A team reviews marketing strategies for a small business

Marketing your online store

Congratulations! If you’re reading this tutorial, you either have or will soon join the ranks of small businesses that have created a website to market your services, products and value to customers and clients. You’re now ahead of the pack since 60% of small businesses, including some of your competitors, still haven’t figured out that a website is essential to the success of any business these days.

A website serves as an essential lead generation tool that allows you to build a relationship with prospective customers and clients to help them make informed purchasing decisions, whether they are just down the street or halfway across the world.

Eighty percent of people in the U.S. use the Internet to make these decisions. That’s 230.5 million potential customers who are researching businesses and products, comparing prices and features and completing purchases. That’s just in the United States. Ninety-five percent of all customers and two-thirds of the world’s purchasing power lie overseas.

Of course, even the most amazing website wasn’t worth the time and effort if no one visits it and worse, no one buys anything from it or at least picks up the phone.

This is where marketing plays a central role. Just as you market and advertise a physical business to build awareness of your products and services, you need to promote your website and online store in much the same way.

Managed and marketed widely, your website and online store can be a virtual extension of your physical business, working for you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At the very least, your website address should appear in all of your ads, social media posts, press releases, email blasts, and in the signature line of your emails.

Thanks to advances in tools and technologies, a website can do everything your physical business can do and even more, from providing real-time inventory updates and virtual customer service to letting a loyal customer know about a special “members-only” sale. With a little planning, your website can be a dynamic marketing and sales tool that can keep customers engaged and online orders flowing in.

Here are some proven strategies for getting people to visit your virtual storefront, so they buy from you instead of your competitor.

Use email and text strategically

Ask visitors to your website to opt-in to receive special offers. You can do this with a simple checkbox in your shopping cart during the checkout process or have a window pop up on the home page asking for the visitor’s contact information and permission to contact the individual with special promotions or offers. Omaha Steaks does this brilliantly, tying your permission to receive offers with weekly (and sometimes daily) texts and emails promoting another irresistible – and limited time – offer.

Start a blog

This is a great way to keep your name and your offerings in the public eye. The trick here is to offer something of value for free. This means knowledge, insights, helpful hints, how-tos, etc., that your customers will appreciate and come to look forward to receiving. And who’s going to fault you if you just happen to add a special blog-only offer at the end of each tome. Just remember that this can’t be a last-minute strategy. You need to plan what you’re going to write about and stick to a set publication schedule. If your blog is supposed to come out first thing Monday morning, make sure it’s every Monday morning. Also, be sure you add some photos to your posts. A long page of text (like this one) can make for a daunting read. Ideally, the blog should be housed on your website, so people have to go to your site to read the full blog. Only a portion of your article is posted on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, enough to hook them so they will follow the Read On… link.

Be the subject of someone else’s blog

It’s always more powerful to have someone else promote you. Do a little research into who is a mover and shaker in your space. Read their blogs, post comments, build a relationship and then follow up with a conversation. Eventually, they may want to see your product or experience your service, and if you’re lucky, they will share it with their audience. You may even want to send two products to the influencer; one for them to keep and one to give away in a promotion. Just one caveat. Like a movie reviewer, they can either love you or hate you. Just because you shared a moment doesn’t mean they are going to fawn all over you. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the influencer kitchen.

Become a video star

YouTube, Instagram and TikTok were made for promoting products and services. Do a behind the scenes video or a tutorial on how to use your product. For example, if you sell hair accessories, show viewers how many ways they can be worn. If you sell dog treats, show the process you use to make them. Share the videos on other social media and on your site. Make them easy to share. Also, be sure that they are lively and not just a dull reading of steps or ingredients. And stay away from Death by Powerpoint. No one wants to hear some disembodied voice offscreen drone their way through 213 slides.

Find the right channels for you

Social media is a great way to market you, your products and your services. Before you dive in, though, do some research so you know where you should spend your time. Where does your ideal customer spend their time? For instance, if they are a Millennial, they’re probably not hanging around Facebook, which is increasingly skewed to an older demographic now that Instagram and TikTok have arrived. If your model is business-to-business or business-to-government, don’t forget about LinkedIn. If your offerings are in the fashion, home, food or collectible world, don’t overlook Pinterest, especially if you’re targeting female shoppers. Pinterest is 84% female in the U.S., ages 25 to 54. In short, go where your customers go and follow the crowd when they find a new app they love. Remember when MySpace was a thing? Now it’s a joke on Facebook and Facebook is a joke to the Instagram crowd.

Mix it up

When you do find the right platform, be sure to interact with your audience. Don’t just start posting about your product or service. That’s a real turnoff. Let people get to know you and your business. Share your expertise and experiences. Tell the story of why you started your business or created this or that product or service. Answer questions. Ask followers to post photos of themselves using your product. You want to build a loyal audience and relationship-building on social media is a great way to not only build a potential customer base but have customers tell their friends and family about you.

Experiment with paid ads

If you have a small ad budget, see if paid ads work for you on Facebook and LinkedIn. Base the success of these campaigns on website conversions to gauge the effectiveness of these ads. Remember, you want to build relationships continually with increasingly loyal customers. Everyone starts out as a prospect; your marketing and ad strategy is always about converting them into long-term customers. Everyone these days is bombarded with messages, thousands each week, so you need to stand out from the get-go. If paid ads don’t work, it may just be a timing issue, or you may be targeting the wrong audience with the wrong message. Advertising is all about experimentation and results. You won’t always strike gold, even if you have the best do-dad or whatchamacallit in the world. And never mistake a lot of site traffic with success. It’s all about making a sale, turning that prospect into a loyal customer.

