- The Definitive Guide to Starting an Online Business
- How to Find Online Business Ideas and Source Products to Sell
- The Paperwork: How to Make a Business Plan and Register as an E-commerce Company
- How to Set Up a Website for E-commerce
- How to Set Up Online Payment Methods to Accept That First Purchase
- Pick Packaging That Saves You Money
- How to Ship Products for an Online Business
- Successful Marketing Strategies for Small Businesses
- Small Business Customer Service Strategies Explained
- How to Handle Customer Returns
- Fulfilling Orders at Scale with a 3PL or Management Software
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About the Handbook
We’re diving deep into every facet of creating an online business to make it easy for you to get started and scale quickly. Hear from top e-commerce SaaS providers and online retailers for the best advice to achieving success — from choosing a product and building a website to creating shipping labels and processing returns.
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Once you’ve set up your e-commerce business, you sure don’t want to keep it a secret! Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies to market your small business online, with a wide range of methods described in this chapter. Take a look, choose a marketing mix that will offer the best benefits for your bucks—and then monitor and tweak, as needed, as you spread the word.
Small Business Marketing Strategies Checklist
- Content Marketing
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Digital and Paid Advertising
- Native Advertising
- Social Media Marketing
- Email Marketing
- Online Reviews
- Leveraging Analytics
- Conversion Testing
At its foundation, content marketing involves strategically and consistently creating valuable content that’s relevant to your target audiences to attract them, deepen your relationship with them, and retain them. Through a series of steps, you can move them towards the sale without the need for hard-sell ads.
This can be a highly effective marketing strategy, one employed by big brands, whether a company is B2B, B2C, in manufacturing and more. Enterprise-sized brands, such as Microsoft and Proctor and Gamble, use content marketing. So do small businesses. Besides being quite effective, it’s totally scalable.
A 2020 report shows that companies that use content marketing note how this strategy allows them to achieve important goals. The first statistic in each bullet point is from the B2B study; the second, from the B2C one. Content marketing allows these companies to:
- Create brand awareness: 86%/84%
- Educate their audiences: 79%/75%
- Build credibility and trust: 75%/65%
Here’s a more in-depth look at content marketing.
Pieces of content need to be laser targeted to their audiences. To achieve this, many companies create personas. These can be thought of as composite sketches or archetypes for each of the main groups of customers that may be interested in your company’s products. They’re used internally, so some companies create easily-recognizable persona names that they wouldn’t share outside of the business. Does one line of your product especially appeal to young adult men? That persona could be named Tommy Twenties.
To create your first persona, imagine the ideal customer for your most important product line. What would be this person’s demographics—which can include age, gender, and more? If your company is B2B, what job function would this person have? Marketing? Sales? IT? If B2C, what interests and hobbies would this person have? How big is their family and what are the ages of their children?
What challenges does this person face and how will your products help your customers to solve them? What kind of information might this person need before making a buying decision? What kinds of keywords would they likely search to find solutions? What online platforms is this type of person likely to use to find information? LinkedIn? Twitter? Going directly to the blogs themselves?
Gather all this information together, and update as you start to get real customers coming in.
When creating content on your site, first create a good amount of “awareness” content. This can be in the forms of blog posts, infographics, videos, podcasts, and so forth, where you share information that describes a problem. Also provide solutions. This content is, overall, non-promotional, although you will want to include a call to action to invite site visitors to further engage with you. You can, for example, suggest other helpful pieces of content on your site. In this content, think fairly low key selling.
“Evaluation” content is the next piece of the strategy, and this may include quizzes that site visitors can take or downloads they can receive, as just two examples. No matter what form this content takes, it should cause site visitors to further engage with you and turn them into potential leads for your company.
Next up is “conversion” copy that helps people to make informed buying decisions. These can be case studies, for example, or webinars that compare one version of a product against another type to help people make a smart choice.
In general, this content should not be “gated,” where a password or a membership is required. These three stages of content are intended to educate site visitors and bring them closer to a sale so you’d like anyone who could become a customer to have easy access to this material.
As a related strategy, you can find websites with audiences that are similar to yours and ask if you can write a guest blog post on their site. In this scenario, you typically don’t pay for the opportunity, and you don’t usually get paid for your content.
