Will Operation Choke Point Affect Your Business?

If you’re not doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about from the government. Concerns are running high with the introduction of the Department of Justice’s new “Operation Choke Point” initiative, however, after reports that otherwise legally compliant individuals in “morally questionable” industries are having their bank accounts shut down.

The genesis of this operation was an investigation of the payday loan industry that spanned all of 2011 and 2012. Four Oaks Bank of North Carolina was accused of knowingly processing checking account withdrawals made by payday lenders who were extending credit to customers without proper license and charging interest rates that were well in excess of what the law allows. They also allegedly processed payments for internet gambling and Ponzi schemes.

Four Oaks was the first bank to face a lawsuit under Operation Choke Point, and would eventually settle for $1.2 million without admitting wrongdoing. If the operation were limited to driving illegal and usurious lenders out of business, there would likely be very few complaints with it. However, public concern about the program was raised when an April 2014 article in VICE magazine suggested a link between a rash of unexplained closures of the accounts of porn stars and Operation Choke Point.

Banks don’t give reasons for these closures to the public, of course, so the link was entirely speculative on the part of the VICE writer. But the flames were fanned by op-ed pieces written by prominent bankers William Isaac (former FDIC chairman) and Camden Fine (president of the Independent Community Bankers of America), who both suggested that the DOJ was overreaching and targeting entire industries indiscriminately.

The DOJ has not made any formal declaration about the exact businesses Operation Choke Point is focused on, but speculation rests on a 2011 list of “high risk” industries published by the FDIC. The list contains some industries that are inarguably rife with illegal activity – cable box de-scramblers, drug paraphernalia, and Ponzi schemes, for example. But it also lists industries that do a lot of perfectly legal business – coin dealers, firearms sales, pornography, surveillance equipment and tobacco sales among them.

At this point, the connection between Operation Choke Point and anything except for the Four Oaks lawsuit is pure speculation. So how much cause for concern is there if you own or work for a business that the FDIC has tagged as “high risk”?

The FDIC’s original document from 2011 focuses almost solely on third-party payment processors and “remotely created checks”, which are payment authorizations that bear a signature that isn’t an original copy or do not have a signature at all. This was the primary point of abuse in the Four Oaks case. And while the FDIC was perhaps overly broad in naming some of these industries as “high risk”, it does nothing more than to advise banks to be more diligent in examining the account activity of payment processors associated with merchants who work in these industries. There is also still no direct evidence linking this list with Operation Choke Point.

Merchants who work in these industries will want to verify that their payment processor is reputable and operating entirely above board, but there is no evidence right now to indicate that businesses and individuals who are involved in the industries named by the FDIC need to worry about having their bank accounts shut down.

Five Tips for Creating and Monetizing Your Own Web Applications

You could make the case that designing a web application is the easy part of the app creation process; the hard part is actually monetizing it, or earning an income from it. For example, the user interface, or UI, of your web application is one of the most important parts of the application itself. The user interface will be the main area of the application that your users will actively use, so it is important that you ensure it is easily understandable and helps promote other parts of the application that could earn you extra income. Strategies like these can you improve your application and its monetization potential.

# 1: Highlighted Changes
To help ensure that your customers notice when there has been a change since the last time they used or updated the application, it often helps to highlight these differences for them. These changes do not have to be only to the application itself, but simply in its function or purpose; they can even be something as simple as the customer receiving a new message.

Five Tips for Creating and Monetizing Your Own Web Applications

Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

# 2: Keyboard Shortcuts
Keyboard shortcuts are a great way to make it easier for your customers to navigate through different parts of the application without having to open a dozen different menus to get what they want. If you decide to incorporate keyboard shortcuts into your user interface, you need to make sure that you either have a shortcut guide or have the keyboard shortcuts written next to the option in the menu.

# 3: Upgrade Options
This aspect of your UI will be used to remind customers that they can get more features by upgrading their accounts on the web application. Including a simple upgrade button in the interface itself that users will see each time they open the application will encourage quite a few free users to upgrade their accounts, simply due to the added convenience factor. Make your upgrade button stand out from the other buttons on the page. Many web application designers will do this by making the button either a yellow or golden color, but the final choice, of course, is entirely up to you.

