If online business hasn’t already outpaced in-store retail and traditional commerce, the trend can’t be denied. Even companies with substantial brick-and-mortar presence are pouring resources into online operations to compete on a bigger scale and ramp up revenue.
While the fundamentals of running a business online are not a huge departure from the norm, there are several factors that need to be addressed to compete on the internet.
Here’s what a series of successful business leaders have to say about making the move online right now.
Take Hints and Tips
A hidden truth about online business that nobody wants to point out – there’s nothing new under the sun. Every online operation relies on established channels, infrastructure, and techniques that existed before the internet.
With that said, leaders shouldn’t put too much pressure on themselves to reinvent the wheel when taking their business to the web. It’s better to get up to speed with proven methods and then start experimenting once the company finds its footing online. Trends will come and go, but shouldn’t be ignored.
“One way to run a successful online business is to always be aware of your market,” said Omid Semino, CEO of Diamond Mansion. “Stay on top of trends and keep an eye on the competition. Are they doing something better than I am? What are they doing that I’m not? Figure out the best ways to optimize your website. Having a site that is extremely user-friendly goes a long way in having a successful business online. Consider outsourcing as well. Investing in top-notch marketing teams can be a great way to gain traction in your industry.”
Business leaders used to have a shortage of options and opportunities to grow – now the problem is an overabundance of possibilities. The best companies will embrace trial and error and evolve according to their own strengths and weaknesses.
The emotional roller coaster of 2020 taught businesses a lot about the importance of honest connection with customers. When times got tough, companies had to convey real humanity to people through marketing, messaging, and other points in the customer experience.
Brands that failed to do this may have been perceived as cold, untrustworthy, or just unaware of the situation at hand. The more honest communication between the brand and followers, the more likely it will pay off.
“Transparency is key in connecting and creating a more personal experience for your consumers,” said Jim Beard, COO of BoxGenie. “2020 was a year of great loss in many ways, and incredible growth in other ways. It is important that we never forget this year and continue to remember the effects of it when running our businesses. As we are going into the ‘second year’ of the coronavirus, we need to keep all those same marketing tactics that we formulated this year into the following year. People want a business they feel they can connect with and one that backs their beliefs and ideals, and if you aren’t transparent about that in 2021, you aren’t marketing intelligently.”
Whether it’s an email newsletter, a quick social media update, or a testimonial from a happy customer, brands should use different formats to get their message across in an organic way.
Diversify Content Types
A business that makes the online leap but doesn’t back it up with content is destined to fall behind. Customers crave information, entertainment, or really any form of digital engagement that makes them feel closer to the brands they love.
Ideally, a business will hit content home runs with the first few swings, but that’s not always realistic. It’s better to set up a manageable content calendar and stick with it for the long run. Eventually, audiences will grow and quality will improve.
With growth and confidence will come experimentation and a willingness to form collaborations and test out new types of content.
“As we have all forcefully traded our in-store retail experience for ecommerce, social media and influencer marketing is bigger than ever,” said Benjamin Smith, CEO of Disco. “YouTube content creators foster so much growth for companies alone, specifically in the beauty and wellness industry, through paid sponsorships on daily lifestyle and vlog content. The classic consumer will skip through the traditional Google ads we have all come to despise on the videos we watch but they will sit through ‘tutorials’ and sponsored content their favorite influencers produce. This new wave in advertising is all the rage as it provides organic engagement and direct sales inspired by the discount codes tailored to the influencer.”
For guidance and inspiration on the latest marketing trends, strategists should keep an eye on the biggest campaigns in their space and take notes from the best.
Eliminate Customer Excuses
Online shopping has made things so easy for consumers, that even a minor inconvenience in the customer experience is enough to turn them away from a brand altogether. Digital businesses need to anticipate any bumps in the road and smooth them over ahead of time so that customers have no excuse when it comes time to buy.
