Functional Online Marketplaces

The marketplace has been a very influential social and economic construct for a very, very long time.

It has been a central concept to commerce all over the world since the dawn of man kind. In time, the marketplace has been refined and evolved to include ever more complex structures. During the past century it morphed from temporarily trade gatherings to large permanent structures such as shopping malls and eventually it evolved into what we now know as the online marketplace.

Ebay, Alibaba, Etsy, Amazon and others have one thing in common – they get sellers and buyers in one place. These online marketplaces are fueled by a business model that has seen a steep increase and proved excellent in the past years. But now, it’s time for the next step:

Functional Online Marketplaces

I believe the times they are a-changin’, like Dylan would chant. The Online Marketplace is not enough any more. The markets demand something more.

That something is the Functional Online Marketplace, a virtual hub that combines the features of a marketplace (buyers and sellers, reputation management, transaction handling) with functions that improve the lives of either sellers or buyers.

The Functional Online Marketplace goes beyond just letting sellers and buyers trade. It helps the seller run its business better and the buyer benefit more from the product purchased.

And some of the biggest tech companies we know have created this type of Functional Marketplaces. We’ve used them and most customers love them. We just didn’t put a name on it. Have a look at some examples:

The Apple Ecosystem

Steve Jobs envisioned the PC as a digital hub, a central unit that connects the user’s digital activity. From email to web surfing, from music to pictures and more. It than proceeded to create this vision and along the way he built much more.

By launching the iPod and than the iPhone, Apple moved the digital hub inside the consumer’s pocket. With such a valuable real-estate in the reach they’ve had to build a system that shipped music, video and applications from third parties to these devices.

The iTunes Store and the AppStore were born. Apple built the platform to consume apps, the place where customers could download these apps, empowered developers to build these apps but did something else too.

It built Xcode (the development tool for iOS developers), it launched Objective C and than Swift (the programming languages used to build apps) and helped developers create useful apps.

Apple went beyond the marketplace paradigm. Yes, it allowed media and software consumers to meet developers but it also created the platform where they could be consumed and the tools to build them. It built an extraordinarily effective Functional Marketplace.

But Apple is not the only one …

The Uber-marketplace

Uber is an extraordinary successful company that connects freelance drivers to those in need of their services. It connects buyers to sellers. It is technically a digital marketplace. And more.

First of all Uber empowered a set of freelancers that didn’t know they’ve actually had a market. The driver app allows drivers to see potential riders and provides GPS-linked functionality inside a simple mobile device.

The functional side of Uber not only improves the way sellers (drivers) provide their services but actually it makes it possible.

For customers, the app makes hailing a driver an easy task, it allows direct payment on mobile phone and brings the comfort previously unattainable. The functional marketplace at its best.

Google – the biggest functional marketplace

Google is many things. Search giant, mail provider, mobile os developer and robot builder among others. But at its core, the business model is quite simple: Get people to pay for ads. Show ads to customers. Make people click on said ads.

Advertising accounts for 89.5% of Google’s total revenue so it’s safe to say that ads are its bread and butter.

To achieve these levels of revenue Google has to place together “The Sellers” (Advertisers) and “The Buyers” (Customers clicking on ads). Though customers don’t technically buy on Google, those that generate the company’s revenue end up as leads or buyers on advertisers’ websites.

To do this, Google built its ad market on top of its primarily function: Search. Users searching for information of interest are effectively buyers in the Google functional marketplace.

The marketplace, therefore provides functional support to buyers. The search, Gmail, Android – are all basically functions that lock in the ad-clicker and in turn generate revenue through these types of transactions.

These are just three functional marketplaces examples but they illustrate the concept. To be successful, a newly established marketplace has to provide more than just a connection between buyers and sellers. It needs to provide function beyond the commercial. By improving the lives of buyers and sellers beyond the commercial, Functional Marketplaces provide the type of lock-in and effectiveness previous models don’t.

How to Start an Online Store: Part 5 – Ecommerce Marketing, Sales Channels and Testing

Here we are. The fifth and final part of the guide to starting your online store. It’s  been a fun ride for me and I hope it hase been fun and informative for you. Before we dive right in, let’s take a moment and go through a quick recap of the steps we’ve covered so far.

As you remember, Part 1 covered planning and finding the right business model. Part 2 was focused on registering your business, finding and negotiating with suppliersFulfillment operations and making your back office work were the main subject of our third part and last week we’ve covered branding, ecommerce software and content in part 4.

Now … it’s marketing and sales time!

During this section of the guide you’ll discover how to expand your reach through additional sales channels, market your brand and products and finally – how to test the main areas in your online store.

So let’s go ahead and have a look at…

Adding Sales Channels to your Online Store

First of all – what is a sales channel? The answer is quite simple: any method of getting products to the market so customers can purchase them. For example, your online store (the actual web store) is a sales channel. It showcases products, it tells their price and allows customers to purchase these products.

Let’s assume that by now you have already started your online shop. The web store is up and running and customers start showing up. But the web store should not be your only sales channel. Your customers are complex and their habits diverse. One day they’re browsing your store, the next they’re hanging out on Facebook and meanwhile they search product info on their mobile phone. You should be there also.

You could have your products lined up in a Facebook store. You could build a mobile app that engages customers outside your store and collects orders.

It’s not just online, either. Offline engagement shouldn’t be a taboo either. Maybe a brick and mortar showroom for your main products is not cost – effective. But you could set up a pop-up shop occasionally.

