Don't worry, though, we're here to answer these questions for you, and help you learn how to start an online business in an effective manner – aka in a way that convinces people to buy!
Here's everything you need to know about how to sell online. What follows is a 20-step beginner's guide to starting an online business.
How to start an online business – your beginner's guide in 20 steps
1. Choose the right ecommerce platform
If you want to start an online business, the first thing on your to-do list is picking an ecommerce platform.
An ecommerce platform is simply a special type of website that allows people to buy your products or services and complete their purchases without leaving your site. It also lets you know that a new order has come in.
In short, it's your all-in-one online selling solution.
If you want to learn how to start an online business and sell online, you really can't do it without a quality ecommerce solution at your disposal.
Choosing the right ecommerce platform can be the difference between success and failure of your entire online store.
After all, you don't want to have to deal with transaction problems, customers' orders vanishing, wrongly set shipping details; and don't even get me started on security vulnerabilities.
Here at ecommerce-platforms.com, examining and testing the top ecommerce solutions in the market is literally all we do. Each week, we test what's new in the ecommerce space and then let our readers know the results.
One of the ongoing experiments that we've been running is our comparison chart of the top 10 ecommerce platforms in the market. We take a number of factors into account when deciding which platform is on top.
Here's the current lineup:
2. Don't neglect mobile users
Actually, this is not merely about *not neglecting* mobile users…
In fact, you should start with mobile in the first place!
This might be surprising but mobile is actually the be-all and end-all of learning how to start an online business. The fact of the matter is that more people access the web using mobile devices than desktop computers and laptops combined. Here's how the 2017 data plays out:
But that's not all there is to the mobile story.
These days, Google also takes mobile more seriously than desktop. In one of the recent updates to their algorithm, Google decided to make their “mobile index” the main index for the whole search engine. What this means in plain English is that Google now uses the mobile content of your site when determining your search engine position.
In other words, if your store fails to display properly on mobile, you're basically screwed. Excuse the bluntness.
Luckily, the platform that we always recommend every new ecommerce store owner to use – Shopify – is as mobile optimized as it gets, so you don't need to worry about this aspect at all. If you're on something else, like a self-hosted tandem of WordPress and WooCommerce (which is also a popular solution), you need to make sure that things look good on mobile on your own.
To check if your website works on mobile, use Google's own Mobile Friendliness tool. Just input your web address and see the results.
If what you see there is not optimistic, you should think of changing your store design if possible (here's some more info on the topic). If the design cannot be changed easily, consider switching to a different ecommerce platform altogether.
3. Make an amazing first impression
In order to master how to sell online, first of all, you need to keep your users engaged and clicking through. It takes about 50 milliseconds for users to decide if they like your site or not.
You want – and need – to be as creative as possible. It can be something as simple as the header or your store's name. These tips will help you choose the right name and domain for your store. What's also important is to invest in the best design possible, so choose the right design template and deliver a unique experience for your users.
A first impression can last for years, so you really want to be as memorable and unique as possible while still being in tune with the purpose of your site and how you want to start an online business.
4. Why photos matter
Your customers will remember 80% of what they see and a staggering 20% of what they read.
Big product photos along with great design are the two main areas you should focus on if you want to have an eye-candy ecommerce site.
Cool photos checklist:
- ✅ use an all white background to let your product stand out
- ✅ go big in size to catch your user's interest and to let them know exactly what they're buying
- ✅ enable zooming so your customers can see every little detail
- ✅ provide product photos from all angles
- ✅ if you don't want to or don't have the right equipment, rely on a professional photographer (not cost-effective if you sell hundreds of items)
Some data on good product photography that might convince you to invest in this aspect of your path to learning how to sell online:
- 66% of customers would like to see alternative angles of a product
- for 75% of people, the quality of photos is the most important factor
- 61% of people want to be able to zoom in on the product photo
Need free images for your blog or to highlight your photos? Bookmark some of these 40 sites that offer free photos for further reference. Most of them have super-modern and captivating photos.
5. Improve your site's navigation
You want to offer stress-free navigation, allowing visitors to easily find what they're looking for because if they can't find it, they can't buy it.
