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How to present and sell products online - 9 tips for Web catalog creative


For as many advantages as the Internet has provided print catalogers--a new sales channel, a customer acquisition vehicle, a method of delivering information--e-commerce also brings a number of new challenges. This is particularly true when it comes to creative, because designing Web catalogs is vastly different from designing print books.

Websites developed by many paper catalogers are often cumbersome to wade through and require a lot of click-throughs to navigate. Why? For the most part, print mailers tend to think of shopping as a linear function in which customers shop by turning pages. But an electronic medium is much more flexible, offering options such as scroll technology and search capabilities. These options allow viewers to shop according to their own preferences. So it's important to work with designers who understand the flexible shopping experience characteristic of the Internet.

Also, many catalogers reuse existing photography for their Websites. While it is certainly cheaper to build a Website with print catalog photography, it's not always the best way. Since catalogers often photograph products on location or in a studio environment, with backgrounds and props, some complicated shots can appear too cluttered on a Website. In fact, many catalogers that have put up sites using existing catalog photography have discovered that reshooting the same merchandise for the Web using, for instance, a product silhouette against a solid background is more effective in selling online.

Why are simpler shots more effective on the Web? Paper catalog pages, given their finite visual space, are actually more manageable to design. Space constraints have forced catalogers to be efficient and persuasive in their visual presentations. The consumer opens a catalog and sees a spread, typically designed so its content can be digested at a glance. Meanwhile, the limited--and valuable--real estate on the printed page forces catalogers to keep copy and graphics brief.

Web pages' lack of boundaries, on the other hand, can leave them complicated and unruly. Because of the limitless space, Websites often feature liberal doses of copy. Plus, Web pages are full of prompts to help users navigate the site, adding to the visual clutter. The navigation bar alone, for instance, can add several graphic elements to each page. On top of this, many Web pages require scrolling up and down or across the page to view the presentation in its entirety, which makes it more difficult for the consumer to understand the products at a glance.

Uncharted waters

Before we discuss tips for designing Web catalogs, we should point out that we reallly don't know yet how customers shop on a Web catalog. In the print catalog world, for instance, research has determined that the reader's eye is drawn to the upper right corner of a catalog spread. So catalog designers know to place important merchandise here, to attract the reader's eye and then sweep the eye across to the middle left of the page and back down to the right. Or some designers might place the anchor item on the upper left corner of a spread, then direct eyeflow down and to the right.

But we're only starting to learn what works creatively on a Web page in terms of sales performance. In the meantime, the most important thing is to organize Web catalog pages so that customers can find what they want easily, and to flow information so that users can scroll down or click on an image to learn more.

You also have to remember that Web and print catalogs have different agendas. Yes, the goal for both is to generate sales. But a print catalog going to a prospect is intrusive and must use creative to get the recipient to open the book, and then keep the reader interested by romancing the merchandise presentation. On the other hand, Web shoppers who have decided to visit your site have already opened your catalog, so to speak, so you don't need as much romance to convince them to come in. But you need to make it quick and easy for them to find what they're looking for, since research has shown that many online shoppers are typically ready to make a purchase from a Website.

That said, the following nine creative tips will help you design your Web catalog to land the sale.

1. Keep it simple, stupid. While the KISS rule applies in print cataloging as well, it's especially important on the Web. At a glance, it should be easy to understand a Web page and the offer. Test the page. Make sure that someone who is unfamiliar with a complicated page or product understands it. For example, with our client The Lighthouse catalog, which sells items for the visually impaired, we have to constantly revise the presentation of the CCTV, a tool that allows visually impaired people to enlarge pages onto a TV screen or computer glasses. Each time we sit down with the catalog team, we ask the "newcomer" for his or her understanding of this product. And every time, we get a piece of feedback that allows us to further clarify the presentation.

2. Be consistent. Don't make the customer work to figure out what to do from page to page. Display the tools consumers need consistently, in the same prominent location. Just as the navigation bar is in one place all the time, your customer should see consistency in the design elements, whether they're keys, graphics, or fonts, on each screen.

3. Organize and manage information. You need to provide a smooth shopping experience. Don't confuse creating a dynamic presentation with creating chaos. An overly complicated presentation can cause consumers to get frustrated and leave the site. So don't overuse graphic elements, don't opt for hard-to-read typefaces, and don't bury icons. The Web customer should be able to know exactly what to do or click on next.

And while this may be more of a technology issue, speed things up. Design your Web pages so that download time is minimal. Go easy on the bulky and sluggish applications, streamline the shopping process, and minimize click-throughs.

4. "Borrow" ideas from others. You don't want to reinvent the wheel. Instead, capitalize on what others have done before you. What technologies or strategies are the most-popular commerce Websites using? What features are the consumer already familiar with?

5. Use relevant print catalog strategies. Just because the Web is a new and different shopping medium doesn't mean you have to abandon all print catalog strategies. For example, you want to place certain elements, such as the 800-number, where readers expect to find them. In a print catalog, the phone number is usually at the bottom of the page, near the page number, so on your Web catalog place it near the bottom of each screen page. Our quest for differentiation should be with strategies and executions that truly support brand identity and positioning, not strategies that are just for the sake of being creative.

6. Create pacing. In paper catalogs, pacing is the momentum that results from the dynamic, strategic, and esthetic blending of elements. On a Website, the same principle is true. Ask yourself: Is each page easy to understand and interesting? Is there a hierarchy of information? Does the eye know where to start? Does the site encourage you to "turn the page" or scroll down to look for more information?

7. Use color and type strategically. Color is one of the best ways to develop and support a brand, and you can use it to reinforce your brand in different channels. For instance, think of hardware and home products marketer Restoration Hardware's signature silver sage green. And instead of one color, lingerie marketer Victoria's Secret uses shades of burgundy, crimson and pink to create a theme that is recognizable in any medium--store, Web, or catalog--even without its accompanying logo. Type is also key to building and maintaining a brand. Kitchen products marketer Williams-Sonoma's elegant logo in a gold upper-case typeface appears in all its channels.

8. Use caution with posting existing catalog photos online. Picking up print catalog art for the Web is easy and inexpensive, thanks to digital production. But it's a good idea to reshoot some items for the online medium. For instance, complicated backgrounds may not work well on the Web. You may even want to modify the presentation of the models you use online, as far as styling, makeup, and attitude, depending on your Web goals and audience.

9. Don't confuse content with commerce. The Web has provided a cost-effective way for catalogers to supply readers with editorial information to help build brand, educate, add value, establish authority, and generate customer loyalty. But depending on how it's presented, information can either take shoppers away from shopping or draw people into the shopping experience. Your strategy should be to use information in a focused way to achieve a sale. Offer value-added information--relevant articles, hints, tips--on the editorial portions of your site, but make sure your copy, creative, and Web technology lead customers to buy your products.

Glenda Shasho Jones is president/CEO of Shasho Jones Direct, a full-service catalog agency based in New York.


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