The first time I started an online business I spent the vast majority of my time actually creating the service. What I should have been doing was marketing it aggressively.
I spent countless hours tweaking the interface, upgrading minor flaws and generally fussing around ensuring that every little thing was perfect. It's good to be a perfectionist; but not if you want to turn a profit.
I think the term "business" is misleading when it comes to the Internet. What people mean when they talk about an "Internet business" or an "online business" is marketing.
Don't waste too much time on the backend of the business - there will be time to impress customers with your service (fixing bugs) once you have gone out and found customers in the first place.
It's really more important to get out there and:
- identify new markets
- gain exposure
- cultivate a reputation
- build trust
- build a following
- increase traffic
- increase conversions
The list could go on and on.
The operational part of an online business predominantly occurs in the formative stages - setting things up, ensuring your online platform is operational, the products and services are of sufficient quality, and so on. Once that is done you are basically performing administrative tasks and putting in a heck of a lot of marketing.
Having a good product that no-one knows about won't help anything, so in order to get your first 1000 customers...
0. Understand users & revenue streams
Any type of website that is created with the intention of making money (regardless of the way in which it makes that money - i.e. eCommerce, advertising, affiliates, etc) needs three things:
- Visitors (Web traffic)
- A way to generate earnings
- One or more strategies to link the first to the second
In other words, the amount of money a website makes is governed by the following equation:
E = V x C x R
- E: Earnings
- V: Visitors
- C: Conversion rate
- R: Revenue per conversion (average)
It follows that the left hand side of this equation (earnings) can be increased if any one or more of the parts on the right are increased.
Ideally, we want to increase all three at the same time in order to really cash in.
Before we look at how to do this, it's important to note that the best way to get more visits is by having lots of great content that drives organic search traffic and creates buzz and visibility in social media.
You can learn more about the value of content by reading our top content marketing tips.
Analyze & understand visitors
Go to your analytics software and find out which pages on your site are responsible for generating the most traffic in the last three to six months.
Work out where those visitors came from and, if possible, what information they were looking for that lead them to those pages in the first place (this can be tricky now that Google hides search terms).
Look at how they behaved on those pages. Did they leave immediately, or did they browse to other pages on your site? Try to understand exactly what those visitors are after. This is called user intent, and is a vital piece of information that will help us later on.
Consider segmenting the traffic by intent - you might even want to do this all the way down to the level of individual pages. Having a fine-grained understanding of what visitors want is a huge advantage because it makes it easy for you to give it to them, and this is how money is earned online.
Identify primary conversion points
Now identify all the major conversion points on your site. A conversion point is any place that a visitor might take an action that leads to earnings (directly or indirectly).
For example, you might have a product sales page (direct earnings), or a free mailing list sign up form (indirect earnings). This gives you a list of all the places that traffic should flow to in order to maximize revenue.
So, from step 1 you have a list that shows all the primary traffic drivers on the site (complete with user intent info), and from step 2 a list of all the primary conversion points. In order to maximize returns we need to stitch these two lists together so that they convert visitors into profits efficiently.
Often, by looking at your primary traffic drivers, you will notice a mismatch between what people are after and what you are offering. This is more common than you think because, after all, we're never completely in control over who finds us online.
Here's what you do:
- For traffic drivers with user intent that matches your conversion points: Ensure there is a clearly defined path that encourages visitors to move towards a conversion in a natural way (i.e. click here to learn more, get a free copy, etc).
- For traffic drivers with user intent mismatch: Create new conversion points to meet the needs of those visitors (i.e. different offers, different products, etc), or at the very least, push them towards related information that will eventually funnel them to a conversion.
- For conversion points with no traffic drivers: Create great new content targeted at the right niche audience.
Despite the millions of articles written about every conceivable aspect of online business, all you have to get right is what I've talked about here. I guess it can be summed up like this:
Find out what people want and give it to them.
1. Create valuable, relevant content
If you think blogging is not a core business function, think again. Here's a list of some of the main reasons content is king provided by Tim Pike of Silverbean marketing.
Good content increases brand value
It's important to understand the foundation upon which content marketing is built is GOOD content. It's got to be engaging, worthwhile reading, and most importantly worth a social share.
As a company, you know what your customers want better than anyone, so writing based around this is what makes for a good foundation. Original, authoritative content shows your customers, and potential customers, that you know your stuff in that industry. They will then share this with their friends via social media and you reach much wider audiences.
Get them to share on a regular enough basis and your brand awareness and value rockets, as you become established as an authority and thought leader.
Good content is good for SEO
In relation to the earlier mention of the Google Penguin update that sparked the first interest in content for promotional purposes, well written content is good for SEO. Google is becoming more human than ever, and now regards well written content as more worthwhile than keyword heavy, low quality stuff.