The following strategies are easy to apply and proved to be very effective:
a) Add a “What's new” category
Your returning customers will want to see your latest collection. They don't want to browse through the old stuff while searching for new products. Include a ‘New products' tab in your main navigation to make it more visible and also to tempt new visitors to stay on your site.
b) Have a “Recently viewed” feature
It's beyond annoying to shop around for something and to decide you want to revisit a product you saw a few clicks backs, but finding it isn't that easy. The user has options: use the back button, navigate to that category again or check the browsing history.
Use drop-down menus
The navigation process is a lot smoother and it requires fewer clicks, thus making your visitors happy and less stressed. However, you have to be absolutely sure that your website won't have to face the dreaded hover tunnels issues – when you have to follow a certain path, so the menu won't close. A great strategy is to make the menu open on click, thus ensuring that all your customers can navigate easily.
If you want to know more about site navigation, check this study. It shows exactly how menus have changed between 2011 and 2014 for 23 websites.
6. Have a unique idea
When entering the ecommerce space, you're joining a highly competitive market where it's easy to drown among thousands of other stores that all look kind of the same. That is why it's so important to build a unique presence and offer something that your competition either doesn't have or doesn't present the same way you do.
To make this easier on yourself, get inspired by browsing sites like Pinterest, Instagram, Amazon, or Etsy, and see what's new, what gets a lot of buzz, etc. Ponder what you can do to create a similar vibe and use it to present your business effectively.
Visit these sites to find what's trending:
7. Craft a strong USP (Unique Selling Proposition)
Why do you need a unique selling proposition? There are around 10 million ecommerce websites! Yes, you read that right: 10 million. You don't just need to, you *MUST* have an awesome unique selling proposition if you want to make those sales.
Every successful business has that “something” that sets it apart from others, you just have to sit down and figure out what it is. Another option is to do your own research and look closer at your competitors. What are they focusing on? What are they missing? Could you bring that to your customers?
Don't know where to start with your USP when figuring out how to start an online business? Sam Horn, author of the popular book “POP!: Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything” developed this W9 questionnaire to help you break down the core of your business and craft the perfect USP:
- W1. What am I offering?
- W2. What problem does my idea or offering solve?
- W3. Why is it worth trying and buying?
- W4. Who is my target audience?
- W5. Who am I and what are my credentials?
- W6. Who are my competitors and how am I different from them?
- W7. What resistance or objections will people have to this?
- W8. What is the purpose of my pitch?
- W9. When, where, and how do I want people to take action?
Some USPs to get you inspired:
8. Start blogging
When you blog, you can increase your number of visitors by even as much as 50%, plus also have more leads per month. These are huge numbers that can bring in a lot of extra revenue!
Here's how to get these sort of benefits; first of all:
Ideally, you would have around 2-3 new articles published each week, but not everyone has that much free time, so start slow. You can come up with at least one article a week, right? If possible, you can consider drafting 5-7 posts and schedule them so you don't have to deal with blogging for the next couple of weeks.
What to publish:
- ✅ personal experiences/opinions, so your customers get to know you and your business
- ✅ products you recommend
- ✅ tips from your niche
- ✅ contests
- ✅ something about your store's history
As an added bonus, read my 19 explosive content marketing tips and see what advice you can implement in your blogging activity.
9. Create a mind-blowing “About Us” page
Your About Us page is a window into your business, and you want it to be appealing and fresh. Around 7% of visitors coming to a homepage click to see the About page. Those who do see it convert 30% more than those who don't. They also spend on average 22.5% more. This alone should be enough to get you started drafting this page!
An honest, updated and well-designed About Us page can spark curiosity and, who knows, generate some unexpected sales from people who were just browsing.
What to share on your About page:
- ✅ the story of your brand
- ✅ a video or several captivating photos that portray your brand
- ✅ your partners, if you're not alone
- ✅ one or two testimonials
- ✅ links to some of your best or most popular products
10. Develop a successful SEO strategy
If you want to learn SEO, you'll quickly find out that the topic can be really intimidating. There are hundreds of different SEO factors – simply speaking: things that impact your site's SEO – and mastering them all is near impossible.
- Here are some tips on SEO to help you begin.
First order of business:
a) Optimize your product page.
