10 ways small businesses can maximise email opportunities

email marketingIs your small business making the most out of email?

We rely on email for all sorts of essential business related activity. Indeed the majority of us would struggle to do with out it. As a communication tool email has a number of great benefits and yet many small businesses are probably not using email to its full potential.

Email is an essential component for any business’ marketing toolkit, therefore taking a fresh look at how you can maximise your use of email is a worthwhile exercise. You may be surprised at just how versatile a tool it can be.

Email offers small business owners a number of benefits

Email is one the most cost-effective and flexible communication tools a small business can use.  Despite consumer concerns over privacy and spam, it still remains an extremely popular way for people to communicate.

The benefits of email:

  • Cost-effective – there are a number of excellent, competitively priced email marketing software solutions available so it doesn’t cost much to get up and running. And, as you can see from the statistics above ROI is impressive.
  • Adaptable - email can be used for all sorts of business communications, from simple order confirmations to sophisticated advertising campaigns
  • Targeted – you can segment your audience any which way you like. Specific groups can be targeted with relevant and appropriate content.
  • Do-it-yourself – automated email software is straightforward to use which makes it simple for you to produce creative, professional emails all by yourself.
  • Quick – email can be put together and dispatched remarkably quickly enabling you to send out spontaneous communications or respond to competitor activity almost instantaneously.
  • Brand building – each and every time you send out branded emails you are reinforcing your brand, growing your brand presence and building awareness amongst your target market.
  • Measurable – email marketing can be measured quickly and easily enabling you to test and tweak your promotions each time to maximise response rates

10 ways small business can maximise their use of email

Succesful email marketing is about utilising email strategically to deliver a variety of messages. Email shouldn’t just be used for sending out business communications such as order confirmations or shipping and delivery information. There are many other excellent ways to maximise your use of email marketing. We’ve listed a few ideas below to help get you thinking about how you can use email more effectively to help grow your business.

1. Promotions: Email has to be one to the most versatile vehicles for communicating your promotional messages – whether you are sending out a stand-alone email promotion or supporting a wider integrated marketing campaign. So if you haven’t already started using email to offer special promotions to customers then now is the time to get creative.

Segmenting your emails and testing promotions on different audiences is simple with email. This makes it a quick and cost-effective way to test and measure the effectiveness of various promotions on different target groups. So think about what email promotions you can offer your customers  such as discount voucher codes, early-bird sales previews, free delivery and returns, refer a friend and so on.

2. Newsletters: Of course despite having just espoused the benefits of email sales promotions, successful email marketing shouldn’t be just about sales. Vary  your email communications by also sending out informative content to customers such as emailing out a regular newsletter. Your newsletter should have content that is focused on adding value to customers for example company news, industry trends and developments, links to blog articles – essentially information that your customers will find engaging and of interest. 

3. Announcements: Good news should be spread!  If you’ve got something important to announce such as a new product, improved services (especially if the improvements have been brought about by customer feedback!) or interesting company developments then send out a standalone email. An interesting subject line about a new product launch is bound to get interested parties opening your email.

4. Welcome emails: If someone has just purchased from you for the first time or registered with you, then a welcome email shows you appreciate their custom and is a great way to start building an ongoing relationship. You want your welcome email to be personable and encourage two-way dialogue. So thank new users for their business and give them some helpful information that such as how to contact you.  Also, promote interaction where you can such as adding links through to your website or social networks.

5. Customer retention: Email is an excellent way to ensure you are keeping in regular contact with customers. It is important to reward customers for their loyalty – remember it is this group of customers that are your most profitable so neglecting them makes no business sense. We’ve already mentioned email newsletters as a great way if keeping in contact but also think about showing loyal customers you appreciate them by emailing them special offers that reward loyalty such as:

  • Sneak VIP previews to new collections or products launches
  • Early doors to any forthcoming sales
  • Occasional loyalty rewards such as a money-off voucher, a discount code or free delivery .

6. Abandoned cart emails: With the average shopping cart abandonment rate about 68.07% anything you can do to help reduce it can only be positive! Sending out a gentle reminder email to customers that have abandoned  their basket mid purchase can work really well. Indeed according to e-consultancy in 2013 48.1% of basket abandonment emails were opened and of these 33.3% went on to purchase a product.

7. Seasonal greetings: As we’ve previously mentioned your emails shouldn’t just be sales, sales, sales. Sending out a timely holiday email greeting at the end of the year thanking people for their custom and wishing them all the best for the year ahead is a good way of showing you appreciate their business and will stand out from all the other sales emails they are receiving this time of year.

8. Social sharing: Email is a great way to encourage interaction on your social media sites. So when sending out your emails, actively point out your social media presence by making sure you have your social sharing buttons visible. Remember all your marketing tools should be integrated and supporting each other to achieve the best results for your business.

9. Blogs: If you are writing blogs for your website, then don’t forget to email your customers and potential customers informing them of each new post. Not only are you providing customers with added-value content that they may well find interesting you are also building customer relationships by keeping in regular contact.

10. List building – Use email to build your email list! Putting a prominent ‘email sign up form’ on your website is a simple and effective way to gather permission based email addresses. Publishing an email newsletter is a great way to grow your list, you can encourage opt-ins with an email sign up form saying something like ‘subscribe to our Newsletter’. Customers can then simply add in their email address there and then.

Conversely, you should also use email to keep you contact list clean and up-to-date. Putting a Unsubscribe button on all your emails will get rid of uninterested contacts and ensure you are only sending out information to those parties who are genuinely interested.

It’s simple to get started…

Getting started with more creative email marking isn’t difficult and needn’t be expensive. There is some excellent marketing software available – many of who offer free trials or a free service for emails under a certain quantity. For example MailChimp allows you 2000 subscribers and up to 12,ooo emails for free – which is great if you are just starting-up in business. Of course you’ll need to do a little research to choose the right email marketing software for your particular business. To help get you started I’ve listed a few (both big and small) below.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this subject, so please do leave a comment.

Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos

To Drop or Not to Drop: The Pros & Cons of Dropshipping

To Drop or Not to Drop
Who would not like to be their own boss? Decide your own hours, choose your own salary, work from wherever you please and best of all, do exactly what makes you happiest while getting paid for it. What’s not to like?

This leads us to the next logical question.

If being your own boss and running your own business is so awesome, why doesn’t everyone do it? Why do we have millions of unemployed folks hunting for jobs working for other people, when running your own business is next to professional nirvana?

Because running a business is not easy.

Besides a huge helping of sheer guts, starting and running your own business is a 24x7x365 day job. Your business is your baby – a constantly crying and wailing baby that you can’t afford to set down for even a minute. Even with businesses moving online, the demands on a typical entrepreneur’s time can be brutal to say the least.

Setting up a retail business online

Retail is a popular route to market for a lot of wannabe entrepreneurs. It’s easily understandable, most of us have experience about the ‘shopping’ aspect of retail. Besides, setting up an e-commerce store does not take longer than half a day. What’s more, if you already have an existing website that’s live, a shopping cart plug-in like ShopIntegrator lets you set up shop in a matter of minutes. It’ll take care of your store layout and design, your checkout flows, order management, inventory management, accepting and processing payments.

But that is the easy part, the part that can be automated. The tough bit in e-commerce is the part that still needs human intervention – product sourcing and fulfilment.

You can source the products that you want to sell either by manufacturing them yourself, outsourcing the manufacture to someone else or buying a ready item from a reseller. Then there’s the whole fulfilment process, where the item goes from your supplier to you to your shipping partner to finally your buyer’s doorstep.

That’s a lot of work for someone to handle all by themselves. Even the smallest e-commerce companies typically have at least a couple of employees to help with the logistics of procurement and dispatch of the physical goods.

Now, what if you decided that you don’t want to spend any money on getting employees to help with your logistics? What if you wanted to go it all by yourself? What would you do?

Dropship of course.

What is Dropshipping?

Dropshipping is a retail model where the online retailer does not own any inventory directly. When a customer places an order, this order is forwarded by the retailer to a manufacturer, distributor or wholesaler who then packages and ships the item to the customer directly.

In other words, a retail business built on a drop ship model is pretty much a front-end store that takes and processes customer orders, with the backend fulfilment operations being handled entirely by a third party.

This model offers budding entrepreneurs that chance to experience running a business first hand with very little sunk costs. The only things that the retailer would really spend on upfront are:

a. Site design and maintenance
b. Marketing and Demand Generation
c. Order processing
d. Managing the business’ finances
e. Employee costs (if any)

The retailer typically has a re-seller account with the dropship partner. When the retailer receives a customer order, he passes on the order to the dropshipper and rests easy. The dropshipper now swings into action.

He locates the ordered item in his inventory and packages the order with the retailer’s branding on it based on the invoice received. He then prints shipping labels with the end user’s name, address and order details on them and puts the right labels on the right products. Once packaged and labelled, the products are shipped off to customers directly from the dropshipper’s warehouse.

As you can see, the retailer’s degree of involvement in an arrangement like this is minimal, at best. Seemingly, the retailer gets all the benefits of running an online retail business, with none of the real hassles. While dropshipping may seem like a silver bullet for any online retailer, it comes with its fair share of pluses and minuses.

Let’s take an unbiased look at both sides of the tale.

The Benefits of Drop Shipping

1. Hassle-free way of starting a new business

As we discussed in the previous sections, dropshipping is as hands-off a method of conducting a retail business as any. A newbie entrepreneur can go into business in a matter of days once the agreements with the dropship partner are set up. In this sense, dropshipping offers a turn-key solution to starting an online retail store.

2. No Need to Hold Inventory

With a third party taking care of manufacturing, storing and transporting the goods, the retailer doesn’t have to worry about how much stock to hold or where to store the items. All they need to do is raise a procurement order for the dropship partner as and when they receive a customer order and leave the rest to the dropshipper to handle.

3. No Overheads from Warehousing

Storing products in a warehouse or any other storage facility comes with inherent overhead costs. There is rent to be considered, electricity and other utility bills to take care of, cost of manpower to run the warehouse facility and so on. If you choose to lease a portion of a larger warehouse, some of the costs are reduced but there’s still the question of rent and insurance at the very least.

4. Potential to Offer Wider Variety of Products

When a manufacturer starts selling a product directly to consumers, they are restrained by the variety of products that they can manufacture at any given point of time. A distributor or wholesaler is limited by the amount of warehousing space he has and the access to different types of products, when it comes to selling direct to consumer.

The fact that the retailer holds no inventory, means he is free to approach multiple dropship providers if need be, to create a wide range of products to be sold via his online store. This unlimited product variety provides a great win-win situation for both the retailer and the customer in a dropship setup.

5. Lesser Manpower Needed

With all the key manual activities involved in the fulfillment process outsourced to a third party, the retailer does not need too many people to run his business. Most e-commerce software or shopping cart plugins automate of a large chunk of the transaction process, leaving very little to be managed by the retailer. A high degree of automation translates into huge cost savings in terms of paying for employees, their benefits, training costs, administrative costs etc.

6. More Time to Focus on Marketing, Demand Generation and Customer Service

One of the biggest benefits of dropshipping, is the gift of time that it gives to a retailer – time that can be used to focus on more complex and productive activities like creating awareness for the brand, generating demand for the products, building a relationship with users and offering world-class customer service to new and existing customers.

7. Flexibility

Dropshipping means you can now own a business sitting anywhere on the planet as long as the dropshipper ships your products to where your customers are located. Since you don’t need to hold any inventory or request any minimum number of units per order, your customers can order whatever quantity they desire and it will be shipped to them, no questions asked. When your business grows in size, scaling up your supply side is as simple as placing larger orders with your dropshipper or supplementing your existing dropship partner with another one.