Guest posts are largely educational and non-promotional, although you can often include a brief bio and link to your site at the end—the goal is to share information about your company to a broader audience. In other words, to increase your reach.
Back when e-commerce was new, companies could get away with simply throwing up a sentence or two about each product, confident in the fact that there weren’t too many competitors selling something similar online. That’s not how it works nowadays, though—at least not if you want your website to work hard for you—and so it typically makes sense to give time and attention to your product pages.
At their core, product pages should contain compelling descriptions that engage readers and provide an accurate description of what’s available for sale. If your business is relying upon organic search engine optimization (SEO) to drive traffic to your product pages (more about that later in this post), then you’ll also want to optimize each page for relevant keywords.
You may decide that not all product pages are equal, and you might therefore create more in-depth copy for a luxury item than for a commodity that’s less expensive—or invest more time in descriptions of your core products and less for supplementary ones. Each situation is unique.
Questions to ask yourself when creating product page copy can include:
- Would this entice our target audience to buy our products?
- Is the copy written in a way that represents our company’s brand?
- Is the call to action clear and compelling?
There is also a special kind of coding called “schema” that provides even more information to Google and makes it easier for your site to become more visible on search engine results pages. Here is information about product page schema.
Blogging can be a very powerful marketing tool for e-commerce sites, especially if you will be using organic SEO to drive traffic to your site. Blogging gives you an opportunity to continually provide fresh content to prospects and customers on a wide range of relevant topics, optimizing it for relevant keywords and engaging site visitors.
Plus, you can provide snippets of each post on your business’s social media channels, along with a link to that post on your site. This can be an excellent soft-sell approach to getting people on your e-commerce site.
Besides increasing traffic to your site, blogging can also educate customers—and research has shown that people are 131 percent more likely to buy a product after they’ve read “early-stage, educational content.”
Plus, blog posts are a key element in content marketing strategies.
Calls to Action
When creating content, make it super simple to see how to buy, with a button or text that says “Buy Now” or something similar. In educational blog posts, you might have a call to action that encourages someone to download a white paper in exchange for their email address or some other call to action that helps them to engage more fully with your site and company.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is typically a must small business marketing strategy today. When content is well optimized, it tends to rank more highly on search engines such as Google and Bing, providing your e-commerce business with more visibility. Here are elements of SEO.
When you create a piece of content for your website, perhaps a landing page, blog post, or case study, it’s important to conduct keyword research to find the appropriate ones for the page. Keywords are phrases that people use to find the product, services, and information that they want and need. At a high level, you’ll want keywords that are relevant to the page with reasonable to good monthly traffic and manageable levels of competition.
Quality keyword tools often cost money to use, although you can sometimes get a free trial before choosing which one is best for your needs. Popular choices include:
If you’re also going to include pay per click advertising with Google AdWords in your online marketing mix (more about that in this post), you can find keywords for those ads for free in the Google Keyword Planner and then use this tool for your organic search optimization, as well.
There are other ways to get free insights into keyword data, although what you’ll receive likely won’t be as robust as what’s available in paid tools. These include, among others:
Now, what do you do with these keywords?
Optimizing Content and Tags
Some keywords have purchasing intent behind them, such as “blue widgets for sale.” That keyword would make sense on the blue widget landing page or product page. Others have informational intent; perhaps “What is a green widget?” That would be an ideal keyword for a blog post.
After choosing which keywords make the most sense for a particular URL, you can then strategically insert them into the post’s title, sub-headlines (H tags) and body copy in ways that read naturally and well. Don’t overuse keywords on your pages, though. This can be considered spam, which can actually hurt your rankings and make it less interesting for site visitors to read.
Also use them in the post’s title tag, which is a ranking factor in Google, as well as in the meta description tag, which entices people to click on your URL rather than one on your competitor’s site. People see these two behind-the-scenes tags when your site appears in search engine results pages, not on your site itself.
There are three kinds of links to consider on your site:
- Internal links
- Inbound links
- Outbound links
The first type can take a site visitor from one page on your site to another page on your site. You can include these to provide site visitors with more information from your website on a subject, and share links to additional products that someone might want to buy.