This means using keywords, but not to the extent where you end up over-stuffing your content. Relevant product keywords in your headers and image alt tags should be enough to help your rankings and thus help you with starting an online business.
b) Use friendly URLs.
The visitor doesn't want to see a trillion characters, so, again, you should use the keyword you're trying to rank for and very little of anything else. Keep it clean and user-friendly!
c) Make the most of user-generated content.
This isn't costing you anything and it also provides fresh and unique content for search engines. Add social media plugins and allow users to quickly review the products they just bought.
d) Avoid duplicate content.
Archives, tags, incorrect pagination and even basic product filtering generate duplicate content and drag your site down.
You can avoid issues like these by looking into the settings of your ecommerce platform. If you're on WooCommerce, you can adjust most duplicate content issues via the Yoast SEO plugin. If you're on Shopify, you should have this issue taken care of by the platform itself.
If you're on another solution, you might need to use your robots.txt file and do the needed adjustments manually.
Apart from that, writing your own unique product description instead of using the one provided by the manufacturer is the smart way to go. Google will notice and set you apart from your competitors who use the same product text.
e) Keep pages with out of stock items.
Don't delete those pages, especially if you rank high with them; instead, show related products or your newest collection.
f) Have a well thought-through internal linking system.
This will reduce your bounce rates – as people have something to click on. Recent studies show that 69% of people base their browsing on these links. Don't over-complicate it, try to think from your visitor's point of view. What would be relevant to them?
g) Link to other sites.
Despite random rumors you might have heard, linking won't ruin your rankings. Instead, it will show the visitors that you want to provide helpful content and you don't mind linking to outside sources. This will paint you as genuine and reliable.
h) Use Analytics.
This is kind of a no-brainer. You simply can't afford to skip on using Analytics to have a deeper knowledge of everything that happens in your online store.
Don't know where to start? Check out this roundup of 10 Google Analytics resources for ecommerce. It will help you keep track of everything that happens in your store.
Who does SEO well?
When it comes to high-class SEO in relation to how to sell online, Zappos is the perfect example.
- Further reading: The SEO specialist, Brian Dean, put together an awesome guide on ecommerce SEO. Check it out here.
11. Target the right visitor with the right product
Product recommendations deliver a personalized shopping experience and can increase your order value by as much as 40%. In other words, you can't afford not to use this strategy. Out of 1000 UK online shoppers, 53% like seeing products that are recommended based on their previous buying history.
Amazon was among the first retailers to successfully implement this and eventually, everyone jumped on it too. This infographic is an illustrated history of the first 20 years of Amazon and it shows some of the strategies Jeff Bezos used to make the client hit the “Add to cart” button more eagerly.
They use an “item-to-item collaborative filtering” that surrounds the user with products they didn't even know they needed. This algorithm is based on what the customer has in the cart, their previous Amazon browsing history, products they like or have already bought.
How many times have you found yourself looking for a stapler and ending up buying a stapler … and some office supplies, and some printer paper … and a printer, etc? The power of suggestion does wonders and Amazon knows that, perhaps that's why they're the absolute masters of how to sell online.
Around 70% of online shoppers prefer stores that use personal information to provide a more relevant shopping experience. Bottom line, any ecommerce site that wants to stay in the game has to come up with a personalized shopping experience for its customers.
What features to implement:
- ✅ “recommended for you”
- ✅ “similar products”
- ✅ “complimentary products”
If you're using an ecommerce solution such as Shopify then you can configure these kinds of features right through your user panel. If you're on WooCommerce + WordPress then you might need a plugin to have some of them implemented.
12. Use Live Chat to help potential customers make faster decisions
While the ecommerce space might be stronger than ever, still nothing beats that human interaction you have in a store. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the data. For instance:
What percentage of online shoppers do you think agree with this statement:
The answer is 44%.
If you want to benefit from that, there's no better way to do it than to get a “live chat” functionality installed on your site. Here's our comparison of the best live chat solutions for ecommerce.
At the same time, you do want your live chat to be proactive and to invite the visitor to interact with it.
Generally, place your live chat button in the most visible spot. You want it to be visible at all times, whether the user is scrolling or reading a product review.
