Amazon is big. They have more money than you. If you get big enough for them to notice — like if you want to sell millions of diapers and Jeff Bezos decides he does too — they’ll crush you. As George Packer recently put it in the New Yorker, “Amazon is not just the ‘Everything Store,’…it’s more like the Everything. What remains constant is ambition, and the search for new things to be ambitious about.” With a few exceptions, it doesn’t matter much what you sell, Amazon is your competition.
But probably not for the reasons you think.
A New Kind of Competition
Amazon isn’t your competition because they sell your product. They are your competition because they already own your customer.
Amazon is your competition for one reason only: attention. Amazon already has your customer in their store. Your customer is already browsing their aisles. Amazon will beat you, not because they have a better store than you, but because they have a bigger store than you. They sell enough things to already have your customer’s attention. It doesn’t matter if they came in to buy socks, if they’re at all likely to buy your thing, Amazon will have an easier time selling it to them because they are already there. In fact, Amazon is already analyzing your customer so thoroughly that they believe they can anticipate what your customer might buy at some point in the future and ship that thing to a warehouse near her so that they can beat you on shipping when the day comes that she decides to buy it. So what do we do? Give up?
Not just yet.
Let’s think just a bit more carefully about what’s going on here.
Amazon’s strategy has always been about consumer data. They started with books. By devouring that market, they were able to capture the attention of just about every customer demographic. Then, they began to expand inventory. With each addition, they were able to watch what customers looked at and bought. They began to amass an extensive consumer behavior and interest database. Why? So that they can more easy sell things to people without needing people to do the selling. Just a few years in, they replaced almost every human editor — whose job it had been to create content that would attract customers — with an algorithm. Those algorithms now account for almost every single piece of text on the site that is meant to attract your interest: “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought;” “Customers Viewing This Page May Be Interested In;” “Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed.” Each of these familiar sections is generated by an algorithm that has been watching us closely. An Amazon product page contains just as much information about other products as it does the main product itself! The idea is to keep you in the store, which is easier to do than getting you there in the first place. But they’ve already done that part.
Remember, your customers are like everyone else on this planet: they have limited disposable income and won’t be willing to work hard to spend it. If they don’t buy your thing, they’ll probably buy something from Amazon. It doesn’t even have to be like your thing. That is the only reason why the big stores are your competition.
You see, when a store has millions of customers wandering its aisles, it no longer has to care about selling individual products. It only has to sell the store. That’s Amazon’s strategy in a nutshell — a really, really big nutshell. You don’t have that luxury. If you already had the attention of millions of customers, you, too, could ignore design and user experience and marketing. Often, we think that the best way to beat the competition is to do what they do, but better. That would be the absolute worst approach here.
On that note, one last point.
You Can’t Afford It
You can’t afford to even try to run neck and neck with Amazon. Their budget is huge. It’s so huge that it’s better you don’t even know what it is because knowing it will make you want to give up. And anyway, they don’t share that sort of information. So when you find yourself surfing their site and noting all the features you think your store must have in order to compete with them (which is WRONG — see above), assume you can’t afford any of it. Look away.
Your job is to spend the budget you have in the wisest way possible. Starting with an “Amazon does this so we need to do it, too” list is not that.
Your Only Choice
You are not going to beat Amazon at scale. You are not going to beat them at customer analysis. You’re probably also not going to beat them at price. So you need a different strategy. The only thing you can do better is know your product and do a better job showing it to customers.
What does that mean?
- Write more about your product. Amazon’s product pages typically contain less than 500 words of authoritative, descriptive content related to the product itself. You know your product better than anyone. Tell the story and tell it well. Don’t lose focus on that because, for now, having accurate, authoritative, indexable text on your page is the best way to attract the customers you want.
- Design pages that make it easy to take in all the necessary information about your product. It’s amazing to me how many product pages cram a ton of information into them with almost no thought about the user’s experience. Amazon doesn’t have to worry much about this because we are already conditioned to know how their pages work, regardless of the fact that they are poorly designed. But you only have ten seconds or so to gain a user’s attention. After that, you’ve got to keep it. Apple does a great job at this. They design pages that contain a ton of information — written, in images, and in video — that are equally seductive and informative. Remember, Amazon doesn’t need to seduce. You might think a bit about what aesthetic experience is appropriate to your brand and will capture the wonder and attention of your audience.
