12 Steps to Building a Successful Ecommerce Site in 12 Months
Launching your ecommerce website requires completing a long list of separate steps correctly and in the right order.
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Some experts predict that ecommerce will surpass $2 trillion in sales in the next few years - it's the fastest growing and one of the most valuable industries.
When you can shop online, seamlessly checkout, and then conveniently have your favorite pair of jeans, a nice new watch, or even a customized computer shipped directly to your doorstep, you might think the process isn't that complicated.
As a digital marketer, I have helped a lot of brands grow sales through e-commerce. This got me wanting to start my own e-commerce site, so I could truly understand the process and what it takes to launch an online store from scratch.
Below are tips and tricks that I learned during the one year it took my sister and I to launch DermWarehouse, an e-commerce website selling skincare and beauty products. The steps outlined below will not only ensure you take the quickest and most professional route to get your site up and running, it will also set your marketing and SEO up for future success, which will increase your bottom line.
One Year SEO Strategy.
If you've never started an e-commerce store from scratch, it's impossible to understand how time consuming and detailed the process is. When looking at any ecommerce site, you never think about the fact that someone had to craft content and individually load each and every product. Not only that, you also have to negotiate with each manufacturer to be able to list their products online, before the actual listing process even begins.
Aside from all the work it takes to actually build the site, from my marketing agency experience, I understood how frustrating it could be to have this functioning site and business model that you've worked so hard on, but not generate organic traffic. So, we kicked off our SEO strategy early, a year prior to site launch, while simultaneously building our website. We needed this time anyway for development, so why not make the most of it and kill two birds with one stone.
Below is a list of all the steps we took to get started and successfully build our e-commerce site:
1. Purchase a domain name.
This is pretty straightforward. You need a domain name that will perfectly identify your brand. Don't overthink the process. Using a site like GoDaddy, you can purchase a domain name for under $10.00.
2. Find a web developer.
This is a crucial component in launching your ecommerce site. If you want to launch your site in a relatively short time span and in a professional manner, make sure to do your vetting when it comes to hiring a developer. Get references from other ecommerce websites the developer has built. Get a timeline for how long they anticipate it will take to launch the site. Make sure they have a graphic design background so they can crop images that will align with your site. Be sure to ask if the developer has experience building sites on the ecommerce platform you choose (see step 4).
Too often, entrepreneurs move forward with a developer without doing their due diligence in terms of research. Don't let this happen to you, as it can put a halt to your website before you really even get started. If you want to learn more about how long your e-commerce site should take to launch, feel free to contact a web design specialist.
3. Get all the paperwork you need for a legitimate business.
Register your business, get a vendor's License and start looking into legal business issues. You should contact a local attorney to assist in the creation of your business. While it is an upfront cost, it likely will save you significant headache and expense in the future.
According to Alyson Letsky, an attorney at Eastman & Smith Ltd. in Columbus, Ohio, you will first need to strategize and determine the state in which you wish to be domiciled, then check the required filings with that state's Secretary of State and department of taxation or revenue.
You will need to register the appropriate articles of incorporation or organization with your state's Secretary of State if you are starting a corporation, nonprofit, limited liability company or professional organization. Additionally, if you will be making taxable sales, you will need to obtain a Seller's Permit or Vendor's License with the appropriate state agency. Many vendors will require that you have this as well before they agree to work with you.
If you are starting a nonprofit, check with the state Attorney General's office to learn what charitable licenses and filings are required. Lastly, you will need the appropriate organizational documents. Contact your attorney for more information, but this is not a step to be skipped or overlooked.
4. Select ecommerce and website hosting platform.
To save time and money, select a popular ecommerce platform. I recommend Shopify, WooCommerce or BigCommerce. Most developers are familiar with these, making it easy to integrate plugins, payment processing, etc.
For our skincare ecommerce site, we decided to use WooCommerce because of the its WordPress capabilities. We chose WP Engine for the hosting, which costs $29.99 per month and provides a fast and secure hosting solution.
5. Find a theme that matches your ecommerce vision.
To save even more time, you can purchase a theme from ThemeForest to find a layout that resembles the look and feel you desire from an ecommerce perspective. ThemeForest has over 28,000 website templates and themes from $2. They are the #1 marketplace for website templates.
Don't reinvent the wheel. Rather than building your site from scratch, download a template from ThemeForest or a similar site. We learned from experience that the customization process can be a very timely and frustrating one. So, if you can find a theme you like, you'll likely save yourself quite a headache.
6. Take your website live.
As soon as you commit to starting your business, take your site live, even before listing any of your products. Have your developer created a homepage, an "About Us" page and a contact page. It doesn't have to be beautiful but having a functioning site will be helpful for numerous reasons:
First, it will allow you to establish legitimacy when negotiating deals with vendors. You'll have more than just an idea. Second, when reaching out to reporters and bloggers, they can see that you have a website and are credible. Third, it will give you a place for all of these sources to link back to your site, which is, of course, key for building SEO.
7. Help a Reporter Out (HARO)
Help A Reporter Out (HARO) is one of the greatest tools for PR and SEO any business owner or digital marketer can make use of. It's free, it generates amazing exposure (if executed properly) and it can really be a game changer (again, if executed properly).
