Amazon is the world’s largest bookstore, and if you’re an author, you need to make the most of your presence there. I spoke with several indie authors to get their advice on how to maximize your Amazon Author Central page.

Personalize your URL

Amazon Author Central gives you the option to customize your URL. Author Karen Dimmick calls this a “pretty link” which she uses to “easily send people directly to it.” Her personalized link http://amazon.com/author/karendimmick looks nicer than the auto-assigned https://www.amazon.com/Karen-Dimmick/e/B01E0BXITY (though both land you in the same place). Include your Amazon Author Central link in your email signature or on your business cards. Author Amber Fallon adds, “The best way to put your Amazon Author Central page to work for you is to make sure people know about it. Tweet it once in a while. Be sure to include [the link] on your website and your social media profiles.” Tyrone Givens notes that the “author dashboard has a very convenient button for sharing the link to the page.”

Link Your Blog(s)

You can link your blog’s RSS feed so that your Amazon Author Central page is automatically updated every time you post to your blog. This is a surefire way to keep your Author profile current. Richard Lowe advises, “if you have more than one [blog], and they are all relevant, connect them all.”

Add Photos and Video

Your main author photo should reinforce your brand and personality. “Use the same photo from your bio everywhere you appear, e.g. when you’re a guest on a podcast,” says Dimmick. “That way everything ties together.” Colette Tozer adds, “ensure the photo you post in your bio has personality. After all, the reader wants to get to know the author, so ensure that your picture paints an accurate picture.” You can (and should!) also add more photos and have some fun with them. This way your audience gets to know you a little better.

Video is another interactive feature you should take advantage of. A book trailer, a narrated slideshow, or a reading or speaking engagement are all superb content to include as video. Stacy Brown showcases art from her coloring books as well as children interacting with them on her Author Central page. “I really like featuring videos and photos of my books on the Author page,” she says, “because it helps to sell the books more. Since some of the book listings are limited when you use CreateSpace, it’s nice to show more of the insides of the books or of happy little customers coloring in the books and reading!”

Perfect Your Author Bio

Your Amazon Author Central bio should reflect your whole body of work. While books in disparate genres or subject areas should have author biographies tailored to those genres or subjects, your Amazon page is a hub for your entire bibliography. Treat this block of text as marketing copy, a direct message from you to your readers. Keep in mind you will not be able to format this text using bold, italics, or hyperlinks. However, it is still a good idea to introduce readers to your website, blog, or social media channels.

One way to hone your bio’s copy is to test it using PickFu. Upload two or more versions of your “About” copy, and run a poll. You can target respondents by age, gender, parental or marital status, and even preference for fiction or non-fiction. Poll respondents will read each version and tell you which one they prefer, and why.

Add Events

Whether in person or online, make sure to include any events you’re participating in. Doing so helps author Allison Fagundes “capture Amazon foot-traffic that otherwise hasn’t found me on my other social media platforms.” When the event has passed, Amazon removes it from your page automatically.

Include Your Whole Catalogue

“It’s very important to make sure your books are showing up! Sometimes Amazon doesn’t automatically link them,” says Holly Lyn Walrath. Include books that you’ve co-authored, too. You’ll find an “Add More Books” button on the Book Details tab to search for books you’ve written by title or ISBN.

How do you bring the right people to your online store? How do you get them to stay? How do you set yourself apart from competitors?

Many sites take advantage of pay-per-click advertising, social media channels, and search engine optimization to boost site traffic and sales. But on top of these tried-and-true strategies, what else can you do? I spoke to e-commerce site owners to get their advice on marketing opportunities you don’t want to miss.

Diversify Your Channels

Increase your store’s exposure by utilizing multiple storefronts like Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Bonanza, Shopify, ClickFunnels, and Rakuten. “The more people see your products, the better your chances of making a sale,” says Najeeullah Babar, President of specialty computer company interloper.com. However, he warns, “it can get very cumbersome and time-consuming to synchronize inventory across multiple marketplaces. Use a service like UploadMyProducts.com or ChannelAdvisor.com. You will breathe easy.”

Adele RG Boese, owner of Etsy shop DerBayz Vintage, recommends Tweet Eye. “The site uses the RSS feed from my online store and schedules posts on Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest,” she explains. Overnight, she went from 10 visitors to over 300. “My sales started increasing and the traffic continued. I’ve introduced the channel to a number of other Etsy shops, and they all reported the same results.”

Maximize Your Content

“Rather than casting our products onto marketplaces and social sales channels to see who bites, this year we’re focusing internally to convert our respectable content traffic (about 15k-20k unique visitors/mo.) into buyers,” says Krista Fabregas, staff writer for Fit Small Business. “I think a lot of small businesses (like us) look outward to get more people in but forget that many opportunities are lost if you don’t turn 10+ years of traffic-driving content into selling tools. I guess you can say we’re making the most of our channel before focusing on other sales channels.”

The vast majority of the site’s traffic comes from blog posts, so the company has worked to align content and product strategies — updating top blog posts to include targeted products. “Using WordPress with WooCommerce and Divi,” Fabregas says, “this is easy to do. So far, we’ve seen immediate upticks in sales in the target categories.”

