The internet provides a forum where small firms can compete with larger rivals. Jo Faragher outlines a few ways in which you can help drive traffic to your site and boost internet sales
When you're competing with thousands of other retailers online, not to mention your potential customers browsing social media and playing Candy Crush, it can be hard to make your business stand out on the web.
But there are several quick and cost-effective ways to grow your business online, whether you want to draw in more local customers or trade globally. The following tips should help you on the right path.
Work out what’s right for you
Building a web presence isn’t as simple as finding the first web designer you come across and letting them run with it. You need to take time to work out what you want. Neuff Athletics, which sells specialist athletics equipment, began selling online six years ago through an off -the-shelf ecommerce package.
“We set it up and played around with it so we could work out what our specifications would be,” says Dr Alan Neuff , who paid around £1,500 for the initial package. “We then brought in a local expert to build us a site to those specifications. Interestingly, a couple of our competitors have copied our layout.”
It also helps to start small. Cardiff Sports Nutrition began with a few pages and initially only stocked a limited number of items. “We chose stock that we knew we could be competitive on and have good stocks of. That way, we knew we could have some continuity once sales started coming in,” says Managing Director Marc Robinson.
Make it easy to navigate
Keeping things simple seems like common sense, but many websites over-complicate the user experience, which can mean they lose out on potential sales.
“They say people make a judgment about your website within three to five seconds and decide whether to stay or bounce,” says David Rusenko, Chief Executive of website-building company Weebly.
“We recommend making sure everything looks crisp, clean and to the point, on desktop and on mobile.”
Crafting the look of your site should not be a one-off , either. Libby Bearman, Conversion Rate Optimisation Manager at marketing agency Browser Media, says user testing should be an ongoing process.
“If you’re constantly running tests on your website, you’re constantly learning more about what your users like, and working to improve user experience. Layout, images and the language you choose to communicate with your audience can all be tested and improved,” she says.
According to Ofcom, last year smartphones overtook laptops as UK internet users’ favoured device, with consumers spending around two hours a day online on their mobiles. Focusing on users of mobiles means ensuring that your site has responsive navigation, and keeping descriptions and text simple.
It’s also worth noting that Google’s algorithm naturally promotes mobile friendly websites in search results. You may find you need to alter your website for mobile users.
A standard web page loading on a mobile can appear smaller, resulting in smaller tap targets. “If your tap targets are ridiculously small or too close together, this makes the accessibility of links, buttons and ads temperamental, potentially reducing your page visits,” says Katherine Grant, Sales Support at Signature Books.
“Adapting your website on a mobile will ultimately depend on whether you optimise an identical version for mobiles, create a mobile specific website or, if suitable, produce an app.”
Email marketing works
“Email is one of the most cost-effective ways to get happy, repeat customers to your website,” says Mr Rusenko from Weebly. As well as notifying people on your mailing list of new products, you can send coupons or seasonal promotion codes that you can then track back to that email communication.
You can also target specific customer groups, and give special offers to those who are loyal to your brand or who pass on the email.
“Anything from rewarding customers with points or discounts brings both value to the business and the shopper,” says Dax Dasilva, Chief Executive of Lightspeed, which develops point-of sale systems.
“Asking customers to introduce friends to the brand, and rewarding them for it, is a virtuous circle that benefits both customers and your business.”
Try the FSB marketplace
From early next year, FSB members will be able to buy and sell their products and services across FSB’s new secure online marketplace, as a free service.
So if you’re looking for web designers who are based near you, or you want to make your services available to other small businesses, it makes sense to register.
FSB will start registering and bringing members onboard in November and the plan is to go live in January. Initially, transactions will be member-to member, with non-members allowed to buy at a later stage.
The marketplace will be hosted on a platform called cloudBuy, which allows members to trade with each other securely. It will support business-to-consumer product sales and also help members to deal with enquiries, booking and payment for their services.
“We have 170,000 members, so it has the potential to become a powerful tool,” says FSB Commercial Director Dave Stallon.