There are numerous ways you can add sales channels to increase your market reach and some are really easy to set up. Others are a bit more complicated but in the end it’s mostly about your product, your brand and of course your budget. Let’s see which are the most popular sales channels and how you could benefit from them.

Call center

Out of all the sales channels you may choose, one really complements the online store. The call center can be a simple line you for customers to demand information on products.

(Zappos’ call center is legendary and effective. It’s both a sales and suppor channel.)

 

It can just as well be a full fledged call center with operators answering calls and helping customer choose the right product, handling orders and managing complaints. It can also mean people calling prospects or indecisive potential customers or just plain cold calling sales leads. No matter the choices you will be making, the phone is a great connection to the customer and you should build a smooth phone support operation.

 

Social media

You could ask – isn’t social media more about marketing and communication, connecting and understanding your customer? Yes it is but it can work just as great as a sales channel.

For example – Twitter is testing purchase options (right now with just a few high profile retailers such as Amazon) and ways to drive targeted traffic to stores through offers. Pinterest is also testing options to drive targeted customers to your online store and they do that through their ads. That is great news as Pinterest is more efficient into turning views to sales than any other social network. It works awesome for industries such as travel, home-deco and fashion.

And let’s not forget Facebook. Being the largest social network in the world it is a place you should be digging into. For a while, the network was so popular with retailers that a term was coined to split Facebook commerce from everything else: f-commerce. Recently, the company lead by Mark Zuckerberg has focused more on advertising revenues than helping retailers get close to their customers but it is a great channel to study, nevertheless.

There are some companies that will make selling on Facebook as easy as it gets. And if a Facebook store may look like a great option for your store, this involves apps connecting your store to Facebook.

(Shopify, among others, built options for users to connect their stores to their fan pages and sell directly on Facebook.)

On the previous chapter we’ve discussed the most popular ecommerce software choices. Turns out most of them get some sort of support for a Facebook store by third party apps. Here are some of them:

  1. Shopify for Facebook: Shopify provides useful tools for store owners that want their Facebook fans to browse products and place orders directly on Facebook. These add-ons work as extensions for online stores that retailers can set up easily.
  2. StoreYa is a simple solution for owners of stores running on the usual ecommerce platforms. The company supports Shopify, Magento, Prestashop, WordPress and even marketplaces such as Ebay or Etsy. Although the Facebook Shop is their main product, they also offer other effective marketing apps for store owners.
  3. StorefrontSocial works with new and existing retailers to connect them to Facebook fans and allow for an easy store set-up. Unlike previous options, StorefrontSocial works as a standalone platform where you can either set up a new store or import existing products. It doesn’t allow for an existing platform connection.
  4. Beetailer is yet another option extending your existing store to work on Facebook. It integrates great with platforms such as Magento, Shopify, Prestashop or even Amazon Store. Plus – if you have less then 30 products, you get a free account so you can test and see how it all works.

There you have it – these applications are easy to set up and you can start selling directly on Facebook thus adding a new sales channel. And once you start adding sales channels, you now you have to look into …

 

Mobile Apps

What is the device you think customers use the most throughout the day? It’s the smartphone. Mobile usage has gone through the roof lately and its bound to continue.

(Number of smartphone users in the US (millions). Source)

So you want to be close to your customers. Mobile apps provide a special sales channel, one that’s personal and it makes impulse buying all the more attractive.

How do you add a mobile sales channel?

There’s an app for that. Actually more:

  1. Shopgate makes it possible to turn your store into an app. It connects with Magento, Shopify, Prestashop and other ecommerce platforms to enable store owners to build mobile apps. It works on both iOS and Android operating systems and provides support for both smartphones and tablets.
  2. Shoutem is not built specifically for eCommerce but among others it supports building mobile apps for your Shopify store. The interface is quite simple and doesn’t offer many options but it gets the job done if you happen to be a Shopify user.
  3. MobiCart works with established ecommerce platforms and can help you build your mobile app. They integrate with Prestashop, Magento and others.

Give mobile apps for your store a try. The more smartphones become a part of our daily lives, the more we will use them. Your store can benefit from users that are not strapped to their desktop or notebook. And speaking of that, a great way to interact with customers are the …

 

Pop-up Shops

Pop up shops are temporarily stores, in the real world, where online store owners can showcase their products and interact with their customers. The pop-up shop sales channel has really taken off recently and store owners have started adopting this online-offline connection.

(Adidas pop-up shop. Not exactly low-budget but hey – one can dream, right?)

Setting up a pop-up shop is a personal choice but works great if it’s posted either in a high-traffic area (such as a popular shopping center) or at an industry event. For example you could set up a pop-up shop at a home-deco event if you are a store selling home decorations. It is a great way to interact with customers and get feedback on your merchandise.

Companies such as Storefront help shop owners find retail space temporarily by connecting them with retail space owners. To help online stores they’ve put together an ebook that is free for download. I encourage you to have a look at it as it explains the main steps in setting up (pup-up) shop.

 

Online Marketplaces

Last but definitely not least – the marketplaces. Amazon, Ebay, Etsy, Sears, Buy.Com, NewEgg.com and more. You name them. They provide lots of options to lots of users and chances are your next customers are there shopping right now.

( Ebay – the original online marketplace )

The reason marketplaces are the last on potential sales channels is because I want to emphasize just how important they are. Just like the “old” shopping centers, customers go to marketplaces because diversity means options and options mean they can find what they are looking for.