HARO provides journalists with a robust database of sources for upcoming stories and daily opportunities for sources to secure valuable media coverage. Sign up and use this resource as much as you can to build credibility and establish media relationships for your site.
When it comes to HARO, there are several key components to executing. The first is timeliness. When a reporter submits a query, they can receive hundreds of pitches in response. Each query has a deadline as well, so making sure you respond immediately, in the morning, afternoon and evening is critical for both reasons.
The second key element is finding a true industry expert with ease of access. Fortunately, we had a dermatologist at our disposal at all times for DermWarehouse. This provided us with an advantage over the thousands of pitches that deal with entrepreneurship (which we still responded to also, but had a lower conversion rate).
If you spend the time and send back two pitches per day for a one-year timespan, you will get tremendous exposure on some of the most popular sites on the web. This will not only help increase your brand exposure, it will greatly help your SEO as well.
Developing relationships with media contacts is a very important. This is where Pitchbox comes in. Pitchbox automates the outreach grunt work so you can focus on what you do best -- creating real, person-to-person connections with the people you want to reach. Pitchbox helps scale your outreach efforts. It handles all aspects from the prospecting to the emailing to the tracking and managing the workflow.
After PitchBox sends an initial pitch, if someone doesn't respond, their SaaS software will send a follow-up email based on a timed schedule. You can craft your own emails (both initial and follow-up) so that the message still sounds personal.
Pitchbox starts at $95 for startups and is a great resource to generate high quality relationships. We used this service for vendor outreach and also for media outreach. It saved us an enormous amount of time. If you're also a Moz user, you can integrate Moz within Pitchbox, allowing you to filter your search results based on domain authority.
9. Personalized outreach.
Personalized relationships are very important, both for vendors and for the media. If you have successfully implemented an SEO strategy, you definitely understand the value of personalized relationships.
Make sure to pitch the website something of value. It is important to do research on reporters and editors so when you pitch them a story idea the email doesn't get buried in their inbox or deleted unread.
Let's say your ecommerce store sells "Pete's Pasta Sauce." Share your expertise through articles teaching readers and cooking aficionados about your most delicious recipes. Send an editor a sample of your pasta sauce to help explain to them why your pesto stands out among the competition.
If you're only selling your own homemade pasta sauce, you won't be dealing with vendor relationships but if you're selling different brands and products you will be working closely with these vendors. Or at least you should be!
Pick up the phone or meet your rep for coffee. The vendors are the people who dictate sales and promotions. They can keep you up to date on the latest trends for their brand to help bolster your sales. They are the people who know the most about the products you're selling, so it's very important to establish relationships with them. Let them know that you're a team and you want to work with them to garner success for both of you. They will appreciate it and think of you anytime they have a special deal or promotion, or even a great marketing idea. If you've built a relationship with them, yours is the website that they'll want to share these ideas and offers with.
10. Get a payment gateway.
Did you ever wonder how credit card payments were accepted on ecommerce websites? It's through a payment gateway and also a credit card processor. You are likely most familiar with PayPal or Stripe. But if you want to accept credit cards, recurring billing and mobile payment, a gateway like authorize.net or 2Checkout.com provide great options. WooRockets.com provides a great list of the "5 best payment gateways for e-commerce websites."
All of this information will need to be visible on your website. Make sure to also have a clean credit history, a U.S. driver's license or state ID, a U.S. bank account for the business where funds will be deposited, and a federal tax ID. You'll need a voided check (or a bank letter with your account information) and it's also a good idea to include a cover letter with your application explaining your business and why you'll be successful.
Setting up your payment gateway and credit card processing can take a while. These processors don't want to take a big risk on a business without experience or that is unlikely to be successful, so you must prove to them that this is not the case with your business. Don't wait until the last minute to start this process.
11. Google Shopping + Facebook Product Catalog.
We've talked a lot about building your SEO presence during the development process so that, rather than waiting for the website development to be completed and starting your SEO from scratch, you can start to bolster your SEO while your developer is plugging away at your site.
There are some things, however, that you cannot complete until the site is ready to launch and the products are all uploaded. When you are in the final stages of development, make sure to get your Google Shopping Campaign set-up to ensure your product images populate when users search for relevant keywords. If you are unfamiliar with Google Shopping, I give step-by-step instructions on "4 easy steps to set-up a Google Shopping Campaign through Merchant Center."
You can use this same data feed from the merchant center and upload it to Facebook's product catalog.
12. Order packaging and figure out shipping/storage options.
Before you can launch your website, you'll need to figure out how to store and ship your inventory. You will have to determine storage to make arrangements for with your vendors. Some questions you will need to answer are as follows:
Will you be utilizing drop shipping or will you store all of your inventory in a warehouse? Will you use USPS, UPS, FedE, or some combination of the three to ship and track packages? What will you ship your package in? What size packaging do you need? Are you going to include any promotional materials in your packages? Are there shipping restrictions on any of the products you're offering (e.g, there are some beauty products can only be shipped via ground)?
You need answers to all of these questions before you're ready to ship out any merchandise. As you can see, starting an ecommerce website is quite an involved and detailed process. Following this checklist will ensure you take the proper steps to get your website launched in a timely manner while being proactive with your SEO and marketing.