Video Is Content, Too

“I run my family’s jewelry business and we do quite a bit online,” says Jeff Moriarty, Digital Marketing Manager at Moriarty’s Gem Art. The company’s efforts include banner ads, SEO, and email marketing. But the secret sauce? “Something that has paid off very well for us in video,” he says. “We do a lot of videos on YouTube to educate our buyers about gemstones and jewelry. While not exactly pushing to sell, it has turned into sales for us. It helps build trust, and then ultimately viewers decide to make their jewelry purchase with us.”

Guess What? Photos Are Also Content!

“One of the easiest ways for e-commerce businesses to market themselves online is to take lots of original imagery and allow others to use it,” advises Sam Williamson, Marketing Executive at A Hume Country Clothing. If you take a look at our site, you’ll see that we use original imagery for almost every single product that we have on our website, something that is very unique for an e-commerce website of our size. This in itself sets us apart from our competitors, but we also go a step further by allowing the images to be used elsewhere (provided that some kind of attribution is given back to us). This helps our images spread across the internet, gaining us more exposure.” Consider adding your original photography to Flickr or other Creative Commons sites.

Speaking of photography, remember that a great image can dramatically affect sales. In a previous blog post, I interviewed Steve Chou, who found that changing the featured photo on one of his listings increased sales by 209%. Experiment with different featured shots to see if and how the needle moves. Use PickFu to poll audiences about what photos they find most attractive. In just minutes, you’ll have valuable feedback on how target customers react to your product photography.

Influence the Influencers

Stefanie Parks, founder of DermWarehouse, recommends providing free product samples to the right people. “We used Instagram’s hashtag search to find influencers. We knew our niche was people on Instagram that had between 5,000-20,000 followers. We used search terms like #beautyblogger and #parenthood to find people who would represent our brand well. We then sent them a direct message to try and solidify the relationship.” Once partnerships were established, the influencers spread the word about the company to their respective audiences, and DermWarehouse was able to use images of these influencers for online advertising campaigns.

But influencer marketing doesn’t just mean millennials with mirrors. Mark Tyrol, President of Battic Door Energy Conservation Products, says his company targeted building code officials and architects. “We exhibited at a Building Code Officials trade show and expo and at an American Institute of Architects trade show and expo. We did this for two consecutive years. In addition, we contacted architects by direct mail with product literature and requested them to specify our products.” He reports that “as a direct result of our influencer marketing program, our sales have increased +50% in each of the last two years. We picked up dozens of new accounts that continually purchase products. Many customers tell us they were referred to us by their architect or code official, confirming the success of our program.”

Recommend Replacement Links

“Every day, millions of pages on the internet are deleted, outdated or lost,” says Max Robinson, Marketing Executive at Precious Little One. “A lot of these pages are product pages on e-commerce websites, which presents an opportunity for other e-commerce businesses to find these broken links and to offer their own link as a replacement. There are a few ways to do this – the way I do it is to find a competitor website and frequently run it through link checking tools like Xenu’s Link Sleuth to check for broken links. Any broken links I find, I then run through a tool like Ahrefs to see if anyone else is linking to them. This works very well!”

Don’t Leave Out the Low-Tech Approach

Colleen Lloyd-Roberts, owner of Top Notch Nail Files, offers a simple strategy. “Stickers go on the back of all our products, and it’s company policy that no product leaves the shipping area without one! The sticker has our website and toll-free order line on it. Those tiny stickers have proven to be a huge marketing tool over my 10 years of business, as we have received so many referrals and new business from people showing that sticker to friends and family who then go to our website and buy.”

Do Something Warm and Fuzzy

“When your customers know you are engaged with helping their community, they become more loyal and in some cases feel the obligation to give back themselves,” says Marc Joseph, CEO and President of DollarDays. “Our strongest give-back effort is through Facebook.” Each month, the site’s Facebook followers are encouraged to nominate a deserving organization to win a shopping spree. These monthly contests have revolving themes, like animal shelters, veterans’ groups, and teachers. DollarDays also offers a program similar to Amazon Smile, whereby customers can designate 5% of their purchase dollars to their favorite charity. “We believe that giving back is a win for our e-commerce business in creating a loyal following while at the same time helping to support their causes,” Joseph says.

What other e-commerce marketing strategies do you recommend? Tell us in the comments!

PickFu polls are popular among mobile app companies, self-publishing authors, and e-commerce businesses. But these pollsters may be missing out on a helpful strategy: testing creative in context.

What does it mean to test something in context?

In a previous life, I worked in an ad agency. Whenever we pitched an idea for a billboard, we would Photoshop the creative onto a billboard. If we were creating a website layout, we would show the layout in a web browser. Sometimes when we pitched a TV commercial, we would even take a frame from the storyboard and Photoshop it onto a screen.

The same principle applies when you take a creative option, such an app icon, a book cover, or a featured photo, and test it using PickFu. You show that option in the context it will appear to the user, such as on a mobile device, on Amazon, or in a browser.

Why contextual testing works

The respondents to your PickFu poll are real-live human beings. Helping them visualize what you are testing means they can more effectively judge how your options will look when completed.

