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How to Start a Business Online

7 tried and true steps for attracting visitors to your site--and getting them to buy.

There is a proven sequence of steps you can follow to guarantee your success when you're starting a small business online. I've seen thousands of people start and grow successful businesses by doing the following:

  1. Find a need and fill it.
  2. Write copy that sells.
  3. Design and build an easy-to-use website.
  4. Use search engines to drive traffic to your site.
  5. Establish an expert reputation for yourself.
  6. Follow up with your customers and subscribers with e-mail.
  7. Increase your income through back-end sales and upselling.

Anyone, from newbie to seasoned online entrepreneur, can benefit from this process in learning how to start a business online.

Step 1: Find a need and fill it

Most people who are just starting out make the mistake of looking for a product first, and a market second.

To boost your chances of success, start with a market. The trick is to find a group of people who are searching for a solution to a problem, but not finding many results. The internet makes this kind of market research easy:

  • Visit online forums to see what questions people ask and what problems they're trying to solve.
  • Do keyword research to find keywords that a lot of people are searching, but for which not many sites are competing.
  • Check out your potential competitors by visiting their sites and taking note of what they're doing to fill the demand. Then you can use what you've learned and create a product for a market that already exists--and do it better than the competition.
Step 2: Write copy that sells

There's a proven sales copy formula that takes visitors through the selling process from the moment they arrive to the moment they make a purchase:

  1. Arouse interest with a compelling headline.
  2. Describe the problem your product solves.
  3. Establish your credibility as a solver of this problem.
  4. Add testimonials from people who have used your product.
  5. Talk about the product and how it benefits the user.
  6. Make an offer.
  7. Make a strong guarantee.
  8. Create urgency.
  9. Ask for the sale.

Throughout your copy, you need to focus on how your product or service is uniquely able solve people's problems or make their lives better. Think like a customer and ask "What's in it for me?"

Step 3: Design and build your website

Once you've got your market and product, and you've nailed down your selling process, now you're ready for your small-business web design. Remember to keep it simple. You have fewer than five seconds to grab someone's attention--otherwise they're gone, never to be seen again. Some important tips to keep in mind:

  • Choose one or two plain fonts on a white background.
  • Make your navigation clear and simple, and the same on every page.
  • Only use graphics, audio or video if they enhance your message.
  • Include an opt-in offer so you can collect e-mail addresses.
  • Make it easy to buy--no more than two clicks between potential customer and checkout.
  • Your website is your online storefront, so make it customer-friendly.
Step 4: Use search engines to drive targeted buyers to your site

Pay-per-click advertising is the easiest way to get traffic to a brand-new site. It has two advantages over waiting for the traffic to come to you organically. First, PPC ads show up on the search pages immediately, and second, PPC ads allow you to test different keywords, as well as headlines, prices and selling approaches. Not only do you get immediate traffic, but you can also use PPC ads to discover your best, highest-converting keywords. Then you can distribute the keywords throughout your site in your copy and code, which will help your rankings in the organic search results.

Step 5: Establish an expert reputation for yourself

People use the internet to find information. Provide that information for free to other sites, and you'll see more traffic and better search engine rankings. The secret is to always include a link to your site with each tidbit of information. 

  • Give away free, expert content. Create articles, videos or any other content that people will find useful. Distribute that content through online article directories or social media sites.
  • Include "send to a friend" links on valuable content on your website.
  • Become an active expert in industry forums and social networking sites where your target market hangs out.

You'll reach new readers. But even better, every site that posts your content will link back to yours. Search engines love links from relevant sites and will reward you in the rankings.

Step 6: Use the power of e-mail marketing to turn visitors into buyers.

When you build an opt-in list, you're creating one of the most valuable assets of your online business. Your customers and subscribers have given you permission to send them e-mail. That means:

  • You're giving them something they've asked for.
  • You're developing lifetime relationships with them.
  • The response is 100 percent measurable.
  • E-mail marketing is cheaper and more effective than print, TV or radio because it's highly targeted.

Anyone who visits your site and opts in to your list is a very hot lead. And there's no better tool than e-mail for following up with those leads.

Step 7: Increase your income through back-end sales and upselling 

One of the most important internet marketing strategies is to develop every customer's lifetime value. At least 36 percent of people who have purchased from you once will buy from you again if you follow up with them. Closing that first sale is by far the most difficult part--not to mention the most expensive. So use back-end selling and upselling to get them to buy again:

  • Offer products that complement their original purchase.
  • Send out electronic loyalty coupons they can redeem on their next visit.
  • Offer related products on your "Thank You" page after they purchase.

Reward your customers for their loyalty and they'll become even more loyal.

The internet changes so fast that one year online equals about five years in the real world. But the principles of how to start and grow a successful online business haven't changed at all. If you're just starting a small business online, stick to this sequence. If you've been online awhile, do a quick review and see if there's a step you're neglecting, or never got around to doing in the first place. You can't go wrong with the basics.

Allen Moon is the founder of On Deck Marketing, an internet marketing agency that specializes in product marketing strategies, e-commerce and online marketing.

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