- Leverage engagement. This is another way that Amazon is killing the competition. A typical Amazon page has exponentially more indexable content from user reviews than any other source. They make it easy to review a product. They prioritize those reviews and make ratings a top-level piece of information (products not rated or rated lower are going to receive less attention) as well as a major component of their search tools. If you aren’t supporting customer engagement, you are going to lose.
Basically, this is the usual thing: attract, inform, and engage.
I know this probably sounds pretty general so far. So, here’s an example.
Let’s say you’re in the market for a tripod. You’ve done a bit of research and you’re interested in the Vanguard Alta Pro. Now you’re in evaluation mode. Who sells it? How much does it cost? What do you need to know about it in order to be sure you’re making the right purchase? So, you Google it.
The first three organic results are:
Now, let’s compare those three pages.
Vanguard, the manufacturer of the Alta Pro, has the longest page of the three. It contains:
- ~262 words of indexable content
- 20 product images
- 1 360 degree interactive image
- 1 video
- 1 downloadable user manual
- 0 product reviews (they have 3 links to offsite reviews)
Next, B&H Photo, has the shortest page of the three. It contains:
- ~564 words of indexable content
- 5 product images
- over 8,000 words of indexable content from user reviews
Lastly, Amazon’s page. It contains:
- ~898 words of relevant indexable content
- 8 product images
- 1 video
- over 6,000 words of indexable content from user reviews
Now, because I searched for the actual product name, I got three organic results. Had I searched for something more general, I might have gotten some sponsored links first, but I didn’t. These links were ordered by Google because of how it evaluates authority. According to Google, the manufacturer is the most authoritative on the subject of this particular product. That makes sense, even though it offers the least indexable content. Next, B&H. They offer the most indexable content, though they don’t actually make the Alta Pro. But, Google also knows that B&H specializes in photography equipment. So, again, it makes sense they’d rank them highly. Third is Amazon. They offer more indexable content than the manufacturer, but Google knows that they don’t really specialize in anything but selling stuff. And anyway, third isn’t that far down the page. So assuming I’ve opened all of these pages, which one is going to best meet my needs?
Well, none of them are great. The manufacturer’s page offers a pretty good look at the product. If I’m educated, this is going to be a decent experience. I can get pretty close to it, I can read a lot about it (much of the text is embedded in images), and if I’m a real pro, I might download the manual…and be immediately disappointed by how useless it is. Then I’ll realize that I can’t even buy the product here. There’s no specific “where to buy” functionality on the page — I have to click “Where to Buy” in the main navigation and start a general search from there. Now I’m not even sure why this page exists in the first place. It’s useless. Off to B&H.
B&H’s page has a bit less visual detail, but if I trust other buyers, they’re going to win with those 8,000 words of reviews. B&H tell me exactly what’s in the box. It’s a small detail, but one that really matters. Amazon doesn’t even bother. B&H also offer phone assistance and live chat if I have any questions. Not many customers will use this, but for those who do, it’s a really important feature. They even offer free shipping. So for now, they’re beating even Amazon on price. So all in all, not a great design, but enough thought was put into it that I’m probably going to buy here.
But let me just check Amazon out first.
From a design standpoint, Amazon’s page is a mess. Product detail is light. They’ve got reviews, but not as many as B&H, nor are their reviewers as well informed as B&H’s reviewers. Including shipping, Amazon’s price is higher than B&H. The only reason I might buy from Amazon is obvious — if I’m already buying something else there.
If Vanguard had a page that offered as much authoritative information as it already does, but in an indexable and better designed format (B&H does this better, but it’s still not great) that also leveraged as much informed engagement as B&H, I think it would stand a really good chance at beating Amazon.
(Keep in mind that it doesn’t always benefit a company to list their product on Amazon. In many cases, they have no choice even though the economics don’t favor them. They are confronted with the fact that without Amazon, they’ll sell far less product. But they have to pay fees to Amazon to do this, and they also have to capitulate to Amazon’s price demands. If they were confident that they could design a better store that was more informative about their products and offered a better customer experience, they might forgo Amazon entirely and know that what they might lose in sales volume they’d make up in profit.)
So what can we learn here? Can we do a better job than Vanguard is at sellling its product online? Absolutely. Amazon may have scale going for them, but no matter how hopeless the market may look, there is always opportunity. You just have to perceive where it is. In this case, it’s all about designing the right store.