# 4: Feature Promotion
This point ties in closely with point three. While the free version of your application may be high quality and very useful, it still needs to show the customer all of the other features to which they would have access if they were to upgrade their account. It is best to list the most relevant and appealing features near the upgrade button without taking up a significant amount of room. However, the feature list itself does not really need to stick out, as the upgrade button will attract users’ eyes.

# 5: Color Coding
To make it easier to spot different tools on the user interface, it can often be helpful to color-code the most important features. This will allow users to instantly find what they want after they have used that feature a few times, and it will help them differentiate between all of the different available options when they are a new user. The last thing you want is for a new customer to become overwhelmed by all the different options and just quit using the application you have worked so hard to build.

7 Strategies for Gaining Loyal Customers for Your Online Business

Consider the Pareto principle, commonly known as the 80-20 rule:  80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers.  While these figures may differ somewhat from one company to another, experienced business owners can testify that repeat customers are responsible for the bulk of their success.

Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So how can you acquire more of these high-converting customers?  This article examines 7 practical techniques you can implement right away in your own online business:

Make Use of Social Applications to Build Brand Awareness

Out of sight, out of mind.  In a world where countless distractions and competitors are vying for the affections of your customers, social applications offer a powerful solution for positioning your brand.  Use social media platforms to actively engage your customers, letting them know there’s a real person behind the logo.  You can also use e-mail newsletters to great advantage by creating helpful content and keeping customers posted about upcoming sales.  Including incentives such as product coupons within your newsletters will encourage your customers to stay subscribed.  Make use of RSS widgets on your website and invite customers to subscribe to your blog. 

Make Sure Your Company Policies Validate and Protect the Customer

Having overly rigid policies in place can be a business hazard.  Many customers simply won’t buy from a company with a no-returns policy.  This is especially true online, where customers can’t actually see or touch a product until it’s delivered to them.  Be as flexible as possible.

Offer Incentives at Every Opportunity

Let your customers know you value their business by rewarding them.  You might offer an incentive, such as a gift certificate, to a customer who refers you to a friend.  Besides creating a positive experience for existing customers, this has the added benefit of drawing in new clients and promoting your brand by word-of-mouth. 

Another great way to offer incentives is to have a savings program in place for your most loyal buyers.  By rewarding good business, your customers will view a sales transaction as an investment rather than an expense.

Make Your Website Approachable

Approachability is a key factor in building trust.  Make it easy for customers who visit your website to contact you, and be available for questions for as many hours of the day as possible.  Respond quickly and personally to e-mails rather than using an autoresponder.  Besides an e-mail address, your website contact page should include your phone number and a business address.  Consider using a live chat application on your website to address immediate problems. 

Having a comprehensive FAQ section and an About Us section on your website can also be very helpful in alleviating the concerns of first-time buyers.  Simply being open with your customers will establish your reputation as a professional, and new visitors will feel safer knowing you’re not some kind of fly-by-night scam. 

Keep in Touch Year-Round

Don’t just send chocolates on holidays.  Get in touch with your customers on a regular basis – ask them if they’re happy with their latest purchase.  Don’t underestimate the power of small talk.  The more you engage your customers, the more quickly you will build a trust relationship while getting to know a lot about them in the process.  Simply listening to your customers will open up opportunities to make them feel valued and win their loyalty.  This might come in the form of a wedding or a graduation, for which you might send a letter or a gift.  Get creative. 

Be Willing to Negotiate With Difficult Customers

Handle customer complaints as soon as they arise.  Be prepared to be flexible in providing solutions, even if this means bending the rules of your regular policies.  If a customer posts a negative review online, you can harness this to your advantage by responding promptly and politely and resolving the issue as reasonably as possible.  Other customers will trust you more if they see that you’re willing to work with buyers to ensure they’re satisfied with your product or service.  In this way, uncalled-for negative reviews can become a positive marketing tool.

