E-Commerce Platforms and Using Technology to Market Your Business
That’s a long title, but I like to keep things simple. We’re talking about making it easy for your customers to find your business on the Internet and selling your products or services online.
Watching technology evolve is a lot like watching kids grow up. I always hear parents talk about is how fast kids grow up. One minute you’re changing their diapers and then the next minute you’re teaching them to drive. Technology is like that too, only faster. If technology was a child, it would be like Doogie Howser. Do you guys remember that 90’s show? Neil Patrick Harris was a child prodigy that became a doctor by age 14.
The 90’s weren’t that long ago. 1998 to 2018 – that’s only 20 years. It doesn’t seem like that long, but when you’re talking 20 years in technological advances, you might as well be comparing 2018 to 1918. Dial-up and AOL discs were like the Wild West. Today, we’re in the age of smartphones, voice search, and social networking. Take a moment to carefully consider these stats and their impact.
- 96% of Americans have shopped online.
- E-commerce is growing 23% year-over-year, yet 46% of American small businesses do not have a website.
- 125 Million U.S. consumers own smartphones and 62% of them used it to make an online purchase in the last 6 months.
- 80% of shoppers used a mobile phone inside of a physical store to either look up product reviews, compare prices or find alternative store locations
- 71% of shoppers believe they will get a better deal online than in stores.
We all know that in order to run a successful business, you have to meet the needs of your customers. The best way to do that is to meet them where they are. Based on these stats, we know that the majority of customers are online. So, I’m here to try to prepare you to meet your customers in the online world.
What do you need to get started selling online and to be successful?
There are four key components that you need.
- An eCommerce Platform
- A Business Plan
- An Effective Website and Design
- Meaningful Marketing Strategies
That’s your top-level overview. We’ll dive into each of them in more detail, but let’s pause. Take a highlighter to your mental notes right here. These four factors are all equally important and they are all required to be successful. If you fail in one of these areas, you’re going to fail in all of them. It’s like the tires or wheels on your car. You can drive home with one headlight, but not 3 wheels.
How to Choose an eCommerce Platform
When you look for a physical location for your store, you consider things like location, accessibility, space, appeal, cost, and so on. When you’re looking for an online platform for your store there are similar things to consider. An eCommerce platform is the online structure that is going to house your store and allow it to operate. So, you have to do your homework to make sure it’s going to meet your needs.
There are hundreds of different platforms out there. Some popular ones are WordPress, Yahoo Small Business, Shopify, BigCommerce.
Yes, some platforms are better than others, but this isn’t one of those times when you can just Google “best eCommerce platform” and get a magical answer. The “best” platform is the one that is most well suited for your particular business. Talk about your business needs with a professional who can guide you in making that choice.
Some of the things that you are going to need to consider are:
You might only have a handful of products now, but will this platform still be the best option if you want to add a few thousand more? What if your business really takes off and your online traffic dramatically increases. Will the server be able to handle that? An E-Commerce platform may impose limits or tiered-pricing based on traffic, number of transactions, sales amounts, or number of user accounts. Understand what those limitations are so you don’t get blindsided down the road.
Most a major E-Commerce platforms have ridiculously good uptime – generally over 99%. Stay away from any service that doesn’t make a commitment to their uptime. Other things to consider are maintenance and upgrades. Are server maintenance and 3rd party integration updates done for you? Will you be responsible for handling your own upgrades? Does this service offer backups in case something goes wrong? Do they charge to roll back your site? Not knowing these things in case of emergency can lead to a real “when it rains it pours” situation.
This is not a straightforward subject. There are a lot of factors here. First of all, compare the short term and long term costs. You might see a platform that requires very little money to get started, but it might end up costing you big in the long run. That can be in the form of pricey upgrades and migrations or even just lost sale potential. Also, look at the fee structure and make sure you understand what it means to your bottom line. Finally, consider your startup investment. There is a fine line between going overboard on your initial setup and having all the tools you need to be successful. Getting off on the right foot takes some investment, but it doesn’t have to break the bank.
Is your business a standard retail store? A lot of merchants can get by with a standard E-Commerce setup. However, others work in specialty industries. You might need some special features straight out of the gate to make the shopping process make sense to your customer base. Or, you might need to consider a more niche platform that specializes in what you do. Even fairly simple retailers can find that adding some features to their site can enhance performance. Know what features come with your store out of the box and what it takes to add more down the road. Is there an app store? Are your choices limited? You might even have to hire a developer to help you modify your store.