The best part? With dropshipping taking away a whole bunch of manual tasks away from your plate, as an entrepreneur you finally have some much desired me-time!

The Problems with Drop Shipping

1. Uncertain Service Levels

One of the most important aspects of e-commerce is shipping, handling and delivery. If a customer does not receive the right product, in the right condition, within the right time frame; it results in a terrible shopping experience. A slip up in even one of these different factors can have disastrous consequences on the customer’s satisfaction and the possibility of a repeat purchase.

In a dropshipping scenario, a retailer can only have service level agreements (SLA) with dropshippers detailing out their expectations in terms of product quality, packaging, shipping and delivery timelines. It is eventually upto the dropshipper to live up to their end of the bargain and fulfill all the promises made to the retailer. While generally a dropshipper would try his best to complete an order as per the SLA, there can be unforeseen circumstances where he is unable to do so. In such cases, the retailer is completely at the mercy of the dropshipper and has no control over when and how the customer will be serviced.

2. More Expensive Than D.I.Y.

That the entire process of warehousing products, sorting through them, packaging, labelling and shipping them to the customer is challenging, is an undoubted fact. However, the cost of doing so in-house is often cheaper than outsourcing the entire process lock, stock and barrel to a third party. The reason for this is simple.

If you carry out your own order fulfillment, you are likely to negotiate the lowest rates possible for each step in the process. However, when a dropshipper offers his services to you, he tacks on a generous markup to each step of the process to ensure that he makes his profit out of the transaction. These markups at every step of the way, add up and raise the landed cost of goods substantially. This in turn results in more expensive prices for the customer, which might run the risk of making the products uncompetitive in the market.

3. Unscrupulous Dropshippers

On paper, the dropshipping process seems like a great idea for both retailers and wholesalers. While the retailer gets rid of the trouble of warehousing and product fulfilment, the wholesaler gets an assured demand for his products with an extra margin tacked on to compensate for the services that he provides.

However, the rising demand for dropshipping services has not gone unnoticed by unscrupulous characters out to make a quick buck any way they can. Horror stories of retailers being duped by so-called dropshippers who take their money and their order but never fulfill the order at the customer’s end are stuff of e-commerce legend. The fact that retailers seldom meet with the dropshippers face to face and all they have to go by is the online reputation of a dropshipper, this scenario makes it a fertile ground for scam artists galore.

The Final Verdict

As we just saw, dropshipping offers this exciting opportunity to start an e-commerce business on the fly, but it also comes with its own share of risks and loopholes. So, is it worth putting your money and time into a dropshipping venture?

I would say, definitely.

Dropshipping is a low risk, low cost method of entering the world of e-commerce. Be extra cautious about picking the right dropshipping partner. Hunt far and wide for the right supplier who offers the products that you intend to sell. Check out their product range and quality. Confirm that they deliver to the locations that your users are located. Compare the pricing of different dropshippers and deeply research their past performance reviews before zeroing in on a dropshipping partner.

Even if you don’t start your own store, you can wet your feet by using dropship services and selling your products on eBay or Amazon to begin with. Once you learn the ropes of the business, become more confident of how to run the business and scale up your eBay store sufficiently; starting your own online store will be the next logical step.

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How small businesses can build customer loyalty with 7 simple, cost-effective tips.

customer loyaltyMost small business owners appreciate the importance of improving customer loyalty and why customer retention is so important to their business. We know that it costs far more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one and that loyal customers spend more money than new ones.

So how is it far more of our time, effort and budget is focused on acquiring new customers, whilst existing ones get sidelined or put at the bottom of the to-do list?

You don’t need a huge budget to improve customer loyalty

So, if you are a small business owner wondering how on earth you can stretch your budget to incorporate improved brand loyalty then don’t worry, enjoying high customer retention rates doesn’t just need to be the domain of big companies with big budgets. In fact, where customer loyalty is concerned, small businesses may actually have the upper hand. A smaller customer base gives businesses the advantage of being able to really get to know their customers and offer a more personalised service, which is one of the key components to winning customer loyalty.

Of course, the ultimate goal of improved customer loyalty is not just to win repeat business but to get your loyal customers to become advocates of your brand. Having a loyal band of customers who actively recommend your business to friends and family is invaluable. Indeed 92 percent of people trust recommendations from friends and family more than all other forms of marketing. Strengthening the relationship you have with your customers is well worth the time and effort you may need to out in.

“Loyal customers, they don’t just come back, they don’t simply recommend you, they insist that their friends do business with you” Chip Bell

Fascinating customer loyalty statistics

Lets first remind ourselves with some interesting statistics of why small businesses need to spend some time planning and implementing ways to improve their customer retention rates.

7 tips to increase customer loyalty without a huge budget

As I mentioned earlier you don’t have to have a huge budget and offer all singing, all dancing marketing communications or grand loyalty schemes to improve customer retention. There are simple, cost-effective and common sense ways to improve customer loyalty that require little more than a bit of time and effort.

Customer centric1. Be customer-centric

“Revolve your world around the customer and more customers will revolve around you”. Heather Williams

The starting point is to always have your customers right at the heart of your business, from planning,  product development, strategy, marketing communications, customer services, shipping, website design, content strategy to your online checkout process. If everything you do puts the customer first then you are probably giving your customers an all round positive, relevant experience. The result being the higher the likelihood of your customers returning for more.

Of course making the customer the centre of your business does means it is essential that you spend time really getting to know and understand your customers. The beauty of being a small business means you have a smaller client base and more direct and frequent contact with customers. This can be used to help you build up a better picture of who you customers are and what it is that makes them tick. Get that right and everything else follows on from there.

customer journey2. Focus on the customer journey

To build customer loyalty you need to focus on improving your customer’s whole experience with you. The journey your customer takes from start to finish should be excellent. You may have an amazing, competitively priced product, but if other areas let you down for example, your website design is confusing, your checkout frustrating, shipping inflexible or your customer services poor – you will not get a customer to come back.

