If you own a small business, odds are you’re looking for ways to improve customer satisfaction and improve sales. You probably already have an e-commerce website to help you achieve those goals. Unfortunately, far too many small business websites simply don’t work. Some lose prospective customers because they don’t work on mobile devices. Others have weak or no calls to action. Some are just poorly designed.
Is there a secret recipe for the top-performing e-commerce sites? Do they all have something in common? Surely their success is not an accident. How do they do it? Let’s take a look at the tricks of the trade that are being used by the sites which are generating sales like crazy.
How To Start An Ecommerce Business
Ecommerce has been growing for a while, and the numbers below don’t account for the recent events leading to an increase in e-commerce sales.
Building an e-commerce business takes more than choosing a brand name, writing product listings, and starting to sell products online. Even the best business ideas can flop if you aren’t driving enough traffic to your site.
Research Ecommerce Business Models
Beginning your research is the first critical step. Don’t operate off of a hunch. Growing any online business is an investment. Treat it as such.
There isn’t a single business structure that works for everyone. Service-based business, software, digital product sales, and physical products are just the tip of the iceberg.
Before you can decide on what to sell online, you need to understand the different business models available.
Learn the types of e-commerce business models
It’s not rocket science, but it does impact your business structure.
If you want to turn a profit without touching your product or investing heavily at the start, dropshipping is a smart choice.
If you like the idea of having your own warehouse full of goodies, you’re investing more upfront and working with a wholesaling or warehousing model. Have a business idea for the perfect product idea or a favourite product you wish you could sell under your brand? Look into white labelling and manufacturing.
And then there are subscriptions, where you carefully curate a set of products or a single product to be delivered at regular intervals to your customers.
The e-commerce business model that attracts the most is a single product category that you supplement with affiliate marketing. You can control the content marketing and branding on a focused product and focus the rest of your energy on driving sales by monetising traffic.
Start Ecommerce Niche Research
It pains me when people email me their e-commerce site, and it’s filled with hundreds of products, dozens of categories, and no real focus.
Unless you have a massive budget, you can’t be the next Best Buy or Amazon. You have to niche down to run a profitable e-commerce store.
Choosing your niche is the most important step in opening your online business. Start this process by identifying successful companies already working in this space.
Make sure that the area is competitive – an absence of competition usually indicates that there’s no market, either.
Don’t pick an overly crowded niche, however, and skip anything dominated by major brands. If you’re having trouble with this, drill down further on what you want to do – the more specific you are, the less competition you are likely to face.
Niche-ing down also gives you the benefit of having a lot of “shoulder” niches, related to what you do, but not identical. You can work together with business owners in those niches to cross-promote, become (or acquire) an affiliate, and grow your customer base.
Pick a product category with a minimum of 1000 keywords and focus on a niche that does well in social media, where publishers in the area are affiliates on Amazon. If you can nab a few affiliate marketing opportunities, you won’t have to worry about shipping as much product, but you can still make a profit.
Validate Target Market And Product Ideas
Now that you’ve identified a niche and business model, you might be tempted to start hunting for products to sell.
Don’t. Before you think about product ideas, think about personas. You can’t expect people to buy your product if you don’t know who you’re selling to.
Who are you? What does the store represent? Who are your ideal customers? You need to project a consistent brand image (a journey that starts with your brand name). An organic seed company that started selling conventional fertiliser wouldn’t last very long.
Once you’ve identified the image you want to project and the customer you are catering to, it’s time to come up with product ideas. Starting with this one – you’ll invest less at the start, and if you want to offer more, you can test the waters with affiliate marketing.
In the example of an organic seed company, you could find popular organic products on Amazon and create content to send traffic to those affiliate products. If something catches fire, you can consider making your own brand of that product. If you’re not 100% sure what to sell, you can use affiliate marketing to validate your idea.
Before you invest in the product, though, evaluate it carefully. Even if you choose a dropshipping model, you want to test it carefully and get a feel for the product yourself so you can identify any potential problems and prepare customer service scripts to answer common questions.
