Does Your Ecommerce Website Speak to Howsers?

Say what?

Marketing Experiments has found the highest performing ecommerce sites address customer motivation, and most visitors are either “hunters” or “browsers”:

1. Hunters already know what they want. They want to find the product quickly and easily. Usable site search, navigation menus and filters are essential to convert hunters.
2. Browsers may be contemplating a purchase, or just “window shopping.” Your goal is to get them to click deeper to products with enticing offers like top rated, best sellers, sale items and new arrivals.

I’d like to add a third category: “howsers.” (Hunter-browsers, not underage doctors.) Howsers are customers that are ready to buy from a certain category but they’re not sure what they want/need from that category. This type of customer is the best of both worlds – closer to conversion (needs stuff ASAP) and more open to suggestive selling and cross-sells. Examples would be someone who’s looking for gifts for an 8 year old boy or redecorating a living room.

Let’s take the example of someone planning a family camping trip next month, but has little to no equipment — like a family of four that has waited 10 years until the youngest rug-rat was old enough to rough it for a week in the woods. (Think personas!)

Example: Sports & Outdoors Retailers and Doogie Howser

Let’s call this fictional family the Howsers, and assume daddy Doogie’s in charge of kitting out the clan for camping. A typical Doogie:

  • May have little or no knowledge of camping, or it’s been a while

  • Wants to create a memory
  • Doesn’t want to get “caught without” – wants to ensure he grabs everything necessary for survival and safety in the bush (and doesn’t want to get blamed for forgetting!)
  • Is willing to buy multiple products to ensure a) beautiful memories and b) survival without suffering
  • Appreciates product guides and suggestive selling
  • Is willing to invest in gear for next summer, and the summer after that…

Our second assumption is that Doogie begins his quest for gear on a sports and outdoors retailer’s home page. The first objective of the home page is to guide Mr. Howser to the virtual camping department and to assure him this is the right online shop to do business with today.

Do typical outdoor gear retailers do this effectively?

  • The only slightly relevant links to camping gear are in the cluttered top sellers menu on the left (highlighting mine).

  • There is a camping category, but it’s hidden behind the Outdoor menu. Have trouble spotting that tab? It’s second from the left.
  • You must click the Outdoor tab (if you predict camping gear is found behind the veil) to see subcategories, there’s no preview with a dropdown or AJAX flyout menu (example of that is coming up…)


  • Cabelas has a link, but it doesn’t stand out against other categories.

  • Count the competing calls to action: shop the sale of over 2,000 unspecified items, shop the bargain bin (probably winter stock), find a store location, get a Visa, buy a boat, get a gun, request a catalog, pick up in store, find an outdoor adventure…
  • The menu link and the search box are the only options to find camping products. Customers who look closely will get to their destination, but this is not optimal usability/design.


  • Camping Equipment is a featured link, indicating Altrec believes a significant number of site visitors are interested in that category right now.

  • Behind the Gear button, camping subcategories can be found, though the menu is very long and even has its own scroll bar.
  • There is nothing in the body of the page that speaks to our case-persona, Doogie Howser.


  • Camp / Hike is placed at the top of the Gear menu on the left (we can assume this changes with the season).

  • For customers who tend to scan text, an image of a tent and a list of camping subcategories helps the visitor hone in on subcategories, and see that Backcountry carries a range of products. This helps reassure the customer of convenience of shopping from one store (save time, effort and perhaps shipping). Backcountry has placed this list above the fold.


  • REI makes “Camping & Hiking” the first link in its horizontal navigation menu, and links from the left menu.

  • There are a couple references to camping in the body.
  • Below: Using a hover menu, you can see the full range of camping subcategories without clicking. It’s nicely organized into Gear, Electronics, Kitchen and Safety – REI likely has everything Doogie needs and he can find it easily.


  • Camping & Festivals appears first in left hand navigation, and there are links in body copy to camping products.

  • Featured Item and Offer of the Month are camping-related.

  • When you click on the Camping & Festivals link, you get a submenu with options that may appeal to our persona: Camping Starter Packs, 3 & 4 Person Tents and The Family Unit. You can tell Cotswold has thought through customer segments and purchase scenarios.

  • The starter packs are a great example of product bundling. Remove the paradox of choice and provide expert advice / service at the same time.
  • The “Family Unit” section includes products that are not necessarily camping gear but are relevant cross sells, like kites.

I didn’t see anything compelling on these home pages, but I did spot a good example on L.L. Bean’s camping category page. “Our Best Selection of Family Tents Ever” gives purpose to the image and a persuasive message to check out the tents.

I’m not arguing that outdoor gear sites have to cater to campers this month. Rather, if campers are an attractive and profitable segment at this time of year, most of these home pages leave opportunities on the table. Checking out a handful of competitors (wearing the “hat” of your persona) can give you ideas on how to adjust your site for maximum promotions – what to redesign or what to test.

Of course, if you can predict what people are looking for when customers land on your home page you can deliver more relevant offers. Sitebrand’s personalization suite allows you to serve up different home page and landing page messaging based on referral keywords from search engines.

How do you identify attractive customer segments / product categories?

1. Historical sales data, especially seasonal trends.

2. Google Trends keyword search data:

You can research different product categories like climbing gear, fishing gear, hiking gear and camping gear; or even synonyms for keywords like camping equipment, camping gear, camping tents and camping supplies.

The beauty of Google Trends is you can further segment by geography:

You may discover that UK residents are 12 times more likely to use the term “equipment” than “gear.” Make sure your category labels and marketing messages use the most common terms for each market you serve. You may even apply this to your SEO, PPC and email subject lines.

3. Web analytics keyword and conversion data. (Don’t miss our upcoming webinar with Analytics legend Avinash Kaushik July 17th.)