Diversity drives customers. It drives sales. So you want to be there but plan ahead before you dive in.

As an online store start-up you should be looking for as much exposure as you can get but still try to focus on the right marketplace. Amazon and Ebay are the obvious choice but before you join them you have to ask yourself:

  • are these marketplaces right for me? Not all that’s great is great for you. Just because they have traffic, that doesn’t mean you will get traffic and if you do, you don’t know whether that traffic will turn to sales. The most important aspects you should be looking for are exposure and sales.
  • can my product be found? expect to have competition. If you are among the few selling the product AND your product is popular, than the answer is YES, the product will by found by the customer. If your product is also sold by hundreds of other sellers, there are thin chances you will be the one showcasing the product. Try to make your product look special and attractive through copy, media and of course, price.
  • will my product be bought? If you have indeed managed to get customers to have a look at what you are offering, you must also get them to buy. Most important things are the way you showcase the product to create desire (“A beautiful hand-crafted lamp“), urgency (“A beautiful hand-crafted lamp in LIMITED offer”) and affordability (“just $49.50“).
  • do customers trust me? Marketplaces usually have some sort of peer-review mechanism. Customers can review sellers according to their fairness. Your reviews are your digital reputation. Positive reviews mean more sales, negative reviews can mean NO sales. So try to be as fair, effective and open with your customers.

Handling orders from marketplaces.

Listing your products on all marketplaces can seem like the right choice but it’s usually not. Each marketplace is a sales channel itself. You should be sticking to those that work for you and improve your experience there. Until your business is large enough to allow you to handle orders from more marketplaces, focus on fulfilling orders effective and quickly.

Most marketplaces offer some form of integration with your existing store and you should use those. Product information should be going out of your online store and orders should be synced with your order management system. This way, the order management team can have a single point of entry for orders instead of getting lost in a dozen of order management systems scattered throughout the marketplaces you are using.

The big ones will get bigger

Marketplace orders will continue to be a large part of your business. So large that they will, in the future, dwarf those from your online store. The reason is people tend to gather and shop where they will find diverse products and retailers. Just like in the real world. Online is even more so – marketplaces get even more traffic from search engines, have more money to spend on ads and are better at keeping customers returning.

Connecting sales channels

Each sales channel you will be adding will bring you more exposure and more sales if handled correctly. The sales channels I’ve described so far are the most popular ones right now. But they are not the only ones. As technology evolves, so will commerce. New channels will pop-up and some I haven’t mentioned here will probably increase in importance.

Think about the impact Internet of Things will have. Maybe in the future the greatest sales channel for groceries will be smart appliances. Think of a refrigerator than can place orders for customers when it’s depleted. It sure is going to be an interesting challenge to integrate those in a sales channels mix.

( Omnichannel means connecting all sales channels in a way the customer finds natural )

By adding sales channels you wil turn from an online retailer to an multichannel retailer and if all channels work seamless together you will become an omnichannel retailer. If you want to know what that means – have a look at Macy’s omnichannel strategy. And if that is not enough dive into this omnichannel report I’ve wrote to help retailers integrate their sales channels.

Marketing your Online Store

Marketing is one of those concepts that’s so hard to understand and yet so overused. Most of the times its meaning is so cluttered by useless acronyms and buzzwords that people have trouble understanding what it actually is.

I am not saying that marketing is easy. It’s not. Yet is not the Holy Grail of human knowledge either. It’s just communication. Talking, showing, describing products to the people most likely to buy it.

It’s that simple. The basics need to be simple.

If you are going to survive as an online store owner, you need to keep your marketing basics simple. You have a product. Hopefully a great one. There are people who want to buy that product. Most don’t know they want to buy it from you. You need to show them why they should buy the product you’re selling. You need to show them why they should buy it from you. And then, if everything I’ve shown you so far has been decently implemented, just let them buy it.

Everything else is gimmicks. If you’ve got the basics right, everything else will fall into place.

The market

To get people to buy your product, you need to know who these people are, what they want and how they act. Most likely not everybody will want your product. But if you’ve done your planning right, you pretty much have know a lot about your market.

Targeting demographics

Yup, your customers are “the target”. Why is it called that you ask? Well, because your communication targets them. Until the internet became the norm and we’ve started gathering more data than we can handle on customers, we used to define them through demographics. That means basic info on consumers. Age, sex, marital status, location, education … this kind of data.

( Pictured here: advertising in the 60s. Not pictured here: Google algorythms and tabacco advertising ban )

These targeting methods were made popular when mass marketing was just blooming, in the days of TV, print and outdoor ads made by the likes of Mad Men. When you ran your ad in the magazine or on national TV, you needed to know who’s going to use your product, make sure you understand their psychology and shout from the top of your lungs how cool the product is. Once the ad was approved, there was no going back. Advertising agencies would research, create and test the ad before the campaign was launched because there was no way you could change, tweak or even pull back a campaign in real time.

So demographics were the bread and butter when you would push your message to the market. But the Internet changed that into …

Targeting behaviors

Basically, if you were a mid-class urban wife with no college education in the 60’s there were slim chances you would receive ads trying to sell you repair tools for your car. Even if you were actually a mechanic. The same would hold true if you were a man and would be looking for a sewing machine to fulfill your lifelong passion of becoming a fashion designer.

