Ecommerce Cheat Sheet: Choosing and Maximizing Your Ecommerce Platform
The world of ecommerce can be overwhelming. There’s a lot to learn about if you’re just getting on your feet: different platforms, specific vocabulary, technical details, and all kinds of different tips and tactics for squeezing blood from the stone. This is an ecommerce cheat sheet so that you can choose the right ecommerce platform for your needs and get the most out of the platform that you choose.
This article isn’t meant for ecommerce veterans. You probably know most or all of what’s described here. Instead, we’re hoping to lay out a guide here for those who are starting to learn: an ecommerce cheat sheet to help you settle on what questions you should be asking, what vocabulary you need to know, who the major players are, and what you can do to maximize your impact once you have an ecommerce store set up.
One size does not fit all
If you’re new to ecommerce, here’s what you need to remember: one size does not fit all. There is no optimal ecommerce setup for every person. What’s right for you may not be right for someone else. There are best practices, but there are no universal solutions.
Think about what your business needs. What sort of setup would best serve your particular needs? What sorts of features are most important to have? What are your priorities? Going in with these questions in mind will make the process of selecting the right platform much easier.
Here’s a few that may be useful to you:
Questions to ask yourself
You don’t have to know everything about ecommerce in order to set up a successful online store. It may be helpful, however, if you know what questions you should be asking yourself and of the platform.
- How much assembly do I want to do?
- Is this my first ecommerce store?
- Am I taking a brick-and-mortar store online, or am I starting this business from scratch?
- Is it important that I retain control over the digital storefront, or am I OK leasing it from the platform?
- Is my customer base static or dynamic?
Keep these questions in mind as you read through this ecommerce cheat sheet. That way, you can put the information here into a practical framework and use it to draw up an actionable plan.
Ecommerce comes with its own vocabulary. The good news is that it’s not too rarefied. To get your feet under you, however, it’s probably best if we start this ecommerce cheat sheet by reviewing some industry-specific terms and concepts that you might see tossed around:
Ownership: The degree of ownership you have over your digital storefront is one of big factors that distinguishes one platform from another. Some platforms are leased. You use them according to the terms of the platform. There’s a limited degree of customization. If you’d like to take your store to another platform, your ability to pick up and move your store may be limited by the terms of your lease. On the other hand, you have platforms that are owned. These platforms are usually driven by open-source software. They’re more customizable and you retain a higher degree of control.
Headless: Headless software is designed to accommodate shifts in ecommerce strategy. If you want to switch from selling widgets to gadgets, headless software will accommodate that. You don’t have to take a sledgehammer to your store to update your look and marketing or refresh your inventory. Your digital cash register and your accounting are separated from the aesthetic parts of the store; you can change the look, or what the store is doing, without having to tear it to the ground. Headless systems also make it easier to expand: you can deploy an app that reads and writes from the same data as your website, for example, without having to build a separate product database.
Extendable and scalable: Do you have a good idea of how much business you’re doing? Dynamic or quickly-growing businesses will want to make sure that their platforms are extendable and scalable without having to put in too much money and effort. Extendable platforms are designed to be modular so that new features and functionality can be plugged in without having to reinvent the entire store.
Scalable means that you can increase the volume of business that you’re doing by an order of magnitude: if there’s a sudden spike in traffic, it won’t bring you down -- or, at least, the adjustments necessary are doable without having to remake everything. This is sometimes expressed as the three second rule: if you can’t get a page to interactivity in three seconds, customers will get frustrated and take their business somewhere else.
Sometimes, platforms gate these features behind high price tags. Spotify Gold is extendable, but you have to pay $2,400 a month for the privilege. The base product scales out of the box, but you’ll need to pay for an engineer. In thinking about extensibility and scalability, remember to consider the associated cost.
Turnkey vs. some assembly required: How much setup are you willing to do? There are platforms for those who just need a place to sell their stuff. These platforms, which provide stores ready-to-go with relatively little setup, are “turnkey” -- they’re already ready, in other words, and just waiting for the turn of a key. There are also platforms for those who want to put their store together just-so. Initial investment of time, money, and skill is higher for these options. The more space there is in between your vision and the vanilla offering, the more resources you’ll need in order to realize your vision and ensure that everything works as intended.
Full custom: Full custom is “some assembly required” turned up to 11. A full custom website is one that’s been built to spec from the ground up. There’s a high upfront investment that’s required, and a full custom build may not be necessary for projects that are more straightforward or limited in scope.
