Hey there, Catherine Langman here, and welcome to my very first episode of the year for 2021! 

As I mentioned in the last episode, I’m going to be doing a series of episodes this month all focused on planning-related topics, as it is that time of year where we really ought to be figuring out what the heck we’re gonna be doing this year! 

But for this first episode of the year, I figured I’d start with what I’d do myself if I started my business over again in 2021. 

Because I know for a fact that there has been MASSIVE growth in eCommerce businesses over the last 10 months. People have been flocking to this business model in droves, because it really is the way we have had to shop since the advent of COVID-19. 

And whilst I think it’s incredibly exciting to see so many people starting up online stores, I also see a lot of them fail – and it’s not because they don’t have a great idea for their product and it’s not because of a lack of opportunity. On the flip side, there is even more opportunity to succeed in eCommerce now than even a year ago, but you do need to get a few crucial pieces of the puzzle in place.

Now, I started my first eCommerce business in 2007. Not that long ago really, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Entrepreneur years are like dog years, I reckon!

Obviously, things are different now compared to 2007 when I first started working on my product and prepared to launch my brand for the first time.

So this podcast will not be an ode to the past – I’m not looking back with rose coloured glasses or wishing I’d done this or that.

It would be like comparing apples to oranges anyway. Things that were difficult or expensive in 2007 are now simple and inexpensive. And of course, smartphones and social media have completely changed how we communicate with our customers.

Rather, in this episode I’ll be talking through a bunch of essential do’s and don’ts that we’ve seen make or break a business, based on the hundreds of clients we have worked directly with over the last year.

So, what would I do now, if I had my time over?

Here’s what you don’t need…

How about we start with what you definitely don’t need in order to make your business and brand a success online:

1. An expensive website

Back in 2007, creating a professional-looking eCommerce-enabled website was a big deal and, unless you were a developer, you really needed to get help. The Magento platform was the eCommerce king, and boy was it a beast! Tailoring it to your own brand or editing the layout was not a simple task that could be easily or quickly handled alone, and the experts were pricey. You’d be looking at a minimum of $30K – a significant investment for any small business!

But now, I’m a HUGE fan of Shopify. The Shopify platform has also taken the world by storm in recent years and for good reason. For the non-technically-minded amongst us it’s a sensational choice. It’s now incredibly simple to create a really good looking, functional, mobile responsive, and high converting website using Shopify.

It’s also super simple to set up and run; has excellent reporting and analytics built-in; integrates with pretty much any marketing app you could dream of needing; has a wealth of themes to choose from; and hands down the BEST tech support I’ve seen for any platform, plugin or app on the planet!

Be mobile

Regardless of which platform you choose, though, you MUST make sure your website AND your checkout process works perfectly on mobile!

These days, the vast majority of online shoppers find a product first via their smartphone. If your website is really slow to load or difficult to navigate on mobile, you’ll lose that shopper immediately.

That means a mobile responsive website is crucial. Because if your customers have a bad experience the first time they visit, they won’t be coming back!

My advice to you

Don’t crowd-source opinions around what your website should look like or what’s the best platform or theme to choose. 

I see people crowdsource opinions in large Facebook groups all the time and it does kinda make me cringe…

You will ALWAYS find different opinions about what things should look like and how they should work, but free advice from a public group is not going to be specific to your situation.

Those people don’t know anything about your brand positioning, your product value statement, your ideal customer or your customer journey, which is the starting point.

Nor are they privy to your website analytics, if you have any.

Instead, please try and seek advice from a mentor or a web designer who has significant experience designing eCommerce websites AND scaling up eCommerce businesses. You want advice from someone with a few relevant years’ experience under their belt. That means, find out what kind of website you need from people who have done what you want to do.

2. A massive advertising budget

When I first got started in business, there were two main avenues for a small business to brand awareness: print advertising and online display advertising.

And to drive traffic to your website, there was really only one option – Google ads.

(Obviously that’s not an exhaustive list, but for a small business owner without a limitless advertising budget, those were the usual choices.)

I distinctly recall that in 2010-11 I had a great ROI from print ads, but by 2013 it plummeted to zilch.

Which was a VERY expensive lesson considering I’d pre-booked about 50 grand’s worth of print ads to launch my new premium product range that year!

Digital advertising has continued to grow in the years since then, with mobile advertising outstripping desktop. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of growth in digital advertising is attributed to Facebook and Google, with Instagram ads lumped in with Facebook as they’re owned by the same company. There are some other players worth investigating depending on your target market – LinkedIn for professional or business-to-business selling, Pinterest for consumers, Snapchat and Tiktok if you have a younger demographic audience.

The generational change in the online world is getting faster and faster – seriously, it moves at like warp speed now!

Digital advertising is growing so rapidly for two reasons.

Firstly, you can reach your specific target market and put an ad in front of them very, very cheaply.

And secondly, it works. The ability to target your Facebook, Instagram and Google ads is now SO specific. It means you can pinpoint your precise target audience and create ads that are highly engaging and specific for your customer.

And the benefits don’t stop there either. The ability to track conversions and re-target your ads means that you can easily follow-up with your target audience and calculate your ROI (return on investment) very precisely.

