The brief history of the internet is already littered with abandoned dreams and long-forgotten websites. Fortunately, the early days of e-commerce left a legacy of lessons learned that continue to help e-businesses avoid mistakes of the past as they forge ahead with their own web plans and dreams.
And perhaps one of the most important of those lessons is that not every business is going to strike it rich on the web. But that doesn’t mean yours won’t … especially if you stay focused on what you’re doing and how you could be doing it better. Are there new revenue streams you could pursue? Are there marketing strategies that might bring more people to your site?
Questions to Ask Yourself
There is definitely marketing value in putting up a business website whether you have the type of product or service that people will seek out and purchase online or not. But if your prime objective in having a business website is to make money from online sales, then you’ve got to ask yourself a few basic questions:
1. Why would someone buy from my website rather than from a local store — or from one of my online competitors?
2. How am I going to get potential customers to my website?
3. Once they’ve come to my site, am I doing everything I can to optimise the experience so they’ll stick around and buy something — and want to come back again?
Let’s look at the first issue: What are you offering that gives potential customers a reason to buy from you? For instance, can you promise:
If you’re confident that you can do all or most of these things, then you need to explore how to get all of the other fundamentals covered — starting with a website set up to accommodate secure transactions. There are many options available today, including numerous hosted e-commerce solutions that will help you set up and operate a web storefront for a fee.
Beyond the technology, you’ll also need to ensure you’ve got the inventory you’ll need, an efficient and reliable fulfillment plan and a customer service system. Just as there are numerous e-commerce hosting services, there are also numerous fulfillment services that will handle everything from inventory management and order processing to returns for you. But as important as customer service is to small businesses, make sure you’re extremely comfortable with the way an outside company treats your customers.
Spreading the Word
Once you’ve got the basics of an e-commerce infrastructure worked out, it’s time to develop some strategies to make sure potential customers find your site. The basics include things like:
Chances are at the outset you’ll want to try a variety of methods to determine what’s going to work best to draw customers who are focused on the goods or services you’re offering. Of course some will be determined by your budget, but there are several low-cost options to consider:
Search-engine optimisation/pay-for-placement: Search engines draw huge traffic. Making sure your business website is keyword optimised and submitting it to search engines doesn’t cost you anything and could result in some traffic coming your way. There are no guarantees though. What many find effective is pay-for-placement advertising with search engines. This will obviously cost money, but the plans are typically flexible enough to meet budgets large and small.
E-mail marketing: One way to get customers to your site is to get permission to send them e-mail messages or e-mail newsletters that include special offers, new products or services and other relevant and useful information. To save on design costs, you can customise the pre-built templates available in Microsoft Office Publisher 2003 to create both professional looking e-newsletters and websites. Two caveats: You do need to get permission before you send out e-mail and you do need to provide useful, relevant information. Sending unsolicited e-mail will anger customers. A steady diet of blatantly promotional e-mail will annoy them. Either way, it’s not effective.
Online networking: The web is full of user groups, special interest communities and other gathering places. If appropriate to your industry or product or service line, get involved in some of these groups. Offer your expertise on relevant subjects. This can be effective backdoor advertising that puts you in contact with potential customers. You need to follow the rules of the groups you join, but promoting your expertise can also promote your business website.
Banner exchanges: Type “banner exchange” into ninemsn’s Search and you’ll see a number of offerings that promote free and/or low-cost banner ad reciprocity within various website networks. Always read the fine print so you know that the one you’re considering is legitimate and will meet your needs. But realise this option is used by many small businesses as a way to introduce themselves to potential new customers who they might not otherwise attract.
Keeping Them Happy
Getting customers to your site is just the first step, of course. You also want them to make a purchase. And then you want them to come back again to make another purchase … and another. It would also be really nice if they had such a satisfying experience that they start telling friends and family about your website. So how do you make that happen?
There are some fairly basic recommendations that make sense for all websites engaged in e-commerce:
Make sure your site is user-friendly so visitors can easily find what they’re looking for
Keep your site fresh; update content often
Make contact information plainly visible and respond promptly to customer queries
Provide details on how you ensure that customer transactions are secure
Make customer service a priority
Invite customers to make suggestions and recommendations for site improvements
Post a signup form to collect e-mail addresses so you have permission to notify visitors/customers about special offers, newsletters and other relevant information
There are still other options that won’t work for all sites, but may be worth considering:
Free shipping can be prohibitive, when you’re running a business, but perhaps you can offer free shipping on online sales exceeding a certain price total, or free shipping during your slowest month of the year. Even if free shipping is out of the question, make sure your shipping and handling fees are reasonable and competitive, otherwise shoppers will go elsewhere.
Gift certificates and features such as gift registries and wish lists add richness to your offerings. The more ways you can appeal to customers, the better. These amenities also help bring new customers to your site.
Personalised e-mail marketing based on past customer purchases. If you’ve got a customer segment that buys a certain product, it makes sense to let them know when there’s a new version or an upgrade or an add-on that’s just become available. Again, make sure you have permission to e-mail them.
Finally, to ensure success stay current. Pay attention to what your online competitors are doing. Check out the e-commerce innovators. When running a business, you have to stay fresh. There are new lessons to learn every day.