  • 8% of consumers have bailed on a transaction because of a poor service experience
  • 47% of consumers said that although they may have a company preference, if they can’t find what they’re looking for on that site quickly, they’ll go elsewhere
  • 48% of consumers say that it’s when they make their first purchase or begin service is the most critical time to gain their loyalty 

So look at all of the individual elements that make up the whole customer journey and see how they can be improved on.

old vintage telephone representing customer services3. Offer exceptional customer service

Poor customer service is a surefire way to ensure customers don’t return to your business – regardless of how good your product is. Every year businesses loose 10 to 30 per cent of their customers, for which bad customer service accounts for 68%.

“This means if you have 100 customers you could lose 20 customers every year due to bad customer service (even if you don’t agree it’s bad!). These ex-customers will each tell 8-16 people about their bad experience, which means up to 320 people could be thinking bad things about you.” Marketing Donut

You are no doubt all familiar with the saying ‘good manners cost nothing’. Well good manners is at the heart of exceptional customer service and isn’t something that requires any budget whatsoever. Excellent, personable customer service will appreciated by your customers and goes along way towards building a positive image of your business. Much of the loyalty around the John Lewis brand is built around how it strives to offer exceptional customer service. This is a quote (one of many) on the John lewis website that highlights just how successful John Lewis is at this:

“I probably could have bought it cheaper elsewhere but I wanted the reassurance of the John Lewis service” John Lewis customer comment

Of course unlike huge companies with dedicated customer service departments, the chances are as a small business owner customer service is just one of the many hats you have to wear yourself. However, his doesn’t mean excellent customer service is unattainable. A few simple things can make a huge difference:

  • Be patient, polite and well-mannered at all times. Please and thank you goes along way and costs you nothing. Try to offer your customers the service you would expect to receive yourself.
  • Answer complaints quickly and pleasantly. Don’t forget a disgruntled customer will remain loyal is they feel that they have been listened to and their complaint has been dealt with satisfactorily.
  • If you are pressed for time then set up a Frequently Asked Questions page.  Directing more frequent customer queries to this page will free up time for the more complicated ones.
  • Be consistent. If other members of staff also deal with customer service then make sure they are fully briefed on how you expect them to deal with queries and complaints.

Blog definition image4. Give your business a personality

Remember people like to do business with other people.  As a small business owner you are in the opportune position to give your business some of your personality and make your brand more memorable. A business able to build an emotional connection with their customers is more likely to have a higher rate of customer retention. Social media is a great way to interact with your customers in a more personable way – it is your opportunity to let customers see the human behind the business and build stronger relationships. A blog or email newsletters are also excellent ways to stamp your business with a bit of personality.

reward customer loyalty5. Reward loyalty

62% of consumers don’t believe that the brands they’re most loyal to are doing enough to reward them. Thanking customers for their loyalty doesn’t have to involve a sophisticated loyalty programme.  It’s just taking the time to think about how you can show your most loyal customers that you appreciate their business. For example:

  • Reward loyal customers with an occasional gift voucher or special promotion such as 20% off or free postage
  • Give loyal customers ‘early doors’ to any sales you have planned
  • Offer special VIP previews of new product launches or ranges

I recently received a ‘no strings attached’ £10 gift voucher from a well known clothing company as a reward for being a loyal customer. Not only did I feel valued, the company benefited from me purchasing clothes well over the value of the  £10 voucher that I probably wouldn’t have thought to have bought otherwise!

customer voice6. Give your customers a voice

Providing the opportunity for your customers to be able to feedback and comment on your business helps build a relationship by showing them that their opinions matter to you.   So always welcome feedback (both positive and negative) and thank customers for taking the time to comment. Create an environment where it is easy for your customers to interact with you, such as having the facilities for customers to review your products or services, be active on social media, send out a customer survey or encourage comments on your blog. Of course make sure you take the time to thank customers for their comments and respond appropriately!

customer communications7. Keep in regular contact

Keeping in regular contact with customers is important and doesn’t need to cost the earth. Email and social media a both effective and low-cost ways to keep your customers up-to-date with whats going on with your business. This doesn’t mean bombarding customers with sales promotions all the time, rather focus on added-value content like highlighting new blog posts they may find interesting, sending out an informative newsletter, show them new products you may have launched or keep them up-to-date with wider industry news. It’s all about making your customers feel they are a valuable, important part of your business.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this post, so please do leave a comment.

 

 

6 Things That Take Your E-commerce Store from ‘Good’ to ‘Great’

Starting an e-commerce store today is not a huge deal. Topped with a good idea, even a basic website can transform into an e-commerce store in no time with a simple shopping cart plugin like ours.

Trouble is, there are millions of such e-commerce stores out there on the internet that set up shop and hope to win wallet-share on a wing and a prayer. My bet is that your store is a lot more valuable to you to leave outcomes like success, failure or mind-blowing popularity in the hands of pure chance.

So what would you do to take that e-commerce store of yours from good to great? Here’s what.

1. A Pleasure to Use, Not Easy to Use

Don’t you hate having to hunt through umpteen different aisles to get that one thing you came to pick up at your local supermarket? The feeling of being completely at sea when hunting for your desired products is by no means restricted to the physical world.

I can recount numerous instances where sifting through an e-commerce store in pursuit of that elusive item has left me tearing my hair out.

Spare your users this agony by building an online store that is easy to use. Why easy, build one that is a pleasure to use. Some key aspects to cover when working on improving usability are:

  • Simple and intuitive product categories
  • Navigation that is easy to follow and follows from the product categories
  • Appealing, yet not overwhelming website design with ample white space
  • Beautiful images that help users experience the product even when they’re unable to touch and feel it
  • Support multiple languages, currencies based on the geographical areas that your site services
  • Pages that load fast and are compatible with various browser types to make the entire shopping experience smooth flowing

Invest some time and effort into A/B testing every feature of your website that your user interacts with – the product categories, site navigation, the checkout process, post purchase service levels. A disappointment in even a single aspect of usability has the potential to ruin the overall user experience – something that a great e-commerce store will never tolerate.

