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E-Commerce for small business

OBJECTIVE:

E-commerce is the sale of products and services over the internet, and the fastest growing segment of our economy. It allows even the smallest business to reach a global audience with its product or message with minimal cost. In this session, you will learn if an e-commerce website is right for your business, how to set up a website, tips for developing a successful site, how to manage search engine placement, and how to get started on eBay.

  • E-Commerce Overview
    • What is E-Commerce?
    • Is an E-Commerce website right for your business?
  • Money Transactions
    • E-Commerce Considerations
    • Alternative methods of online payments
    • Money transactions summary
  • Setting Up a Website
    • Registering your domain name
    • Hosting your website
    • Building your website
    • Hiring a professional website developer
    • Designing your own website
  • Tips For Developing a Successful Site
    • Make your site easy to use
    • Provide useful content
    • Encourage customer feedback
    • Develop a mailing list
  • Online Marketing and Promotion
    • Search engines and resources
    • How does your website rank?
    • What are people searching for?
    • How to manage search engine placement
    • Key components of successful search engine marketing for a website
    • Search Engines and Resources
    • Targeted e-Mail
  • eBay
    • How to get started
    • Listing basics
    • Fees
    • Get the most from your eBay experience
    • Don'ts of eBay
  • Top Ten Do's and Don'ts
  • Business Plan

 

E-commerce Overview

What is e-commerce?
E-Commerce is the sale of products and services over the Internet. It is the fastest growing segment of our economy. It allows even the smallest business to reach a global audience with its product or message with minimal cost. The sale of products or services on your website can generate sales that will make the difference between success and failure. Even Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world with one billion dollars sales per day, could not anticipate the increasing wave of Internet business.

Is an e-commerce website right for your business?

Probably. Much depends on the nature of your business. A website such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble have established their hold over the book market, and their sheer size, name recognition and the relationship of trust they have with their customers allows them to dominate this market with good pricing (due to economies of scale) and remarkable customer loyalty.

However, if you own a local bookstore, there are several ways to reach new customers, get them to know you better and have them keep coming back for more. You might want to offer notices of special promotions or readings by authors. Trust will become the cornerstone of building your e-business. As Warren Buffett has said, "If you don't know jewelry, know your jeweler."

A website doesn't need to exist solely to sell your product online. It could supplement the sales of your already established retail store. If you sell a unique product, such as wheat grass or gourmet chocolates, you might find success reaching others around the country (or the world, for that matter) who do not have access to these products in their own towns.

Using the Internet for conducting e-commerce will not assure you of being able to compete favorably with large established competitors. They already have the inventory, delivery and marketing systems in place, and they can deliver the orders just as cheap as (or more cheaply than) you can. Yet, the beauty of the Internet is that it provides a global audience of potential customers and it never closes.

Your customers will have access to information about your business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can add pictures, audio, video, news, and so much more. Your customer will even be able to buy from you 24 hours a day. So, your website

A website can transform a local business into one engaged in global commerce. But you will need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of international trade outlined in our Session 11 in the Business Expansion course.

 

Money Transactions

There are many ways to complete money transactions online. If you already have an established website that your clients know, you will probably want to keep it and can add on an e-commerce solution. If you do not have an e-commerce website, you may consider e-commerce solutions offered by major online sites such as Yahoo, Amazon, and Google with little to no web design experience needed. (Enter "commerce solutions" in the search box.) Online auction sites such as eBay, Yahoo, Google and MSN might also offer additional avenues for your business. Consider hiring and/or consulting with an experienced web designer or firm to set this up for you. Their experience can often save you time, money, and unnecessary aggravation.

Setting it all up
E-Commerce software often requires setting up a merchant account as well as establishing a payment gateway provider. A merchant account is a specialized bank account set up by a bank that allows you to accept credit cards. A payment gateway charges your customers' credit cards via the Internet and sends the funds to your merchant account. The payment gateway acts as the bridge between the merchant's website and the financial institutions that process transactions. Payment data is collected online from the shopper and submitted to the gateway for real-time authorization.