Think about it: When you look at a recipe, you don’t generally see the finished dish floating in white space. You see it in a table setting. When you shop for a product, you often see a lifestyle image of that product in use — for example, a lamp sitting on a desk, a t-shirt worn on a body, or a car being driven on a road. These images help you visualize eating the food or using the products, and make you more likely to give it careful consideration.

Testing in Context: Mobile Apps

When testing possible mobile app icons, consider contextualizing your icon against on a home screen, or against competitors in your category. Doing so helps users picture the icons on their own phones.

Fypio, a real estate app, used PickFu to test its icons. It placed the icon ideas on the iPhone lock screen and in a folder among similar apps. You can click the images below to see full poll results, including respondent comments and demographic breakdown.

Testing in Context on a Lock Screen

Testing in Context in a Folder

A gaming company also used PickFu to test its mobile app icon in context and included a larger shot of the icon itself alongside the home screen.

Testing in Context on the Home Screen, with Detail

Mobile apps aren’t limited to testing icons, however. This game wanted to see how users felt about two UI options, so it contextualized those options on a phone.

Testing in Context on a Phone

These two mobile companies wanted to test a button design, so they placed them in the context of their other buttons so that users could judge the icons and buttons as a set.

Testing in Context in a Set of Buttons

Testing in Context in a Set of Buttons, Example 2

In all these examples, poll respondents are better able to visualize how mobile app designs will look on a device. This may help yield even better insights on how to iterate and proceed.

Testing in Context: Books

Authors often use PickFu to test book covers. Displaying the cover designs in multiple formats, as the author below did, may help readers think about your designs where they’ll live – on an e-reader or in an Amazon store.

Testing in Context for eBooks

Since authors want to know what images seem most clickable, another idea is to test cover options among competitors in their Kindle categories.

You could also mock up your cover designs to display how they might look in an Amazon listing.

Testing in Context: Websites and E-commerce Stores

Websites and e-commerce stores can also benefit from testing in context. Show interface designs in a web browser to help respondents visualize. Want proof that it’s a good idea? I googled “blank web browser” and came up with tons of image results from stock photo companies. Grab one for yourself the next time you test a layout.

You can also test social media profiles in context, as this PickFu user did for an Instagram bio. By placing the bios in the context of its Instagram images, respondents can better judge what they like. Just remember that you should always only test one thing at a time, as this user did. By keeping the imagery the same, the only variable is the text of the bio.

Testing in Context: Instagram bio

Summary

Testing in context helps users visualize your creative options as they will truly be seen, whether it’s online, on a mobile device, or among other images.

Just like a recipe uses a table setting or a lifestyle image show a product in use, testing images in their context creates a more holistic experience for a poll respondent than an isolated image might.

Mobile apps have a variety of ways to test images in context. It might mean showing a UI on a phone or displaying an icon on a home screen. You could also test icons or buttons in a set, such as in a file folder or among your already existing buttons.

Self-publishing authors can test in context as well. Think about settings such as your Kindle listing or in related results to ensure your book cover truly stands out.

Websites, e-commerce stores, and social media profiles can also be tested in context. Doing so gives the respondents helpful cues to understand your designs as they will ultimately be seen.

One last thing

I used PickFu because I couldn’t decide how to title this blog post. In less than 15 minutes, I knew what to do. Find out what respondents had to say about why the title “Why Testing Your Creative in Context Is a Smart Move” was the best of the bunch!

When conducting a PickFu poll, one of the biggest benefits is accessing an audience of people who have no familiarity with your product, logo, book, or whatever it is you’re testing. They approach the question without bias… but as the poll creator, do you?

Avoid these common mistakes and poll respondents will answer openly and honestly.

Mistake 1. Leading words

Your question may include a positive or negative bias — words that consciously or unconsciously lead the respondents toward a certain kind of answer.

Examples:

• How much did you enjoy this YouTube video? (positive bias – implies that the viewer enjoyed it, and leads respondents to answer more favorably)
• Should responsible parents vaccinate their children? (puts respondents on the defensive by insinuating that parents who do not vaccinate are irresponsible)
• A recent poll found 80% of Americans disagreed with this government policy. How unhappy are you about this policy? (negative bias – not only is the question phrased negatively, it also includes a statistic that shows many unfavorable views, leading the respondent to feel as though he or she should feel that way, too.)

How to fix it

Remove leading words and phrases and structure the questions as objectively as you can:

On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the worst and 5 being the best, please rate this YouTube video.
• Do you think children’s vaccinations should be required?
• Please rate your level of agreement with this government policy.

Remember, biased questions lead to biased results. And if you’re using polling to make important business decisions, you want your feedback to be as objective as it can be.

Mistake 2. Making assumptions

Sometimes questions include an opinion. For example, “Do you agree that dog owners should be able to walk their dogs off-leash in the park?” This assumes that dog owners want to walk their dogs without leashes, which may or may not be true. But by including this assumption, you are leading more people to respond in agreement.

Further examples:

• Is your favorite color blue? (assumes the respondent’s favorite color is blue)
• As long as nobody minds, is it okay to smoke indoors? (assumes that nobody minds)
Where do you like to party? (assumes respondents like to party)

How to fix it

Structure your questions around facts, not opinions. Make sure you’re not painting respondents into a corner so that they can only answer one way. In the first example, it would be better to ask, “Do you think dog owners should be allowed to walk their dogs off-leash in the park?” Similarly, these questions eliminate assumptions:

• What color do you like the best?
• How do you feel about smoking indoors?
• What do you like to do in the evenings?