Live chat statistics:
- 31% of online shoppers are tempted to buy from a site that offers live chat
- 46% think live chat is the perfect communication medium
- 62% of buyers who have used live chat are more likely to buy again from the same website
13. To coupon or not to coupon
Pricing is tricky. You have to offer a lower price than your competition while making a profit. This small guide focuses on the best pricing strategies when you're figuring out how to start an online business.
After getting the basic pricing covered, you have to determine what coupons and discounts strategy to use. If you have a one of a kind product or handmade items, promotional offers aren't a must. Plus, they can do more harm than good at times. However, for general merchandise and simple products, coupon codes can bring more business.
Data says that around 75% of mobile buyers use coupons.
Most ecommerce platforms support the use of coupons natively. Both Shopify and WooCommerce allow you to enable coupons with a couple of clicks.
Here are some ideas for coupon codes you can use:
- first time buyer's discount
- volume discount
- member discount
- free shipping
- returning customer discount
14. Improve your shopping cart experience
Window shopping has never been so popular, which is kind of unfortunate for those of us trying to figure out how to start an online business! Your users cram their carts with items they would want/like to buy, but 71% of the carts are abandoned.
Why? Well, for a lot of reasons. High shipping fees, slow website or website time-out, not enough payment options (check this article on how to choose the right payment gateway for your store) or just because they were simply browsing and had no intention to buy anything.
A very good idea is to let customers buy as guests – without the need to create any user accounts. Many stores employ this functionality, and it's also supported by most of the popular ecommerce platforms (Shopify and WooCommerce included).
Apart from that, use your checkout page as the last upsell option.
Be aware of these shopping cart statistics:
- 73% of customers are likely to look for free shipping options
- the highest cart abandonment rate is in consumer electronics, around 74%
- high shipping costs account for around 44% of abandoned carts and only 6% due to slow shipping
Need more inspiration on how to start an online business? Go through these 12 creative checkouts and see if you spot anything that you'd like to emulate.
15. Develop a successful shipping strategy
Customers expect to see the “Free shipping” banner on every online store they visit nowadays and, on top of that, 78% look for the cheapest shipping available.
The most common shipping options right now are:
We're all bargain hunters and the phrase “Free shipping” makes you want to pay attention instantly, even if you weren't tempted to buy anything initially.
Analyze your costs, and if you can afford to offer free shipping then go ahead. This works best in clothing, beauty, accessories, and other similar industries – since in most cases the packages are small or average sized.
Free delivery over a certain order value.
Next to unconditional free delivery, this is the second best thing. It's a very popular option seen on big websites like ASOS, The Hut, or Free People, and it can increase your orders exponentially.
Flat rates shipping.
A hassle-free method; this allows you to offer a flat fee on every order, which is also a good way to estimate your financials when building your path to how to start an online business.
Shipping rates based on weight, order total or distance.
This is more challenging to set up as you need to figure out exactly how much shipping will cost you in order to get some estimates.
If you're selling via Shopify or WooCommerce, you can set different shipping zones or tiers based on the destination, weight and other characteristics of the order. While this is a built-in feature in many ecommerce platforms, configuring it correctly will take you a couple of hours. However, that time investment is well worth it in the end.
One of the things you get as a result when you're done with the setup is a shipping calculator that your customers can use to get the exact rate for their order.
Some numbers on the importance of shipping rates:
- increased shipping costs cause 55% of abandoned carts
- free shipping is more of a reason for people to buy from a store than fast shipping
- consumers are 82% more likely to use a store if they don't have to pay for shipping
- you can increase your order value by 30% if you have free shipping
16. Ask for feedback
It's really surprising how many ecommerce stores don't have any way for customers to submit their reviews of the products. This can be a huge obstacle on your path to how to start an online business. In fact, 77% of online shoppers read a review of the product they intend to buy and 90% make a decision based on what they read.
All those numbers and statistics apply to the whole web. You might have positive reviews on your site, but you also have to check what your customers say about you on other blogs and forums. Are they satisfied? If not, contact them and see what should be different. You have to keep in mind that people use Google to find your site and they'll use it again to do a “background” check on your product.
Not only that, but reviews also improve your SEO rankings as they provide fresh and unique content, increasing your long tail rankings and bringing in new visitors.
