Under lockdown, many of us have had to up our game in marketing. While mom and pop stores face threats of shutdowns, the rest of us should get ourselves out there on the internet and start selling.
(No) Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, most brick-and-mortar businesses have come to a grinding halt. It’s a moment of crisis none of us thought would strike us so hard below the belt. This has led many companies and individuals to start exploring ways to get their businesses moving virtually.
After speaking to many people about this, I’ve come to realize that people KNOW they have to move forward digitally from now on.
The virus has stripped everything naked. Previous resistance is now a matter of survival for us as businesses and as individuals.
What’s surprising is that some of the people I spoke to don’t know the difference between a website, an eCommerce platform, a social media page with shopping features, marketplaces, affiliate sites, nor dropshipping.
No wonder the hesitance.
I’ll Summarize What They are Quickly to Help you Decide Which Platform will Suit you Best
I’ll start off with saying that there is no:
- Umbrella solution
- Magic pill or potion
- A single solve-all software
- Best platform
- Marketing strategy
They all work differently; you can, however, base your decisions on what each of these platforms offers you.
I’ve had the experience of helping eCommerce sites launch and market themselves from across the world, focusing on writing kick-ass copy for their websites, eye-catching headlines for their landing pages, and persuasive copy for product pages which are SEOed with competitive Meta Tags.
I’ve also worked full-time with brick-and-mortar retailers, helping them launch their websites and collaborate closely with product managers and the warehouse managers to promote products, craft out persuasive copy for their promotions, and work closely with the marketing team to dole out graphics for both the website and social media pages.
I’ve also worked as a freelance copywriter and content writer, eCommerce manager, and digital marketing consultant for marketplaces for very niche and premium products.
On top of that, I’ve also worked full-time as a leader of an editorial team in an affiliate marketing company. Thanks to a solid business model, they’re making a fair amount of money worldwide.
I am not here to brag. I am here to help you understand that there is a difference.
Differentiating between all of the above is going to be a book in itself. It’s hard to keep it short. Based on the pros and cons of each of those business models, you get to decide which you prefer to embark on.
After this, you’ll have a better idea about your next game plan.
Your Website – The Frontliner
A website is your online sales force. Its main objective is to give your products/services/company/brand exposure.
For most, the website doesn’t close the sales.
It takes more than just putting up a website to turn visitors into long-term customers. What it does, instead, is to turn your customers into potential customers or brand followers.
Your website, therefore, is your online brochure and company profile that turns visitors into prospects.
Most modern websites are also designed to capture leads and build a fan base. When you design and write your website content, you’ll have one clear focus in your mind – ALWAYS – you want to turn curious visitors into customers.
Some websites are information portals. The owners of the websites pump informational content into their websites/blogs every day/week in an effort to not just rank well on search engines, but also to cement their status as an authoritative figure in the industry.
“The purpose: the main purpose of the informational website is to help users to find the necessary information on a specific topic.”– Weblium.com
Using a Blog to Sell your Products
Many people have tried this and it worked for them because it is cheap (it can also be free) because you either:
- Use a free domain provided by WordPress, Blogger, Wix, Weebly, Medium, or Tumblr
- Buy a domain name from Bluehost, GoDaddy, HostGator, NameCheap, DreamHost, or Domain.com and point it to the free blog you’re using. This way, you don’t have to pay for the hosting and Content Management System (CMS) that comes with running and hosting your own blog/website/online store.
There are down sides, of course, as with everything free – they’re limited and inflexible. You’ll have a bit of trouble customizing the pages and categorizing your products.
Bear in mind that some blogging platforms do not allow for external scripts for a shopping cart.
This does not mean it cannot be done. You’ll just need to keep things simple and manual. Back in the days, I banked on this method because I didn’t have the funds to launch massive websites.
The good news is that it worked OK. I wouldn’t say it was ideal but there are more affordable ways to do it now compared to before.
For example, if you have a Paypal account (which takes a commission per transaction from the recipient of the money and charges a transfer fee), create an ‘Add to Cart’ button and copy-paste the script into your blog for each product.
I created and then copy-pasted a Paypal ‘Add to Cart’ button and used it one my free Blogger account.
Basically, your blog will work as your simplified online catalog and marketing engine.
The simple way to do it is to use basic user interface, product displays, and give your customers multiple payment options.
Alternatively, you can invest in a Shopify or Wix package (which charges both a monthly fee and takes a commission per transaction) to sell your products.
It costs a bit of money but if you gain some traction within a couple of months, you’ll find yourself a small fan base. You’ll have to focus on marketing and closing sales as soon as the new online store takes off.
The great thing about using a platform like Wix is that they’re pretty neat, and offer a bunch of tolls and ready plugins that free blogs like Blogger and WordPress don’t.
They’re quite user-friendly too and should take you no time to get used to.
