How to Make Your Ecommerce Site Happen
In their book Start Your Own Business, the staff of Entrepreneur Media Inc. guides you through the critical steps to starting your business, then supports you in surviving the first three years as a business owner. In this edited excerpt, the authors offer some essential tips on creating your ecommerce site.
If you plan to sell anything online, having an ecommerce plan is as important as your original business plan. Because you're exploring new territory, making decisions about technology and marketing, and establishing a new set of vendor relationships, a well-thought-out plan will serve you well.
Your ecommerce plan starts with website goals. Who are your target customers? What do they need? Are they getting information only, or can they buy products at your site? These key questions, asked and answered early, will determine how much time and money you'll need to develop and maintain an online presence.
Second, decide what products or services you'll offer. How will you position and display them? Will you offer both online and offline purchasing? How will you handle shipping and returns?
As you explore the web for vendors to support your e-business, have a clear idea of how you want to handle the "back end" of the business. If you decide to sell online, you'll need a shopping cart component, which is a means of handling credit card processing, and an organized order fulfillment process.
Finally, even if you build an amazing website, don't assume people will find you on their own. If you want to develop a consistent flow of traffic to your site, it's essential that you plan, execute and maintain an ongoing and multifaceted promotional strategy that's carefully targeted to your audience. This is in addition to the promotions, advertising and marketing you already do for your brick-and-mortar business.
The Name Game
Once you've decided to have a website, one of your first "to-do" items is to make a list of possible website names or URLs. Then run, don't walk, to the nearest computer, log on to the internet, go to your favorite search engine, and type in "domain registration." You'll find a list of companies, such as NetworkSolutions, GoDaddy and Register, that will guide you through the simple domain registration process. For a modest fee, you can register a domain name for one or more years.
If the name you decide on is taken, you'll want to have at least two or three backup options. Many of the domain name registrars, like GoDaddy or Register, offer several alternatives that are still available. From the available names, choose one that's easy to spell and remember, and describes what your company does. Make sure you're not imposing on someone else's trademark or copyrighted name. In many cases, the name of your company, with the addition of dot-com (www.[YourCompanyName].com) is a suitable domain name that you should definitely register. Once you've chosen a name, prompts on the domain registration site will guide you through a simple registration procedure.
With your ecommerce name established, start telling people your domain name and promoting it heavily. Print your web address on your business cards, brochures, letterhead, invoices and press releases as well as on your product packaging and within product user manuals and advertisements. Stick it on other items, too, such as mouse pads, T-shirts, promotional key chains, and even your company's van.
Once you've registered your domain name and have a plan in place for what you want to offer prospective and existing customers online, the next major challenge is designing and building your actual website or online presence. A well-thought-out site outline includes:
Content. The key to a successful site is content. Give site visitors lots of interesting information, incentives to visit and buy, and ways to contact you. Once your site is up and running, continually update and add fresh content to keep people coming back.
Structure. Decide how many pages to have and how they'll be linked to each other. Choose graphics and icons that enhance the content.
Design. With the content and structure in place, site design comes next. Whether you're using an outside designer or doing it yourself, concentrate on simplicity, readability, and consistency. Remember to focus on what you want to accomplish.
Navigation. Make it easy and enjoyable for visitors to browse the site. For example, use no more than two or three links to major areas and never leave visitors at a dead end.
Credibility. This is an issue that shouldn't be lost in the bells and whistles of establishing a website. Your site should reach out to every visitor, telling that person why they should buy your product or service. It should look professional, and give potential customers the same confidence they'd get with a phone call or face-to-face visit with you. Remind visitors that you don't exist only in cyberspace. Your company's full contact information—company name, complete address, telephone and email—should appear on all or most of your individual web pages and be displayed prominently on your site's homepage.
At this point, you have two options: You can bring your detailed outline to a prospective web designer, or you could go the do-it-yourself route. Once a designer has your outline, the process will be more efficient, but creating a website from scratch can still be costly and time-consuming. Consider researching one of the many website or ecommerce turnkey solution services, which allow you to design, publish, and manage a website or ecommerce site by customizing website templates using online design and management tools. These services are inexpensive, powerful, and allow you to create highly professional websites with no programming skills.
Once you know what tools and resources you'll use to create and manage the site, the next step is to organize your site's potential content into a script. Your script is the numbered pages that outline the site's content and how web pages will flow from one to the next. Writing a script also ensures your website is chock-full of appropriate content that's well-organized. Page one is your homepage, the very first page that site visitors see when they type in your URL. Arrange all the icons depicting major content areas in the order you want them. Pages two through whatever correspond to each icon on your homepage.
To create a successful website, all the elements must work seamlessly. Sure, having top-notch content is essential, but it must be displayed in a manner that's easy to understand, visually appealing, simple to navigate, and of interest to your target audience. It's not just about what you have to say, but it's also the manner in which you present that content that will either attract or repel your audience.
Finding the Host with the Most
Now that your site's design and content creation are well underway, the next step is publishing your site on the internet. For this, you have three basic options. The first is to host it yourself on a computer that can be dedicated as a web server (or a computer that's permanently connected to the internet) and has a broadband internet connection. This will prove costly to set up and maintain. For most online businesses, this isn't the best option, at least in the beginning.
The second option is to use an established and reputable web hosting company, which stores and manages websites for businesses. There are several large, well-established web hosting companies that cater to a worldwide audience, including Yahoo!, Google, and GoDaddy. Or you might prefer a local, small-hosting provider, since they offer a direct contact—especially important if your site goes down. Most of these companies also offer domain name services, so you can sign up when you choose your name.
A third option—and the most popular (as well as least expensive)—is to use a website turnkey solution, a company that provides all the site development tools and hosting services in one easy-to-use, low-cost, bundled service, which is entirely online-based. In other words, to create, publish, and manage your website, you don't need to install any specialized software, and no programming is required. Using an internet search engine, enter the phrase "website turnkey solution" or "ecommerce turnkey solution." Also, check out what's offered by Yahoo!, Google, GoDaddy and eBay.
Not sure which host to choose? Log on to Compare Web Hosts, where you can compare hosts based on price. Other variables include amount of disk space allocated to you, available bandwidth, number of email services offered, customer service support availability, database support, and setup fees. For even more information, check out CNET Editors' web hosting guide, with discount codes for some.
Many ecommerce entrepreneurs turn to web hosting companies to solve all their ecommerce needs, such as handling credit card transactions, sending automatic email messages to customers thanking them for their orders, and forwarding the order to them for shipping and handling—and of course, domain registration and hosting.
Another option is to incorporate an electronic shopping cart module, which allows people to place their orders online and process their credit card payment transactions. A site using a shopping cart module should have these four components:
1. Catalog. Customers can view products, get information and compare prices.
2. Shopping cart. The icon works like the real thing. It tracks all the items in the basket and can add or delete items as the customer goes along. It's like an online order form.
3. Checkout counter. The shopper reviews the items in their cart, makes changes and decides on shipping preferences, gift-wrapping and the like.
4. Order processing. The program processes the credit card (or payment option), verifies all information, and sends everything to the database.
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