Get your name out

Your car, van, SUV or pickup can serve as a free billboard as you drive around town. Think about getting a vehicle wrap with your name, product and website address on it. If you are selling products, make sure that the shipping box and inside packaging are branded with your company name and website (think Amazon). This information should also be on the packing slip and invoice. A little thank you card doesn’t hurt either. If you have a physical store, make sure your bags have your phone number and online store address printed on them, especially they are designed to be used again and again.

Update your bricks and mortar location

If you have a physical store, make sure your online store’s address is prominently placed on your countertop as a tent card or on postcards that can be placed in a bag. Window clings are another excellent strategy. Add them to your storefront windows, to the rear window of your car and on each side of the front door so customers can see it as they enter and exit. If you have a Closed sign, add your online store address. If you run a restaurant that offers online ordering, make sure the address to order appears under your main menu and at the bottom of print menus.

Have a contest

A contest is a great way to drive traffic to your website and online store. You need to make sure that the contest is legitimate, legal and you need to offer something of perceived value to the winner or winners. In return, you can require information from the entrant, including their email address and phone number (after all, you need to contact them if they win) that you can use to increase your contact list for emails and texts. Just be sure that the fine print of your contest lets contestants know they are giving you permission to contact them with other promotions, such as contests, giveaways and special discounts in the future and allow them to opt-out.

A brief note about the legal part: In Washington State, you can’t require a person to purchase anything of value in order to enter your contest or receive a scratch ticket or game piece. You must provide the option to enter without a purchase, such as a request to enter via email. Now the legitimate part: You can’t place the non-purchase entries in a separate bucket from the entries of customers who purchased something. You must draw from all entries.

Offer specials regularly

Most online shopping platforms give you the option to use promo codes. Use them to create promotions that generate sales during slow sales cycles and for holiday specials such as 50% off a selected item or free shipping for orders over $50. Be sure to spread out your specials so that you will stay top of mind in the customer’s mind.

Include coupons in shipments

To increase reorders, include a customer coupon in each shipment that offers a discount on the next order or a free gift. If the offer is for your online store, make sure you test the discount code in the shopping checkout before printing out an offer. Nothing is more frustrating than getting a 50% discount or Free Shipping offer and the online store won’t accept the code.

Don’t forget your voicemail

If you have an on-hold message or a message before someone can leave a voicemail, be sure that you include your online store address. Say it clear and slow so someone can get it the first time or say it at the beginning and the end with store hours or other contact information in between.

Button it up

If you have employees, make sure they wear a button or nametag with your online store address on it. Something like “Shop with us online at (URL here).

Optimize for search engines

Your online store is not the place to exercise that creativity you have bottled up. Product names and descriptions need to have keywords strategically sprinkled about so search engines can find your products and display them as highly ranked search engine results. The most important keyword is in the product name. It should describe what the item is, such as “Mid-century Table Lamp,” “Blue Cashmere Scarf,” or “Silver Anchor Necklace” It sounds unfair, but a search engine can’t read your mind or interpret your witty description. If you’re unsure, try entering a keyword in a search engine you think your customer would use to find your product and see what results pop up. Or do the same with a competitor’s site and see what the results suggest. If you still want to still be creative, the product description, not the name, is the place to do it as long as you find a way to sneak another keyword into it.

Keyword your photos, too

Search engines can find you through photos, too. As you edit and save your photos, make sure they are saved in the correct sizes so your pages load as quickly as possible and then name them using a keyword (i.e., blue-scarf-with-polka-dots.jpg). This will help search engines catalog them properly. Oh, and some shopping modules will allow you to load in a thumbnail and a larger version of the same image, the smaller one showing up on your products page and the larger one appearing when someone wants to see more detail.

Sponsor stuff

If you’re in a rural community, becoming a sponsor of a major event is reasonably affordable. It’s harder to do in larger cities, but you can still be a “below the title” sponsor, snatching up a package that is more affordable but still effective. These sponsorships will allow your business to appear in event schedules, have signage on a stage you’re sponsoring, or even the ability to carry a banner down the street in your town’s annual parade. Like anything else, think about where your audience is and sponsor activities, sports or events that they frequent. This is a great strategy to gain visibility and build community goodwill at the same time.

Use your customers as a salesforce

Sites like Yelp, Amazon and Yahoo carry a lot of weight with prospective customers who want to know what others thought. Reviews or testimonials not only show you’re legitimate but that you deliver on your promises in terms of quality, price and customer service. You can also use testimonials on your website. And while you’re at it, you may want to create a customer referral program that gives your customers a discount for referring a friend or family member to your online store.

Set a schedule and keep to it

It’s easy to start with good intentions and even go overboard at the beginning. But over time, keeping everything up to date may no longer be top of mind, especially as sales begin to increase and there’s more demand on your time. If you don’t have the time to keep your website up to date and make sure your products are current in your store in terms of price and availability, ask someone on your team to do this for you. To help you stay on top of all the updates, create an editorial calendar so that you and your team can stay ahead of holiday-specific promotions, anniversary sales and other sales opportunities. Once it’s set up and active, a website and an online store are two of the most inexpensive strategies you can implement to attract customers, drive sales and increase customer loyalty.