sales. "Or will that just bid up keyword costs as they compete against us for the same traffic?" he asks.

"There is a risk that if I pay 12p for the pay-per-click keyword 'left-handed', my affiliate will outbid me by paying 13p to get a higher ranking for the same keyword. They do this because the commission they get from me for sales is more than the cost of the keyword. If I try to stop them, they'll only do it with one of my competitors."

Another concern is whether Anything Left-Handed should spread its net widely or focus on visitors who are more likely to buy. For example, it could build pages or buy keywords for connected areas such as "child development" or "gifts"; or it could target specific products such as "left-handed scissors".

"When I put this to people, they often answer by asking me the conversion rate on our website - that is, how many sales I get per thousand visitors," says Mr Milsom.

"What they are implying is that if, by using the word 'gift', I rapidly increase visitors but hardly any of them actually buy something, it's a pointless exercise. But my feeling is that if the traffic is free, I don't mind having a low conversion rate, because each extra sale is additional profit."

Mr Milsom's final question is whether it is worth paying specialists in search-engine optimisation, or whether Anything Left-Handed can do just as well itself? "There are companies out there who, on our behalf, will try to get us better rankings in the search engines," he explains. "They'll also get us listings on other search engines around the world.

"I'm enthusiastic about the idea of hiring a company like this as it's a hugely time-consuming exercise [to do the same thing ourselves]. But I've never really been convinced by the firms I've come across - very few are willing to work on a success-related basis. They want a large upfront fee, regardless of whether they actually make a difference to your business."

www.anythingleft-handed.co.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Matthew Tod, chief executive, Logan Tod & Co (web agency)

"Anything Left-Handed should consider that conversion rates help track the effectiveness of its website. In this way, visitor interest can be turned into sales and Left-Handed can plan improvements to its website to drive sales up further. Online marketing is critical to further growth: more visitors need to be converted into sales.

"The more efficient the Left-Handed site becomes at doing this, the lower will be the marketing cost per sale and the better the return on investment. By becoming more efficient, Left-Handed will at the same time make its marginal keywords profitable, enabling it to increase the scale of its profitable pay-per-click activity.

"Improve the conversion rate by developing specific 'landing pages' for major pay-per-click keywords. For example, all respondents to 'left-handed scissors' should be sent directly to a page that features the product in detail, not the homepage or product page. Helping respondents to understand the offer quickly is proven to increase sales."

Ashley Friedlein, chief executive, E-consultancy

"Stay narrow and focused if you want to maximise profitability. Don't bother with traffic for traffic's sake. You've got plenty to focus on in terms of customer acquisition, conversion and retention without spending time creating indirectly relevant content.

"Anything Left-Handed says: 'We are pretty sure we are making a profit from pay-per-click'. 'Pretty sure' is not good enough. The pay-per-click programs provide full, free tracking for paid searches and you can get inexpensive solutions to cover all other areas. The company should consider using pay-per-click more tactically, eg for seasonal promos, to plug holes where it doesn't rank well, or to develop its business overseas.

"Left-Handed already has the natural side pretty well covered. I'd pay a consultant to advise occasionally on further tweaks and outsource pay-per-click to an agency with remuneration 90 per cent performance-based.

"Left-Handed should also expand its affiliate activity. Many retailers get 20 per cent of their sales from affiliates. Set a policy governing what keywords your affiliates can, or cannot, bid on."

Annabel Pritchard, corporate brand manager, the Chartered Institute of Marketing

"Mr Milsom is right that he should focus on his website as a key revenue source. But other marketing techniques should not be overlooked.

"Anything Left-Handed has a news search service for cuttings including the word 'left-handed'; it can focus on these articles as hooks for its own stories or as a way to get attention in the media.

"The company should target parents with left-handed children, building brand awareness and becoming a trusted source of advice. Mr Milsom could work with child development agencies and offer a service through them.

"The internet should not be overlooked. Mr Milsom should continue to use tightly focused keywords, though - or he will find himself paying for click-throughs that aren't really qualified leads.

"Finally, Anything Left-Handed should harness the power of the members club linked to its website. This will increase trust in the brand and ensure it gets passed on through word of mouth."

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