You would have to find those products yourself. We’ve come a long way and thanks God, we now have the freedom to fix our own cars and sew our pants, no matter the gender

That happened when contextual marketing (the ads you might see when searching on Google), interactive marketing (information instantly delivered when interacting with say an website) or behavioral marketing hit the shelves.

The last one, behavioral marketing, is probably the single most important aspect in online retailing. Technology now personalizes marketing and responds to customer behavior.

For example Amazon’s recommended products (“See what others have purchased”) is a form of behavioral marketing that is based on a complex research on previous customers behavior before they purchased something. Simply put, when people would purchase something, their interaction trail (the products they’ve seen so far) becomes an indication that people taking the same or similar steps would most likely purchase similar products.

The ads you see on Google feature a similar concept. They are shown as to answer your needs. Some ads respond better than others at what you are looking for and thus have a better chance of getting clicked. Google trusts this system so much that they invoice advertising on clicks, rather than how many people have viewed the ad.

So basically we went from effectively targeting people to targeting people’s behavior. Still, demographics and customer profiles are very important and a lot of what you will be doing is to try to guess customer responses based on demographics assumptions. Such assumptions might mean you will favor ladies over men if you are selling women’s clothing (doh!) or rather more complex assumptions such as “Men over 32, employed and married are more likely to buy a family car”.

Indifferently of your assumptions, test them and always quantify your results with …

Analytics software

Here you go … numbers. Charts. Estimates. Hope Miss N., your math teacher, was your favorite back in school, because this is going to be damn complex. Nah, just kidding. Most analytics software is pretty much plug and play and the numbers and charts I mentioned are usually generated on the fly and in such a manner you can easily understand.

You can’t have marketing without analytics and research. Fortunately, it is a lot easier now for a small online store than it was 40 years ago for the largest companies in the world. What is not so fortunate is that it’s easier for everybody so you’ll have to dive deep and understand what your analytics are saying. So will the competition.

Once you have installed Google Analytics or one of these other ecommerce analytics software, you will probably dive in and see what your customers are doing. What you will want to look for is patterns that lead to increased sales. Special products, a certain type of copy, products featuring media versus those that don’t have media. Look for what makes your sales increase.

Targeting, knowing, marketing – the most important ecommerce marketing strategies for your online store

So you know the target, you have the analytics figures, now it’s time for the actual marketing. The web is full of resources to fine tune your online marketing understanding. I will show you which are the most effective ways of marketing so you will have a bird’s eye view on what makes an online store sell.

Search Marketing: SEO

As a startup there are really little things you can do better with smaller budgets than writing quality content and optimizing for search engines. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a really large concept and many people earn their living through SEO services. You will probably ask a SEO expert to help you find the perfect balance so your store will show up in search engine results. But before you do that, have a look at the basics. These are the things you will need to keep in check so Google will bring the right customers to your store:

  • content: write great and extensive content. For humans. Describe your product like you would want it described for yourself. Don’t do “keyword spamming” which is the result of cramming keywords in your description so more people would find you. It just doesn’t work that way.
  • code: your webstore is visible on customers’ browsers thanks to programming languages that output information in the way we are accustomed to. Search engines index this information and if you are to have your store indexed properly, you need the right code. If you are not technically savvy, better call someone who knows what they are doing. In the previous part there is a section dedicated to finding technical support when integrating your store.
  • links: get other (relevant) websites to post links to your store. Although not so important now as they were in the past, links are necessarily so search engines can find and index your web store’s content.

Email marketing

Ask your customers to leave you their email address so you can update them on news and offers. This is a great way to get people right back on your store.

But don’t annoy them and don’t do spam! Everybody hates unsolicited email. Make sure your customers give you their permission to send them emails. You can use apps such as Mailchimp or CampaignMonitor to save customers’ emails and then send them newsletters.

Social media marketing

Where would you go if you were to market a product? The answer is fairly simple: where people gather and interact. Social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest are now used by billions of people. That’s where your online store should be.

Just like interacting with friends, some things work better than others. Here are some tips on how to use social media to interact with potential and existing customers:

  1. listen first, talk later: social media is a great place to gather insights on your market, your products and even your brand. Some of those insights may not be friendly but you should pay attention to them nevertheless.
  2. focus on building strong bonds rather than gathering masses: it’s just like with your friends. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 or 10 000 friends. What matters is how strong your connection with said friends are. It’s better to have few, engaged fans rather than many fans that do not relate to your brand or product.
  3. find the influencers: some people wield more influence than others in their social circle. And they somehow do it naturally. You should get close to these people, develop relationships with them, show them your products and share content they might find interesting.
  4. provide value, not sales pitches: yes, your products are great but don’t bore people with constant product sales. Provide content. If you sell hats, show fans their history, tell them about the manufacturing precess, showcase famous hats. Make it interesting and valuable.
  5. be patient and constant: don’t tweet 40 times one day and than stop for a month because no one followed or retweeted you. Social media success takes time, patience and constant effort.

If your social media strategy is not going the way you’d want it to, there are always the ads. Most social networks provide ways for you to get closer to your potential customers, faster. Most people call them ads  . Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest – they all provide advertiser with the possibility of engaging fans through ads.

And speaking of ads, one of the most effective way of advertising your store and products is …

Paid earch

Remember those Google ads I’ve mentioned earlier? That is Google AdWords, a very effective form of advertising that places ads on search results, ads that are directly related to your search.

For example, if you were to search for “cars”, you will be shown the natural search results AND special search ads. These ads are fueled by advertisers that pay each time someone clicks one of their ads.