Mistake 3. The double-barreled question

Sometimes questions ask about two disparate things. These double-barreled questions do not make good survey questions because respondents will often only concentrate on the one topic that means the most to them.

Examples:

• How do you feel about our two new flavors, French Vanilla and Hazelnut Cream?
• How have teachers and students responded to the new dress code?
• Which title and subtitle do you prefer?

How to fix it

Double-barreled questions should be separated into two distinct questions and polled separately from one another. When questions are worded similarly in a multi-question poll, it’s also good to distinguish them with underlined words or italics, as below:

• How do you feel about our new flavor French Vanilla?
• How do you feel about our new flavor Hazelnut Cream?
• How have teachers responded to the new dress code?
• How have students responded to the new dress code?
• Which title do you prefer?
• Which subtitle do you prefer?

Creating better PickFu surveys

PickFu focuses on preference testing. This means that in general, you’re testing options against one another, not necessarily open-ended or yes/no questions. Therefore, a question like “how do you feel about smoking indoors?” or “How have teachers responded to the new dress code?” likely wouldn’t get asked through a PickFu poll.

That being said, the same rules apply to preference testing as in general surveying: avoid leading words, don’t make assumptions, and only ask about one thing at a time.

For example, if you’re testing mobile app icons, the simplest unbiased question would be, “Which app icon do you prefer?” To embellish the question with anything else may introduce bias. Sometimes pollsters want to know whether their icons read a certain way, so they’ll ask something like, “Which icon seems more kid-friendly?” While not biased, per se, this question asks respondents to judge your icons differently than they might otherwise.

Because PickFu respondents include comments, one approach to avoid any hint of bias is to ask the simple question, “Which app icon do you prefer?” and then read the comments to see if kid-friendliness is something the respondents took away by themselves, rather than being led to see kid-friendliness or not.

Another approach is to include factual statements (unbiased, of course!) to explain what you’re testing, and then ask the respondent’s preference. For example, “Our app is a game aimed at children under 10. Which icon do you prefer?” These approaches may all yield various results, so some experimentation might be necessary to see what’s most applicable in your case.

Keep it consistent

Consistency is key in testing creative options. If you’re testing book covers, make sure that each design option includes the same information. If you tested two cover designs and each cover had a different title, for example, you wouldn’t know whether respondents preferred the design layout or the title on that design layout. Remember, only test one thing at a time.

Below is an example of an author who tested two covers. However, the two titles are different, only one option included a subtitle, and only one option included the superfitdads logo. Any of these variances may have skewed the results.

This poll would be less biased if each cover included the same title, subtitle, and author attribution. Then, the only test parameter would have been the cover design.

Here’s a better example. This author is testing two cover designs. The title, subtitle, author attribution, and even graphic layout is the same. The only difference is the “Action Plan” stamp. By only testing one thing at one time, this author knows the stamp helps his cover.

Summary

In both general polling and preference testing, it is important to keep these main ideas in mind as you design your survey:

1. Avoid leading words that may sway the responses positively or negatively. Phrase your question objectively.

2. Ensure your questions are fact-based, not opinion-based. Do not make assumptions about your audience.

3. Test only one thing at a time. Do not use double-barreled questions. When creating comparisons between two creative options, include only one test parameter per question, such as layout, title, or color palette.

4. You may need to experiment with the level of specificity in your question. Generally, the simplest form of the question will be the least biased. However, there are instances where you will need to direct the question a certain way rather than leave it open-ended. Just be sure to do it according to the three tips above.

What are the biggest and most common mistakes that new self-publishers should avoid? We reached out to three successful authorpreneurs to get advice.

Writing might be the “easy” part

“The biggest mistake self-published authors make is not approaching book publishing as a business, says “Inspiration to Creation” coach Nina Amir. “Many writers don’t realize that when they decide to self-publish, they become publishers. They open a publishing house. They enter into this endeavor eagerly because they are told it will be easy to self-publish, and they are surprised that they can’t just write, and that there is more to it than expected. They must carve out time to manage a team of designers and editors, pay taxes, promote, manage their publishing business’s finances, manage book sales, and more.”

To avoid this problem, Amir advises that new authors “educate themselves on what indie publishing entails and approach self-publishing as a business. It’s also important to determine if they are cut out for self-publishing so they don’t get frustrated and give up.”

Holly Brady, former director of the Stanford University Publishing Course, agrees. She warns that no one can truly “self” publish. “You may be a terrific writer,” she says, “but how good are you at design? Can you put together a killer cover? How about the interior? Are you ready to format your Word doc so that it’s got sequenced page numbers, headers, a title page, a copyright page? And are you willing to learn about the publishing industry? Do you know what a BISAC category is? Or how to get an ISBN number?”

Brady offers this framework: “In truth, a savvy self-publisher is more like an independent filmmaker who gathers together a team of professionals in a creative endeavor. Those professionals apply their skills, bringing to life the filmmaker’s vision of the project. Think of yourself as the creative director of your own project, assess the skills you bring to the table, make a list of the skills you don’t have, and find people who can help you.”