Register Your Ecommerce Business & Brand Name
If you want to start a successful business, you need a brand that connects with your persona. Identifying your persona makes building an e-commerce brand easier. You might avoid girlie colours and images if you are selling products to corporate businesswomen interested in living a sustainable life.
But before you set up your store and get into the nitty-gritty of building a brand – there are some basic steps you’ll need to take.
Register Your Business.
Choose a business name and register your company. There are legal protections and tax benefits for incorporating, so don’t skip it.
Pick Your Store’s Name
The name of your site and the legal name of your business doesn’t need to be identical, but keeping them consistent has its benefits. Make sure whatever you choose fits your niche – you don’t want to pick a brand name at the last minute.
Get Your Business Licenses
If you’re not familiar with this process, the Small Business Association has plenty of resources to help you get started, including a mentor-protege network and courses on small business basics. Look actively for mentors – their advice can be priceless, even for little things like acquiring business licenses. One of the smartest decisions I ever made was finding someone who could show me the ropes.
Get Your Employer Identification Number
You’ll need an Employer Identification Number (EIN) to open a business bank account and file your business taxes next April, even if you don’t plan on having any employees. Your EIN is a bit like your business’ social security number: it’s a unique number that identifies your business and helps you file important paperwork.
Apply For Business Licenses And Permits
Operating an online store does not exclude you from needing certain business licenses and permits. Check with your city, county, and state to see what sorts of sales tax licenses or home business licenses you need, and get those approved before you start operating.
Find The Right Vendors
You’ll have a lot of competition selling products online, so it’s in your best interest to find the best quality and best prices for the products you sell or materials you use to create your products. Shop around until you find a vendor you want to do business with long-term – this includes your e-commerce software (your “shopping cart”). Think scalable from the start.
Don’t fret over it too much, but do make sure that it is not in use by another company in your niche. Logo design doesn’t have to be original, however (and really shouldn’t).
Consider the colours of your brand, the imagery you’ll use, and the typeface or fonts you’ll employ carefully. If you’ve got the budget, you might want to hire a marketing firm to create a design brief for your company. If not, you can create your own. Just keep it consistent and read marketing tips designed to help boost your brand.
Finalise Your Ecommerce Business Plan
By now you should have a great idea of what your business will look like. You have your target market, your product niche and your brand name.
Now is a good time to step back and put your business plan on paper and determine your startup budget and monthly expenses.
The most important aspect of a business is the financial one. Figure out your break-even point, both in unit sales and duration (in months). Any real business is an investment of resources. That was one of the first things I learned in MBA school. A CEO’s role is to take resources and turn it into a return.
The business planning phase is also when you want to iron out details like your staff, product sourcing, logistics and marketing budget.
Create Your Online Store
Once you’ve legally registered your business and started thinking about design, you need to register your domain name and any redirect URLs that might be relevant. You’re going to need the design info you settled on in the last step now, when you finally build your store.
Whatever design you choose needs to be compatible with your e-commerce software, too.
There are literally hundreds of e-commerce shopping cart platforms. Choosing the right e-commerce software is not easy. You need to carefully evaluate things like loading speed, features, compatibility with different payment gateways, compatibility with your business structure, your web developer skills, SEO-friendly features, and more. I’m putting together reviews and comparisons to help you pick the right one.
Setting up your online store is much more than adding your products and content. You need to get your email marketing and automation set up as well.
This is important to set up BEFORE you get traffic. Email marketing is essential for driving conversions. Make sure you set up coupons, thank you emails, and upsells so you can turn visitors into shoppers. You also have to think about customer support.
Tips for your eCommerce small business
Establishing a successful online store can be no easy feat for small-business owners, so we’ve put together these tips to help you on your journey to eCommerce success.
Make site navigation as easy as possible
When it comes to navigation, simplicity is key. Customers may be deterred by pages of information or having to scroll through pages of unrelated items before they’re able to find the product they’re after, encouraging them to move on to the site of a competing retailer.