“FSB members come from a diverse range of sectors, so there should be little you won’t be able to source.”
Members can register and add their list of products and services at fsbmarketplace.co.uk
When it comes to securing Google rankings that translate into sales, using the free Google Local product can help. “Typically, these listings are displayed as two or three results under a map on a Google search results page, otherwise known as the ‘local pack’,” says Simon Schnieders, founder of Blue Array, a search engine optimisation company, and FSB member.
Going local is especially important for mobile search, he adds. “All [mobile] queries or searches are deemed to have ‘local intent’,” he says. “So if I’m looking for ‘plumbers’, Google will interpret the query as wanting local results and return listings near my location, if available.”
If you really want to capitalise on local custom, you will soon be able to pay Google to highlight your business.
“Promoted pins will allow businesses to highlight their physical location by displaying a branded logo within Google Maps, alongside a text ad that also shows the business name, reviews, distance and directions, and promotional offers,” says Lisa Haynes, Account Executive at Browser Media.
Use feedback to your advantage
Online reviews and ratings are crucial in persuading customers to spend money with your site. Research by feedback platform Feefo found even just one user rating on a product can double its chances of selling.
Enabling customers to review your products or services on your site, or to share their views via Twitter or Facebook, helps you to reach new audiences and improve or update your offering.
“Customers can share their experiences via a company’s social media, which is then read by that person’s circle of online acquaintances – increasing awareness and widening your audience of potential customers,” says Feefo’s Chief Executive Andrew Mabbutt.
Supporting feedback or star ratings can also improve your Google rankings, he adds: “Google itself reveals that star ratings see an increase in click-through rates by an average of 17 per cent, although reports for some businesses have been much higher.”
LinkedIn: not just for your career
Most people view LinkedIn as a professional networking site or somewhere to build up a career profile, but it can also prove useful for targeting potential customers. “LinkedIn can be an effective channel for finding new prospects,” says Shaun Thomson, Chief Executive of Sandler Training.
He suggests business owners come up with a ‘sniper list’ of businesses they’d like to work with and find out whether any of their connections have links to that company, before asking for an introduction.
He adds: “Your connections are your currency on LinkedIn, so it’s about quality rather than quantity. Don’t go into a dialogue with someone with your selling hat on – perhaps suggest a useful article or something relevant.
"You can also use specific searches to target by location or a specialisation, for example a family business. Or perhaps you went to the same university – look out for commonality and start a conversation around that.”
Pay-per-click (PPC) or paid search is paying to have your business linked to certain search terms so that it will rank higher in search results, and this can be highly cost-effective, according to Ms Grant at Signature Books.
“If the word ‘pay’ scares you, remember with PPC you pay only when a site visitor clicks on your advertisement; meaning you know exactly where your investment is going,” she says.
However, she advises people to check their site traffic before deciding how much to invest. “Working on your organic search [for example, including relevant search terms frequently in your site content] can be more beneficial to businesses with a lower marketing budget,” she adds.
Investing in specific, lower-volume keywords can help to keep costs down, recommends Ashleigh Brown, Head of Biddable Media at Browser Media. “It’s easy to waste budget on broader keywords that are unlikely to encourage clicks that convert into sales or leads,” she says.
And finally... Make payment easy and secure
You’ve got your customer interested and they’re at the point of purchase, but then a clumsy checkout process means they drop out – it’s crucial not to let something go wrong at this important stage.
“When we asked our customers what was important, they said they were always nervous of any new site and needed some sort of reassurance, secure and well-known checkouts such as PayPal or Sage Pay, as well as some site verification for security of their details,” says Mr Robinson from Cardiff Sports Nutrition.
An easy-to-find contacts page with support email and/or number – just in case there is a problem – could also prevent a customer going elsewhere.
Finally, it’s important to deal with any issues quickly and to be honest, says Lightspeed’s Mr Dasilva: “Whether it’s an upcoming offer or a delay to their order, being proactive in contacting customers will make a major difference and improve their experience with the brand.”
JO FARAGHER is a freelance business journalist