No two paths are alike

Publishing consultant Anne Janzer warns, “New self-publishing authors risk being swamped by oceans of marketing and promotion advice. Ultimately,” she says, “you are the captain of your own ship, so approach promotion with that mindset. You know your core audience, your purpose in writing and publishing, and what you value. Filter advice through those objectives while maintaining a growth mindset.”

Though knowing thyself is a guidepost, Janzer also advises that authors “test, refine, and learn, remembering that the activities that contribute to long-term success are things like building relationships, writing great books, providing value, and being generous.”

Believing “The end” is really the end

“The most difficult part of self-publishing is not getting your book designed or uploaded through Createspace and Kindle. It may not even be writing the book,” warns Brady. “The toughest part of the process for most authors is the marketing because so many of us are introverts.”

Her advice? “As you finish your book and prepare to self-publish, keep a keen eye out for folks who know something about getting books into the hands of readers. Check out the blog posts of Jane Friedman, Joanna Penn, Penny Sansevieri, Frances Caballo, Nina Amir, and Shelley Hitz. And stop calling it marketing. What you’re really doing is building relationships around the content and ideas in your book. Go meet some like-minded people today.”

What other advice would you offer to new self-publishers? Let us know in the comments!

What are the best ways to promote your app in news outlets and in the App Stores? I spoke with app creators to get their advice.

Timing is everything

Philippe Levieux is the creator of infiltr, a photo filter app that has been named an Editors’ Choice, Best New App, and Hot this Week in the iTunes App Store, and featured in over 150 countries. Timing is the key to his advice. “Always release your app on a Thursday,” he says, because Features also change on Thursday. Or more precisely, “We always schedule infltr to be released on Wednesday at 11 pm UK time, so if the feature team wants to feature it, it is perfect timing.” He also recommends “to leverage the new technology (both software and hardware) that Apple releases!” For example, “we were the first app allowing you to filter Live Photos back in iOS 9; we were the first allowing you to capture filtered Live Photos in iOS 10; we were the first to fully use the camera in an iMessage App! We are available on iPhone, iPad, iMessage & Apple Watch.” Being first with new features that Apple releases is an almost surefire way to endear your app to Apple’s editors. For infiltr, Levieux says, “we make extensive use of 3D-touch through the app. We have a Today Widget and a Photo/Video & Live Photos Editing Extension… Apple loves these.”

Speaking of timing…

If your app is immediately ready to fill a need, it’s not only going to win customers but could also garner your app some juicy press coverage. Last year, when Microsoft acquired the app Sunrise Meet, it decided to integrate Sunrise’s features into Outlook and sunset the app (no pun intended). ThingThing, an iOS keyboard app, stepped into the void and added its own calendar scheduling feature to woo displaced Sunrise users. The gambit worked, leading the app to be featured in Techcrunch. “This was a big win for us in terms of downloads,” remarked Adam Davis, Thingthing’s CMO. “It really came down to being ready with the right technology – the right story – at the right time.”

Localize

Another way to get your app press attention is to localize it. “Categories you can be featured in are different in every country,” Levieux advises. For example, Canada’s App Store has a category for Apps translated into French. “Easy trick!” he says. Infiltr is available in 22 languages and has been featured on several of Apple’s official Twitter accounts, including those for Japan and Spain. “The cool thing when you get tweeted by Apple is that you get a special URL,” he says. “so we have these cool shortcuts which look more professional than the average App Store URL.” www.apple.co/infltr_, which Apple tweeted for example, directs to the Mexican App Store.

Get the most from your email list

George Hartley co-founded the art marketplace Bluethumb. The website grew popular with users, and he had a lengthy customer list at his disposal. When the Bluethumb iPhone app launched in 2013, Hartley used Intercom to segment his customer and artist lists into users who’d visited the site via an iPhone. “We pushed an email to our list on release,” he says, “and added a little header link to the apps on all our transactional and marketing emails. This was the extent of our marketing,” he says. But because the app’s release was so successful, Apple featured it a few weeks after release. Bluethumb is now Australia’s largest art marketplace.

Celebrate milestones

Alex Genadinik of Problemio.com took advantage of guest blogging when it came to milestones. When his app hit 150,000 downloads, for example, his guest blog got picked up by BusinessInsider and Yahoo! News.

Respond to requests

Another strategy Genadinik recommends is to subscribe to lists like HelpAReporterOut.com (HARO) and RadioGuestList.com. Both sites connect journalists and content creators with reputable sources for their stories, but RadioGuestList focuses on podcasts and radio shows in particular. When you see a query about a story you can add value to, write in and explain your expertise and give a short description of what your app does. Make sure your pitches are specifically related to the request and personalize your pitch to the news outlet.

When it comes to e-commerce, anything that moves the needle up is a welcome change. I spoke with leaders from successful e-commerce sites to discuss site features that increased sales.