2. Being House-Proud

Classical romance demands grand gestures that sweep ones partner off their feet to establish your affection for them. Many brands go ahead and implement such grand gestures every now and then to remind customers how important they are to them.

The WestJet Christmas MiracleThe WestJet Christmas Miracle

However, everyday lives cannot be filled with grand gestures. Everyday special demands paying attention to the little things. Turn to the oft-ignored but strangely powerful little things that populate your website and turn them into unexpected spots of joy that leave customers coming back for more.

Work on your web copy. Instead of writing your own website copy or getting it done in-house to cut costs; get a real professional to write your copy. Smart, sharp copy doesn’t simply tell customers about your business; it holds a conversation with them.

If copy is important, micro copy is equally vital. Micro copy refers to those little instructions in tiny font that you see on web pages that offer you real-time advice on what to do next. Microcopy tends to be contextual and often witty. Thoughtful, well written microcopy not just saves a customer time when they’re filling up a web form, it also offers a wonderful piece of whimsy that brings out your brand’s personality.

Download Music
Choose to go ad less across the site to improve your users’ experience? Highlight this benefit to your users so they are aware of your gesture on their behalf. Is users’ privacy a driving concern for you? Are you taking all possible measure to protect it? Inform them about it and win them over with your user friendly policies.

Small things are remembered long after the initial excitement of those grand gestures wears off. Aim at being spectacularly memorable, mere spectacular is for also-rans.

3. Giving Customers a Voice

User generated content like product reviews on e-commerce sites, helps in making the content on each product page richer and more useful to other readers. Top online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Old Navy, and others actively solicit user reviews and include them in their product pages.

This practice has the added benefit of having Google’s blessing. You see, user generated content like reviews are correlated with increase in click-through rates. Further, Google’s local updates are known to factor these in while ranking pages in their search results. So content about your brand by third parties that you did not have to pay for, pretty much translates into a vote of confidence for your brand, hence improving your SEO ratings. This comes as no surprise if you think of it, but it has to be mentioned as a key reason to promote user generated content, nonetheless.

Understandably, users tend to give more credence to the real experiences of fellow consumers to the advertising magic that brands try to pull off. This explains the popularity of social review apps like Yelp or TripAdvisor.

Giving Customers a Voice

According to a study by Bazaar Voice, 51% of Americans trust user generated content over other sources of brand information. This need for validation from other users is even stronger for certain types of purchases like major electronics purchases (44%), cars (40%) and hotel bookings (39%).

4. Being a Part of Something Bigger Than You

It’s easy to offer users a couple of coupons or special discounts and buy their loyalty, however fleeting that will be. A great brand on the other hand, inspires customers to buy from them whether or not there are discounts thrown in. What’s more, these are brands that make customers feel good for buying from them.

They do this by aligning themselves with goals that are loftier than mere bottom line numbers. When users know that your brand stands for something that is altruistic and close to their hearts, they’re not just loyal to you, they become brand evangelists for you.

A great example for this is TOMS Shoes.

TOMS Shoes was founded on the principle of ‘One for One’ where each pair of shoes bought by a customer would be matched by another pair of shoes donated to a needy child in developing countries like Argentina, Ethiopia, Haiti and others.

TOMS Shoes

This ‘business with a purpose’ was lapped up eagerly by young consumers who looked at shopping from TOMS as their contribution to a better world. It also helped that TOMS has some pretty cool shoes to go with the promise of doing good for the needy.

The support from their users is amply demonstrated by their annual ‘One Day Without Shoes’ event where millions of TOMS customers from around the world spend a day without shoes to raise awareness for the millions of under privileged children who live without shoes every day of their lives.

5. Staying Top of Mind, without Stalking Customers

No brand can hope to have a loyal fan following if their users don’t even remember them after one purchase. Most brands spend millions of dollars in advertising, sales promotions, one-on-one events with customers, celebrity endorsements and more; to remain relevant and memorable to their target audience.

Spending pots of money is not a problem if you are a Coke or Samsung or McDonald’s. Smaller folks like you and I need to get creative to stay on top of users’ minds. Digital media and big data have combined to ensure that we don’t have reason to despair.

Use the biggest asset that your website generates on a daily basis – big data – to help you build brand recall and brand preference among your users. Based on users’ actions on your site, create segments and target each user segment with communication that is relevant to them. Email marketing is a perfect tool for reaching out to various customer segments with tailored messages at zero cost. The great thing about email marketing is, that it offers the highest conversion rates among all other digital marketing tools available – paid or otherwise.

Another tool that you can employ easily without burning a huge hole in your pockets is social media. Pick social networks that matter to your target audience and post content on these networks that your users will appreciate. Top of mind recall does not mean salesy content that pushes your product down people’s throats and timelines. It is content that they willingly seek out.

The same goes for your website blog. Make your readers actually seek out content on your blog, instead of force feeding them promotional content that they’re naturally blind to anyway. Here are some great examples of content marketing by brands that manage superb top of mind brand recall without talking about their business much.

6. Remembering Customers without Sales on Your Mind

Just as it is important to maintain top of mind brand recall among your target audience, it is even more critical to let your customers know that they mean more to you than mere sales.

Building a real relationship with your customers helps in sales not just today or tomorrow, but for years to come.

Invest in building a relationship marketing program where the basic aim of your communication is to become your customer’s friend and not con them into buying your next product. People trust their friends, not pushy salesmen out to close a deal.

Reach out to customers when they least expect it. Birthday greetings are standard by now. Keep in touch with your customers for events like their first anniversary of shopping on your site or celebrate the 5th purchase made by them on your site with a special gesture and so on.

Even a simple ‘Missing You’ note tells the user that you’re thinking of them and they’re not just another customer for you.