A good idea may be to categorise your product offerings as much as possible. Make sure your website and online store pages are clearly labelled and categorised, stating exactly what will appear when clicked on. Also, consider building a custom search bar built right into the eCommerce section on your website. This will help to simplify the process for customers who know exactly what it is they’re looking for.
Pick your niche
While you may dream of having business branches in every corner of the globe, it’s more realistic to cast your net narrower in the short run.
So consider the specific regions you want to target now. Separate these from long-term targets.
OFX’s Asia Pacific alliance manager, Edward Wiley says the US, Canada and the UK are traditionally good starting points for eCommerce sellers looking to trade in international markets.
He says these countries have some of the biggest eCommerce markets in the world and they’re also predominantly English-speaking, which would make the transition easier.
You can get away with selling in those markets in English, so it’s not too hard to duplicate what you’ve already done in the Australian or New Zealand markets.
Just bear in mind you’ll still need to factor in differences in pronunciation and colloquial terms. Wiley gives an example: If you’re selling a barbecue in Australia, it might be called a grill in the US.
Think like a visual merchandiser
Your eCommerce website should be visually appealing to encourage customer purchases. Minimalist pages with measured spacing between products can go a long way to prompting purchases, as products won’t look confusing or cluttered. Further, consider plain backgrounds with unobtrusive, muted colours, to help make your products stand out.
Entice customers with your product descriptions
Your product descriptions should encourage customers to buy, so they should be engaging and thorough. Pay attention to the details of each product and provide as much information as possible, to give the customer as accurate a description as possible. People should know exactly what they’re getting, as though they’ve hand-chosen the product out of a bricks-and-mortar store.
It is equally important to write descriptions in a tone suited to the personality of your brand. Are you friendly? Humorous? This can give customers a good idea of your business’ values, and differentiate you from competitors.
Keep your eCommerce website protected
Have you ever reached out to a hairdresser or restaurant to make a booking and have not received any response? Have you ever then proceeded to contact them again? The likely answer is no.
E-commerce allows people to shop all over the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To make it in an industry that is becoming increasingly competitive, you need to ensure your customer service is not compromised. Make sure you have enough people to cover the communications between your brand and the people who are interested in engaging with it.
Get social and remember SEO
A huge number of potential customers have their first interaction with a product or service online, and so having an omnichannel presence gives you the best opportunity of broadening your reach and growing your customer base.
Create social media accounts on the channels that are appropriate for your product or service and ensure you have the scope to have a team member who can dedicate time to creating relevant content calendars and engage with your audience through direct messaging and comments.
An estimated 43% of e-commerce traffic comes through organic (free) search, so it is equally important to put a budget behind an SEO strategy. As the e-commerce space becomes more highly competitive, it’s time to get competitive and try to gain ownership over the keywords that are associated with your business and brand.
Don’t forget mobile
The majority of adults (85%) think a company’s website, when viewed on a mobile device, should be as good or better than its desktop website, so your website must be optimised for mobile.
Ensure the design of your website makes sense on desktop, tablet and mobile. What may work on a desktop make be too crowded on mobile. It’s important to prioritise mobile in your design spec to ensure the user experience is consistent regardless of the channel they find you through.
Pivot with your customer base
E-commerce offers up a great opportunity to obtain customer research. You can see which products people are visiting the most, on which web pages people spend the most time, and how often customers return, among many other valuable insights.
Learn from the data generated by your users and use it to your advantage. Depending on your product or service, you can create packages or additional services that fit the needs and wants of your customers. What’s more, the digital space allows you to ask more people a wider set of questions. Don’t be afraid to engage your customers with online polls and surveys to find out how you can better their experience with your brand.
The e-commerce landscape is evolving. This means that the industry will get bigger and better in the coming years and new technological trends will make it more seamless.
As a growing e-commerce business owner, you need to keep track of these technologies and find ways to use the ones that best suit your needs. The above strategies will provide a better value to your users and make your business more successful.