One way to think of initial investment is in terms of its relationship to later success: the two have a kind of inverse relationship. If you go for an option with a low startup cost, find success, and need to grow to keep pace, your build may be too inflexible or brittle to make the necessary adjustments. If you shell out for an option with a higher startup cost, such as a full custom build, it may pay off in the long run; if you find success and need to grow or change your store, that initial investment could pay dividends in making that step easier.
The major players
Now that you’ve got the basic vocabulary down, let’s turn our attention to the major ecommerce platforms. This is an ecommerce cheat sheet, not an exhaustive list. It is a representative one, however: the providers here run the gamut in terms of cost of entry, customizability, and other factors.
Shopify: Shopify is the market leader for leasing options. Setup is simple and intuitive: all you need is a spreadsheet of products, images, and prices, and you’ll have a functioning store in no time at all. That convenience comes at the cost of customizability and control.
When you set up a store in Shopify, you’re leasing that digital space from the company. What’s yours is theirs. Your store isn’t headless and can’t easily be transferred to another platform. The out-of-the-box functionality is polished and accessible, but what’s there is fairly rigid. If you’re satisfied with what’s natively available in Shopify, that shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re looking for features that aren’t supported by the platform, or if you want to tweak the functionality of what features are available, your options will be somewhat more limited.
BigCommerce: Like Shopify, BigCommerce is a leasing option. You get a space that’s largely set up for you with relatively little upfront setup. As a trade off, you don’t retain as much control over that space as you would with an open-source platform.
Unlike Shopify, however, BigCommerce is designed from the ground up to be headless and extendable. As discussed above, this means that it’s designed with change in mind. Because it’s headless, you can take a store that you built in BigCommerce and migrate it to another platform without having to rebuild everything from the ground up. And, because it’s extendable, it’s built so that you can make major changes to its functionality without having to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
WooCommerce: WooCommerce is an open-source platform that’s backed up by WordPress. It’s a some-assembly-required option. You’ll have to make an upfront investment of time, money, and skill to get the place up and running.
The primary advantage of WooCommerce is that it’s open source. That means you own what you make with it. If you build out a store in WC, it’s yours, and your use of it isn’t limited by licensing agreements or company policy. You’re also free to make changes and modifications to the platform as you please. It’s yours to modify, expand, improve, or break.
There are potential downsides to this kind of setup. Getting the most out of WooCommerce does require some level of technical skill. Doing the legwork to get custom features up and running is not necessarily an easy task.
Are you a …
Newcomer to the ecommerce scene, just looking to set up a no-frills online store? If you’re just breaking in, you’re probably well-suited for a strong out-of-the-box option like Shopify or Magento.
A dynamic business that’s growing fast and looking for a platform that can keep pace: In a situation like this, you’d probably get the most out of a platform like BigCommerce. It brings together relative ease of use and a low initial setup cost with flexibility so that you aren’t constrained if you outgrow your platform and want to take your store somewhere else.
A business with particular needs that many turnkey platforms don’t quite cater to? If you know what you want but you’re having some trouble getting it from leasing platforms, you’re well suited for WooCommerce or another open-source platform.
More concepts to get the most out of whatever platform you choose:
You’ve got the vocabulary. You’ve decided on which platform to use. How will you know how your platform is performing? If you want to figure out how your store is doing, there are a few more important concepts that you’d do well to pick up. We’ve included them in this ecommerce cheat sheet for your convenience:
Conversion rate: Conversions are visitors to your site who do something you want them to. They complete an action: that could be buying something, or it could be adding an item to their cart. The conversion rate is an expression that goes like this: the number of actions that meet your criteria over total visits multiplied by 100.
Conversions are the most basic unit of ecommerce analytics. Moreso than almost any other metric, they tell you how well whatever you’re doing is working. The conversion rate is a great yardstick because it’s flexible. You can use it to track the performance of specific products or to see how you’re doing with specific customers.
If you set goal conversions, you can get information about how your customers are behaving without having to get together a big enough sample to A/B test. You can see, for example, how many customers are completing their purchases of a certain product. Not as illuminating, but still useful: set targets and see whether you reach them after fiddling with certain measures.