E-Commerce Considerations

  • Be sure to take into account all your costs such as monthly e-commerce fees, packaging costs, shipping costs, time, etc.
  • For internet-based orders and shipping, you should check with your State Board of Equalization Office to determine the appropriate sales tax.  The IRS "Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center" provides valuable information and links regarding taxes

Alternative methods of online payments:
Cash payments are less advanced but easier to set up. Funds are transferred from the buyer's bank account or credit card to the seller's account. This is similar to writing someone a check but much more secure and easier to track.

Money transactions summary
Consider issues such as taxes, security, cost, and reliability. If your site becomes very popular, your e-commerce system will need to be scalable to that growth. Many more electronic payment companies can be found on the popular search engine Google.

Setting Up a Website

Before you get started you need to answer the following questions:

  • What types of customers will you attract?
  • How will these customers interact with your website, and how can you make your website promote that interaction?
  • How many sales do you expect to make each month? What additions would you like to add once you get going?
  • Do the monthly profits justify the monthly costs?

 Setting up a professional Web presence can be a big project and setting up an e-commerce system on top of that can be yet another big project. Be sure to consult with professionals in this field who have experience in e-commerce, not just web design.

Registering Your Domain Name
Each website has its own unique name, such as Amazon.com or eBay.com. This is your "domain name." It is a unique name that identifies you to all of the other computers on the Internet. There are a number of companies, known as "registrars," that will assist you in registering your website's name. 

Find an easy-to-remember ".com" name for your site. Once you've successfully registered your domain name, it will remain in your name and control for as long as you pay to keep it. People who type www.yourcompanyname.com into their browsers will be taken directly to your website. To completely secure a name, it's not a bad idea to also buy the .net and .org extensions for it.

Your company name, trademarks, logos and artwork used on your site will require appropriate trademark and copyright protection under intellectual property laws. Your lawyer should be consulted on this issue in order to avoid unpleasant surprises (for example, the possibility of being advised that your company slogan belongs to someone else).

Hosting your website
Your online business will need a place to reside. You may choose to buy (by having your own network server) or lease (by having your site hosted by a Web-hosting service). In most cases, people find it much easier to lease hosting space. For a monthly fee, the web host handles the technical details, and you are free to spend your time developing content for your website.

Hosting services can also provide "user statistics," which track the number of visitors to your site.

Building your website
You will need to decide whether to hire a professional web developer to create your website or to produce your own site "in-house." Both choices come with costs and benefits. If you decide to create your website, it is advisable to have an employee who is skilled and experienced with web design.

If you have a real desire to learn how to create your own site, spend some time with online tutorials on creating your own site. Your credibility is at stake, and if your site is difficult to navigate, has broken links or images or out-of-date content, you will not engender trust with your customers.

Tools such as Adobe Dreamweaver® allow you to create a website without any (or much) prior knowledge of Web design. These "what you see is what you get" editors are similar to programs such as Microsoft Word in that you insert text and graphics onto your page and specify the appropriate links. Pre-defined templates give a consistent look and feel to your entire site and built-in tools allow you to globally change navigational links throughout your site.

These programs have improved significantly in recent years but are not a perfect substitute for a professional web developer/designer. Advanced features are difficult to implement.

Hiring a professional website developer
Before hiring a web developer, it's important to determine

  • The purpose and budget of your website, as well as the ongoing maintenance needs.
  • Who will provide the content and who will own the copyrights for these materials.
  • Whether the developer will be responsible for both design and marketing of your website.

Look at other websites the developer has created and ask for references. Did the developer deliver the product in a timely manner at the quoted price? Did the developer listen effectively and present a product that matched the company's vision?

Once you've identified your developer, get a written contract that specifies the responsibilities of the developer, the timelines for project completion and a complete budget for the total project. This should include arrangements for ongoing maintenance of the site. Keep in mind the developer you choose is someone you will most likely have a long-term relationship with as you add and improve the website.

Contracting out your website offers several advantages. A professional developer has the technical knowledge to create a site that works with all browsers and should be fluent with the current technologies. Investing in a professional developer will allow you to spend more time on creating a successful business and less time learning the new trade of being your own website developer.

Tips for Developing a Successful Site

Make your site easy to use: While it might be tempting to have a cutting-edge website - don't forget the basics. You will fail if a visitor can't navigate successfully through your site. Provide clear, easy-to-understand navigational tools on each page of your site. Make it easy for a visitor to find your contact information on every page.