In other words, the best customer experiences are so simple and seamless that shoppers don’t even have to think twice about pulling the trigger on a purchase. This means being ready to answer any questions or concerns with pre-determined responses at every step of the customer journey.
“Historically, purchasing ice cream online hasn’t been intuitive, but with new digital shopping buying behavior, we knew we needed to over-communicate on our process to eliminate any concerns,” said Aylon Steinhart, Co-Founder and CEO of Eclipse Foods. “We ensured we got in front of common questions (i.e. ‘how do we keep ice cream from melting in shipping’ and ‘how to dispose of dry ice’ or ‘how to thaw the ice cream after it arrives’) so consumers would feel confident in their purchases. And if customers do reach out with concerns, they know they are talking to a real person from Eclipse who cares about them as a valued customer and friend of the brand. We follow a hospitality mentality and strive to make sure we are available, quick to respond, and compassionate about their concerns. We want to bring a genuine human connection to every person that buys from us even as we transition to a more virtual setting.”
The most successful online businesses of the future will map out all contingencies and rid the buying process of friction from beginning to end, supplementing automated service stacks with real people when necessary.
More Action, Less Analysis
One of the internet’s greatest gifts is also its biggest downside – so much information can be a powerful asset but also overwhelms highly analytical minds. Things move so fast in the world of online business that there’s no time to waste on excessive thoughts and theories.
Rather than looking for the perfect answer to every question, the best online entrepreneurs dive in headfirst and deal with the consequences after the fact. Usually, it’s that inner voice that should be trusted above all.
“Don’t take too much advice,” said Ben Silbermann, Founder of Pinterest. “Most people who have a lot of advice to give with a few exceptions generalize whatever they did. Don’t over-analyze everything. I myself have been guilty of over-thinking problems. Just build things and find out if they work.”
This isn’t to say that input from trusted team members and investors should be shrugged off. The point is to act confidently and decisively with the information available and not look back.
Try Promos and Test Runs
Customer retention should be a top priority for online businesses in a time when people are frantically moving their money around and trying new things. Generations young and old are less loyal to brands these days, which is a key issue for leaders in the online space.
This might require marketers to double down on communication, roll out new programs or create compelling offerings that simply outdo the competition in terms of value.
“The ability to retain and expand existing customers helped us as we didn’t have to depend on significant new business during COVID,” Rishi Kulkarni, CEO of Revv. “Our operations could look into data and find customers who we could expand, customers who we could retain, and customers who we could offer free trials for a limited time. This significantly cut our costs on lead generation in times when there were none.”
This is a major “try-before-you-buy” era that online business leaders need to use to their advantage. If customers can test products and services without a huge financial or energetic commitment, they’ll be way more likely to come back for a big purchase.
Learn More About Audience
Even the best business minds struggle to identify their audience when switching over to the online format. The marketing and sales processes are more conceptual and less tangible, but those people on the other side of the web are just as real as ever.
Building buyer personas is a classic exercise in audience assessment, plus there are tons of tools available online to narrow down ad campaigns with super-precise descriptors.
“Not having an in-depth understanding of what your customers actually need can set you back,” said Daniel Shapiro, CEO of Fourlaps. “It’s natural to bend your business to your own passions and your particular tastes but you have to recognize what the customers need you to offer. Therefore, remember to mold what you produce to the needs of your buyers.”
Audience understanding is an ongoing journey, of course, and marketers need to refresh and revise their vision of the customer base continually to maintain a competitive edge.
Remember Business Basics
Far too many companies find themselves in a slipstream of success when they entire the online space and lose track of the fundamentals that keep the ship afloat.
From accounting and HR to sales teams and customer support, things ramp up fast when audience reach expands so rapidly. It’s on executive leadership to look for areas in the business experiencing extra pressure and scale on the fly to stay ahead of the curve.
