There is a philosophical question that goes, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” A similar analogy can be applied to local businesses today. If you’re not present where most of your customers are, do you even exist? It can be said with certainty that no matter which country or industry you might be in, most of your customers are now online. We can also say that with the increasing choices, consumer loyalty is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Local businesses not only have to compete with giant chains with deep pockets, but they also face the challenge of being seen as obsolete. More and more customers are turning to the internet to satisfy their purchase needs. It’s the era of the online business.
The current context of the Corona pandemic has also created several barriers for retail. Social isolation and distancing prohibit customers from stepping out. In these trying times, it’s become even more integral that local businesses leverage their online presence to stay afloat. Pivoting from the physical purchase model to an online purchase plus home delivery model is key to maintaining steady demand.
The question then isn’t whether local businesses should shift online, it’s when. The internet offers numerous avenues for small businesses to promote themselves. Here’s a roadmap of how to market your small business online:
1. Setting Up Your Virtual Storefront
The first thing a business needs to do is set up their virtual storefront. Think of this as getting your online birth certificate. It tells your customers who you are and what you offer. One of the primary aspects of selling online is a business website. This helps drive traffic and builds credibility as well as your brand. Register your domain name and find a good provider to host your website.
Building a good website isn’t enough, it has to be search engine friendly. Investing in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is vital to reach your customers and the right audience. SEO helps search engines like Google and Bing understand your content faster.
Apart from SEO, it’s also vital to provide a good online experience to those visiting your website. Hygiene for a good website is that it should load fast, be mobile-friendly, and provide adequate information. More and more individuals access the internet through their smartphones. Having an adaptive website for multiple devices becomes important to retain users.
Here are two free tools that can help you measure how quickly your website loads on smartphones and how adaptive it is:
2. Getting Listed And Online Advertising
Another important tool to boost your online business is getting listed in the right web directories. Think of these as online Yellow Pages. Getting your local business listed in online business directories including Google My Business, Yellow Pages, and Yelp is vital. These online listings also help your website get discovered organically and drive local customers searching for your products. You must also ensure that the information displayed in all these directories is uniform and accurate. Give the right address, working hours, photos, and contact numbers to maximize your reach.
One of the best ways to sell online is through ads. Advertising on the internet, unlike traditional mediums can be extremely effective. It allows you to target the right customer not only through demographics and interests, but also based on physical proximity to your outlets. Individuals who live closer to your stores are more likely to visit them if they see an online ad versus those that live far away. Google Ads is the largest advertising network in the world. You can choose to run your ads through their platform, using either the Pay Per View (PPM) or Pay Per Click (PPC) model. Or you could display ads on websites that you feel your customers would visit and negotiate with them. E.g. If you are a cosmetics company and a large part of your clientele are readers of magazines like Cosmo and Vogue. Having your ads on their websites would be a good way to reach your customers.
3. Social Media And Content
Another key tool to start online business is social media. Social media helps amplify your voice and your marketing efforts to a wider audience. The entire internet becomes your playing field. Up to 44% of local businesses use social media to improve brand awareness, and 41% use it to help sell online.
However, creating and maintaining social media channels requires effort and money. Rather than creating a presence on all of them indiscriminately, a local business must identify which channel their customers are on, and build on that platform. E.g. If your products are fashion-led and visually appealing, Instagram is a good fit. If you’re a periodical or in the media business, Twitter is a must. Social media is a great way to interact with your audience and turn them into loyalists.
The second part of maintaining social media is having a sound content marketing strategy. Content is the nature of the communications you will push out on your social media channels. Not only does this content have to be relevant to your products, business, and brand, but it must also be specifically tailored to the platform you are using it on. Consistent communication requires a unique tone of voice, and a look that sets you apart from the rest.
Videos are one of the most consumed forms of content on the internet. They help create engagement, build credibility and add personality to your brand. Creating good video content doesn’t have to be expensive. A good camera phone and a good script is all you need to create an engaging video.
The most important questions to consider while creating content are:
Is this relevant for my audience?
Is this engaging or entertaining?
What is the call-to-action?
A Call-To-Action (CTA) is what you want to motivate the customer to do after they engage with your content. E.g. A discount coupon that nudges them to buy a certain product, a video that encourages them to check out a product on your website and so on. A good way to gauge the right content is by taking feedback from your customers about what they’d like to see.
4. Testimonials And Building Credibility
Now that we’ve seen how to drive customers and start online business, we can also use existing customers to further enhance your brand. Testimonials are a great way of showing that you are a reliable, consistent and quality led brand. They can be used and packaged across multiple online assets. You can use them on your website, as social media content and as online ads. Most customers look for testimonials, ratings, and reviews before making a purchase. It’s a good idea to have these ready for them.
The second part of this exercise is having your customers write reviews and rate your products on third party sites. For example, getting your products reviewed on Amazon (if they’re available there), or select industry forums where your customers are present. Use platforms like Quora to further improve your brand awareness.
There is no dearth of promotional opportunities for an online business. The points listed above help to start online business but apart from these basic measures, there is still so much more you can do. You can maintain a blog about your brand and your company, advertise it on blogging platforms like Medium. You can invest in influencers to promote your products on their social media. You can set up your own e-commerce platform, or get listed on Amazon. Lastly, you can even create an app for continued engagement with your customers. All of these are answer the question- how to do business online. The sooner you begin the sooner your business can reach its full potential.
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