Provide useful content: Don't just sell! These days, it's not enough to have a website that lists your products and provides a shopping cart for purchases. If you want your visitors to return, you'll want to provide meaningful content. A CPA's site could publish tax tips and offer links to IRS forms. A catering service could offer articles on how to host a successful party.

Encourage customer feedback via online forms and e-mail: Pay attention to the valuable information your customers can give you. Ways to improve online feedback are spelled out in our Session 3 in the Business Expansion course.

Develop a mailing list: Most consumers resent junk e-mail, also called "spam." A far more appealing strategy is to develop a mailing list. Invite your customers to "opt in" to receive a newsletter or notices of specials running at your business. Make this information relevant and useful for your customer. Consider providing a "coupon" that will give them a discount on their next purchase. And, always give the recipient an easy means to "opt out" of receiving future e-mails.

Online Marketing and Promotion

There are thousands of well-designed websites, but very few are visible on the search engines. Almost 90 percent of Internet users today use search engines to find the information they need. Yet, many businesses are not registered with search engines. Over 3.5 billion searches are done per day worldwide. Search engines have a great capacity to drive traffic to your site, yet few new entrepreneurs have the know-how to tap into this resource. 

Search engines: your primary marketing tool
In the past, the methods that search engines used to rank pages were primitive and easily deciphered for savvy webmasters to manipulate.

Times have changed and gaining a high rank on the top search engines has become extremely competitive. Today, submitting your website to a large number of free search engines will only result in your e-mail address being added to a large number of spam lists. Search engines are now looking to provide quality listings for their users, but also to turn a profit: hence "paid listings."

How does your website rank?
It is important to monitor your search engine rankings so that you can track changes, monitor the ones that you need to improve and identify engines with whom you are not listed. If your customers did a search for specific keywords on a search engine, would they find your site? Are you in the first 10 results or the first 30? The average visitor scrolls through 1.8-page results during a typical search. If your business does not appear in those first 1.8 results, that could translate to lost business.

What are people searching for?
"Search volume" is the number of times a specific keyword is searched over a period of time. Having knowledge of search volumes will give you a sense for what is being searched for and what keywords you may want to focus on. The goal is to find keywords or keyword phrases that you feel would drive qualified traffic to your site. Keep in mind the amount of competition for each keyword and be creative in finding different keyword combinations that others may not have tried yet.

How to manage search engine placement
It takes hard work, market research, educated decisions, and even trial and error. There are ways to improve your rankings - and actions to avoid that will hurt your rankings. While you have the option of hiring a search engine consultant to manage this important responsibility, you can also do this yourself. Here are the factors that go into search engine placement and how to better optimize your pages for search engines.

Key components of successful search engine marketing for a website

  • Start with a descriptive domain name: The domain name you choose is important. It is so very important because the name itself can help your website be more relevant to search engines. Pick a domain name that is easy for your clients to remember.
  • Submit to the top engines: Submit your website for review and indexing only to the top search engines where people are actually doing their searches such as Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. Be careful to read the submission guidelines for each search engine before submitting. For example, have a look at Google's search engine guidelines.
  • Focus on your homepage: Your homepage is the single most important page on your site. Your homepage represents your business and its image. Make sure you focus on developing the content and the relevancy to search engines for this page.
  • Develop content rich pages: Add content that includes keywords and phrases you are targeting. Many search engines consider the location of the keywords in your site along with their frequency to assess how relevant your site is to those keywords.
  • Keep an eye on your competition: Stay informed of your competition's rankings. Top-ranked pages rank well for a reason - so see what you can do to be more competitive! Can you offer something they do not offer?
  • Add new content: Keep your website fresh and updated with new content. Your visitors will appreciate it, and the search engines will look favorably upon it.
  • Networking with others: Expand your "link popularity" by gaining more inbound links to your site. Get the word out and let other sites know about your site and how to link to it. The more links coming into your site, the more doorways you open for visitors to find you.
  • Title Tags: Make sure the title tags across all the pages on your site are relevant to that particular page. Your domain name is not a good idea for a title tag.
  • Pay Per Click Advertising: Consider "pay per click" strategies such as Google.com and Bing.com to enhance your overall marketing strategy. Pay per click now offers local search options to better reach a targeted audience.
  • Review your activity logs: "Activity logs" or "server statistics" provide you with statistics on the number of visitors coming to your site, where the visitors come from and what keywords are used. Some Web servers/hosts provide this information free. Google also offers this as a new free service called Google Analytics.