There’s one key difference between the way you advertise on Google vs social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Online shoppers typically Google when they are ready to buy right now.

Whereas people typically head to social media when they’re looking to connect with friends (a.k.a ‘be social’), or to find interesting content.

Therefore, social media is usually seen as a platform for expressing aspirational intent. Generally you don’t push your product using ‘hard sell’ style ads on social media. Instead, you use these ads to expand your brand’s reach, attract potential new customers and build a relationship with your audience.

And this relationship-building activity is now a crucial step in the process: 93% of shoppers’ buying decisions are influenced by social media. 

And it’s now possible to achieve this for as little as a few dollars a day!

You don’t always need to pay for your audience…

Whilst I am definitely a big fan of paying for advertising to attract customers and build up your audience – the main reason I’m such a fan of this method is that it’s the fastest way to get there and it’s also highly scalable, meaning once you’ve got your ads converting in a profitable way, you can spend more money to make more money. You have the control over how fast you turn on that tap.

But it’s not the only way to attract and build your audience and I wouldn’t rely on it 100% either. 

One excellent way to get your business in front of new eyeballs is to collaborate with another business or brand (or even the right kind of influencer). 

For instance, we recently worked with a new brand that was launching to market, and they were able to gain immediate traction by collaborating with another brand that shared the same ideal customer. 

You might think, why would they do that? What’s in it for them? 

In that particular case, the new business was able to offer up some free product to be given away as freebies or gifts with purchase, and that was acceptable because there was no conflict of interest between the brands. 

In another example of a new brand we’ve worked with – their product is a baby sleep suit, and they started working early on with baby sleep experts who were able to share the brand to their audiences and platforms and client base. This was a win-win, because the product helped the sleep experts’ clients get better results, and the brand got access to the sleep experts’ audience.

Obviously if you work with influencers, you pay for the privilege of accessing their audience. If you go down this road, you REALLY need to study their media kit to ensure their audience is the right fit as well as whether their engaged followers are worth the spend. 

But then, the other really important method to start attracting an audience is to work hard at optimising your website for search engines. 

Gaining free organic search traffic isn’t something that will come flooding in overnight, but with some consistent effort you will definitely start to enjoy results in this area.

My advice to you

Realistically, when it comes to getting traffic to your website you MUST be prepared to spend some money. And equally important – you MUST have a ‘testing mindset’. That means, be prepared to test different ads, offers and audiences until you find the formula that works for you.

Too many times lately I’ve spoken to eCommerce start-ups who have spent a small amount on digital ads and want to throw in the towel when they haven’t had a flood of new orders.

I hear the catchphrase, ‘but I can’t afford to advertise’. Well guess what honey, you can’t afford NOT to advertise if you actually want to scale and grow your online sales!

The worst mistake would be to spend 100% of your money on setting your business up and making the product, and leave yourself with nothing at all to spend on advertising. 

So what do you need then?

We’ve talked a bit about you don’t need to have or do.

But what are the essentials that are must-haves to have success as an eCommerce brand in 2021?

Hint: they’re as old as time…

Here’s what you need to have in place to start and build a successful business:

1. A product that sells

I remember years ago, I was approached by a woman who had invented a product for her child and wanted my help to figure out how to have it manufactured.

Whilst this is basically the same way my own previous business started, there was one key step missing.

This woman had not determined whether there was a market for her product. And I could tell straight up that there wasn’t. It was too similar to existing products on the market, but hers did not have a significant new or different benefit AND it would need to sell for about 10 times the average price of the other existing options that were already available.

Without a doubt, choosing the right product and evaluating the market demand for it is one of, if not THE most important piece of the puzzle. Getting this step wrong is an expensive lesson.

Get it right though, and you set yourself up for sales success!

The way that I validated my product idea in my last business was through real-life testing. (Myself and my business partner tested the products ourselves and we roped in several friends and acquaintances through online forums and eBay to try out the early products).

I also made absolutely sure that our products had some unique features that set us apart from other available options, and that our brand positioning was also different and appealed to a significant portion of our target market.

Then, I started small in terms of manufacturing product, so that I could actually see from sales data whether the business was viable before going ‘all in’.

My advice to you

If you’re designing and manufacturing your own products, getting feedback from real-life testing is imperative to iron out any flaws in the design and make sure the product solves a definite need in the market.

You also need to ensure that you are not a copycat brand OR copycat product to other options already available on the market. If you are – then you force customers into the position where the only way they can evaluate and make a decision is based on price. And that is a horrible position to be in – the cheapest price will win in that situation, and it ends up being the fastest way to the bottom of the barrel in terms of profitability.

And lastly – try and launch with enough product to test on paying customers, leaving yourself enough budget to spend on some brand-building, audience building marketing, and then use the sales data to evaluable the profitability and viability of your venture.

2. An audience that buys

The second part of the success equation is to make sure there is a big enough – and growing – demand for your product.

Starting out, you want to ensure the market for your product is big enough and there are enough people willing to pay for your product. (Obviously, if this piece of the puzzle is missing, you’d be a charity not a business!)

