From modest beginnings, online retail has grown over the last 20 years into a demanding and high-maintenance beast that simply must be fed, watered and cared for by any modern business worth its salt. But don’t be frightened, this snarling monster needn’t be your enemy. In fact, if treated right, it could be your outfit’s strongest ally. Making that happen is about much more than just ‘having a website’, though. It’s about creating an extension of your business and your values in the digital world that customers can relate to and identify with. Your web presence should be treated in the same way you treat your physical store – with care, with consideration and with an eye on how best to retain and engage your customers.

A fine example of how to do this can be found here in Europe in the lowlands of the Netherlands where online fishing tackle empire Visdeal is based. The brainchild of innovative dutchman Willem Bontrup, the Visdeal business model involves offering regular special deals on the products it stocks (usually discontinued or overstock) to a large and loyal subscribed customer base. A model like this, which relies solely on online customers, and in particular returning ones, is the perfect breeding ground for engagement and retention strategies.

“Naturally, we focus a lot on regular customers,” Willem said. “The first way we do this is with quite a lot of investment in customer service. Customers can always call our customer service team, which is comprised of passionate anglers – we really know what our customers want.

“We try to encourage every customer to subscribe to our email newsletter by ensuring they’ll receive new and interesting deals regularly from us. We now have more than 250,000 subscribers and we send the right kind of tailored content and deals to them based on historic data – this brings us a lot of sales. We keep them curious about what we’ll have special offers on next.”

Getting someone to place an order is only half the battle; it’s also the easy part. Ensuring that the customer has a good experience after purchase is crucial in persuading them to become a regular buyer from you. Willem believes that keeping a customer well-informed about the tracking and delivery of their product is a very important part of this, as is following up with customer service communications to make sure everything was as the customer expected. They say the customer is always right, and Willem agrees (kind of). “When a customer complains about anything, you have to help them. Even if sometimes you disagree. If not, you may lose them forever.”

Besides things you can do with the store itself, another fantastic way to give your online customers a better virtual experience is the big C word (and no, not COVID-19): content. Content, content, content. The advent of social media and ease of which you can publish things means you can give your online customers the thing they love about going into real tackle stores: advice and inspiration. One of the best examples of this we have here in the UK is Angling Direct. Every Thursday this tackle business runs a live video on its Facebook and Instagram pages, often from the bank, where people can ask questions of top anglers and talk tactics and locations. The videos have become hugely popular with the angling community here and give people a reason to make return visits to the Angling Direct social media pages and website. Now, not every tackle shop has the resources for this kind of thing, but if you are able to get people coming to you and engaging with you online for something besides what you’re selling, then you are bound to sell more. It sounds crazy, but it really works. Creating a resource and a community out of your online store is a way of giving people what they originally lost when choosing (or being forced) to buy online rather than in person. That’s one of the best ways to think about how to improve any virtual experience you offer.

8 Tips to Create Better Virtual Experiences

  • Content, content, content — Having engaging and interesting content on your website is perhaps more important than the goods themselves. By also using social media as a tool for getting customers to engage with your brand, you can create loyalty.
  • Customer service — Make it easy to access, easier to understand and even easier to get the information required. Knowledgeable staff and transparency are key.
  • Be available — Have multiples ways to be contacted through your website, maybe even consider live chat if you have the manpower.
  • Go info heavy — There’s nothing more annoying that finding a product you like the look of with no write-up. Ensure you have plenty of product details for each listing – linking existing product videos from brands is even better.
  • Keep it fresh — People love new items and new deals – try to make sure your website never looks too similar from week to week, people will leave a lot faster if they think there’s nothing new to see.
  • Data gathering — Get to know your customer base by capturing data (legally) when you can. This means you can have more targeted marketing and communications with consumers – don’t send a bass guy an e-shot with deals on fly fishing gear!
  • Communicate regularly — But not too regularly, find the balance between keeping people informed and spam. Once a week is a good starting point.
  • Create an online community — Make your customers feel like part of the family, invite them to write reviews or blogs, arrange tournaments, get them engaged.