Many businesses have focused their efforts on having a larger presence online. In your own field, you may notice a similar shift in buying habits, as more customers show preferences for buying online instead of in physical store locations.
With this trend in mind, consider whether you’re maximizing your business’s potential at your physical locations, or if either going completely online or adding online business to your in-store operations would be more beneficial.
Why should a business have an online presence?
Think about your own buying habits and those of your family and friends. How often do you check out a business online before visiting a physical location (if one exists) or otherwise deciding upon a purchase? Having a business website is no longer a luxury; it's a marketplace necessity.
Other compelling reasons for knowing how to take your business online:
- Reduce your expenses and lower overhead costs. If your business is strictly web-based, you save money not having to rent or lease a physical space. Other business-related costs may be significantly reduced as well, such as utilities, maintenance, the number of employees needed, security costs, and so on. This can lead to more positive cash flow that you can use to reinvest in other areas of the business, such as your website or online support.
- Create a larger customer base. A physical location can attract only so many customers who live in and around the region where the store is based. Online businesses, by contrast, can interact with prospective customers around the world.
- Improve your company image. Increasingly, a business's effectiveness and status are judged by its web presence. If your business doesn't have its own website, in the eyes of many people, it simply doesn't exist. A well-designed, user-friendly site contributes to visitors' perceptions of a business that runs smoothly, caters to customer preferences, and is staying up to speed with advances in digital technology.
- Gain credibility. In our era of search engines and social media, a business without an online presence lacks consumer credibility. Remember, prospective buyers frequently check out reviews of businesses, as well as those business's social media feeds, long before they ever buy anything. An online presence is the first step in establishing legitimacy in the eyes of the purchasing public.
Steps to take a small business online
Creating a web presence for your business isn't especially difficult. With the assistance of the right digital tools and/or assistance from knowledgeable sources, you can achieve an online presence within a matter of hours or days. Nevertheless, there are some key steps for putting a business online.
1. Create a company website
If you're comfortable in the digital realm, there are plenty of resources to guide you through the preliminary steps of website creation. You may wish to look into hosting services, website support, and help with any functionality your proposed site should have that enhances the customer experience (such as a shopping cart or chat feature).
Secure a domain name
According to the popular web-hosting site GoDaddy, securing and registering a domain name for your online business should include these action steps:
- Don't make the proposed name too long.
- Do some research to see what's already been registered.
- Incorporate keywords relevant to your business.
- Don't use hyphens or numbers.
- Stand out.
- Employ the appropriate domain name extension (".com" is the most preferable).
- Take actions to protect your brand.
The domain name you choose "is your identity on the web," GoDaddy notes. Do all you can to select a domain name "that not only fits your business, but is also easy to find and promote."
Choose a website design
How your website looks is very important. Savvy consumers take one look at a sloppy or jumbled design and move on. Options for selecting a website design can include consulting a professional web designer (check with your professional network for referrals) or explore web design templates offered by most web hosting sites. Chances are that they have a template that will effectively convey your brand in an appealing fashion.
Write a site outline
Having an outline of what each page on your site should do is immensely helpful. Generally speaking, you only need five to seven pages (at least at the outset) to encapsulate necessary information such as product offerings, contact information and shopping functions. Your outline should also ensure that, no matter how a visitor might arrive there, he can navigate the site with ease and not get lost. Additionally, those business owners who are not solely online and have a brick-and-mortar store should include the business's physical address, phone number(s), and any other essential contact information in an easy-to-see location on every page (say, the footer). Incorporating name, address, and phone number (NAP) information is important not only in helping site visitors to find you and possibly spend money but also so that web crawlers (read Google) can verify your legitimacy and help you rank in local online searches.
2. Set up a branded email
Unlike personal emails, a branded email is designed to attract new customers and support the ones you already have. Email branding includes the following:
- A business logo
- Contact information (including the address of your physical location if you have one)
- Social media icons
- A photo of you or your team to help humanize the business
This may seem like a lot to add to your email signature, but it can be a significant asset in building your brand.
3. Create social media accounts
Active participation in social media is an essential step in putting a business online. You want to be able to communicate with your customers in real time and be available to address complaints or inquiries ASAP. All this can be achieved by creating accounts at the leading social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. (Add to those online business services such as Yelp and Google Business.) There may also be industry-specific social media sites that your brand should be following.
4. Start taking payments online
Fewer people than ever before use cash to pay for goods and services. They rely instead upon advanced online payment processing functions that complete the transaction.
For example, take Grubhub, the on-demand food delivery service. Consumers browse the restaurants available through the online portal, make their menu selections, decide what they want, and place orders in a shopping cart. When the cart is ready, the Grubhub app requests a confirmation. When this is approved, it's time to pay.
Users are guided to the checkout page, where they can choose from several payment options (debit/credit cards, PayPal, or paying cash upon delivery). Once payment is set, the food is prepared and delivered shortly thereafter.
For online businesses, this means it's vital to quickly process a range of debit and credit card payments. There are several credit card processors that you can choose from to start accepting these kinds of payments straight from your website. The Paychex credit and debit card processing service, for example, helps businesses eliminate paper checks, offer gift cards to new and loyal customers, and even earn added revenue through dynamic currency conversion.
Create an e-commerce business plan
Let's say you've determined precisely what you wish to sell online. The obvious next question is how you'll deliver this product to buying customers. If we're talking about actual physical products, you can stock and ship them on your own or, perhaps more efficiently, draw upon the services of a fulfillment company.
Next up: determining how your online business will sell to prospective customers. Research various online sales channels to evaluate what's best for you. Such sales channels can include a seller marketplace, social media platforms, online auctions, and other online stores.
Other key elements of an e-commerce business plan should include a strategy for promoting and marketing your product; deciding upon a pricing strategy that results in at least some profit, especially in the early stages when steady cash flow is essential; and determining the best product rollout and launch for your new business.
A business plan that addresses these issues will significantly reduce the risks involved in starting a new business.
5. Use an online client relationship manager
An online client relationship manager helps you and your sales staff keep track of leads, customer notes, and what customers have purchased.
Depending on the size of your business, you may want to consider using an all-in-one system that comes complete with email marketing and e-commerce functionalities. It can help you keep track of everything in the customer process — from what someone clicked on in an email to what's already been purchased. Additionally, this type of system can help you scale and increase revenue by sending out automatic follow-ups to prospects and upsell tactics to customers.
As your great new online business gets underway, it's important to design key performance indicators and other metrics to measure the progress you make. Among the elements to track are number of visitors to your site, number of qualified sales leads, number of actual sales recorded, etc. Anything that can get measured should be measured.
Knowing how to take your business online can help you save money, run more efficiently, and have more flexibility. Even if you can't put your business online entirely, there are several ways to incorporate online business management into your current structure. It's what customers expect — and demand.