Address Verification

A surefire way to lose a customer is to have a package delivered to the wrong address. Using an address verification software such as Addressy or SmartyStreets saves that hassle. With address verification, the customer only needs to input a partial address, and valid postal addresses will be automatically suggested, saving time and improving the user experience. Having accurate addresses also helps the online seller, as error messages can be avoided and user-inputted spelling errors are eliminated. According to Natalie Green, marketing manager at PCA Predict, “this technology is used by thousands of global retailers around the world including L’Oreal, Lands’ End and Monkey Sports. Here’s an example of it in action on Dormify’s website. As the user types, the tool autocompletes the
verified address – saving the customer from typing out the whole address.”

Addressy’s address verification at work

Payment Options

Offering flexible ways to pay can help customers convert. Bob Ellis runs Bavarian Clockworks, a site that sells authentic German cuckoo clocks. He added PayPal Credit as a flexible payment option. “This can be an especially useful feature for e-commerce sites that sell high-end, expensive products,” he says. “Rather than having to pay a large lump sum, customers have the option to pay for a product they purchased over an extended period of time.” On Bavarian Clockworks, customers who choose PayPal Credit have six months interest-free to complete their payments, making checkout easier. And because it’s all run through PayPal, the e-commerce owner doesn’t have to manage payments.

Customized Calculators

Many e-commerce sites sell highly specialized or customized products. In this case, giving customers a convenient way to calculate costs will likely lead to more sales. Ostap Bosak manages Marquis Gardens, the largest retailer of water features and pond supplies in Toronto. He said, “it is sometimes tricky to estimate how much… one needs to build, repair, or expand a pond.” Therefore, the site added a Pond Calculator. Using only the pond’s size dimensions, customers can see over 20 different parameters to get a better idea of how much the project will cost.

Similarly, Thexyz.com offers dedicated servers. According to Perry Toone, a member of Thexyz’s support team, the site was recently improved, allowing visitors “to custom build and configure every aspect of the setup process. The price of the server is adjusted in real time to give the most accurate price based on client specifications.”

Email Capture

Losing customers who abandon your site before they make a purchase? One way to get them back is to capture an email address before they leave. Bob Clary, Director of Online Engagement for Intellibright, recommends SumoMe. “It’s inexpensive but powerful, and it helps fill the top of your funnel with new leads,” he says. “It also connects with your major CRMs to let you trigger intelligent email automation programs.” And, as an added benefit, he says, it’s really easy to install.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Peter Alessandria, photographer at GreatProductShots.com for the following guest post.

1. The camera

DON’T use your cellphone. Please. It’s not because I am a camera snob. The main problem with your cellphone camera is the lens. The wide angle can distort the view of your product. Since you spend thousands of dollars acquiring, designing, developing, prototyping and/or manufacturing your product, you want it to look its best, and the lens on the cellphone will not do it justice. It just can’t come close to the sharpness, clarity, and perspective you’d achieve with a decent camera. Plus, if you don’t have enough light, cellphone pictures look grainy.

DO get a nice camera. If you’re serious about selling and want to present your product in its best light, make the investment. You don’t need to spend more than $300-$400. Buy (or borrow) a great entry-level, interchangeable lens camera, such as a DSLR. I bought my 10-year-old niece a refurbished Canon Rebel SL-1 (including lens) from the Canon USA website for less than $300, and I could probably do 80% of my professional work with this camera if I had to. Afraid of using the wrong settings on your fancy new camera? Shoot in automatic mode, and the photos will still be stunning.

The background

DON’T choose a cluttered or distracting background. Shooting your products on your desk, kitchen counter, or in the garage won’t cut it! The product needs to stand out and look like it’s the only thing that matters. Even if I’m selling my own used stuff on Craigslist, I always shoot on an uncluttered, attractive background with proper lighting.

DO use a white background. This works in presenting your product since all the emphasis is on the product itself, without any distractions. White background shots are standard on almost every e-commerce website and product catalog out there. They convey a lot of useful information to your customers and aid in the purchasing decision. However, don’t use a bed sheet! You want a smooth, sweeping look. Instead, go to the local art store and get some white drawing or tracing paper on a roll. Put the roll high up on a shelf and let it drape down over your shooting area. Place your product on top of the paper to create a smooth, seamless background.

Bonus shots

DON’T miss out on the opportunity to create a video of your product in use. Video can convey lots of information in a short time. Emphasize the experience people will have when they use or purchase your product. But keep the clips short – one minute or less should do. That DSLR you purchased in my first tip can shoot video – or just use your cellphone. There, I said it.

DO consider “environmental” shots. Once you get your white background shots done, do some photos that show the product in use or being enjoyed by people. You may be able to use your own home or office or a local park as your set. Models can be friends or family – just make sure they look happy! You’re really selling an experience when you sell a product. People buy it to solve a problem or enhance their lives. Models are an effective way to convey the emotions people can expect when they buy your stuff.

Using angles

DON’T rely on one boring, static shot to sell your product. Offer different angles to give customers the big picture. Don’t always shoot from eye level. See what your competitors are doing with their photos, and emulate the best.

DO shoot multiple angles. A little trick to enhance the look of a product is what we professional product photographers call the “hero shot.” I want my clients’ products to look important; this means shooting products from a low angle. Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane to make his characters look larger than life, and I do it for my clients. Get the camera at or below the surface you are shooting on, and angle the camera up. You can try higher angles – but not too high. Of course, don’t forget shots from the right, left, and behind, and if appropriate, close-ups of any special features. Also, consider shots of any labels or packaging that might influence your customers to buy.