Using a Website as an eCommerce Platform – a Virtual Storefront for Online Sales
The functions of a website and an eCommerce site are very different.
Normal CMS for websites doesn’t usually display products, organize them by category, let customers search through products or place them into their Wish List or Shopping Cart, or let them quickly checkout with their preferred payment option.
You need plugins to make those functions work.
Building an eCommerce platform is for those who wish to sell their products online, providing their customers with a pleasant shopping experience, customer service, logistics and inventory management, shipping and delivery services, manage refund and return policies, and offer promotions/discounts to customers.
You can either make it simple or comprehensive. The choice is yours.
Many eCommerce websites need the help of programmers, UI/UX designers, copywriters, and a small team of admin and marketing staff to run the business. Marketing your website, especially when you’re gearing for a game of SEO, is going to take time.
That is why it takes months (after going through multiple test runs) to finally launch an eCommerce website.
If you have the budget to hire people to design and write for your eCommerce website, then go for it. In fact, some of these backend work involves affiliating, cooperating, and collaborating with other people and businesses.
If your eCommerce website is not a sophisticated or automated one like ones that are running on Shopify or WooCommerce, many of the minimal stuff can be done manually.
It is time-consuming and may result in a few mistakes. However, it is doable and requires some level of programming skills.
Social Media Shop – An Easy-to-Start and Maintain Social Store
It is so easy to start one on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat. If you’re already using social media, you can set up your own Facebook Marketplace, Craiglist-style, to start selling your products and services.
Bear in mind, however, the features are limited and the main reason Facebook gave this feature the green light was to cater to its large database of users’ propensity for selling stuff, sometimes used and pre-loved items, through their Facebook Group platforms.
Think of it as a yard sale-style platform.
This is perfect for those who have ready or custom-made stock or items that they wish to sell online. I personally buy hand-made soap, artisanal products, and seafood from people who sell them solely on Facebook and Instagram!
Payment, tracking, logistics, and everything else in between, as far as I know, are run on Facebook’s or Whatsapp’s messaging system. Once the online business takes off, you can, then, consider investing on a proper eCommerce website.
And that’s because, as of the time of writing, there’s no system in place for a proper marketplace even on Facebook. It works more like classified ads than an online store.
“And Marketplace is not really a place for brands. For now, Pages cannot sell products through Marketplace, and there’s no way for anyone who can sell products in Marketplace to pay Facebook to have an item featured in Marketplace or shown to a specific group of people, the spokesperson said”– MarketingLand
When selling on social media, at least for now, raises issues of quality control, authenticity, scamming, safety, and cash payments. We can, however, find a little bit of solace when buying/seling in a Closed or Private Facebook Group.
Setting Up Store on a Popular Online Marketplace
For small companies and individual stores to get their online business off the ground without having to fork out a kidney and half a lung, consider familiarizing oneself with the systems of an existing online marketplace.
The platforms are ready to go and every seller/vendor works with the same system. Depending on the platform you’re using, it could be easy, it can be hard.
The world’s most popular online marketplaces already have a massive pool of sellers and buyers who are already trading online using the very same engine. These popular online marketplaces are also swamped with hard-sells and confused vendors. That’s because many of these sellers are attempting to use one template to post on multiple marketplaces.
It’s hard to stand out. But still, it’s a good place to start small.
The GOOD NEWS? These online marketplaces already rank well on most search engines, especially Google. So, that saves you money on marketing and PPC campaigns if you understand the online marketplace’s algorithms.
If you’re asking why it would be hard to snatch a sale on these seemingly perfect God-sent online marketplaces, have a look at these figures.
- Amazon and eBay – 2.5 million sellers
- Lazada – 155,000 local and international sellers and 3,000 brands
- Shopify – 500,000 merchants from 175 countries
- Shopee – 260 million vendors and buyers
- Paypal Mall – 305 million users
- Alibaba – 755 million people
- AliExpress – 639.1 million people on AliExpress
- Taobao – 545 million users
So, while it is easy to get a foot through the door, it’s a war zone in there. Most vendors play the price war daily.
I know of business owners who are already running their own eCommerce stores but continue to use these online marketplaces to get new leads by slashing their prices just to get new customers.
Running your own eCommerce Store
This is a little on the techie side and may involve some serious money. Setting up your own eCommerce store that can be personalized to fit your image, brand, industry, and needs is ideal for a serious online business owner.
Most of the following websites allow you to choose your own theme, set up your landing pages, categories, and product pages, shopping cart, and payment gateways.
- Shopify/Shopify Plus
This is the perfect solution for companies or individuals who offer niche products. If you’re selling premium price watches or home decor, you may not want to have a slugfest with those who are already on those popular online marketplaces.
Consider this. Even a major player like IKEA is on Amazon. Do you think your antique coffee table and kitchenware selection is capable of an intense price and loyalty fight against the big brand on a site like Amazon or Lazada?