You can be one of those advertisers. By carefully analyzing traffic and allocating search ad budget, you can determine with high accuracy the number of clicks you need to convert visitors to buyers. Because search ads are contextual, this means you can optimize your ads in such a way that only those interested in purchasing your product might click it.

However, paid search campaigns are usually better managed by professionals. Even though you might spend a little extra for someone to handle your ads, just leave it to the professional.

And one more thing: Google is not the only one providing the option for paid search ads. Bing does it and Amazon does it, so there’s room to play there.

Performance marketing

Performance – well that sounds nice. What is it?

Performance marketing is a broad term that means advertisers pay a fee depending on how well an action is performed. This action can mean showing an ad a certain number of times or making that ad transform into a special action. The standard actions you might want to encourage are:

  • clicking
  • downloading a certain file (say a product catalog )
  • showing interest in a product (the user becomes a lead)
  • buying a product

And because marketing people happen to love acronyms, you might find the info above coded in three-letter words:

  • CPM means Cost Per Mille (that’s Latin for thousand) – one thousands being the standard minimal block of ad views you can purchase to show an ad.
  • CPA means Cost Per Action – the generic code for any action you might define with those selling the ad space. It is used for sales and therefore sometimes referred to as Cost per Acquisition.
  • CPC means Cost Per Click – the cost you will be paying whenever someone clicks on your ads
  • CPL means Cost Per Lead – the cost paid whenever a visitor shows interest in your product

Performance marketing is sometimes used interchangeably with affiliate marketing. That is  more of a misconception, as affiliate marketing, though popular, is a subset of performance marketing. It works as a shared revenue deal, where the retailer shares a portion of the revenue with the publisher (the one displaying the ad), whenever advertising turns into purchases.

Affiliate marketing is ran through affiliate marketing services, that cover three very important aspects: they connect advertisers to publishers, they make sure all sales are registered and attributed to the right publisher and they handle transactions between advertisers and publishers.

If you decide to go along the affiliate marketing path, here are the most important affiliate networks that can help you sell your products:

  1. CJ Affiliate (formerly Conversion Junction) is the global leader in pay for performance programs. It is the home to many publishers that can help you run your ads.
  2. Rakuten Linkshare is the big contender to CJ Affiliate and a fast growing one.
  3. ShareASale is a great affiliate marketing resource for retailers. Slightly smaller as it may be, it is still very effective.
  4. ClickBank works great for entrepreneurs and content creators. It is effective and easy to use.
  5. Avangate is an young yet fast growing performance marketing company that’s focused on software and digital products.

Comparison Shopping Engines

A great way to get your product out there is place it in comparison shopping engines. These applications gather information from more online stores and show potential customers what is the best way to shop in terms of pricing.

It basically works for those that are price competitive so before you join such a program, make sure your prices are aligned with the market.

(Shopzilla is one of the most popular comparison shopping engines)

Most comparison shopping engines are CPC based and you will pay anytime people click your products, arriving at your web store. The top four most popular are Google ShoppingShopzillaShopping.com and Pricegrabber. Getting listed can draw targeted traffic and can mean a very scalable way of converting traffic to sales.

Other marketing options

So there you have it – these are the most effective ways you can market your new online store. But don’t stop here, don’t settle. Marketing in the digital world is usually a matter of imagination. Be curious and try new things that might be fit for your online store.

For example you can attract relevant bloggers to mention your store and review the products. You can put out press releases and talk to the media. You can  run contests and sweepstakes to increase reach and turn fans into loyal customers. Once you have the basics up and running, you will be ready to add more and more marketing options to your online store.

Testing and optimizing

Remember: your work is never done. If you want to keep your customers happy and sales growing, you need to constantly optimize and tweak your store. To do so you can run tests that determine what works and what does not. When testing you will be looking for either errors, bottlenecks or usability issues. Do so through:

  1. Functional testing: test your store’s functions. The navigation, user account, user login and others. Each needs to be thoroughly tested and improved
  2. Process testing: we are talking business processes here. These are things like managing orders, fulfillment, shipping or warehouse management. If your company process don’t run smooth, customers get their orders delayed, mixed or canceled.
  3. SEO testing: as I’ve mentioned previously, search engines will always be a very important factor in driving traffic to your online store. Check to see how you stand against competitors and against previous positioning.
  4. Mystery shopping: put yourself in the customer’s shoes and see how’s everything going. Place an order and see how operators behave, how long does it take for the order to arrive and more. You might find some interesting things there.
  5. Hot areas testing: some parts of your shop are more important than others. You can improve conversion rate through a careful  inspection and recurrent A/B testing of what you could call “hot areas”:
    • Homepage
    • Product page
    • Checkout cart
    • Payments
    • Forms requiring customer input
    • Mobile interfaces

Customer journey maps

A great way to see how customers interact with your company is drawing customer journey maps. These “maps” show your existing sales channels and how customers interact with them. Customers may find you on social media, browse products on the web store and place orders through the phone. This is a customer journey map.

When these journey maps get too complex you have to constantly test and look for signs of problems of sources of frustrations for your customers. It may be a poorly designed checkout cart or the voice of your phone operators. By understanding your target customers and their journey maps you can have a guide to testing what works and what doesn’t on your store.

( A blank example of potential sales channels. By connecting the channels you can draw journey maps )

Testing means improving and you should strive to make your store better and better. Little improvements and constant focus on making the customer experience better turns your store into a success. So keep testing :).