“In order to scale your business, efficient bookkeeping is extremely pivotal,” said Brent Sanders, CEO of Wicksly. “A lot of businesses fall apart behind finances. Being a business owner you definitely have to wear many different hats; all that juggling can increase the chance of natural human error. Having adequate bookkeeping will help you keep critical records exact which will overall help your business operate optimally.”
A business can become a viral sensation in a matter of minutes thanks to social media, so there’s no time to waste as companies navigate the high-octane web environment.
Outsource with Confidence
A business only has so much bandwidth before things start to fray, and this process can happen way more quickly when operating online. Outsourcing key functions and even entire departments is now normal in the realm of internet biz, so there’s no reason to shy away from this strategy if it means rapid and sustainable growth.
“Our business grew and found early success by leaning into a highly outsourced model from day one,” said Jeff Goodwin, Sr. Director of Marketing & Ecommerce at Orgain. “Leveraging expertise in areas where you lack core competencies is crucial to achieving scale quickly. In our case, many functions like marketing, media planning and buying, HR support, and even some executive management roles were outsourced. As our business matures, many of those functions are transitioning to internal roles, but external agency partners and other specialists will always be a critical part of the mix.”
Some companies may still have an aversion to this type of outsourcing-at-scale, especially if founders are relatively new to the game. Starting with an outsourced bookkeeping or accounting team is a great first step to build comfort and familiarity with the idea.
Collaboration > Competition
The stakes are high in online business and competition is stiff, but the opportunities for collaboration are far more expansive than anything known to previous generations of business leaders.
From influencer marketing to brand ambassadors and crossovers with other companies and publications, there are so many ways to configure marketing in a “win-win” format that customers immediately love.
“The best and most successful entrepreneurs stopped viewing everyone as a competitor a long time ago, but rather began looking for ways that they can network and help one another grow in their online businesses,” said Timmy Yanchun, Co-Founder of LTHR Shaving. “Everyone has a specialty – even within a broad niche. Promote that unique aspect of your company and leverage it to exchange links, provide guest posts, and share expert quotes with those in similar – but not exact – fields. You’ll quickly see that all of that competition could actually transform into mutual collaborations, which can help establish your brand and create instant visibility.”
When leadership starts looking for opportunities to collaborate and connect rather than compete head-on, that marks a major turning point towards greater success in online business.
Service and Security
Those who remember the early days of online business will know that building trust with customers has been an issue since the very beginning. Older generations are becoming more familiar with technology, but this is no time to take trust for granted.
The best way to build social proof and strengthen a company’s online reputation is to put a razor-sharp focus on service. Hiring more support staff, taking losses on refunds – whatever it takes to set the business apart from the rest – it’s going to pay back big time.
“To reach top levels of customer success when running a business online, it will be important to market your company as one that will provide outstanding customer service,” Rachel Jones, Head of PR of Hope Health Supply. “As is the promise of 2021, they’ll need to know they can depend on your business to offer products and services that will not only fill their needs and expectations but surpass them. Consumers will be seeking safety in all aspects of their life, so allow them to feel safe about their purchases as well.”
When a company crosses that threshold and achieves customer retention rates like no other, it can’t allow service to decline, either. Team leaders must maintain that priority to keep the crown and make sure customers always come back.
A multi-national corporation can absorb the shockwaves of bad hiring mistakes or HR mishaps. A blossoming small business online cannot. Founders need to be exercise extreme caution when selecting teammates and employees since those choices can make or break a business fast.
“Your first startup hire can literally be the entire basis for your productivity levels when running a business online,” said Travis Killian, CEO of Everlasting Comfort. “When searching for this ever-important Number Two, be sure to look for someone who can, as the reference goes, ‘wear many hats.’ As you begin your business, you may not have the budget that you will have down the road, so it’s important to look for team members who can really diversify the services that you can offer your clients.”
Tech skills and business acumen should be top of mind when hiring, but any entrepreneur will admit that they go with their gut when making these crucial calls. Intuition is the ultimate deciding factor that sends the best online businesses to the top.