This year marks 10 years since we started eCorner and for 10 years we have been helping companies sell online. In those 10 years we have seen a lot of successes and some failures. There have also been many changes in technology and user experiences.
Starting an online business, or any business, can be a buzz. Often you learn as you go. Even the most experienced operators make mistakes. But as the old adage goes “you learn from your mistakes”.
In 2014 it is easier than ever to get your business selling online.
We have refined the steps to getting a business selling online and making it successful.
Step 1 - Establish the business basics
Before you start thinking about software and hosting, there are some basic requirements that need to be met. These are business related and if you have chosen software and hosting technology before considering the business and the business plan you will probably fail. Part of the business plan is around the delivery platform for your business and you need to develop the core requirements and budget as part of the plan. If you have an existing business then you will probably have most of the establishment issues under control. If you don’t then this step should be taken carefully and a proper business plan prepared. Build a set of business requirements before starting to look at the technology.
You can get some tips and advice at business.gov.au.
Step 2 – Technology, Software and Hosting
Based on your business requirements, your budget and your capability select the core technologies that your business will use. If you have decided to use an agency / web developer then this decision may be made in collaboration with them. There are hundreds of different software platforms available. The best advice is to try before you buy. Most of the available platforms have a free trial period so that you can try them for yourself.
There are fundamentally two different directions that you can take when it comes to the ecommerce platform that will run your online store:
This is a solution where everything is provided for you the hosting, software, maintenance and management of the environment. You job is basically to look after the content and the business. eCorner has been providing hosted solutions in Australia for 10 years through eCorner Stores Plus.
Skills Profile: Less technical skills, no development skills, no hosting skills, less customisation, all features included, upgrade path built in.
Cost Profile: All costs included in packages; no hidden costs.
This is a solution where you have to choose and to manage all the separate components yourself in order to have an operational business. So the software might come from one company, the hosting from another, development and maintenance from a different company or contractor and so on. It is a jigsaw puzzle where you put the pieces together. Typically people think about open source software when they build dedicated solutions. But eCorner has been using ePages to deliver dedicated solutions for our customers, like Weight Watchers Australia, for 10 years. Dedicated solutions are highly flexible and customisable.
Skill Profile: Needs technical skills, need development skills (or a development company), need hosting and hosting skills, more customisable (need developer), not all features included (add-ons or custom development), upgrades require development.
Cost Profile: initial software licence costs or monthly rental, development costs, hosting costs, ongoing maintenance costs required.
Step 3 - Design and Layout
The first mistake made by many new online businesses is to believe that they know what the design should be because they like that look. Reality is that your customers will be the one that decide. A professional designer can help create a design that fits your requirements, the software and the budget. If the budget is limited then you may need to select a template or theme that either comes with the software or from a theme site where you buy designs. But if possible get some advice on what layout is most optimal for the functionality of your online store. If you have the budget available then select a design partner to work with and collaborate on the design to fit the business. Changing the design is easier than changing the core software. Never make a decision on the technology based around the design.
Step 4 - Prepare the site content
You have probably heard it before but Content Really is King meaning that good content means a more successful business. Most people will find your online store using a search engine like Google and search engines love content. Unique content including text and quality images are really important to attract customers.
As your site grows and matures the bulk of your efforts will be in building and maintaining the content.
Step 5 - Delivery and Payments
A good eCommerce system will have a range of payment and delivery options available to you straight out of the box. You simply select and implement the options that best suit your business. But you need those options to fit with the business requirements. Selecting the right payment and delivery methods is very important and these will also help improve the trust factor of your online store.
Payment providers that enable credit card payments can be setup and connected to your store. The most common choice is PayPal that is free to get started and connects to most ecommerce software.
You can get an online merchant account from your bank and setup a payment gateway. If your business is new this may take some time to organise.
You can offer payment methods like direct debit and COD or even pay by invoice.
NEVER take and store credit card details on your website. You will have to conform to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). If you use a payment provider, such as PayPal, eWAY or SecurePay as examples, this becomes much easier. In 2014 you will see more providers offering online wallets that store your personal and card details such as MasterCards MasterPass so these will need to be integrated to offer that added security.
The shipping calculation method used will depend on how you intend to ship the products to your customer and if you charge your customer a shipping fee online.
If you decide on Fee Shipping for example the cost of shipping is built into the margin and product price.
If you are going to add a shipping fee and use Australia Post bags or eParcel then you will need to calculate the shipping cost based on the product weight in the customer shopping basket and add it as a line item.
Most ecommerce software should include calculators for shipping. You need to make a decision and then check that the software will support the method that you need.
Step 6 - Search friendly
A mistake made by many online store operators is to believe that you can somehow trick search engines (especially Google) into giving your site better organic ranking.
Good Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) in general means good content. There are a few technical issues that should just be handled by the core ecommerce software that you have chosen. These include correct H1 tags (HTML header), completed meta tags, completed and unique Title tags, ALT and Title tags in images, keyword based URLs, XML sitemaps, well-constructed code base (W3C conventions).
You can get SEO value from quality links that are built up over time with partners or connected websites. Buying links and directory listings will potentially cause your site to be penalised.
It is always a good idea to understand a little about SEO and Google provides a lot of advice to get started.
Step 7 - Legal stuff
Your store must include specific terms of service as dictated by the ACCC (or the official consumer organisation in your country).
Trust is visual, it is informational and it is process. All three of these factors need to be considered.
We covered this in detail in a blog post about trust in August 2013.
Step 8 - Marketing and Multi-channel
You need to implement and use these features wisely and not without a plan. Make sure that you consider the impact the use of a specific marketing feature may have on the whole business. Social Media and good customer ratings can make or break an online store and it is essential to make your business social media friendly in 2014.
Step 9 - Mobile friendly
2014 is the year that mobile will dominate ecommerce. Online purchases from mobile devices are increasing by 42% annually! Your online store had better be ready! Smartphones and iPhones, Tablets and iPads, PCs and laptops, Smart TVs.
You need to ensure that you have a site usable on a mobile device. Often this will just be a part of what is delivered by the software platform that you selected. But check and if you are using a designer ask then to review the site on a mobile phone as well as on a desktop. Make sure you test you sites functionality on many different devices before your customers do.
Step 10 - Track and Improve
The best way to improve your results is to understand customer behaviour and look for areas to improve. Real-time reporting like Google analytics and our Wagtail helps you understand what your customer is doing.
Live chat analytics can be useful in understanding what your visitors want to see (and hear about).
Understanding what you customer do on your website can help you improve the user experience, the content and the customer service.
The world of eCommerce, and online retail, changes rapidly and is driven by changing user expectations and technology. Over the next few months we will look in more detail at each of the “10 Steps” to be successful online using the latest technology and ideas.