And that’s it!

We’ve got this far. Wow! Testing is the last section in our guide to starting an online store. It’s been a great ride and I hope these posts will help you build the store of your dreams. If you’ve managed to get this far I believe you are ready to start your own store. Give yourself a pat on the back for having the patience to get through all this data. It’s not easy, I know, but it is a lot easier than just starting a store and then figuring it all out along the way.

I am more than happy if I’ve managed to help you on your path to becoming an ecommerce entrepreneur. If this guide was useful to you, please refer it to someone else who may be in the need for know-how.

You’ve taken a large step ahead to running your own business and online store. You may be anxious and a bit scared but rest assured. So was Jeff Bezos when he started Amazon. Knowledge, hard work, innovation and persistence will get you far. Have a safe trip in reaching out for your dream!

 

How to start an Online Store: Part 4 – Brand, Online Store and Content

Welcome to part 4 of the complete guide to starting your online store. So far we’ve covered the basics of planningregistering your business and finding suppliers. Last but not least we’ve discovered the importance of developing your fulfillment operations.

By now you have an idea of what your online store will pe selling, you already have some pretty sweet deals in place with your suppliers and the fulfillment team is hopefully ready to process and ship the orders. But wait: you have no actual store. So let’s get started with building a brand for your company, finding the right software for your web store and adding products and content to it.

Building a brand for the online store

What is a brand? Is it a name? Is it a nice logo that people like and recognize?

I will not get academic on you and I will try to cut beyond all the buzzwords you might encounter when building your brand.

The brand is all those mentioned above and more. The name, the logo, the colors and everything else is there to remind your customers of how much they like you and why. The brand is that feeling you get when you think of someone. You don’t know whether it’s the clothes, the color of their hair, their personality or anything else. You just feel in some particular way about that person. That’s the brand. The way people feel about your company.

Now, to build a brand you need some special ingredients. Some are easy to come by and some are harder. However, once you got that main ingredient on the table, the others will be easier to implement. Here they are, ordered by their importance:

1. Personality

This is “who” your company is. You have to decide right from the start what type of personality you will be showing to the world. Are you young and enthusiastic or maybe mature and conservative?

What does your company stand for, except for … you know … selling stuff? What is your purpose for being in the market? You have to answer these questions and maybe more to find out what is the right personality for your brand. Remember – people will most likely never meet you or any of your team members in person so you have to focus on sending out the right message in the digital world.

Example:

One of the best use cases of building a great brand personality is Warby Parker. The company designs, manufactures and sells beautiful eyewear at an affordable price. Not only that but sales fuel its humanitarian efforts in providing developing countries with quality eyewear and means for individuals to self-sustain.

They have an extensive section in telling people WHO Warby Parker is and why they’re a great fit for society. Branding goes beyond just commercial info and showcasing the products. It projects an image and a personality so customers can have the feeling of actually interacting with a real person. A great one, that is.

 

2. Naming

Shakespeare said “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet“. Things are what they are. The names are secondary. Once you know what your online store stands for, once you know what your brand’s personality is, you can put a name on it.

For example, Jeff Bezos named its famous company Amazon because Amazon is the largest river by drainage. He envisioned the largest store in the world right from the beginning and named it accordingly.

The name you will be choosing is extremely important. Out of all the other components in building an online store brand, this one is the one most likely to turn into a real asset. Your brand personality may change, so could colors, shapes and slogans. But your name has to stay the same. The reason is the Internet is built this way. Web pages get bookmarked, indexed and remembered by their name.

Amazon for example changed its personality and graphic cues throughout its history. But the name stayed the same. So did all other brands that managed to catch the customer’s attention.

When choosing a name for your online store do check for available:

  • domain names (preferably a dot com domain – they are still most likely to catch on)
  • social media accounts (check for the chosen name on twitter/facebook/instagram etc. Not all may be available but try to register your brand on the most important social networks)
  • mobile apps (check to see if any app using the name you’ve covered is published on either iOS, Android or Windows mobile. The future is mobile so your brand should be too.)
  • any other areas where your brand could be present and there is a potential brand conflict

 

3. Visual identity

Once you’ve designed and presented your online store’s personality, you need to code this personality through visual cues.

The brain perceives images faster than sound and letters. Images deliver powerful messages almost instantly whereas sound and text take longer to be perceived.

That’s why companies compact their messages in some iconic combinations of symbols, colors and letters: logos. The logo is the basis to building your store’s visual identity. We use symbols because our brains are wired to connect shapes to meaning. Color is usually added to further identify a given company. For example you probably don’t remember what’s the exact shape of the Coca-Cola logo, but you do remember the red-white combination.

Once the basics of visual identity (shapes and colors) are set, more elements are usually added to the list of brand identifiers:

  • company fonts (used in graphic design)
  • secondary colors (a special color palette used separately from those in the logo)
  • imagery (the types of images used to convey marketing messages)

 

Example

Once the visual identity is set, it will be communicated through a brand manual, or brand usage guidelines collection. You can have a look at Amazon’s brand manual here to get a feeling of what you can incorporate in your visual identity.

 

4. Brand implementation

Once you’ve got all those above ready, you can begin expanding your brand to other areas. There are two large areas your brand needs to shine in, and they are independent from one another:

1. Within the company: what does your brand mean for your team? What is the message you are sending to your employees? For example Zappos strongly supports handling customer service in the best way possible. Zappos customer service went so far as to register a 9h and 37 minutes call with a customer that needed support on choosing the right shoes.