Remembering customers without sales

Another way of reaching out without being promotional, is by being actually useful to your customers. Remind them of things that matter to them, for example if a customer has bought one pack of sanitary napkins from your store, you obviously know that she will be needing another pack around the same time, next month. Proactively send out an email reminding your user that she might be out of stock and might want to stock up in time.

Over to You

Thankfully, by now the clunky websites of the nineties have been left behind in the last century and most websites are decent, if not pretty good in terms of their usability. But then again, how many of us remember every single site that we shopped on, ever? Unless it offered something truly outstanding, most e-commerce sites just blend into each other.

Don’t let your online store be yet another statistic. Invest in some (if not every single one) of these little gestures and ensure that your brand remains memorable long after that first purchase.

Image Source: (1,2, 3, 4, 5)

So How Much Does Social Media REALLY Matter to Your E-Commerce Site?

Did you check your Facebook profile today? Chance are you did. And multiple times, at that. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average American spends over 40 minutes per day on Facebook.

If you work backwards on Facebook’s claim of having over 128 million daily users; it means that over 40% of all Americans check their Facebook account on a daily basis.

These numbers are not just about American attitudes to social media, they are a reflection of the global addiction to social media that we have witnessed in the last few years.

If users are on social media, it follows that marketers won’t be very far behind. It’s no wonder then that social media has steadily gained a progressively bigger share of the marketing budgets of brands worldwide.

Projected share of social media in marketing budgetsProjected share of social media in marketing budgets

Trouble is, social media does not seem to be living up to all it’s been hyped to be. The last touch attribution numbers – conversions by folks who came directly from social media onto your site – remains miserably low. Low enough that questions are being raised about the ROI of social media expenditure and the sustainability of social media marketing.

Data from Monetate’s Quarterly E-commerce Report for Q2 2014, shows that the total traffic that can be directly attributed to social media is a meagre 2.3%. Conversions, obviously are even lower.

Website Visits and traffic

Black Friday – the annual shopping bonanza that all retailers await for the whole year brought in record breaking numbers for e-commerce sites last year – $1.2 billion in sales to be precise. However, even during a ‘made for shopping’ holiday like Black Friday, social media accounted for just 0.34% of all online sales.

If a medium offers a business just 2.3% of the total traffic that it gets from all sources, and an even tinier share of conversions; does it really deserve a 9% share and going forward, a 21% share of overall marketing budgets?

Social Media Is NOT a Last Touch Medium

The short answer to that question is, YES.

Let’s now look at the long version of the answer. All the grouses about how social media has not performed to its potential come from people who are getting a very fundamental thing about social media completely wrong. Social media is NOT a last touch medium, it is an influencer medium.

Users are NOT going to go from a social media post you made about creative crafting ideas to buying a couple of boxes of colored glitter. What that post about creative crafting does instead, is give the user ideas about what to do the next time they want to work on a craft project, what tools to use, which products work best and so on. So the next time that user wants to create a model airplane, they will know where to go to buy their glue sticks and glitter pens.

Social media is your build up to the sale and not your salesman.

So what do you do to ensure that this medium that takes up swathes of your users’ time and attention on a daily basis contributes to your business meaningfully? How do you move out of the trap of looking at last-touch attribution figures for social media and writing it off as a failed marketing tool?

You do that by leveraging the things that social media DOES do well. Here’s a rundown of the various things that social media DOES offer without a shadow of doubt – things that once employed effectively by your business can only help in growing it to the next level.

1. Understand your audience

As we saw earlier, social media is the place your users spend a significant chunk of their time on. With 4 out of 5 Americans now active on social media, this platform is a treasure trove of user data, if only you take the time to look and learn. Social media tells you a ton of things about your audience – where they live, how old they are, how educated they are, what they like to do for fun, places that they frequent, brands that they identify themselves with and more. Each of these factors combine to paint a composite user profile that you can use as a guideline while marketing to them.

With insights like these, your business won’t end up making gaffes like selling spare parts for a Lamborghini to a Ford user.

2. Target Your Audience Clearly

So we saw how social media can tell you who your users are. Now take a look at social media from another perspective.

Social media is the only marketing platform that tells you exactly where to spend your marketing dollars, so you don’t waste them on people who will not respond to your communication. On social media, you have the option of laser-targeting only and only those individuals who fit the right age, sex, location, interests and activity profile that you have created for your ideal customers.

This prevents spillage of your budgets on non-responsive audiences, it improves the efficacy of your messaging among your real target audience and reduces the overall budgets you would need to achieve a particular result by streamlining your marketing.

3. Engagement

Users like, follow or share data from a brand only when it resonates with them and speaks to them in language that they identify with. Once you hit upon this magic formula for your posts, nothing stops users from sharing it with their friends and family and taking your content viral.

Some of the key things that ensure your users are engaged (and by extension, ready to spread your word of mouth for free!) include:

  • Your content matches their areas of interest
  • What you’re saying is very different from what they see other brands say
  • Your content tells them about something they did not know about before
  • Your content is exciting / funny
  • Sharing your content with their friends will portray your users as smart and cool, earning them brownie points from their peers.

Remember, the deeper your engagement levels are with your users, the easier it will be to convince them about the merits of your brand and products. In other words, building an engaged user base is basically the process of priming your users to become customers of your product.

4. Trust

Users log primarily on to social media to connect with their friends and family, not to follow brands or organizations. This primary function that social media has of being a social connector, means that users set a lot of store by what their friends and family have to say about various matters – political issues, environmental stands, entertainment gossip and brand endorsements.

A study of over 25,000 online consumers by Nielsen as part of their Global Online Survey showed that 90% of online consumers trust recommendations from their friends.

By building a positive, credible brand image for your business with your fans and followers, you are in turn creating brand ambassadors who have the power to influence their peers to a level that your marketing messages can never hope to achieve.

Solicit reviews of your products from existing customers on social media to get the benefit of virality and being seen by their friends and family. Use social proof like the number of fans you have or the number of positive reviews that your product got or the number of times people shared your blog post on social media as tools that help potential customers make up their minds and enable conversions.

