Creating an Online Business – Your Website Startup Boom or Bust

Not too long ago there was no such thing as running an online business.  Everyone, consumers and businesses, did all their business over the phone, by letter, or in person.  But, over the past couple decades things have changed dramatically, and today successful online businesses are growing at a rate greater than 16%, while in-store sales growth is dramatically less.  Are you thinking of joining this exciting trend?

Starting an online business requires a few things that you should know about and to be thinking about.  Though there is always a lot of details to sort out with an online eCommerce website, just like running an in-store business, the type of details can be very different.  Online details are not about the way products are arranged on the shelf, or where you put your check-out counter, or even the location of your store in town, but it has a lot of similarities to each of these … except everything is digital.  

Yes, you do need to worry about how products are arranged on your website, and you do need to think about your check-out counter online, and you also need to give some serious consideration to your location of your website URL.  So it is the same, and yet entirely different.  Let’s go through what it takes at a high-level for you to consider getting your business online.  

There are 3 areas of focus here:

  1. Building
  2. Promoting
  3. Selling

1. The first area to consider is building your online website for eCommerce.  

You should start by thinking about who is going to be your website developer, the person who oversees all the technical development of the website.  Building a website is similar to producing a film, building a house, or writing a book.  It’s a construction project that requires certain skills and knowledge of the website infrastructure and functionality.  If you believe that you have all these skills, or could learn where you may have gaps, then you could be the developer for your site.  If not, then find someone else to be your developer.  

Go about this process just like you would if you were to find someone to build your house; interview multiple candidates, get multiple quotes, and discuss various options for the website that you believe would best fit your type of business.  A great developer will also have good references that you should check-out, and is someone you believe you would work with well.

 Once you’ve identified your website developer…

You should next start to think about the content and the management of your online information. We call this information architecture. This part comes in two types: marketing and sales content, and your product or services information.  Yes, when you go online you do need to immediately think about marketing and sales because you do not have a storefront to draw people in.  It’s the same thing as thinking about setting up your storefront; the window displays, the arrangement of shelves, the decor and more, but when you shift to online selling, it’s all about the words and pictures.  

Write up a description of your business, why they should buy from you, and why you are different from other businesses.  Also, think about the type of images you would like to show, your store persona, and the atmosphere you would like to communicate on your website.  Your developer can help you find the pictures but he or she will need direction from you, because you know your business best.

 The shopping cart

With a developer in place, and your content direction under your belt, you’re next step to think about is the shopping cart.  Of course shoppers on your website will be looking at all your products or service options.  Eventually they will select something which then is placed in the shopping cart.  Once done, you need to think about making the checkout process smooth.  There are good ways and poor ways to check out so consult with your developer on these options.  Hint: the best way to check-out is for the user to stay on your website, but their payment information is never processed through your website.  This can be implemented by knowledgeable developers along with your choice of payment processor.

Before we go to the next area, you should also prepare and set up reporting and analytic tools as part of building your website.  Integrating these tools will help you track traffic, see usage results, and analyze how your customers experience your website.  This information can help you make changes to your website to improve traffic and sell more.

2. The next area to consider is promotion to generate traffic on your eCommerce website.  

The first thing that comes to mind for many small and medium business owners is to send email blasts to their prospective customers.  We get email advertisements every day and now we get so many that we often do not read them, or we’ve set up filters to delete them automatically.  Email blasts are one form of what marketers call outbound promotion, where the vendor sends out information about their products or services.  

There are other outbound promotion types, such as mailings, online advertising, and web banners (the latter two are commonly called Search Engine Marketing, or SEM.)   And we know that the response rates from outbound promotion tend to be extremely small.  (If you’re lucky, you might get 1 response out of 400 to an email blast!)  Still, outbound has a place to create awareness about your business beyond just generating traffic.

 Inbound promotion

Another way to generate traffic is what is called inbound promotion.  This is the idea that shoppers come to your website to take a look, and then they respond to your call-to-action on your website, such as to create an account, or to provide their email contact information.   In other words, inbound is when the shopper decides that they want to stay in touch with you.  

The key to inbound marketing is to have great content on your website.  Search engines have special techniques that go out and collect data from everyone’s website, including yours.  They use this data as part of their search repository so that when your shoppers are using their search engine they can find your website (called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.)  Yahoo, Google, Bing, and other search engines have a process and methodology that they use to try to decipher what the shopper is trying to find when a search request is made.  There is an art to improving your search engine results, but it starts with well written, unique, and informational content about who you are, what you do, and the value you offer.

 Today it is difficult to omit social sites as another promotional method.  

There are over 30 consumer and business social channels today, so you need to decide which ones you want to be present and active on.  Don’t just put you company information on a social site, and ignore it; keep you site active, add blogs, respond to questions or discussions, and keep your presence evolving in order to increase social traffic, and as such, to lead customers to your online eCommerce website.

A final promotion approach is called retargeting.  Statistics show that as many as 98% of shoppers on your website will not buy anything in their first visit. You need to get them back to your website again, and this process of advertising is called retargeting.  There are some great tools that can help identify who was on your website, including by IP address, so that you can push an advertisement, or message to them after they’ve left.

3. The last area to consider is sales.  

If you are selling products, think through your sales process on your website. Make sure it is easy, and that you have multiple options for the customer to contact you or one of your sales persons.  Integrate a chat system, and add multiple ways for the customer to make contact with you: phone, email, online forms, etc. Put these contact methods on every page so that it is only a single click away for the shopper to get more information and to have their questions answered.

If you are selling services, make sure your services are fully described in as much detail as reasonable. Include a copy of your service agreement terms, provide a form online for them to complete.  One of the most important service items to close a deal is scheduling. Shoppers want to know when services will be performed as that can be a key decision factor. And lastly, consider including a quote before you need to speak directly to the shopper, if you believe that shoppers’ are less likely to phone you until they know the costs.