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Selling Online: The Reality

No doubt you've seen the adverts popping up on social media. Before you get to see the video you clicked on, you have to sit through a moment or two of a minor celebrity explaining how within 30mins they had an awesome ecommerce website up and running. Within days they had orders pouring in.

By the end of the advert, you'd be forgiven for thinking that to sell online successfully, all you need is a glitzy website with a catchy domain name. Sadly, the harsh reality is a million miles from that marketing hype.

In the real world, where you are trying to get real people to part with real money, a good website is only the start, and once it's live, the real work begins.

When I get a new client approach me for an ecommerce site, I like to use the analogy of a real bricks and mortar shop.

When you open a shop, you first approach a landlord to rent an empty shop unit. Then you get in a shopfitter to make it look great. Then you might get in a merchandiser to display your products. Then you open the doors and hope people walk through it. And then, when you realise people are not just going to walk through the doors of a brand new, completely unknown shop, you start marketing the business to get the message out there and give people a reason to visit.

Websites are much the same.

With a website, the equivalent of the landlord, shop fitter and maybe even the merchandiser are often the same person. The web designer. Their job is to design and build you a great looking site, and if they are adding the content to it, make your products look great. But beyond ensuring the site has excellent on-site SEO, their job isn't to get people through the door. That job falls you to, the shopkeeper.

Now you can outsource this job to someone like me to do something we call "digital marketing". But you don't have to. Much of what you need to do can be done by anyone, with a bit of time to spare and a willingness to learn some new tricks.

Sure, a digital marketeer such as myself can (should!) bring a certain level of professionalism to the job. We can speed the process up and cover some areas that require a high degree of knowledge and understanding. But just like the shop keepers of old used to walk around the local car parks putting leaflets under windscreen wipers, there are things the total novice can do, with little to no budget.

Back 20 years ago, when I started with an online store, internet forums were a thing. So I sought out forums based around the product I was selling (bikes) and got involved. I didn't just steam in and tell everyone to buy their bikes from me. I spent time getting to know people, letting people get to me know and helping people with their bike-related issues and at the same time spreading the word about my new online bike shop.

Initially, I got a lot of stick for it from other bike shop owners. They would say my shop was obviously dead as I had so much time to spend on the internet (in the early days they were not wrong!). But the way I saw it, these internet forums were like massive rooms packed with people who all used the products I sold, so it made sense to spend my time in there, pedalling my wares. Within a few years, every bike shop owner was a regular forum dweller!

Of course, it wasn't long before forum owners realised they had a marketplace inside their website so started to sell adverts and ban shops "selling" in the actual forums, but by that time, I'd set up my own forum for bikers so had a captive audience, but that's a different story for a different blog post.

Roll forward to today, and things have changed. Customers now hang out on social media, not forums, but they still need expert advice and help. And it's your job as the shop keeper to work out how to connect with them and help, and cost-effectively put your brand and store in front on them.

There are plenty of other ways to market your shop to potential customers, but suffice to say, for the sake of this post, getting a great looking, even great performing ecommerce site up and running and loaded with desirable product is only a small part of building a successful online store. It's the easy bit. The tricky bit comes afterwards: Getting people to visit it then part with money.

Typically it takes at least twelve months to establish any new retail business, whether online on the high street. And it's a challenging and often expensive year, so be prepared, and don't believe the hype.

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