Lighting

DON’T use the built-in flash. Please! Direct flash is the most unflattering light for both people and products. If it’s the only light you have at your disposal at Mom’s birthday dinner or your kid’s dance recital, so be it. But when you’re producing photos to sell your products, you need to up your game.

DO use good lighting – there’s really no way around this one. The Greek derivation of the word photography means “to paint with light.” You can have the best camera in the world, but if the lighting sucks, so will your pictures. If you don’t have enough light, digital photos can look grainy. But good lighting does more than produce smooth, sharp pictures: it makes for interesting pictures. And interesting pictures make for more sales. While I have thousands of dollars worth of lighting equipment in my studio, you don’t necessarily need all that. Start simple: get some desk lamps at IKEA or work lights at Home Depot if you don’t already have them. Then make sure the White Balance on your camera is set to Auto. The key to good lighting is to use at least two lights and place them on the left and right of your product. Never light the product straight-on. Play with different angles to see what looks most interesting, and be sure to shift the lights or your camera angle to avoid glare if your product has a shiny surface.

BONUS TIPS FOR SOCIAL MEDIA:
• Make it easy for people to share your photos on social media. Post high-resolution images on your website and social media pages. While you don’t want to slow down the load times for your website, small, hard-to-see photos won’t help you sell more product. Also, don’t disable the right-click function on your website photos. This will make it easy for people to save, copy, and paste your photos.
• Keep all your photos in one gallery where people can easily share them with friends via a link, and/or provide social media Share buttons for each of your photos.
• Post your photos often, and encourage followers to comment and share them. Always try to respond to comments – it makes them feel like you care (a simple “thank you” will usually suffice). But be careful not to always be selling on social media – you want to engage people and generate interest, rather than turn them off with a constant sales pitch.
• Encourage people who purchase your product to take their own photos of the product in use and then share those photos. You may also want to consider giving customers a centralized place to post or upload their product photos.

If you care about your product, it’s always worth it to spend a little extra time and money to take great photos of it. I can tell you after more than 15 years in the business, good photos always lead to more sales.

Peter Alessandria is a professional fine-art and commercial photographer based in the New York/New Jersey area. He has won 42 awards for his work, and his photos have been published in newspapers and magazines around the world. He has been featured on NBC-TV NY and other news and social media outlets. He shoots all kinds of products for his clients, including cosmetics, clothing, computers, household products, and jewelry. See all his product photography work on his website GreatProductshots.com.

Along with optimizing your app’s name, writing an app description that sells, and choosing a memorable app icon, mobile apps also need to think about what app store screenshots will best entice users to download. I asked successful app developers for their advice on screenshots, and these common themes emerged.

Your screenshots don’t have to be actual screenshots

“The greatest misconception about app store screenshots is that they actually need to be screenshots!,” says Jonathan Kerns, co-founder of Comparakeet. Hugh Kimora of Mobile Action agrees, noting, “the biggest mistake is taking screenshots of random screens or menu screens inside the app and not highlighting a specific benefit.” Instead, he suggests, “Use a text banner to specify the exact benefit of the app that you are trying to highlight in each screenshot.” In addition, Kerns advises, “Take a look at major gaming apps and the types of things that they do for inspiration. Incorporate a mix of imagery from within the app with short marketing messages and calls to action.” One such marketing message, says Adam Davis, CMO of Thingthing, is to “have one screen showcasing any awards or press coverage you’ve had by adding their badges and logos. This can be very powerful as it adds a great deal of credibility to your app.”

One of Thingthing’s screenshots

Focus on the user’s goal

“The screen shots must be of screens that show how the user gets the most value from the app or has the most fun if it is a game,” asserts Alex Genadinik of Problemio. “Show users succeeding in what the person who is looking at the screen shots wants to succeed in – like losing weight or being on vacation. Inspiring images will make people imagine getting the benefit of the app.” You should also list the most important product benefits first. “The first two screens are what are immediately seen in your app store listing (and part of the third in the Google Play Store),” Davis says. “Put your strongest selling points here.”

One of Clumsy Ninja’s screenshots

Maximize the real estate

“Fill all of the screenshot slots,” implores Kimora. “Be sure to optimize for screen orientation. For example, if you have an iPhone app, portrait screenshots might work best.” He also adds, “app developers should make sure that their screenshots can be seen clearly on smaller devices.” Davis recommends another way to use all of the available space: “A common mistake I see is including the phone in your image when it isn’t needed. Losing the phone from the images allows you to make your screen area bigger and draw more attention to the value of your app.”

One of Target’s screenshots

Use a screenshot generator

If you don’t have design resources in-house, consider a screenshot generator. “These tools allow you to choose backgrounds and titles for each screenshot, which can help sell users on the app’s key benefits,” says George Hartley, Director of SmartrMail.

Some tools that interviewees recommend include

  • AppInstitute
  • AppLaunchpad
  • Appure
  • Screenshot Maker Pro
  • Experiment and test

    “Try something new now and then, and ensure your screens stay fresh,” Davis recommends. “In the Google Play Store, for example, you can use one large image in place of 2-3 screens, effectively testing a large format display ad. You can also be creative with your imagery, visually connecting one image to the next and creating a journey for viewers to follow.” Another idea is to “test the order of your images and key selling points. Try putting awards and recognition in the first or second position, and see if it boosts your downloads.”

