The idea of going online might be a daunting prospect for a business owner, but now more than ever it’s essential to go digital and get your marketplace into cyberspace.
With more customers now found online than off,and traditional brick and mortar enterprises facing unprecedented challenges, gone are the days when businesses could choose to remain offline. Not only will an effective online strategy propel your business into new markets, a virtual storefront can be maintained during challenging times.
“If you're not in a digital space, you're choosing to limit your business,” says ATB X business manager Kate McKenzie. “Every business needs a digital face because otherwise you're choosing to not show up in the space that the majority of people occupy the most every single day.”
Understanding your offering
To get started, McKenzie suggests keeping it simple, producing a handful of goods easy to ship (consider the weight in particular) and sell via an online platform. Determine how best to ship your products to the buyer, and how much that will cost, and factor it into your pricing structure. You might find for example,a third party selling platform may not be cost-effective and another option should be considered.
Once you have identified what you will be selling, it’s time to craft an e-commerce strategy, a way to sell your goods online, which will take time and careful planning. If done right, it will serve as the foundation for your company’s online operation.
Best practices for online sales
You will need an online presence, which could include a website with a registered domain, a vendor account on a third-party e-commerce platform like Shopify or Etsy, and social media platform (or several) for marketing and customer service.
If you are relying on your own website for selling, consider budgeting for design and hosting costs to keep it online. All in one solution providers like Squarespace have free software and other tools to help with web development, and offer hosting and other services at affordable rates.
Your website should be easy to navigate while displaying relevant product information. It should be set up to accept different forms of payment and will need to be digitally encrypted to ensure credit card and other valuable customer information can be securely transmitted.
McKenzie recommends putting yourself in the shoes of the customer to help optimize their experience on your website or online marketing platform. Ask yourself constantly, how easy is it for someone to find your product online and purchase it without any obstacle? Provide access to friends to see if they can easily navigate their way around. Make use of web tracking tools such as heat maps which display where on the site users are clicking.
“The more feedback and insight you can get before you officially launch your website the better, says McKenzie. “You want to get rid of any kinks and make sure the whole experience is great.”
Keep in mind that it’s crucial to maintain a consistent presence across all platforms, from social media to the company website and throughout the sales process. An inconsistent image or message results in confusion for the customer.
“So if your company is about having fun and creating an engaging and enjoyable experience, it should feel that way online,” says McKenzie. “I shouldn't go to your website and see that it’s stuffy and formal. Keep a consistent tone across everywhere that I as a customer might encounter your company.”
Once your web platform is live, you’ll want to get the word out about your business, and for that social media posting is essential. The quality of marketing will more than likely play a direct role in how well your virtual business performs. Posting regularly on Instagram and other popular social media services will help get eyeballs on your company if the content is interesting and attractive for a user seeking to learn more.
Remember that it is not enough to simply broadcast a sales message.You want to engage and interact with your customer. Online sales like any form of sales is about building a relationship so take time to comment and like your audience's posts and to engage with those using similar hashtags who have common interests.
When your business has established a presence online, you will want to be able to easily analyze and track sales. You will also want to consider best practices for search engine optimization (SEO) to ensure your company places high on Google searches to drive more interest to your website.
Online growth: A case study example
One Alberta company has successfully grown its online operations and cultivated an online presence.
Milk Jar Candle Company was launched three-and-a-half years ago. It has since increased its revenue to over $300,000 annually with clients in Canada and the U.S., selling its hit candles via its website. Up until COVID-19 hit, the community-minded company was also hosting and providing regular group workshops and classes on candle making from its Calgary factory space.
When she first started Milk Jar, which produces separate lines of environmentally friendly and clean burning soy candles and other plant-based materials, owner Holly Singer was responsible for everything, including marketing, which mainly involved taking blurry pictures on her phone, she says, and posting to Instagram and other platforms.
It wasn’t until Singer decided to invest some money in a professional photographer to highlight Milk Jar’s ingenious candles that online interest truly piqued.
By hiring a professional, not only did Singer get the opportunity to provide local employment, a central facet of Milk Jar’s company philosophy, the collaborations with the photographer allowed her to rely on the eye and instincts of a professional photographer, making for engaging shots for the company to post to its thousands of social media followers. The photographer could think of unique angles and subject shots, such as spotlighting elements of the candles or their production, or their sustainable nature.
“I truly believe why one of one of the reasons Milk Jar took off so much was my product didn't look like it was made in my home, even though it was, because I hired photographers,” says Singer.
Leveraging social media has ensured Milk Jar’s marketing costs remain at a minimum. There’s little need to pay for expensive advertising and plenty of free online tools to make crafting a post simple and quick, and ensuring it achieves the highest reach.
That in turn has allowed Singer to address other areas of investment in the company such as hiring more employees to assist in production. With more hands to do the work, there’s more time to plan the long term growth of the business and manage the company.
As Singer learned, a frequent mistake made by business owners is trying to do everything, whether that’s marketing, coding a website and managing social media accounts, all the while handling e-orders. McKenzie recommends delegating responsibility or like Singer outsourcing to professionals with the necessary expertise.
“You want to integrate your operations wherever possible and keep it as simple as you can,” she says. “It's not just about making it easy for the customer to pay,” says McKenzie. “You want to operate in a way that makes less work for you.”
The digital platform as a second location
McKenzie suggests businesses approach moving to an online space exactly as they would opening a new location, and put in the same amount of care and prep required for launching a brick and mortar store. The payoff is an online store which never closes and can potentially attract interest from all over.
“If it's done right, your website can become your most valuable employee,” she says.