5. Top of Mind Recall

For a radio ad to stick in a user’s mind, you need at least nine repetitions per day. That figure is similar for television. For any business to be able to afford that kind of airtime all year round, is an incredibly expensive affair, to say the least.

Social media solves this problem by offering itself up as a near-free platform to reach out to your users. With the right kind of organic posts, your brand can reach out to users multiple times every single day, every day of the year at no extra cost. This is an opportunity that no business, especially cash strapped small businesses, can afford to ignore.

Dig into your analytics and determine the times of day when your users are active on social media. Use social media as a completely free reminder medium with regular posts at these times in the day. Paid ads on social media too work best when they are targeted at the right times of day and on the right days of the week.

6. Inspire Your Users

As discussed earlier, do not look at social media as a salesman with revenue targets on his head. Instead, view this wonderful medium as your online brochure that users can browse through at their leisure to get ideas on what to buy and where to buy it from.

I am not endorsing salesy posts that say “Here’s my product, it’s so great, buy it now!”. What a smart social media marketer would do instead is to SHOW the users the various ways your product can be beneficial to them. Show them various use cases for your product. Highlight real-life stories of customers who have used your products and the pleasant experiences that THEY had.

Platforms like Pinterest, Instagram or even Facebook lend themselves beautifully to creating look-books or design guides that tempt users to check out your wares, instead of simply pushing percentage-off offers down the throats of unwilling and uninformed users.

7. Make Life Easier for Them (Social Login)

One of the cardinal requirements of a good business is to make life easier for your users. Does your website force users to create a username and password as a pre-requisite for transactions? Do users have to remember these username-password combinations each time they revisit your website? If you answered ‘yes’ to either of these two questions, you’re creating a wall between your website and its users.

Social media helps knock down this wall with the help of a social login. By allowing users to log into your website using their social media accounts, you are taking away the friction of creating a new account from scratch and remembering the password attached to that account for future visits.

Research by Monetate shows that users spend 127% more time on websites that allow social logins than those that don’t. It further goes on to say that 64% of users are more likely to return to a site that remembers them without the need for them to create a fresh username and password.

There’s yet another benefit that social logins offer you on a direct level. Users that sign on with social media accounts agree to share the data from their social media accounts with you in exchange for the convenience of a social login. This is invaluable data that you can access directly in your inbox, without even going to social media and digging around for details.

Invest in a social login, it will only help your cause with your target audience.

8. SEO

This is much debated, but now well established benefit that social media offers businesses, both big and small.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and without a doubt, Google+ help in backing up all the other ranking signals that your page has and help in making the final cut in where your page ranks in a particular search. Let’s understand with an example.

Let’s say I search for ‘Pizza places in Birmingham’ on Google. If a friend of mine on Google+ has left behind a +1 or a positive review about ABC Pizzas located in Birmingham, then all other factors remaining constant, ABC Pizzas will get a bump up in their search rankings compared to other pizza places. The simple reason here is relevancy. Google assumes that since this is a place recommended by MY friend, it would be more interesting to me, than a place that is rated highly by a bunch of strangers.

Searching for people on Google or Bing, typically pulls up their social profiles – another indicator of how search engines DO give points to social signals, much as they would like to confuse and confound marketers everywhere.

Conclusion

Social media may not fit into clear silos of ‘lead generator’, ‘lead nurturer’, ‘awareness creator’ or ‘last mile converter’ that we are used to for other marketing platforms that we use. To truly benefit from social media, you need to understand what social media brings to the table and maximize it for all that its worth.

Consider social media as an enabler for your sales, instead of a deal-maker and you’ll be surprised with the results that you see.

Image Source: (1, 2)

How to Create Your eCommerce Budget for 2015

Creating a budget requires time for planning, looking at your available resources and a thought process that is geared towards avoiding any unforeseen costs and expenses. This rings especially true for those who are looking at starting up a successful eCommerce venture.

Shopping Cart Software

Image Source: ShutterStock.com

Many elements of your line items will appear self evident, but others are less obvious. In addition to initial startup costs of getting your web site built, tested and functional, there are other more long-term, ongoing expenses that need consideration and inclusion.

Here are six key elements to examine when planning your eCommerce budget:

#1 – Design & Development

In addition to the most obvious, number-one line item for your online business, some categories of design and development are often overlooked. For example, one will easily remember a “shopping cart” service, but what about the other elements that should accompany this buying platform? Customer loyalty programs, coupons, gift cards, shipping estimators, returns and exchanges are just a few functions and features that sometimes go MIA.

#2 – Visuals & Artwork

Once you look past the design of a business logo, your site needs other types of visual appeal, photographs and artwork. These are not necessarily “free” and to avoid any possible legal ramifications in the future, ensure that your images are all properly licensed (naturally available at an additional cost) or perhaps you will be using your own photography. Either way, decide which will work best for you and your bottom line.

#3 – Data Entry & Management

Someone will need to enter all your valuable product information into a database. While most developers will perform this service (again, for an additional fee), some startups will opt to do it themselves. Be prepared for a little training and a hefty investment in time, but this is also a valuable way to learn the ropes of your site’s management console. There is also ongoing data management and maintenance of product information, customer and sales information that require attention.

Data entry security

Image Source: ShutterStock.com

#4 – Hosting & Security

There are plenty of web hosting companies that are a real bargain, but you often get what you pay for in terms of speed, security and support. Online shoppers are impatient and fickle, so if your site loads too slowly or doesn’t appear to be secure, they will quickly move along to someplace faster and safer without blinking an eye.

#5 – Maintenance & Updates

What works today, might not work tomorrow — just think of how often Windows is updated. The same is true for you and your website. You’ll need to budget for things like upgrades associated with advancements in web browsers, advancing technology, enhanced security, new features and functions. Even tech startups can be caught off guard by these costs.

