Considering the newness of the internet and World Wide Web, it’s safe to say that nearly everyone who has purchased online gained their understanding of commerce offline. “Dirt-side” commerce transactions have structural, schematic, and semantic orders that don’t fully map to the different medium of the web, and it’s this gap in mapping that causes the problems users experience trying to shop online, whether the problems stem directly from usability flaws or unmet expectations.
Commerce is a communicative transaction between two parties playing very familiar role: buyer and seller. For commerce to occur, somebody must do the selling, and somebody must do the buying, and these two some bodies must share a basic understanding of how the transaction is generally supposed to flow. Ecommerce web sites can’t simply make products available to be bought (surface it, they will buy…); these sites must hold up their part of role-playing the commerce transaction.
Ecommerce web sites must pay attention to how they communicate to user. Ecommerce sites play their role of seller by trying to broadcast two messages to potential buyers: “buy from us” and “trust us”. The impact of these explicit messages, though, is often corrupted by contradictory or distracting messages implicit in the site’s implementation of navigation flow, page layout, visual continuity, and information space.
Users come to online commerce with some key experiential understandings of the characteristics of traditional commerce.
Identity. Customers can easily authenticate the identity of a merchant simply by walking into a bricks-and-mortar store. Stores can be members of a community and neighborhood; they can be part of customers’ daily experience. There is concreteness about a physical store that no amount of HTML will ever match.
Immediacy. Customers can touch and feel and hold the merchandise. Tactile cues can drive the decision to buy. A transaction that is face-to-face is usually unmediated: your communication with the merchant is not in the hands of a third party or technology (as with ordering by phone).
Value. The item at the center of the commerce transaction — the product, service, or property that is to be sold/bought — has some kind of value. Its price is determined and validated through the performance of the transaction. The seller agrees to a selling price, and the buyer agrees to a buying price. The value of an item, especially the relative value an item has for the buyer, is much easier to appraise if that item is close at hand.
A commerce transaction is a communicative transaction; that is, if two parties engage in a commercial transaction — buying and selling something — then that event is actually based not solely on the exchange of goods but also on linguistic and social role-playing. Commerce is governed by social rules (in any culture, a seller follows certain rules of behavior that are different from the buyer’s rules of behavior), and by linguistic rules (certain words, gestures and tones have meanings specific to a discussion about buying something).
A commerce transaction has two roles: seller and buyer. Each of these roles has its own agenda, but the logical assumption of a commerce transaction is that both parties want to cooperate to find a mutually acceptable solution. Each of these roles has a set of beliefs and expectations about its own purpose and agenda in a transaction, as well as beliefs and expectations about the other role’s, well, role.
For commerce sites to succeed, they must be aware of all the messages they are broadcasting to users and potential customers. Commerce cannot simply declare that they are the best or the most trustworthy if they also surface cues that contradict these messages. Users will pick up on such contradictions, even though they may not understand what they are reacting to.
“Buy From Us”
The basic goal of a commerce site is to sell something, a product or a service; even if the company launching a commerce site has other goals, such as establishing an online presence, a commerce web site is a place for selling. Commerce sites use some powerful tools and techniques — including merchandising, advertising, and reviews — to focus the “buy from us” message, make it stronger, and make it more attractive to the user.
If the basic message of any commerce site is “buy from us”, the higher-level message — the meta message — is “trust us”. Users are unlikely to purchase from a site unless they are satisfied that the site is trustworthy. As with a user’s perception of the simpler message “buy from us”, users process multiple explicit and implicit cues when assessing a site’s trustworthiness, but trust can be a tougher sell.
Kyle Newton is a professional internet marketing specialist and can launch and manage your complete web presence from Web Design to SEO [http://www.seo-web-services.com] with professional results that make your projects, services, or products a success on the web.
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