The brand can be implemented within the company through signage (remember the large company logos in call-centers or warehouses), company communication but mostly through the culture the company will build.

2. Outside the company: Your brand will meet your customers. There are some very important touch points you will need to keep in check and see how the customer perceives your online store:

  1. Your call-center support: this is the voice of your company. It needs to reflect your brand’s personality and keep customers happy and coming back.
  2. The package: the way your package looks and feels is a great way to showcase your brand and build an emotional connection to the customer receiving and opening the package.
  3. Your web-store: we will get into more detail about the way your web store reflects your brand but rest assured: this is the place your customers will be spending the most time on so you need to make it yours. The webstore needs to reflects your brand personality and your visual identity.
  4. Social media: your personality and visual identity will go beyond your online store. The most common areas you will need to be present are social media outlets. For example check out these companies shining on Instagram.

 

Example:

(Examples of Amazon using its brand on different supports)

Implementing the web store software

When everything is in place and you have your brand ready to go out and face the customers, it’s time to build the online store.

To do so you will have to go through:

  1. choosing the right software for your store
  2. finding technical support in implementing the software
  3. adapting the software to match your brand identity
  4. connecting payment gateways and shipping partners
  5. adding products and content to the online store
  6. training the team in using the online store

 

Choosing the right software for your store

Ecommerce applications are usually targeted at two types of users

  • small and medium retailers (such as yourself)
  • large retailers

I will not get into too much details regarding what large retailers use but if you want too, you can check them out here.

Instead, I will focus on guiding you through the four most popular options for small and medium retailers. In the end, you will have to decide which one is best for you.

Before I go any further I would like you to have a look at this chart from Google Trends showing how many searches for each of these applications have been registered in the past. This is a great way to see how popular each of them is and what could you expect in the future.

The graph above shows how the four most popular solutions for ecommerce have evolved throughout the years in terms of Google searches. You can see Magento at the top, Prestashop right beneath it, WordPress ecommerce at the bottom and Shopify growing like crazy. Let’s have a look at what ech of these tools has to offer.

 

No 1: Magento

Magento is owned by Ebay Inc and works as an open-source application. It first hit the digital shelves in 2001 so it packs quite a lot of experience.

It is estimated that roughly 250 000 stores are now powered by Magento. It is usually used by medium sized retailers because of these reasons:

  • the number of features aimed at web stores that have passed the startup phase
  • enhanced sales, online payment, returns and customer info features
  • ability to customize and extend beyond the standard installation
  • ability to handle large number of orders, if optimized

There are however, some caveats:

  • you will need experienced developers to handle customization and/or extensions
  • increased server costs due to increased requirements

Long story short: Magento is fit for medium to larger retailers. It is usually installed on your own hardware (server) so beyond development costs you will also need to take into account hosting costs. Development and server costs usually top everyone else on this list. However, it makes up in stability and features what it lacks in cost structure.

No. 2: Prestashop

There are now more than 200 000 stores using Prestashop. The company started in France and is now a global player that aims for Magento’s spot. Unlike Magento, it can be used both as a hosted solution (on your own server) or as a cloud solution (where you pay a standard monthly fee for the right to use it).

It’s easier to find developers that can handle Prestashop’s structure so development costs could be lower. It’s targeted at smaller retailers (usually startups) and you can read a full review here.

The pros:

  • easy to install and setup
  • you can start your store without any technical know-how (with the cloud solution)
  • has great warehouse and suppliers management applications
  • development costs are lower, due to having rather simple technical requirements
  • hardware requirements are lower, resulting in great performance and lower server costs

The cons:

  • it may not be the right solution after you go beyond being a startup and you’ll have to move up
  • smaller developer community

All in all Prestashop is a great choice for small to medium online stores so it’s definitely worth checking it out. It may not get you to $1 billion in sales but performs great for startups. It’s highly customizable and easy to manage.

No.3: Shopify

Shopify is the great challenger on this list. It works great for small startups, you can start using right away, its pricing structure is great and you get tons of apps you can use on your store. It is the fastest growing solution right now and it is used by 150 000 online stores.

Not only that but the company is really well funded. It recently received $100 million in venture capital and now it aims to work as a cloud platform for both online and offline small sellers. Although it started as an online store solution, it now works for offline retailers through its Shopify POS solution.

The pros:

  • cloud solution: data is always safe, you can access it from anywhere
  • extremely easy to setup without technical know-how
  • you can extend your shop through third party apps and visual themes
  • can work both for online and offline sales

The cons:

  • not so easy to extend beyond core features. The solution can be extended through separate apps
  • the development and designer community is still rather small

The fact is Shopify is the most promising solution on this list. It is well funded so it probably won’t close shop any time soon, it is the fastest growing and its app and themes ecosystem makes it perfect for the ecommerce entrepreneur. You may need to switch to another solution once you go big but until then – everything works just great.

No. 4: WordPress

Although WordPress is not technically an ecommerce application, it evolved beyond its blog youth and its content management adulthood. Using ecommerce themes such as these, shop owners can easily extend WordPress beyond content management.

What WordPress lacks in native ecommerce support it more than makes up in developer community, theme and plugins support. At the moment 74.6 million websites rely on WordPress. Out of this huge figure more than 50% are self hosted.