Internal linking can help to keep people on your site for longer amounts of time. When they stay longer, Google may use this type of engagement metric to rank your site higher.
It can make sense to include keywords in the anchor text of internal links (the text in the link that leads from one page to another) or at least put keywords near the anchor text.
Inbound links are those that come from another site into yours. If, for example, you’ve created a post that contains valuable and original research that you’ve conducted, other sites may link to your site so their customers and readers can benefit from that research. When your site has a good inbound link profile (one that’s got a nice number of quality links that are relevant and are from a diverse number of sites), this can help your site rank higher in Google.
Outbound links are those you insert in content on your site that link to other sources. In general, you wouldn’t want to use outbound links on product pages because you want to keep people engaged in the buying process. In blog posts, though, you might link to important research, statistics, or quotes from credible sources. This helps to establish your site as one that’s part of a “good neighborhood” that recognizes quality.
As part of your SEO strategy, you may decide to include location-specific keywords. For example, if you create unique t-shirts for different cities in the United States, you may have a page for Chicago, a page for Miami, one for San Francisco, and so forth. On those pages, it would make sense to use geo-targeted keywords (personalized Miami t-shirts, for example).
For many companies, it makes good sense to incorporate local SEO into their online marketing strategies. Why? Because 46 percent of searches in Google have “local intent,” e-commerce companies that don’t focus on local search can be at a disadvantage if competitors do.
An important step in your local SEO campaign is to create or claim your Google My Business (GMB) listing, filling everything out fully and accurately, optimizing the content with keywords. It’s especially important that your name, address, and phone (NAP) information is exactly right. Also add eye-catching images.
As another step in setting up local SEO, seek out relevant directories online and get your business listed in them. In each case, make sure your NAP is consistent.
And, here’s an ultimate goal for companies in certain industries. Your website can appear in one of the three coveted positions in Google Maps (Local Pack) for a relevant keyword, which is a super visible location in the search engine results pages.
Digital ads can help your company reach customers. Here are insights into four types of them.
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Types of SEM ads include:
- Pay per click (PPC)
- Pay per impression (PPI)
- Pay per sale (PPS)
Because PPC is the most common choice, available through search engines, we’ll focus on that option. This involves creating short and punchy ads, optimized by keywords, that are relevant to your audience. The best part? Your company only pays when someone “clicks” on your ad. Another advantage of PPC is that ads appear in prominent places in the search engine results pages for relevant keywords.
Different keywords have different levels of competition and, as levels of competitiveness go up, you’ll pay more for each click. To gain the ability to use these keywords, you must first bid on them. Before participating in the bidding process, you’ll need to be clear about your daily budget, how often you want your ads to appear, and at what days and time of day.
You can think of this process as an online auction where you and your competitors bid on keywords of choice. Make sure that these keywords have commercial intent (not educational/informational). After you’ve secured appropriate keywords, then it’s time to strategically craft your PPC ads.
Elements of an ad typically include:
- Body of the ad
- Call to action
- Image (in some instances)
- Link to a page on your site
Monitor how each ad performs and tweak them to maximize performance. One of the benefits of this type of digital advertising is, in fact, how easy it is to experiment with each of the elements listed in bullet points above, as well as the amount of budget, timing of ads, and so forth. You can use what you’ve learned to home in on what appeals to your target audience, as well as what doesn’t. Google’s planning tool also provides insightful free data.
Display Advertising/Banner Advertising
This type of pay per click advertising is managed through the Google Display Network. Unlike PPC ads, which show up on search engine results pages, display advertising appears on websites around the internet, as well as in apps and videos. In fact, more than two million sites have banner ads appearing on them, which means that this type of advertising could reach more than 90 percent of people who use the internet.
Appealing to a specific audience should be front and center when creating a display ad. This could be a particular demographic (middle-aged men, for example) or these ads could be used to retarget people who have visited your site in the past. Or there could be something unique about the audience who needs your product, whether that’s a medical condition or a hobby.