So, if you have a niche line of products to sell to a specific demographic, I would strongly advise you to invest in your own eCommerce store. Because it’s quite a chunk of money, you’ve step into the ring with a powerful marketing gameplan.
Depending on the infrastructure and theme of the store, you may or may not need the help of a programmer from time to time, especially if you need to make changes to plugins and scripts.
That is why you need to be certain about the direction of your eCommerce store and its marketing strategy before deciding on how you want the eCommerce site to look like and be run.
The worst eCommerce stores have confusing navigational systems, hundreds of categories, inconsistent look-and-feel, and no real focus.
With your own eCommerce store to run, you’ll have to look into stuff like keeping stock, maintaining the online store, getting orders, updating the order status, calling the delivery guys and prepping the boxes, sending it out and then completing the entire process yourself.
I’ll leave the SEO and marketing side of running your own eCommerce store for another day. It’s another book to write about.
Earning Commissions from Affiliate Networks
If you don’t already have your own products to sell or are trying out affiliate marketing, there’s still space for that.
Affiliate marketing survived a bad rep in the past despite it being a rather relevant performance-based marketing. The affiliate network and vendor pays a commission to marketers based on each successful sale/lead. There are no payments for clicks or views…just sales.
I think that’s fair enough.
A large majority of affiliate networks today apply the revenue-sharing concept or PPS, Pay per Sale compensation model.
The reason affiliate marketing suffered some bad rep in the past was because it was unscrupulously manipulated by unethical marketers who resorted to spam, false advertising, forced clicks, adware, malware or even false sponsorships to get their hands on commissions they didn’t earn. Many advertisers saw a grey area they could wiggle themselves into where there was little control over.
However, during my early years, I’ve seen people earn a decent income from promoting legitimate products using just their free blogs from either the WordPress or Blogger free platforms. The more serious advertisers would even invest a little bit of money on their own domain names and hosting.
With the ever-changing algorithm of search engines, these free blogging websites no longer command much authority.
So, if you want to start promoting products online through an affiliate network, you would have to consider spending money on buying a domain name and promoting it. And when it comes to affiliate marketing, there are no two ways about it: Content is King.
Selling Products on Instagram
“About 39% of U.K. online shoppers ages 16 to 24 have used Instagram Shopping to buy a product”– Mobile Marketer
If you’re a small one-man-show, you change your personal Instagram account (or you can create a new business Instagram account) into a business one and link it up to your Facebook business profile or product pages.
When selling on Instagram, there are no product pages, unlike when you log into an eCommerce website. Instead, the post will look pretty much like a usual organic post but it will come with product name and prices when users tap on the image.
The thing with selling solely on Instagram is that, at this point, there is no other way but to link your Instagram to your Facebook account. By enabling product tagging, each time an Instagram viewer clicks on the picture tag, it will bring the user to the Facebook page.
The problem lies in Marketing.
75% of Instagram users belong to the 16 to 24 year old demographic. 84% of Facebook users are between the ages of 30 to 49. There’s no crossover demographic; even if there were, the percentage is negligible.
I would say if you have products that appeal to younger users and you’re running your own website or blog, explore ways to turn your Instagram account into a business profile, post awesome product pictures and stories, and link them up to your sales pages.
Using Google Smart Shopping
If I said Google won the search engine Monopoly game, no one is going to argue with me.
Hence, when they launched Google Merchant Center, it was like a dream come true for those who had products to sell and wanted to affordably advertise them on the platform.
It is essentially a keyword-based ad bidding platform based on user-data. The higher the bid, the more prominent the product placement.
The great thing about using Google Shopping and Google Merchant Center is that you can control when your products appear during a search. You get to decide that based on whether you wish to create awareness for your products/brand, interest, intent, or consideration.
This article on how to use and manage your product ad campaigns should give you a better insight into how to place your products on Google Shopping.
However, Google has set very strict standards for its Google Shopping feature.
Amongst many things, you need:
- A website with a shopping cart system with at least one checkout option such as a secure payment gateway, e.g. Paypal or credit card tangible goods
- An inventory
- A website with verified search console account
- An eCommerce website with no copyright problems
- and amongst many other rules, images of approximately 300 x 3000 pixels
- It does not allow redirects, affiliate advertising or drop shopping
Basically, they want to ensure that the ads are placed by serious eCommerce website owners or retailers with real products to sell. You can say Google is serious about weeding out people who are not serious about being in business.
Selling online can be easy AND hard, depending on how far you want to take it. My advice is to take it one step at a time, explore your options, read a lot, experiment, listen, change, and keep learning.
My mantra has always been this – what I know today can be complete BS tomorrow.
That’s the internet for you.
You can explore more about setting up your own eCommerce storefront here from this searchenginewatch article.