Making sure your checkout is secure is paramount. This helps to ensure that your customer’s private data and payment information is not stolen. However, making sure your non-checkout pages are secure is also a big concern. It wasn’t always this way, but thanks to the increase in cybercrime and changes that Google is forcing onto website administrators, having ALL of the pages on your website secure is going to be required for success starting this summer. Therefore, make sure that the platform you choose offers the ability to secure your entire store with HTTPS. Additionally, research whether or not an SSL certificate is included and if it’s an additional (possibly ongoing) fee.
Account ownership is equally as important as security. Through the natural course of website maintenance and upgrades, you might go through different service providers, developers, and other relationships over time. Something that happens quite frequently is business owners allow their employees or other service providers to setup accounts for them. This can unintentionally lead to sticky situations. Always make sure that you have the login credentials to all of your accounts and that they are set up in your business name. You don’t want to find yourself stuck if you need to access an account quickly, fix a broken service, or restrict access.
Syncing Your Online Business with Your Physical Business
In addition to researching e-commerce platforms, there is other homework you should do before starting an online store. You need to put together a business plan to make sure that your online store is going to integrate well into the rest of your business. Your research may cause you to reconsider your platform options or to rethink how you operate your business. Here are some backend business aspects to research.
You’re going to need to get your goods to your customers. If you already have a business that ships goods, consider how your online store is going to link up to your current systems. This includes everything from shipping rates to shipping labels. If you don’t currently ship any goods, don’t let this area be an afterthought. Figure out your order fulfillment process before starting your store.
Consider how you are going to handle your shipping rates as well. Online customers these days have come to expect free shipping. You are obviously going to have shipping fees from your providers, so how do you go about covering your costs? You could offer free shipping and calculate your shipping costs into your product prices. Another option would be to offer free shipping on purchases of a minimum order value set at a point that is profitable for you. Or, you can simply go against the grain and pass the shipping costs directly on to your customers.
Tax laws for online sales can get complicated and are always changing. You should really speak to an accountant or tax law specialist to understand any regulations you need to comply with. All eCommerce platforms let you control what you charge for tax. Just be sure to know what you are responsible for collection up front so that you don’t end up owning taxes.
Inventory control is very important for any retailer, especially if you sell your products at both a physical location and online. Will your e-commerce platform’s default inventory controls work for you? Do you need your online inventory to sync up with your physical store inventory or your POS system? These are things to consider before choose a platform and starting your store.
This is pretty straightforward. You’re going to need someone to process credit cards for you online. If you already have a payment processor for you business, you’re going to need to make sure your e-commerce platform is compatible with that payment processor.
Another thing to consider is fees. You may need to shop around for best rates. Your payment processor may also restrict what kind of merchandise you can sell if you handle regulated goods. Eventually, if you make enough sales, your payment processor may even require you to certify for PCI compliance.
How to Sell Your Products Online
Once you have your business plan worked out and your e-commerce platform picked out, you can move on to actually setting up your store. This is where a lot of people get into trouble and fall into traps. It’s easy to setup an online store, especially with all the do-it-yourself tools available today. However, throwing up a theme and a few products without much thought or purpose won’t make you successful. Here are some things you should consider.
Design for User Experience
User experience is the most important factor in being successful. Customers make a first impression about your business in a matter of seconds. If they can’t easily identify what you sell, how to use your site, or find the information they are looking for, they will immediately leave and try one of your competitors. A generic theme might be pretty, but is it easy to use, is it memorable, and does it entice your customers to want to make a purchase?
Get familiar with best practices for visual design. If this isn’t something you understand, reach out to a professional for advice. Remember that the majority of online shoppers are on mobile devices. Your mobile experience must be as user friendly as your desktop experience.
Build Your Brand
Everyone in business knows that it’s more cost effective to have return customers than it is to go out and get a new customer. The key component in return customers is building your brand. It’s your identity. Every part of your business from top to bottom needs to be cohesive. If you don’t make a memorable impression, you’re not getting that customer back. There are hundreds of other people out there selling the same stuff you are.
Your brand also needs to represent your mission. Why should people buy from you instead of your competitors. What makes your business unique. Tell your story. Customers that get invested into your brand remain loyal. Remember to sync your logo, design, and brand across all of your platforms and advertising.
Showcase Your Products
This makes a big difference in whether or not a visitor to your site is going to convert into a sale. High quality product photography is consistently something that consumers rank in their top 3 decision factors when making an online purchase. Make sure your photos are professional and highlight the product. Include alternate angles, action shots, and even videos for an amazing customer experience. Remember that they want this to be like going into the store and handling the product.
Your content needs to be just as good as your photos. The more information you can give a customer, the better equipped they will be to make a buying decision. If your store doesn’t answer all their questions, they will look for the same product somewhere else. Don’t forget to offer up-sells or cross-sells. Getting a customer to upgrade to the next model or buy accessories is an easy way to make your business more profitable.