Steps to creating an effective banner ad include choosing and using appropriate keywords and placing the ads in sites where audiences mesh with yours. If you have a niche product, an ad that’s carefully targeted for that subset of an audience can make perfect sense. The more you narrow your audience, though, the fewer people will see your ad. So, if you have a lower-cost product and rely upon higher numbers of sales, you will likely want a broader ad campaign that encompasses a wider swath of potential customers.
Adjust, as needed—and consider using Google’s automatic targeting feature.
When creating your ad, carefully consider your call to action. What exactly do you want people to do? When directing them to a page on your website, ensure that the connection between what’s being offered in the ad and what’s being shown at your website’s URL is crystal clear. Accomplish this through text used, images included, and so forth.
One key advantage to banner advertising is that it can introduce your brand to a new audience—people who already enjoy the website where your ad appears. And, if your reach extends to people who have already been on your site, this can reinforce the message that your products and services can be valuable. (If you’ve ever browsed a website and then found an ad for that company when you went to your Facebook page, then you’ve just experienced remarketing.) Reinforcement advertising can be especially effective because people often need to see information about a product multiple times before they’re ready to buy.
As a softer-sell approach, you can consider native advertising to promote your products and services. These are paid ads that look like non-paid content and appear on another site, perhaps in the form of a blog post. The content in your ad would need to have the same overall tone and feel as the website where it appears.
Just like with banner ads, there are large numbers of websites that permit native advertising for a fee. And, just like with banner ads, you’ll want to choose ones that have an audience who can appreciate what your business has to offer. In other words, when you extend your reach to other websites, you’ll want to do so strategically to maximize the benefits you’ll receive in return.
Your content will likely have the word “sponsored” or perhaps “advertisement” included somewhere on it but, otherwise, it will appear like an educational piece of content. (This concept, by the way, was borrowed from the print world where magazines would accept “advertorials” for a fee.) These labels typically aren’t included in big bold print, so many people won’t realize they’re reading an ad.
If you decide to incorporate native advertising into your e-commerce marketing plan, then you’ll need to meet the writing standards of sites where your content will appear. Typically, that’s a more journalistic style, informative and non-promotional until the end, where a call to action can tout the benefits of your business and perhaps direct them to your website.
Native advertising has some similarities to content marketing, in that educational posts are provided. The main difference? With content marketing, this material is posted on your own e-commerce site. With native advertising, it’s on another site with a shared type of audience. The good news is that if you’re already used to creating the type of content that’s useful for content marketing, writing posts for native advertising should be a breeze.
Native advertising can also be similar to guest posting but, with the latter, there usually isn’t a fee required.
When it comes to social media, your company can have an organic presence as well as a paid one. After creating a profile, you can simply post on the social media channel to showcase your brand and engage with your audience. Having said that, an organic presence may well not be enough. Facebook, for example, has been showing fewer and fewer organic postings from businesses in their followers’ feeds. This may not be true with brands that are already enjoying significant engagement—but that doesn’t help a new e-commerce business.
That’s where paid ads come in with social media. They can expand your reach beyond your followers to other social media users in desired demographics. With Facebook, you can create an engaging post, including images and videos, and then decide how much money you want to spend and what demographics are most important to your business. This allows you plenty of flexibility in your budgeting; the less you spend, though, the fewer people will be targeted.
As with any form of digital advertising, it makes sense to reverse engineer what worked well (and why)—and what didn’t. Next time, for example, would you send viewers of your ad to a different page on your site? Create a new and more targeted video? Rephrase your call to action?
Twitter ads, meanwhile, use an auction system that comes with automatic bidding. You can use that system or choose to manually select what you’re willing to pay per transaction. Twitter ads don’t come with a daily minimum, although their recommendation is $30 or more.
In your sponsored (paid) tweets, you can target delivery towards a certain demographic. Do you sell unique runner’s accessories? Target runners. Do you sell hot weather gear? Target appropriate geographies. Also consider targeting followers of a Twitter user who has influence on the platform.
LinkedIn provides you with a campaign manager feature when you run ads on their platform. You can set your budget, craft an appropriate ad, and then monitor and manage from there. This can be a good choice for B2B companies.
