Regardless of industry or the existing levels of competition, starting any form of business provides a whole host of challenges. These are often magnified online, where you need to learn a number of new proficiencies just to get your idea off the ground. From designing a site to building an audience, starting a business online isn’t easy.
Like most businesses, identifying a large enough niche to operate within is critical to your online success. Before you do anything, be sure you understand what, if anything, makes your proposition unique. With global competition and thousands of companies vying for visitors, complete individuality is almost impossible.
Now for most online businesses, their products or services will not be unique as not everyone can be the next James Dyson and come up with a revolutionary product.
So whilst your aim shouldn’t be to reinvent the wheel, you should be trying to find a new way of selling the wheel. What this mean is you should be looking for ways of segmenting your industry into something where you could become a specialist. A great example of this is the insurance provider Sheilas’ Wheels, who sell car insurance – not a unique product – but what they did do is segment the industry into something they could specialise in and in the end decided to sell specialist car insurance just for women (albeit it’s also available to men now, due to various regulations).
Whilst having something unique is key, you also have to be realistic as to how viable the size of the potential market is. Ask yourself, is your potential market large enough for you to target effectively and make a decent return on your efforts in the long run? If your niche is so small that even if you dominated the market for it your return is going to be minimal, then you might want to go back to the drawing board.
A great example of a business seeing an opportunity and exploiting it is an ad firm who started selling parrot cages because they saw a gap in the market (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-07/23/forward3d-paid-search-parrot-cages) and made £200,000 a month.
2. Realistic Budgets
One of the biggest reasons online businesses do not succeed is because owners don’t set realistic budgets for development and marketing. Whilst the internet is full of Web Developers and Online Marketing professionals offering up their services for next to nothing, be wary; like most things in life, you get what you pay for and online services are no exception. If you want an all-encompassing website then be prepared to pay for it. Web Development and Online Marketing are specialised fields and require a high degree of both creativity and technical knowledge – all of these skills will come with a cost.
3. Online Marketing 1: SEO
You also need to think about how you’re going to promote your site and get people looking at it and purchasing from you. In most instances, you’re going to need to be thinking about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Pay-per-Click (PPC) – both of which are great ways of getting people to your site via search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Bing.
This involves structuring a site in such a way as to allow it to rank favourably within the organic search results. In order to do this, you will also need to be thinking of ways of getting other sites to link back to you and thus demonstrating to search engines your content is worthwhile and valued. If you’re thinking about getting an SEO consultant on board, make sure they only use what are known as ‘White Hat’ techniques that comply with Google Guidelines. By breaking the search engine’s strict rules, you run the risk of being penalised. If you’re looking to build a business for the long term online, make sure you are only carrying out activity in line with Google’s own guidelines.
4. Online Marketing 2: PPC
Pay-per-Click involves paying search engines like Google and Bing each time your ad is activated by someone carrying out a search related to a keyword you wish to target, and that search subsequently results in a click on your ad. PPC is one of the most cost effective and immediate ways of generating substantial volumes of traffic to your site, but it can prove an extremely costly endeavour if not done effectively. If you’re looking to employ a PPC consult, make sure they are AdWords Certified, which will mean that they have passed a number of examinations from Google and demonstrates they know the AdWords product and will usually be in a good position to get you results.
More information: http://www.koozai.com/resources/whitepapers/adwords-beginners-guide/
5. Website Design
Design plays an important role in helping to generate revenue from a website; however, whilst it’s tempting to just concentrate purely on how the site looks cosmetically, you should also have an appreciation of how the site looks in relation to helping users actually convert into a sale or an enquiry. For example, if you’re looking for users to visit your site and actually pick up the phone and call you, then don’t put your phone number in a small font at the bottom of the page – make sure the number is clearly visible on as many pages of the website.
Another thing to think about is how your site will be hosted, going back to the point I raised earlier – like most things in life, you get what you pay for and hosting is very much the same. You need to ensure you have a reliable hosting package that has minimal downtime with regular backups, so your site is up and running every time a potential new customer visits the site. Most hosting packages are no more than a couple of hundred pounds a year, if that, and you don’t want to lose out on business with your site being down just for the sake of saving a bit of money on hosting.
You should also be thinking about securing as many social profiles as possible in your name. Make sure you’ve got a branded page on sites like Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. All of these social platforms have millions of users signed up and interacting each and every day and if a potential client is on one of these platforms, you need to ensure you’re on there and presented in the best possible light.
8. Performance Tracking
Every website that’s serious about doing business online needs to have, as a minimum, both Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools set up on the site. Both of these packages are free to sign up to and will give you invaluable data about the performance of your website. However, it’s not simply good enough to just know how many people visited your site last week, you also need to know how many people who visited your site resulted in a conversion – be it a sale, registration or an enquiry. All of these actions will be business critical to the site; things like enquires could either be someone emailing you or picking up the phone and calling you.
In light of this, make sure you have conversion tracking in place in Google Analytics and if you can afford it, sign up to a call tracking programme that will be able to tell you exactly how many phone calls have been generated. This data will then give you a far greater understanding of your online business and give you the information you need to be able to make informed decisions.
The security of your site and the data collected off customers is of paramount importance. You don’t want your site being hacked, thus preventing you from making sales, so make sure things like passwords and hosting is secure. Also, you will need to be thinking about how you’ll be taking payments on your site. Make sure this is secure as well and if needs be, get someone on-board who specialises in e-commerce payments.
10. Maintenance & Development
Finally you will need to think about the long game. In light of this, be sure you have the knowledge needed either internally to maintain a website and develop it further – if you don’t have this in place, I would seriously recommend out-sourcing it to an appropriately qualified Web Developer to ensure your site works as needed for every possible customer visiting your site.
Find out more about Ollie and Koozai
Oliver Ewbank is a Digital Marketing Manager at Koozai.com (http://www.koozai.com), a leading UK Digital Marketing Agency. He can be found on Twitter as @Koozai_Ollie. (http://www.twitter.com/Koozai_Ollie).