Optimize Your Navigation
It’s about a 50/50 split on when it comes to using a navigation menu or a search bar. Some customers prefer one method, some the other. Make sure that both experiences are equally easy to use or else you’ll alienate half your audience. Either way, make sure that both your menu and your search meet two very important criteria.
- Make it easy to find the product you’re looking for quickly.
- Funnel the customer efficiently through the site and the buying process.
Create Effective Call-to-Actions
Every single thing on your website should serve a purpose. If you don’t know why it’s there, take it off. Your goal is to get your customer to convert. Therefore, your website needs to prompt them through that process. Make it clear and easy to see what the next step is. Don’t just say “click here” or even a generic call-to-action like “learn more”. Turn your call-to-actions into call-to-value. Show your customer that there is something they want waiting behind that next step.
How to Get Your Store Found Online
Having a great design and user experience doesn’t mean anything if no one is going to your website. You can’t just expect to launch a store online and have customers magically start pouring through the “door”. You are going to have to do some sort of marketing to get your business up and running.
The first and foremost thing that you need to do is have good content. We talked briefly about this earlier. It’s not only important to customers, but it’s also important to search engines. Having unique content (not copied from the manufacture or some other site) is one of the largest ranking factors and will have a large impact on where you show up in search engines.
Search Engine Optimization
Optimizing your content is part of a form of marketing called ‘search engine optimization’ or SEO for short. Another aspect of SEO is keywords. You need to have research on what words and phrases real people are using the find the types of products or services you are selling. Then you need to know how to strategically use those keywords in your content to help you rank for those terms. This can be a delicate and complicated thing to achieve. I would recommend starting out by getting a keyword analysis report done for you by an SEO specialist. Agencies tend to have tools and services they use to research that type of information that otherwise aren’t easily accessible.
SEO is a type of marketing that takes time to show results. It’s an “organic” form of marketing. Your are at the mercy of search engines such as Google. They determine how often they look at your content and how well they are going to rank it. If you need more immediate marketing results, you should try Pay-Per-Click advertising. This is a type of paid advertising done through search engines or social media platforms that put your ads directly in front of potential customers based on your budget. These ads can also target very specific audiences. You can narrow down your audience pool by all sort of things including age, gender, location, preference, and interests. PPC advertising can have a very fast turnaround but it can also be highly competitive ads. A PPC professional will be able to help guide you on how to run your ads to get the best return on investment.
Social Media Marketing
Social media is an avenue that you shouldn’t ignore. This is a great form of marketing and it’s becoming the most popular way to reach potential shoppers. The great part about social media marketing is that it’s something you can get started doing yourself with very little monetary investment. This is an organic “word of mouth” type of advertising; however, you do have to opportunity to get strategic and aggressive with your social media marketing as well. Talk to a Social Media Manager to get advice on how to make the most of your posts so that you can get more engagement. You might not see immediate sales from social media marketing, but it’s a great way to build up your following, brand, and customer loyalty.
Social media allows you to have a more personal relationship with your customers. They love to really feel connected. Another thing they love to do is to speak their mind about your products and services. The most popular way to do this is leaving reviews. There are tons of websites out there where people might be talking about your business. Make sure to be aware of this so that you can respond appropriately. Being unaware of how your customers are feeling can lead to a poor reputation that’s hard to shake off.
Furthermore, there are tons of 3rd party websites out there that relay important about your business to your customers. This includes things like your address, phone number, hours, and more. If incorrect information about your business gets floating around on the web. It can be very time consuming to correct. The good news is there are services out there than can help you manage the spread of this information and your customer reviews. These are called Reputation Management services. If you are concerned about your company’s online image, this is definitely something you want to look into.
You all know what email marketing is, but do you know how effective it is? It happens to be the most profitable way to leverage your existing customers. It’s a great form of marketing where you happen to be advertising to people that already want to hear from you. There are great services out there that can help you get started. However, I do encourage you to do some homework. There are laws and regulations concerning sending emails and how you handle mailing lists. Also, when it comes to design, keep in mind that most of your customers are opening their email on a mobile device.
That’s a lot of information about marketing, but I wanted to give you a sufficient overview into what your options are. Remember that marketing is one of our 4 fundamental building blocks to becoming successful online, along with your eCommerce platform, your business plan, and your website design. There is a lot of trial, error, and unpredictability when starting an online business and trying to grow it into something special. If you follow this guide, you’ll be off to a better start than most. Don’t ever be afraid to reach out to a professional to get advice or even to get help if any aspect is too technical or if you just don’t have the time to devote to it. And of course, we can help you get started on the right path if you get stuck anywhere along the way.