Outsourcing search engine optimization
If you would like to outsource search engine optimization, ask your professional consultant for the names of previous clients or "case studies". Speak with these clients to determine what, if any, improvements they experienced. Make sure that unethical or questionable practices are not used that will be harmful in the long run.

Targeted e-mail

E-mail allows you to communicate directly with your customers. It is also one of the most abused forms of online advertising. Nobody enjoys receiving unsolicited e-mail touting a business or service. While it is possible to purchase huge mailing lists of e-mail addresses that can be used for marketing your product, you are likely to turn off large numbers of potential customers by engaging in this practice.

Instead, opt-in mailing lists are now the preferred method of establishing e-mail lists of customers who are genuinely interested in your product or service. Consider creating an online newsletter. Make it informative, useful and worth reading.

Finally, remember that each e-mail should also contain instructions for how the recipient can be removed from the e-mail list.

eBay

Whether you are starting your own business, promoting your product online, or just cleaning out your attic, eBay is definitely something you should consider. For more information, visit www.ebay.com.

How to get started
To sell on eBay, you will need to register and then verify your identity. Registration is a quick and easy process. Verification will be a little more involved, but is a necessary process to ensure that eBay remains a safe marketplace. Once you have completed these two steps, you will have a "Seller's Account" and will be able to start listing your items for sale.

Listing basics

  • Decide which selling format best meets your needs. You may wish to add a Buy It Now price or Reserve price.
  • Choose the optional listing upgrades you feel will help your item stand out from the rest.
  • Write a good title and description. This is essential.
  • Specify what payment methods you will accept, and your return policy.

Fees
When you list your item on eBay, you will pay an Insertion Fee. This fee is based on your starting price (or your reserve price if you set one). When your auction has ended, if your item sells, you will be charged a Final Value Fee based on the ending price. 

Don'ts of eBay
Before you start using eBay, you need to read through their policies. Violations can cause your listings to be canceled and your account to be suspended. There are also many items that cannot be sold on eBay. Examples are firearms, drugs, fireworks, recalled items and surveillance equipment. Please review prohibited and restricted items.

Get the most from your eBay experience
Supplement your commerce by providing information about your business, your products, and your policies, but most importantly a link to your website. This will let potential customers know where they can go to find more.

Top Ten Do's and Don'ts

THE TOP TEN DO'S

  1. Create a website to complement your business.
  2. Hire a professional to create your website.
  3. Use a .com website domain name that is descriptive of your business and easy to remember.
  4. Register your domain name. Keep your account information in a safe place.
  5. Develop a mailing list to better connect with your visitors.
  6. Provide updated useful content on your website in order to encourage visitors to return.
  7. Encourage customer feedback via online forms and e-mail.
  8. Learn how to, and continually implement, ways to improve your placements on top search engines.
  9. Keep your eye on your competition's rankings and get pointers from its sites.
  10. Consider eBay as a means of selling your product and gaining traffic to your online store.

THE TOP TEN DON'TS

  1. Assume a website will assure you of competing favorably with large, established competitors.
  2. Turn your customers off with an unprofessional website.
  3. Incorporate unusual or unique web design styles that are difficult to print or save.
  4. Make it difficult to navigate your site.
  5. Permit out-of-date content to remain on your site.
  6. Rely on graphical buttons.
  7. Try to create a website on your own unless you are a web designer.
  8. Make it difficult for people to find your contact information.
  9. Turn off your customers with unsolicited e-mail advertising.
  10. Weigh your pages down with too much graphics and media.
 

Business Plan for Session 12: E-Commerce

You can now continue to assemble your business plan. We provided Microsoft Word template for this section below:

Section 12: E-Commerce

The full template for all sessions can be downloaded as one document:

MOBI Business Plan Template