Once you select your focus, you need to brainstorm purchase scenarios where a customer might buy a range of your products all at the same time (cha-ching), especially for seasonal product. Then make sure your home page speaks to this customer, and the rest of your site (categorization, navigation, merchandising, searchandising et cetera) supports the sales process. You may even want to do some usability testing as well.

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24 Responses to “Does Your Ecommerce Website Speak to Howsers?”

  1. Very timely post Linda as it is the season for camping! And referring back to your mention of Sitebrand, you are so right about the insight from keywords…and how web personalization can optimize a visit based on a keyword or keyword phrase. Camping is one of those things that sounds so one-size fits all, but it’s so not. The keywords re the Howsers family camping trip would be very different from the keywords of someone doing some backcountry camping. So creating unique messaging around these and other camping segments would surely boost conversion and reduce bounce rates.

  2. Linda- great post, wheres the love for our outdoors site? hehe. I’ll take what I’ve learned and share it with the team so that we don’t miss anything.

  3. @ Carolyn – I love the idea of referral keyword recognition – it’s win-win for customer and retailer. Unfortunately this is near impossible to do with type in traffic – if a customer is familiar with your physical store but checks out the online store you’ve been promoting through all your offline channels :)

    @ Ryan – Hey I wasn’t aware of your gear site, thanks for the link!

  4. Jay says:

    Tag clouds seem useful for converting visitors to customers. If you make them dynamic, browsers are more likely to focus on categories and howsers – on related items.

  5. Jon J says:

    I think your howser category is an enormous omission from the original categorization. In general, I think a large proportion of online purchases fall into the howser category… the only caveat being that sometimes the browsing and the hunting sections are days, weeks or months apart. If I’m going camping I might be a browser in March then a hunter in July – for the same item. Or I might get my old camping gear out of the crawlspace a week before we leave and discover I need a new tent… then I’m a howser!

    I thought the sample websites were mostly similar… but I felt that picking on them for the downplaying of your chosen category was maybe a bit harsh. Maybe Helly Hansen baselayers are a big seller at this time of the year at OutdoorGB?

    The Cotswold site did stand out from the others though. I loved the starter packs and I loved the categorization… I can see Mr Howser feeling comfortable there. As would I.

  6. Hi Jon, thanks for stopping by the blog.

    You’re absolutely right, customers change their intent over time. This article’s ideas carry assumptions – that a customer is working with a time frame of a day or two for the decision process (you need to order a few weeks before camping trip to allow for shipping).

    I certainly do not mean to criticize sites for not speaking to my example – of course we could come up with a million scenarios and then pick apart sites for not doing X, Y, or Z. The main objective of this post was to illustrate how you can select a target customer/featured category, check out competing sites in your space to gather ideas for things you want to do and things you don’t want to do around design and messaging. It was meant to show an exercise using personas, combined with the Marketing Experiments concept of optimizing home pages to capture customers in different mind frames.

    Sometimes your persona falls in a gray area – has a general idea of what he/she needs, but isn’t going to head straight to a search box, he or she will browse, but not your entire site. You need to guide that customer segment to the right category, in this case camping. Merchandising zones, navigation, imagery and marketing messaging must all be taken into account. Therefore, make sure you’re focusing on the most attractive customer segments when developing personas :)

  7. As you mentioned the third category housers. But for these type of users the best helping search engine is Google. If you dont know what I am going to buy you just write the name of the item and it will show you a list of items or information.

  8. nice post! I’m surprised each time I do this with a customer, and we determine issues that would have never been detectable with regular web analytics.

  9. Linda, seriously, I love your articles – they are all so well-thought out and chock full of examples and visuals. This is a great piece.

  10. [...] of people talk about how to merchandise online effectively. Linda Bustos at Get Elastic and the folks at GrokDotCom do a particularly good job. But the simplest rule of merchandising came [...]

  11. [...] the searcher searches again with different keywords. Non-branded searchers are more likely to be Howsers (know in general what they want but not which specific product, may need more research and [...]

  12. [...] self-described Howser (knows generally what he wants but not specifically – still open to suggestion and in need of [...]

  13. Vijay R says:

    I stumbled upon your blog very recently, and think that its great! Thank you for all the knowledge you share.

    I like your idea of “howsers” a lot – in fact, I’ve even started a search company, WisdomTap, around the concept. The premise is that customers don’t know exactly what product they want, but they do know what they want to use it for – say, something as precise as a lens for photographing wildlife, or something less precise like a compact camera to capture memories of the kids.

    Its very early days for us yet, but we are seeing some evidence that users search for products in this way. They certainly write about what they do with these products in various online communities!

  14. It is quite interesting how you classify website visitors into Hunters and Browsers. This makes you think and analyze your website differently.

  15. [...] already talked about ideas to please howsers, but want to focus on hunters [...]

  16. [...] began as a howser hunting for information about GPS and comparing GPS models, but not looking for a particular [...]

  17. [...] but offers links to customer service items and Top 10 lists. The rationale is mobile surfers are “hunters” rather than “browsers”, and hunters prefer a search box. But is this a fair assumption – especially on a device where [...]

  18. webhost18 says:


    Great post, got surprised, issues that would have never been detectable with regular web analytics.


  19. [...] and research in blog posts about shopping cart recovery, the psychology of numbers in PPC ads, hunters vs browsers (vs howsers) and value propositions. I have also highly recommended attending Marketing Experiments’ free [...]

  20. [...] filtered navigation is to your site’s usability. Remember that some folks are “howsers” — they’re hunter-browsers. They are hunting for something specific, but prefer [...]

  21. This is the most comprehensive guide I have come across. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  22. Great post, got surprised, issues that would have never been detectable with regular web analytics.

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