E-Commerce

Definition: Business done on and through the web

In this day and age, e-commerce has become a household word. In simplest terms, it's the selling of products online. Via your own website or an online marketplace like eBay, you can promote and sell products online, taking orders and accepting payment--all without stepping foot in a storefront or ever seeing your customers face-to-face.

The most amazing aspect of e-commerce is its ability to impact sales and marketing efforts immediately. By going online, suddenly a neighborhood bakery or a home based consulting service expands its reach to a national or even international base of potential customers. Web-based sales know no international boundaries. Forrester Research, which analyzes online trends and statistics, projects the online retail market for U.S. businesses to be $230 billion by 2008. That's a full 10 percent of anticipated total U.S. retail sales.

Not only is the internet increasing the number of potential customers that a company can reach, but it's also driving profitability, according to research from IPSOS, commissioned by PayPal. The survey discovered that, far from being an extra "expense," internet operations boosted businesses' bottom lines. Of small businesses that sell online, 64 percent said the internet has increased their revenues or sales, 48 percent felt the internet helped to expand their geographic reach in the U.S. and 73 percent saved money by decreasing administrative costs.

Cash flow is of significant importance to a new business--online or brick and mortar. The IPOS study found that small-business owners who conduct business online feel it allows them to receive payments faster and conduct business easier. When entrepreneurs move online, they establish themselves on a level playing field with larger competitors. On the internet, even the smallest online retailer can be as attractive and as functional as the largest big box store--without the need to have a physical presence on every street corner. Often, small shops project a "boutique" feel that attracts shoppers, who perceive smaller businesses as more distinctive than larger stores.

Design and Navigation

Good websites begin with a good design that's simple to use. The graphic design and content on the homepage should grab the consumer's attention, and the interior pages should be easy to navigate. Information must be easily found and should be expressed in the "language" of the customer, rather than the company's internal lingo.

Here are 10 simple tips to consider when deciding on how the site will look and how customers will navigate through it:

  1. Immediately tell visitors on the site what the company does.
  2. Get users to the information they want in two clicks.
  3. Consider including headers and links that give the store's name, and show a "tree" branching from the homepage to the current page. Visitors should know where they are within the website at all times.
  4. Allow visitors to find answers to questions easily.
  5. Incorporate sufficiently large fonts and images, as well as audio descriptions where appropriate, so that content is accessible to users with disabilities.
  6. Pay special attention to the quality of information, and ensure that the text is written well and spelled correctly.
  7. Use buzzwords sparingly.
  8. Include a link to the homepage on every page so that in one click, users can be led there.
  9. Develop visuals that are useful, not flashy and distracting. Useful visuals include illustrations or photos of products, graphics that separate categories of products, or maps with directions.
  10. Determine which technologies are appropriate and which are overkill. For example, developing a Flash landing page may be a nice design feature. It will become prohibitive, however, if users have dial-up, a traditionally slow Internet connection speed.

Marketing Your Site

When it comes to conducting business on the internet, setting up a website is just the first step. The greatest website in the world does you no good if no one visits it. And attracting visitors is getting tougher by the day. With literally thousands of new websites created every day, the competition is tough. Here are some ideas for getting visitors to your site:

Promote your website in all your marketing materials. Put your website address on your business cards, brochures, letterhead, product packaging, promotional items, in your ads and anywhere else you can think of.

Get listed with the major search engines. Google, InfoSeek, Excite, AltaVista, Yahoo!, HotBot and Lycos are the most popular search engines. Visit their sites for instructions on getting your site's address, or URL, listed with them. That way, when online users do a search for "tennis rackets," your sporting goods shop's web address will come up.

In addition to the big-name search engines, there are hundreds of smaller search engines on the Web. Search online for companies that will do the legwork involved in getting your business listed with these engines.

Enroll in free link exchange programs. These programs will display your company's banner on other sites if you make space for third-party banners on yours. Just as with search engines, there are many link exchange programs. Search online to find them.

Set up links to related sites. A "link" allows visitors to your site to click on a website address and instantly link to another company's site. Send e-mails to sites related to yours and ask if they'd be interested in establishing mutual links. For example, a florist could put up a link to a local bridal shop's site and vice versa.

It's one thing to get visitors to your site and another thing entirely to get them to come back. Here's some advice on setting up a site that tempts users to stay and return:

Hit 'em hard. Put all your company's key information, including your e-mail address and toll-free number, on the first screen. That way, potential customers will not have to wait until all your information loads to get an idea what your company is all about.

Make connections. If possible, hyperlink your e-mail address; this means visitors can simply click to open a blank e-mail message and send you a note.

Have fun. People who surf the internet are looking for fun. You don't have to be wild and wacky (unless you want to). Just make sure you offer original content presented in an entertaining way.

Add value. Offering something useful customers can do adds tremendous value to your site. For example, customers can track their own packages at FedEx's site or concoct a recipe for a new drink at the Stolichnaya vodka site. You don't have to get quite that elaborate, but offering users the ability to download forms, play games or create something useful or fun will keep them coming back.

Stage a contest. Nothing's more compelling than giving something away for free. Have all contestants fill out a registration form so you can find out who is coming to your site.

Content is king on the internet. It's essential to have your site packed with a supply of product information, industry news, how-to tips or whatever other information your customers are interested in. More important, that information must also be kept constantly updated. Make sure the web designer you use is either willing to update your site for you or can show you how to do it yourself. After a web surfer has visited your site more than a few times and found the same information as the previous visit, odds are good he or she won't come back again.

You can use visitor information collected by your website software or web-hosting service to help you decide how often to update your information. If individual visitors are returning an average of once a week, for instance, you should add to or update your site at least once a week. The idea is to give them a reason to come back in hopes of seeing something new.

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