As part of your content marketing campaigns and other advertising, you may be collecting email addresses of people who are interested in receiving more information about your company Because 90.9 percent of people on the internet use email (the most common online activity), email marketing allows you to meet people where they are, providing them with useful information, perhaps a couple of times per month.
With email marketing, it’s crucial to only send messaging to people who have given you express permission to do so. If, for any reason, someone asks to be taken off the email marketing list, you must comply.
Create compelling subject lines that entice people to click on your messaging; inboxes are often crowded nowadays and you want your message to stand out. Then craft a catchy, yet relevant, headline and message, including a targeted call to action.
You may decide to segment your email marketing into smaller lists. If, for example, you offer culinary tools, your email messaging may well be different for professional chefs than for home cooks. When creating your messaging, you’ll want to provide recipients with useful information that’s packaged in a way that encourages them to buy. If messaging is consistently too promotional, recipients may opt out from receiving them or just not open them any more.
Continue to grow your email marketing list and, when possible, send out messaging that encourages people to engage with your company. This can include surveys or by simply asking a question for recipients to respond.
There are plenty of places where customers can leave reviews about your company and these can strongly influence buying decisions of people reading them. In fact, one survey shows that 90 percent of participants said positive reviews have influenced what they bought, with 86 percent of them NOT buying something because of a negative review. Another study showed that 91 percent of people aged 18 to 34 actually trust online reviews as much as recommendations made by people they know.
There are plenty of places where customers can leave reviews, including but definitely not limited to:
- Google My Business (GMB)
- Better Business Bureau
- Yellow Pages
The best way to get positive reviews is to provide the level of service that causes people to want to publicly praise you. In many cases, you’re allowed to directly ask your customers to write one. Don’t ever specifically ask them to write a positive review, though, or offer them an incentive. Also, don’t ever buy reviews or write them yourself about your own company. Instead, simply ask your satisfied customers to write one.
Different types of businesses may benefit more from one online review site than another. Having said that, with GMB, you can doubly benefit when a positive review is posted. That’s because it will provide social proof, which can encourage others to buy your products—and can also serve as a local SEO ranking factor. You can create a link directly to where people can post a GMB review about your company and use their instructions to provide guidance. Pace your ask, though. If too many reviews show up all at once, Google may flag this as suspicious activity and all of your hard work can backfire.
Note that, although Google is fine with businesses asking for reviews, given that companies follow the rules, simply making that request could hurt your Yelp rankings. So, before you create a plan for online reviews, be clear about what each platform does and doesn’t allow.
Whether you use Google Analytics or another platform, be sure to leverage your data to manage and improve your marketing campaigns.
Regularly review your analytics program to determine:
- where your traffic is coming from (organic SEO, PPC, social media, and so forth)
- how much repeat customer traffic you are experiencing
- how much traffic you have from new site visitors
- if your traffic is going up
- if people are converting (perhaps to download a white paper or sign up for email marketing messaging)
- how long people stay on the website
- how many pages they view
- what pages are most popular
- which pages are converting the best
- what offers are most enticing
- the seasonality of your traffic
At a high level, you’ll want to discover what works best and do more of that—while also determining what isn’t working. On a PPC ad, for example, you may discover that ads with “discount prices” included in the heading are working better than those that, instead, say “free shipping.” Or vice versa.
Monitor. Tweak. Repeat.
As you’re analyzing what works best on your site, you might want to conduct A/B testing (also known as split testing). With this kind of testing, you compare two versions of a page to see which performs better. For example, would a bright red “Buy Now” button increase conversions on your product pages when compared to the bright green ones you have now?
Would an image of a person using your product be more effective than a close up of the product? What happens when you compare two different headlines? Is one clearly better?
After you determine which of the two choices work best, consider comparing the favored version with yet another option—a bright blue button, for example, or yet another headline.
Because there are so many types of online marketing techniques that you can try, it may feel overwhelming if you attempt to tackle too many of them at once. So, it can help to prioritize them in order of feasibility and experiment with your top three marketing methods of choice and then add in new strategies after you’ve got the first few up and running. After analyzing and tweaking performances of a certain type of digital ad, you may decide to replace one form with another. Also watch for new online marketing opportunities because the internet is a rapidly evolving world.
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