One really big red flag for me is if there are NO competitors already selling your type of product. Like I said before, you do not want to be a copycat product or brand, so I don’t mean you should aim to sell something exactly the same as existing products on the market, of course you need to be different! BUT there should be other similar products or products that solve the same issue or need as yours does.

This indicates there is a real demand and that consumers are prepared to spend money on it.

If there isn’t any other option at all that serves the same purpose as yours, even if it’s different and not very good – if there’s nothing at all, then it probably indicates that the problem isn’t something that’s big or bad enough for consumers to bother spending money to fix it.

In my last business, I used a combination of research methods:

  • Google Adwords Keyword Planner (average monthly searches),
  • Existing market research (from industry bodies and the ABS), and
  • Reviewing competitors (for example, review their product positioning and pricing, and look at traffic to their websites using a tool like SEM Rush).

My advice to you

You need to analyze the demand for your product early and objectively. Don’t be emotional about this! If you fall in love with your product first and decide to start a business without identifying the demand, you could be stuck trying to flog a product that no-one really wants.

Secondly, you need to evaluate the competitive landscape for your product as well. If it’s super cluttered with a lot of competitors already serving this market, and you absolutely cannot identify a niche where you could position yourself differently, then maybe it’s not viable.

One quick tip: don’t ask your family and friends if your product or business idea is a good one. They are invested in your happiness so their responses will be biased.

Instead, put together a really quick sales web page or Facebook shop and ask people to buy your product. The fastest way to find out if someone will buy your product is…to ask them to buy it!

3. A mechanism of connecting the two

I’ve spoken before about how customers buy a solution to their problem or desire, they don’t buy product features.

Making sure your website and your marketing and advertising activities hit the mark with your audience is essential to making sales and growing your business.

When I first got started, it was a pretty simple set-up: website with shopping cart, email newsletter sign-up form, Google Adwords ads, and exhibiting at baby exhibitions.

These days it’s not so simple. The online shopping mall is pretty crowded and customers are much more savvy about spending money online.

Build your email list

If I was starting my eCommerce website again this year, I would most definitely invest in a marketing automation platform right from the outset.

Focusing on building an email list and automating the customer acquisition and sales conversion process is crucial if you want to have success in eCommerce.

Email newsletters have their place, but they simply aren’t enough on their own. Marketing automation enables you to personalize your offers to the needs and interests of individual customers.

And hyper-personalized communications IS the future of email marketing.

They help to cultivate a relationship with each customer through sending content and offers that are relevant and specific.

That means sending emails and offers based on an individual’s past purchase history, cross or up-selling products that you know would be of interest, rather than blasting the same offer to your entire audience (who have different needs and interests) via an email newsletter.

And they will reward you for your efforts with loyalty and repeat purchases, which is the holy grail of a profitable business!

I actually recorded an entire podcast episode all about email marketing for eCommerce brands – it was Episode 20, called “My Ultimate Guide to Ecommece Email Marketing”. I’ll link to it in the shownotes for this episode.

Understand the buyer journey

The other thing I would focus hard on right from the outset is the buyer journey. That is, what is the decision-making process that a potential customer goes through from identifying a need to choosing a solution and purchasing a product.

Understanding your own customer journey is the first step to systemising your sales (or, to use some jargon, creating a sales funnel).

What is your customer’s current need, want or desire? And what do your customers need to know, understand and believe in order to want to buy from you? Your advertising and your marketing emails need to take your potential customers through that journey from ignorance to purchase.

The buyer journey also informs your website navigation and content. For example, if you look at The Iconic’s website you can see that, right from the home page, they are funnelling visitors exactly where they want to go through the picture navigation boxes on the home page.

If you can get inside your customers’ head like this and understand what makes them tick, then you’ll immediately be more successful with your ads, your website and your marketing emails.

In fact, a brand we worked with recently who were launching for the first time in the Australian market – TheBrushies.com.au – is a prime example of this. She initially conducted a survey to gather real life information from people who fit her definition of her ideal customer, and this data was crucial to informing the website design and the contents of her marketing emails and advertising. 

Within 3 days of launching, she had profitable Facebook ads and a website conversion rate of over 2% (which is pretty fantastic given the benchmark average conversion rate for eCommerce websites is just 2%!)

My advice to you

In my experience, taking the time to identify your ideal customer and understand the buyer journey is the foundation of a successful eCommerce business. (Probably any business actually.)

When my clients nail this step, the rest of their marketing flows much more naturally. So my advice is, take the time to get the buyer journey right first. Then apply it to your website, your marketing emails, your blogs, your paid advertising and your social media content.

This is all stuff that we teach in our Productpreneur Website Formula course, and we obviously provide these services to our clients in our Productpreneur Marketing agency as well.

Depending on what sort of help you need, you can head over to http://www.productpreneurmarketing.com to book in a free strategy session.

Or, please make sure you join our free Rockstar Productpreneur community. I’ve got a bunch of free training materials in the group’s Units section to get you started. 

Just head to this podcast show notes page, at https://www.catherinelangman.com/episode-51 and you’ll find the link to join our free community.