#6 – Marketing & Advertising

Traffic to your new eCommerce website will not magically appear out of thin air. You’ll need to promote your new business through effective marketing and advertising. Both of these come at a cost, either with your own time or payment to a third party. There are many different marketing options available but be prepared to pay for targeted advertising, effective SEO marketing and/or social media strategies.

In closing, think about this, remember playing hide-and-go-seek as a child? There were always a few rules and limitations as to where you could conceal yourself.

Budgets don’t play fair.

Guest Author: Megan Ritter

Megan Ritter is an online business writer and guest author based in Southern California. As an online journalist, she often covers social media marketing, ecommerce, finance management, and business communications. Follow Megan Ritter on Twitter to connect with her!

How small online businesses can improve conversions with increased customer choice

online customer choiceToday’s consumers have high expectations of the type of customer experience they believe they are entitled to receive online. Customers are increasingly online savvy, confident and like choice and control. Enabling your customers to have the convenience of choice and flexibility enhances their overall online experience with your business , in turn increasing the likelihood of  conversion and repeat visits.

Increase choice to reduce the barriers to purchase

However, I’m not suggesting that you overwhelm your customers with a smorgasbord of choices – too many options can actually deter customers. Rather, focus on offering customers increased choice in a few strategic places along the purchasing journey to help reduce some of the barriers to purchase.

Shopping cart abandonment is part and parcel of any online businesses. The current rate averages at 67.4% so any changes you can make to help reduce your shopping cart abandonment rate can only be a good thing. We take a look at how offering customers choice in some key online areas can help you increase those all important conversions.

Simple ways to implement more customer choice

Online card paymentsPayment Choice

Offering your customers a choice of payment options at checkout can have a significant impact on conversions and help reduce shopping card abandonment. Figures show:

  • 59% of respondents would abandon a transaction if their preferred payment method was not in place.
  • 40%  of respondents would have more confidence in an online shop that had more than one payment method.

It is important to be able to offer customers both online and offline payment options as it means you are more likely to be able to provide the customer with their preferred payment choice. Being able to take payments by credit or debit card is becoming increasingly important. According to the UK Card Association the majority of online purchase are now made using cards.  In the UK during 2013;

When initially setting up in business, many small businesses begin selling online using the basic shopping carts provided by their existing website platform. It is a quick and simple way to get up and running. However it can mean that as your business grows you are limited to a single payment system such as PayPal. A simple, cost-effective way to improve your shopping cart capabilities without changing your existing website platform is to use a hosted third-party shopping cart solution that is quick to integrate and can offer your business a wide range of pre-integrated payment processors and offline payment options.

online shipping and deliveryIncreased delivery options

Underestimating the importance customers place on shipping and delivery options is a potential disaster for your conversion rates. Customers take online delivery very seriously, with 42.5% of customers looking at delivery pages first.  Research also show that 50% of customers have abandoned an online purchase due to unsatisfactory delivery options.

It is important that customers fare able to plan for delivery. I’m sure we have all experienced the frustration of not being at home when a package requiring a signature turns up. Offering more delivery choices makes the customer feel in control and goes along way towards providing an all-round positive customer experience. Research shows that in terms of e-commerce delivery,

  • 31% of customers would like the option of a fixed delivery date
  • 24% of customers would like the option of collecting from their local stores
  • 24% of customers would like the option of next day delivery
  • 13% would like the option of a two-hour delivery slot.

So think about introducing some flexible delivery choices such as:

  • Next day delivery
  • Nominated day delivery
  • Pick up from a local store (such as Click and Collect)
  • ‘If out please leave…” options such as : leave with neighbour, behind bins, in garage and so on.

smartphone online shoppingBe multi-device friendly

Your customers should have the choice of being able to view your website equally well on their preferred device – be it desk top, smart phone or tablet. By limiting your customers access to a standard desk-top version of your website, you may lose out on potential sales. M-commerce such as tablets and smart-phones play an increasingly important part in your customers purchasing journey.

“With over half of all e-retail traffic coming via smartphones and tablet devices the latest results reveal a huge landmark in the growth of mobile commerce” Guardian.com

Significantly, online shopping on mobile devices has overtaken desktop traffic for the first time in the UK with 52% of online visits made via a mobile and an impressive 36% of UK online sales completed on a smartphone or tablet device. So let your customer choose how he or she wishes to view your site in the most convenient way to them, at any particular point in time, by making sure your site is multi-device friendly.

social media small businessChoice of communication channels

“The attention of modern individuals is fragmented and in this hectic communication reality they want to decide for themselves how and when and with whom they speak, both in private and with business communication” Social Marketing Forum

There is no doubt that the last ten years have seen a huge change in how we choose to communicate.  The whole social landscape has changed and as a business this needs to be reflected in the way you communicate to your customers. By offering a choice of ways for your customers to interact with your business you are more likely to be able to provide the preferred channel communication to a wider range of customers. This communication choice can be applied across the board from customer services to marketing. Simple ways to do this is to think about using an integrated both offline and online. For example:

Customer services: let customers choose how they wish to interact with you – whether it is by email, phone, or via social media.

Marketing: Market your product or services in a variety of ways, communicating traditionally through direct mail and advertising and digitally through email, social networks, PPC and SEO. In integrated approach reinforces the message and gives customers a choice in how they chose to respond.

Purchasing: Make sure customers have an options to make the final sale in the way that suits them – this could be over the phone, through your website’s online checkout or even via your social media.  For example if you have a large majority of customers who interact with your business on Facebook, then think about how you can better use that to your advantage. Try offering them the choice of purchasing your products directly through a Facebook Store.

So to reiterate, it isn’t about overwhelming customers with an overabundance of options but rather implementing customer choice strategically to give customers more control and an improved customer experience. This can help remove some of the barriers to purchase and help you increase your conversions.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this topic, so do please leave a comment.

 Online shopping concept image courtesy of Naypong/FreeDigitalPhotos