There are 40 translations for WordPress and WordPress.com receives more traffic than Amazon. These facts and othersmake WordPress quite a great platform for shop owners just starting up.

Unlike other ecommerce applications that are built with commerce processes in mind, WordPress is great at managing content. Products can be described in so many ways and content can be easily published. This does wonders for search engine optimization and communicating with your audience.

Oh, and remember that figure above? Check out the difference in searches on the term “wordpress” only, as opposed to the other applications:

That blue line up there, dwarfing all others, is WordPress. It has a huge user base and these users can turn their blogs into online stores.

The pros:

  • huge user base, very popular application
  • a large variety of themes and plugins (almost 29 000 plugins up to date)
  • a large number of developers
  • easy to set up and manage
  • a large knowledge base
  • many themes designed specifically for ecommerce

The cons:

  • not built specifically for ecommerce
  • only the hosted version can be used as an ecommerce application
  • not many operational tools (such as inventory management, complex customer service etc)

WordPress is a great way to get your store off the ground quickly and at a low cost. But if you want something more, you will probably need to look into other solutions.

( A visual comparison between Magento, Prestashop, Shopify and WordPress for ecommerce )

Finding technical support and customizing the ecommerce software

For all those solutions above, you will most likely need two types of support:

  • implementing and extending the applications: you will need to look for developers
  • adapting the standard layout for your own needs: you will need to look for web designers

To do so, you will need to find talented and effective designers and developers on established online marketplaces. The freelancing marketplaces are pretty straightforward. Think of EBay for digital jobs. You post the requirements and freelancers will bid for your online store requirements. There are dozens of places to find designers and developers for hire but some really stand out:

Elance.com

Elance.com is one of the oldest and most popular places to find great programmers and designers from all over the world. There are currently 260 000 programmers and 190 000 designers listed on Elance.

Guru.com

Guru was founded in 2001 by Inder Guglani and now boasts more than 1.5 million members worldwide and $200 million worth of freelancing jobs processed through the marketplace.

Smashing Jobs

Smashing is a very influent online magazine for designers and developers alike. As talent naturally gravitates around other talented people, this community jobs site is a great place to find those great freelancers to get your online store up and running.

 

Using themes and plugins to improve your online store

All of the ecommerce software solutions listed in this post rely on themes and plugins to customize the layout and improve the functionality of your online store.

Both themes and plugins are offered by their respective developers either free or for a premium. You can think of plugins and themes as building blocks that you can attach to your online store and get it to either look or behave better.

You can find plugins and themes on special marketplaces as well as developer’s plugin shops.

The best places to look for themes and plugins are the following:

  1. ThemeForest.net (Features themes for all major ecommerce solutions)
  2. TemplateMonster.com (Features themes for all major ecommerce solutions)
  3. Shopify Themes and Apps
  4. Prestashop Themes and Modules
  5. Magento Themes and Extensions

 

When you’ve chosen the application you are going to use to manage your online store, contracted the right developers and designers and chosen the appropriate theme and plugins, you’re ready to implement your online store. If everything is set so far, the freelancers you’ve contracted will know what to do. The overall process will be, in a simplified manner, the following:

  1. implementing the basic software package
  2. implementing the chosen theme
  3. optimizing the theme or building one from the ground up to be the right fit for your brand
  4. implement the right modules (say a special CRM module to handle customer information storage better)
  5. implement payment gateways so you can process order payments
  6. integrate with shipping partners so there few to no shipping errors

 

Once the process is complete you will have an up and running online store, without any products or any type of content.

 

Adding the content to your online store

Content is any text, image or rich media that you will be hosting on your online store. As a startup, great content can mean great sales. There are two converging reasons for this.

The first reason is search engine optimization. Many of the people that will be visiting your online store and hopefully buying, come via search engines. You probably know a bit about how Google works, you may have heard a thing or two about search engine optimization but the fact is content is king. Great content is better indexed by search engines and can provide you with visitors you can turn into customers.

The second reason you should pay great attention to content is the customer. The customer needs to get as much information on your products and on your company as possible. Upload beautiful images, write extensive product presentations and say everything you can about your company.

And go beyond …

Here you’ll find three great strategies to conquer your market with content. Explain your customers how to use the products. Showcase the lifestyle around your products and brand. The more content you will be pushing towards your customers, the more credible your brand and online store will be.

When you’ve added all the products and the relevant content, don’t stop there. Optimize your product descriptions constantly. Start a blog and get people to send you their stories. Content is king and it will stay like this for a long time.

Training the team in using ecommerce software

Once everything is ready to go live, you still need to do one thing: train the team. Segment your fellow team members and train them according to their responsibilities. For example order management personnel won’t be handling product information so there’s no point in  showing them how to use these features.

The main areas where you will find features that team members need to learn using are:

  • product management
  • customer relationship management
  • order management
  • order fulfillment
  • inventory and warehouse management
  • marketing and PR
  • financial management

Most of the ecommerce applications have their usage guidelines either online or can be provided to you when required.

So training should be done according to responsibilities, it should be done in an interactive manner and team members should be provided with a form of software manual or written guidelines.

Once the online store is set up and reflects your brand, the products are all online and the team members are familiar with the ecommerce software, you are ready to go live!

Wow – we’ve covered a lot of ground and by now you should be ready to have your store online. But there’s one last chapter to our journey. Meet me next week on the final part of this guide, covering marketing, extending sales channels, testing and fine tuning.

Featured Image Source.