    “You may need to do a lot of testing before you find something that works well,” adds Kimora. For instance, “test a video in your first screenshot position. It might work better.”

    Rather than losing valuable time waiting for approvals, conduct tests outside of the app stores, using software like PickFu. Gauge which screenshots users like better, and gain an understanding of how respondents interpret your marketing messages by reading through dozens — even hundreds — of their unbiased comments. You can target respondents by iOS or Android device, or poll mobile gamers, starting at only $20!

    Do you have any further suggestions for app store screenshots? Include them in the comments, or tweet us @PickFu.

    I’ve written before about how a simple photo swap can dramatically increase sales. But how do you accomplish that gorgeous product photography? Should you hire a professional, or can you learn to do it yourself? I talked to businesses and photographers to see what tips they shared. If you think I’ve missed any, please leave your advice in the comments!

    Strategy matters

    First things first. Consider what your product shots should accomplish, and what tone of voice they need to create. Food photographer Sarah E. Crowder wrote, “as a photographer, it comes as no surprise that I think high-quality photography is important to your business, but it’s important to get other aspects of your venture in order before investing in photography. For example, you should establish a marketing strategy and go through some sort of branding process before hiring a professional photographer so that you can get the most out of that investment.” Plan the kinds of product photography you need as well as those nice-to-have extra shots that might be leveraged elsewhere. Understand what media channels your product photos will inhabit: e-commerce pages and social media images all the way up to larger-than-life posters or trade show displays.

    product-photography

    photo: Peter Alessandria / greatproductshots.com

    White seamless backgrounds or lifestyle shots?

    In all likelihood, you’ll want a combination of pure product photography as well as in-use lifestyle portraits. CJ Johnson, founder of digital agency Januel+Johnson says, “because we live in an era of social media, I typically advise brands to showcase more of what their products look like in use: high-quality lifestyle images, worthy of being featured on Instagram.” In addition, he recommends ongoing studio shoots with generic product shots against simple backgrounds. “If you’re doing both strategies, then you’re getting the most of out of your photos because you can use them for digital ads, your website updates, blogs, promotions, social media, look books, catalogs, and more. If you do both strategies simultaneously then you’re really firing on all cylinders because you’re able to compare the results of doing generic product shots and lifestyle shots.”

    DIY or hire?

    The answer may come down to a matter of personal preference and marketing objectives. There are product photography studios online where you can ship your products and they’ll shoot and retouch the photos for you. Just a few include Pelican Commerce, Pixel Productions, and Pixc. You can also hire someone locally so that you can be present during the shoot. But even if you end up hiring someone, doing it yourself may help form a basic understanding of product photography that will help you judge the pros. Lisa Chu, owner of children’s clothing company Black N Bianco said, “I started my e-commerce business with a very tight budget and I had to do everything myself. I can say from experience once you understand the basics of photography it will a breeze to take engaging product photos for your e-commerce business.” Even lifelong photographers admit that because cameras have come such a long way, professional-level photos can be had with a minimal investment in camera and lighting. Which brings me to the next tip:

    Basic equipment

    Camera

    Sure, you could use the iPhone in your pocket. But you probably shouldn’t. The lens on your cellphone has a wide angle which distorts the view of your product and can’t compare to a real camera lens in terms of sharpness, clarity, and perspective. Product photographer Peter Alessandria writes, “I bought my 10-year-old niece a refurbished Canon Rebel SL-1 (including lens) from the Canon USA website for less than $300 and I could probably do 80% of my professional work with this camera if I had to.”

    Lighting

    Crowder recommends, “If you do not have excellent natural light available to you, invest in an inexpensive light kit. I love the Lowel Ego Digital Imaging Fluorescent Light Kit and have a tutorial on how to use it here.” The lights will run you about a hundred dollars. If you want to go even simpler, Alessandria advises, “get some desk lamps at IKEA or work lights at Home Depot if you don’t already have them. Then make sure the White Balance on your camera is set to Auto. The key to good lighting is to use at least two lights and place them to the left and right of your product. Never light the product straight on. Play with different angles to see what looks most interesting. Also be sure to shift the lights or your camera angle to avoid glare if your product has a shiny surface.” He also emphasizes not using the built-in flash on your camera. “Direct flash is the most unflattering light for both people and products.”

    tips-product-photography

    photo: Peter Alessandria / greatproductshots.com

    Background and Tripod

    Chu believes that “one of the most important aspects to running an e-commerce business is having product photos that convey value and trust in your business. High-quality beautiful product photos can heavily influence your conversion rate.” In order to accomplish this, she says, “it’s best to use a tripod.” For a clean background, “you can purchase a white mat board at your local art store.”

    Evolve. Test. Repeat.

    Experiment with different featured shots to see if the needle moves on clicks or sales. If you don’t have the time or patience for a live A/B test on your website, use PickFu to poll audiences about what photos they find most attractive. In just a few minutes, you’ll have valuable feedback on what customers are drawn to, and how they react to your product photography.