Running an online shop might spare you the pain of paying rent each month, but rest assured, you'll still need Alka-Seltzer.
Just ask Daniel Hallac, a co-founder of Kidmondo, an online baby journal service. Since launching his web business in May of last year, he's learned that keeping customers' credit-card information on file is something better left to security specialists. And, when it comes to customer service, the global reach of a website can mean taking a few late-night service calls.
But of all the obstacles that have surfaced in the last year, Hallac says marketing has been his chief concern. "When you have a physical store, you get foot traffic," he says. "In a mall, for instance, you can leverage a bigger store's brand name, but when you're online you need a plan to get that search traffic to you."
Indeed, "finding a good location is harder on the net," says Tobi Lutke, the CEO of Ottawa-based website host Shopify. "You get walk-through traffic on eBay and Amazon, but then you're competing on margins with the entire planet." And although landing web customers can be a cinch for larger businesses with deep pockets, smaller, less-flush internet firms may get better results by devoting more time to marketing and improving sales.
To be sure, many books have been written about drawing users to your website. And although you may yet buy one (perhaps on Amazon), here's a primer on attracting and retaining online customers today:
Help them find you
As Hallac discovered, the web is a hard medium in which to stand out. To raise your profile on the cheap, get listed on sites like Google's products page and other fee-for-service sites, says Jennifer Shaheen, a small business technology consultant in White Plains, N.Y. To improve your site's search engine rank, consider shelling out for search engine optimization, which requires weaving likely search terms into a site's copy and embedding them into a site's code.
Site owners looking to economize can also sign up with affiliate advertising networks such as ValueClick's Commission Junction, Hydra and LinkShare, says Yao-Hui Huang, the chief executive of Gigapixel Creative, a strategic web design and development firm in New York. Because these firms subscribe to the pay-per-action model, owners pay for ads only when someone buys.
Drum up attention for free via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, Hallac says. "I find people talking about the trials and tribulations of having a new baby and I give advice and recommendations," he says.
Help them shop
You don't need to pay a dime to launch your own site, but it must look professional and operate well, Shaheen says. Appropriate landing pages should correspond to key search words. For instance, if customers click on your advertisement for basketball jerseys and sneakers, make sure the landing page contains basketball jerseys and sneakers. "Instead of someone coming in to see the 30 categories [of products] you sell, you can drive people to exactly what they're looking for," Shaheen says.
Pictures must look professional. Even if you're not a photographer by trade and you can't afford to hire one either, ask the product manufacturer to send over some quality digital prints, Shaheen says. If you make your own products, consider investing in a so-called light cube, which provides even, professional-looking photos.
If you intend to offer an e-commerce option, choose your shopping cart carefully, as not all carts are alike. For instance, "if you plan on issuing special offers and discount coupons at some point, look for shopping carts that give you those extra features," Shaheen says.
Help them buy
Consumers don't like shipping fees. In fact, they regularly abandon their shopping carts because of them, Shaheen says. Instead of charging extra for shipping, she recommends building the fee into the price. And if you're worried about comparison shoppers, offer inexpensive enticements like access to specials or free content, Shaheen says.
Security also plays a big role in customers' decisions, Huang says. Every e-commerce site needs to have Secure Socket Layer, or SSL, protection, she says. Verisign and TRUSTe are big encryption providers. But if you'd like avoid having to install "Red Flag" rules (federally imposed failsafe measures to guard against identity theft), then look into payment gateways such as those offered by Authorize.net and Braintree Payment Solutions.
Finally, make providing quality customer service a priority. You may decide to answer your own service calls, but if you don't want to get woken up in the middle of the night, consider online chat tools, such as those offered by LivePerson and WebsiteAlive.
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