Expedia uses Feefo to display their customer reviews. This strategy outsources your worries regarding approving and providing a platform for those reviews. Users also have the chance to tweet or share a review, thus increasing your exposure.
Should you fear bad reviews?
You shouldn't; 68% of consumers trust a site more when they see both positive and negative reviews, and this is normal. No matter how awesome your product/service is, there's always that one person who doesn't like it. As long as you have many more positive reviews than the negative ones, they're not a problem when trying to figure out how to start an online business.
Stats on consumer reviews:
- 73% of customers have more trust a brand after reading positive reviews
- 67% of consumers say they read up to 6 reviews until they feel they can trust a certain business
- 68% say they are more inclined to recommend a local business if it was trustworthy and professional
- consumer reviews can increase your sales by 18%
17. Rethink your newsletter approach
Do you know that the estimated ROI of email is 4,300%? An unbelievable number! Yeah, some statistics say that people tend to get annoyed when their inbox is crammed with tons of emails. However, at the same time, they still end up reading that email and buying something.
Check the following approaches and see how you can successfully convince visitors to sign up for your special deals and updates.
Have a more direct approach.
Key to how to sell online? Creativity!
18. Show people that your site is secure and trustworthy
Online data is very sensitive, so more and more customers are extremely careful before placing an order. That's why you have to check off all the bullet points to make sure your site is secure and trustworthy. It's not uncommon for online retailers to lose around $3.5 billion annually as a result of online fraud. While bigger stores may be able to handle loses due to this, a business that sells customized soap will hit rock bottom fast.
These techniques will reduce the risk of online fraud:
- ✅ pick a secure platform
- ✅ use strong SSL authentication
- ✅ track all your orders
- ✅ use strong passwords
Shopify offers its strong security measures as one of its best features. They have a lot of pages that provide details over their security strategy.
WooCommerce is also quite good at security, plus you get to use special WordPress plugins that improve your site's security even further.
19. Use the power of social media to promote yourself
Social media is simply huge these days. Literally every ecommerce site should have its presence on social media, and especially if they want to maximize their potential in how to start an online business. Social sharing tools like AddThis make it easier for your visitors to spread your content on their social networks with their family and friends.
While Pinterest and Instagram may not be suited for all niches, the two big names – Twitter and Facebook – are a must. Set your profiles and be as active as possible, without spamming your fans.
That being said, you have to avoid constantly trying to sell something. People want to know the story behind your brand too, interesting statistics regarding the niche you're in, how to use/style your products. Heck, you can even throw in one or two cat photos into the mix. The goal here is personal connection.
20. Introduce a referral program
A referral program can be a great “extra” element that convinces people to promote your products more than they would otherwise.
The rules of a referral program are simple:
- Someone buys from you
- They get invited to your referral program
- They get their own unique link that they can use when recommending your store
- When anyone buys something after the recommendation, the referring person gets an extra gift, coupon code, or reward points that they can use towards future purchases
What's so attractive about this – from the customer's point of view – is that they not only get to buy something that benefits them (after all, you're not selling anything useless, right?), but they can also then recommend your products to friends/family and get something extra for doing so.
From a technical point of view, launching a referral program is possible with many of the popular ecommerce platforms right out the box. Read more about the best referral software for ecommerce here.
This summarizes our list of the 20 steps on your way to learning how to start an online business. Since this resource is quite lengthy, we've also prepared a quick in-the-nutshell checklist for you. Treat it as your reference file when you're going through the motions:
- Choose the right ecommerce platform
- Make sure your store works for mobile users
- Make an amazing first impression
- Use quality product photos
- Improve your site's navigation
- Have a unique idea/angle
- Craft a strong USP
- Start blogging
- Create a mind-blowing About Us page
- Develop a successful SEO strategy
- Target the right visitor with the right product
- Use Live Chat to help potential customers buy
- Decide whether to offer coupons
- Improve your shopping cart experience
- Develop a successful shipping strategy
- Ask for feedback and reviews
- Rethink your newsletter approach
- Show people that your site is secure and trustworthy
- Use the power of social media to promote yourself
- Introduce a referral program
Do you have any questions on how to start an online business? Don't hesitate to ask away in the comments section below.