Poll Your Customers

There’s no better way to do market research than to go directly to your customers and ask them how you can improve your product or service.  One of the simplest ways to do this is by adding a poll application to your sales page.  Simple checkout polls are less hassle for the customer than a lengthy survey sent several days after a purchase requiring them to fill out a lot of personal details.  With a quick poll, you might simply ask how a customer’s experience was and how you might improve on it the next time around.  You should also follow up with your customers a day or so after their purchase to make certain they’re satisfied with their product.

By taking advantage of every opportunity to strengthen relationships with existing customers and to win the trust of new ones, you’ll be able to position yourself as the go-to guy for your product or service.

Essential Conversion Tips

There are many ways to drive traffic towards your e-commerce website. Search engine optimization can move your site closer to the top of the search results, pulling in droves of interested visitors. Social media can generate buzz for your brand and a good email list can help keep prospects informed and interested. None of these techniques are worth much, however, if they don’t convert into a sale.

When you’re first starting out, it’s a common error to focus on traffic rather than on leads and sales. True, traffic is the lifeblood of any online enterprise — but only if you can establish a good conversion rate. These tips will help your enterprise to turn clicks into real sales.

Every successful enterprise starts with a solid and effective plan. The same goes for Web-based enterprises. Determine what you’re offering, how you’ll deliver it and what makes your business outstanding. Think about the elements your site will need to communicate with your visitors and what they’ll need in order to make a purchase. The better your focus at the beginning, the less patchy, fragmented or confusing your site will be.

Essential-Conversion-TipsIf your site is already up and running, the first item on your checklist should be your page load times. If there’s one thing that will send prospective customers fleeing, it’s a page that takes too long to load completely. Even a fraction of a second can be enough to cause your visitors to disengage. By streamlining your design and getting rid of any extraneous elements, you can shorten load times and make certain that you’re not keeping your customers waiting.

While multimedia elements such as audio and video can add value to your site, they can also be distracting and irritating. Media should not play automatically or obscure other elements when it launches. If the first thing your visitors have to do when they visit your site is close down an intrusive video or animation, they won’t be well disposed towards buying from you.

Next, examine your site’s overall usability. Your color, font and background choices can affect readability — ditch any low-contrast color schemes, distracting patterns or tiny typefaces. Interestingly, using a larger font size has been shown to improve conversion rates in many cases.

There should be a smooth path from your landing page to the point where a customer can place an order. If you make the process of buying your products too complicated, many people will be discouraged before they ever get as far as your checkout. Include clear pricing for every item and make sure there are easy-to-follow links to different products or sections. You should always include a site map — this is helpful to humans and also to the web crawlers that index your site for search engines like Google.

If you have a lot of different items for sale, don’t try to cram them all onto the first page. Catalog them and make sure that you have a fast, effective search system. Don’t limit the results per page too stringently — consider making the default 75 or 100 items rather than 10 or 20. You could even use an endless scroll, since most people are happier to scroll down the page than they are to click link after link to find the item they want. Just make sure that your automated scrolling element isn’t knocking navigation links off the bottom of the screen.

This final point can never be stressed too much: Registration should always be optional. Trying to force your customers to set up an account for no real reason can seriously damage your sales. Studies have shown that even if a prospective customer has selected their items and is ready to pay, telling them they have to register an account to complete their transaction will cause almost one-third of them to abandon their purchases. Only ask for the minimum amount of information you need to provide your customers with the items they want and reassure them that their privacy will be respected. Offer the opportunity to set up an account if they wish but always give them the option to check out without registering.

Instead, provide social media integration for your visitors. Giving people an easy way to link their Google Plus or Facebook accounts with your site is a more productive way of creating connections than adding an unnecessary registration step.

By keeping websites simple and avoiding common pitfalls such as unnecessary registration, Web-based businesses can avoid losing valuable sales. This article aims to address that problem by offering some helpful advice for those new to Internet marketing and e-commerce. It outlines some general ways in which conversion rates can be improved by making the sales process easier for customers to navigate.