Behavior flow: Conversions are important. What they don’t tell you, however, are what people are doing on your site when they aren’t buying things. What paths are they taking? Are there bottlenecks where they’re abandoning their carts or decamping for competitors? Understand this and you can start to make informed decisions about how better to structure your ecommerce store
A/B testing: If enough people are visiting your site, you can roll out a feature for a group, designate another group as a control, and see whether implementing the feature improves target conversions. This works well if you have a large enough audience for samples that are statistically significant. Unfortunately, it’s complex and high-cost to implement. Furthermore, it only gives you information about the performance of the feature that you’re testing. In some cases, it might be better to take the resources that you would dedicate to A/B testing and dedicate them to other, more important needs.
One way to defray the cost of A/B testing is through automatic implementation. Ars Technica, for example, A/B tests all of their headlines to see which is more effective. If you visit their site and see a headline for an article that’s just been published, you’re actually seeing one of two: after a certain amount of time has passed, the system picks out the more popular headline and locks it in.
Maxims for maximizing
Once you’ve picked a platform, you can start thinking about how to get the most out of it. How you go about doing that will depend on the platform that you’ve picked, the sort of ecommerce operation you’re running, and other particulars of your situation. General advice, such as that found in this ecommerce cheat sheet, will only get you so far. Nonetheless, there are a few general principles to keep in mind.
- Play to your strengths: The key for getting the most out of your ecommerce platform is to lean into what it does well. There’s a diversity of platforms out there, so don’t pick one and then try and make it into something that it isn’t. If you’ve picked a simple, straightforward platform, the store you build in it should be as well. If you’ve picked one that’s open and highly customizable, you’d be remiss not to make use of those features as well.
- Cut the fat: Features that are used infrequently or not at all can be a drag on performance, user experience, and SEO. To strip out the bloat, you’ll want to take a Kondo-like eye to your store. Are you using everything that’s there? Are your customers? Does any of it fail to spark joy?
- Separate the signal from the noise: One advantage of ecommerce is the volume of information you can glean about your customers. These data are so numerous that they can be both a blessing and a curse. Make sure that you know what you’re looking for: are you targeting a specific customer segment? Looking to improve performance with a
particular product? Benchmarks like conversion tracking can help you to zero in on what matters amidst everything else.
- Gotta go fast: Google considers page speed when they’re putting together their search rankings. If you’re trying to get good SEO you’ll want to make sure that your site has a good in-site PageSpeed ranking from Google.
Who does analytics?
You can’t tweak your ecommerce setup to get the most out of it unless you first understand what sort of performance you’re getting from business as usual. Lots of products exist to help you see how your operation is performing and how people are using it. Listed below are a few of the most prominent.
These different trackers are and, not either or. Most ecommerce operations don’t restrict themselves to just one, and many complement one another. Just remember: if you add too many, it may adversely affect your loading times -- turning off customers and sinking your search rankings with Google. Speaking of:
Google Analytics: As long as Google is the leader in search, Analytics will be the leader in how you’re doing with that search. Everyone needs it; no one survives without it. It comes with a suite of powerful tools. There are other programs that may do one feature on another better than Analytics (it’s less focused on granular customer behavior information than Hotjar, for example) but it’s. The main selling point here is the dashboard, which provides an excellent UI from which you can parse different kinds of data, and the integration with Google’s other ecommerce related products, like AdSense.
Hotjar: Hot is right there in the name. That’s apt, because Hotjar specializes in collecting ecommerce data about customer behavior on your ecommerce store: you can see what’s hot, literally. It gives you a suite of tools to parse how people are shopping: you can see overall trends with heatmaps, follow the paths of individual visitors with recordings, or prompt people to fill out surveys so that they can self-report what they like and what they’d like to see.
Sisense: Sisense isn’t just ecommerce analytics: it’s business intelligence. That means that it goes beyond what HotJar or Google do by bringing in data about customer satisfaction from across the web.
If your business is larger than your ecommerce store and you’re trying to get better information about overall performance, this may be a good option for you.
Wrapping it up
This ecommerce cheat sheet should be used as a jumping-off point for people who are starting in on ecommerce. Our hope is that, having read through it, you’ve learned a few new terms and have begun to build a good foundational grasp of the issues.
One thing to remember going forward is that the book of ecommerce is not yet written. The industry is expanding and changing at a remarkable clip. Learning about ecommerce is an ongoing process, not a cut-and-dry thing, because the ground is always moving under your feet.