7 Top Tips to Help Your Small Business Find Success Online

eCommerce success tips for small businesses

Ecommerce now accounts for 17% of all UK consumer sales and it’s only going to keep growing. Yet, despite this growth, it is still hard to make it in the online marketplace.

Competition is tough, it requires both technical and business savvy, and you need to work much harder to gain trust.

Simply having a great idea for a business isn’t enough. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many poorly reviewed retailers on Trustpilot, so many horror stories of poor products and services, and so many rubbish websites.

To help you succeed online, we asked entrepreneur Stuart Maclaren, to share his 7 top tips for ecommerce success.

Over the last six years, I’ve grown my print production company, Your Print Partner (YPP), from a £40k investment to become a leader in the market, disrupting established enterprises and generating over £3m in sales annually.

We also launched the successful personalised Christmas gifting website, Santa Sacks, three years ago, selling £47k of product in just our first three months.

And I started it all by myself, in my house, at the tender age of 23.

I’ve learnt a lot about ecommerce along the way. Some things I learnt the easy way, some the hard way. Here are my top tips for growing a successful online business, regardless of your market;

1. The most important aspect of your website is UX

User experience (UX) starts the minute a customer arrives on your site. How fast does it load? Does it look professional? Can I find what I am looking for?

Too many websites add tonnes of bells and whistles without considering what the site is like to use as a customer. Sure, it may look cool, but if customers can’t easily shop, it just won’t work.

Take Santa Sacks, for example. We knew that a lot of parents would be buying their kids’ personalised Christmas presents on their mobile phone. They’d also need to add multiple gifts at once and have each customised differently.

We, therefore, focused on providing that functionality while being as lightweight as possible, ensuring the process was simple and didn’t hog data.

Many sites would make this process incredible painful and frustrating, especially on mobile phones, leading to mistakes and disappointment. Perhaps that’s why so many people abandon their baskets to hunt for a site with better UX.

Top Tip: Map out your customer needs and focus on delivering a mobile-first website that is fast, lightweight and easy-to-use.

2. Pin down your target market

Having your target market pinned down is important for your website design and product range, but it also helps your advertising and marketing budget go much further.

Facebook advertising is one of the biggest areas of spend for most young companies. It helps you grow your user base quickly and can be very effective… if used well.

Having well-defined target markets will improve your quality score and click-through rate (CTR) which, in turn, reduces the overall spend.

We actually used Facebook’s ad platform to run a series of smaller test ads, each targeting different, yet well-defined, groups. The groups that achieved the best CTR and conversion rate, we increased the spend.

Ultimately, we achieved a conversion rate of 3.6% in our first year – far higher than the average – which made our ad budget stretch much further.

Top Tip: Start by developing customer segments using whatever data you can find before testing each segment with a relatively small ad budget. Then ramp up the spend on the ads that perform well, refining your segments as you learn more about your audience. 

3. Adverts need to be clear

While I’m up on my advertising soapbox, let’s discuss what separates a good online ad from a bad ad. Since it’s one of the biggest areas of spend, it’s important to get right.

A lot of ads use either stock photography or a simple graphic to catch a user’s eye. But these types of images don’t make it clear what the offer is or what they’re actually being asked to buy.

The photo and copy also need to work well together. Chances are, a user will see the photo and then read a bit of the text to understand what’s on offer. What is the product? Who is it aimed at? How much does it cost?

Your copy is limited, so matching good copy with a good image goes a long way to answering these questions. And make sure the products you advertise are in stock to avoid disappointment.

Top Tip: You’re unlikely to get it perfect straight away. Try pairing different copy with different images to test what works and what doesn’t. But always focus on making the offer clear.

4. Images need to inspire

Simple product shots against a white background may look clear and professional, it doesn’t inspire people to buy the product. They need to see part of the experience of the product – in our case, perhaps a child opening their Santa Sack on Christmas morning.

Showing the product in use by your target market helps users empathise and picture themselves in the same situation, enjoying your product.

It helps them understand who the product is for, how big it is, and what it actually looks like. Ultimately, it helps activate the imagination and allows customers to make a purchase decision based on both rational and emotional factors.

Top Tip: Sell the dream first and the product specifics later. You should aim to have a few pictures in a slideshow for each product, but always lead with the lifestyle shot first.

5. Drive word-of-mouth marketing with competitions

Ad budgets can only do so much. In order to get some word-of-mouth marketing on the go, especially on social media, I recommend you run regular competitions.

For Santa Sacks, we asked customers to tag us in a picture of their purchase, offering a prize to the best pictures. Not only did we end up with some great user-generated content and feedback, all their friend saw their posts as well, rapidly growing awareness of our brand.

It’s important to get the prize right. You’re asking people to take the time to enter, so it needs to be worth their while. Make entry simple to complete and the prize worthwhile. It also needs to be relevant to your target audience and somehow feature your products in order to attract new customers.

The other option is to offer a gift voucher instead. This can be used or transferred, making it useful for every audience. Just don’t scrimp on the amount. Think of it as ad budget and spend accordingly.

Top Tip: Visual competitions work best as they give other users an idea of your products while grabbing their attention. Also, make sure to cross-fertilise the competition across all your social media accounts.

6. Make the most of partnerships

You don’t need partners and resellers to help you grow, but direct sales can take a long time to build up. If you want to grow rapidly then focus on building strong partnerships with resellers.

They will have spent a lot of time and money marketing their brand and establishing their customer base. After all, their value lies solely in their brand name. Become their trusted supplier and you can quickly tap into their huge customer base, rapidly growing your sales volume.

Trust is built through delivering reliable, flexible, and high-quality service. If you promise a specific delivery window, you better make good on that promise, even if it costs more in the short term. That trust will be worth a lot more in the long-run than a special delivery fee.

By solving your partners’ challenges and enhancing their brand, you can become their go-to supplier, setting your business up for long-term success.

Top Tip: Many resellers like to see the quality of your product first-hand before committing to large orders. Invite them to your production facility and show them how you’re going to deliver outstanding service.

7. Make customer service amazing

As well as creating trust with resellers, you need to create trust with your own customers. If they have a problem with their order, they want to sort it out with the minimum of fuss.

Many ecommerce businesses try to save money by using third-party customer service centres based in somewhere like the Philippines and focusing the majority of support on web chats.

Yet, this is often a false economy. If a customer can’t speak to someone quickly and resolve their issue instantly, they will shop elsewhere.

If you sell gifts or event products, as we do, any delay in resolution causes anxiety and puts customers off. Ultimately, you’ll lose their custom and have to pay marketing to drum up new customers to disappoint.

Putting customers straight through to one of your own team, who has the power to solve their problem quickly and simply, will help customers feel happy and reassured. It may cost a bit more, but in the long run you’ll end up with returning customers who leave great reviews. 

Top Tip: Don’t hide your phone number on your website. Not everyone wants web-based help and the instant nature of a phone call can provide useful feedback you can use to improve your service.

About the author

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Stuart Maclaren, the award-winning MD of The YPP Group. YPP – a specialist digital print company producing flags, banners, exhibition displays and other promotional products – is now launching CustomGifts.co.uk which will supply year-round high quality personalised printed gifts with late ordering and next-day delivery.

More from ByteStart

ByteStart brings you help and tips on all aspects of starting a successful small business. Check out some of our most popular guides;

Digital marketing

Social Media

Starting Up

Funding your business

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