A website or blog with fresh, original and high quality information will rank much higher. So combine hot topics that you know your target audience is interested with well written posts, and you have a one way ticket to high Google rankings!
Good content = good social media presence
By now social media is established as being more than just another fad - it's here to stay and it's the strategy everyone is focused on (David: often with poor results, however - check out how big brands get social media marketing completely wrong).
Social media is brilliant in its own right for a number of reasons, including customer feedback and service, brand awareness and much more. But how does content come in?
Content relies partly on the ability of readers to share information with their friends via their social networks, and social media is built around regularly posting engaging content, in order to boost your social influence.
The two strategies go hand in hand.
Content can be educational for customers
Content comes in many forms, and the main aim of it is to be worth reading/watching/looking at and sharing. So what better way to ensure engagement and sharing than to tell your audience how to do something, or give them some information they didn't know? This can be product tutorials and reviews, unique perspectives on hot industry news topics, and so much more!
To put this last point into context, a good example of how educational and informative content can be used as part of a marketing strategy could be:
- a fashion company who blogs about how to get the latest "look"
- a make-up company who shares a video tutorial of how to apply make-up to achieve a specific look
- a sports equipment store who posts an infographic/checklist image about choosing the right running shoes
There is so much more than can be explored - your imagination is the limit. But be aware that there is some volatility in the world of content and SEO as Google tinkers with its search ranking algorithms.
However, with the ample results and benefits businesses are discovering through using content, there is no doubt that it will continue to be a staple strategy in the future world of digital marketing.
2. Be passionate
If you haven't yet reached the 1000 customer milestone and you find that you're not as interested in the business or blog as you were a few months ago, then this may be a sign that you haven't really picked a business that is appealing to you.
You're not going to succeed without the passion to stick to a business for a good amount of time.
3. Become a social marketer
Social media and social networks can have powerful effects on blogs and small businesses. By creating super duper, highly relevant and engaging content that captures people imagination, you can end up attracting more traffic than your servers can handle.
What's nice about social marketing success is that it works almost in real-time. Something you write now might start driving traffic and revenue for your site within minutes.
4. Build a following
If you're not using the major social networks to enhance your business then you need to get started straight away. You should have a Twitter and Facebook account at the very least. Actually that's not true. A strong mailing list (email marketing) is arguably the best way to capture new leads and keep existing customers coming back for more.
There's a saying in the marketing world,
The money's in the list.
Fortunately, by creating plenty of great content you already have a firm foundation for an email marketing campaign. However, there are a lot of technical and legal issues surrounding email marketing and spam so I recommend you check out our beginner's guide to email marketing to learn about:
- the CAN-SPAM act
- online email marketing services
- email marketing costs
- email templates
- how to create high converting email content
- how to create subscribe/sign-up forms
Make it as easy as possible for people to connect with you online. By gathering up legions of engaged fans and followers you increase your reach, which provides the opportunity to expose new products and services to a larger online audience than you would otherwise have access to.
Having a following (social, or email) also keeps people in touch with your world. This is important because a one-time visitor is probably not going to buy anything from you. Someone who has been reading your blog for two years may well get round to buying something.
5. Influence the influencers
I'm not saying you have to go door to door, cold calling on anyone who might want to buy whatever it is you are selling. Instead, take the time to find out who the influencers are in your industry and build bridges.
Influencer marketing is an extremely useful strategy for developing a strong, natural inbound link profile that will (hopefully) generate lots of juicy organic search traffic.
Building relationships with influencers is undoubtedly one of the most of important tactics businesses should use as of 2016 because more and more people are turning to online infuencers - i.e. bloggers, YouTubers, Instagramers, etc - and moving away from traditional influencers like print media and TV.
But, here's the catch...
Influencer marketing will only be successful if you are in a position to convince those influencers to work with you.
Online influencers understand the value of their reach and guard it carefully, ensuring that they don't enter into partnerships that might damage their reputation or lead to a loss of engagement, buzz, and influence.
So what's the best way to build a strong network of strategic online partnerships? Simple. Be a trustworthy, noteworthy authority in your field. But this requires content. Lots of high quality, useful, engaging content that can be shared by potential influencers and reflect well on them.
Influencer relationships are important, but often have their genesis in quality content.
Building relationships in your niche is important because it gives you credibility and builds trust with the community.
6. Network like mad
Everyone has a picture in their minds of what networking is about. For me it was a bunch of people in work clothes (perhaps with their tie loosened to say, "Hey, I'm casual. I'm approachable") standing around having snacks and a glass of wine.
In fact, as Karl Smith eloquently states (I attended one of his networking seminars), this is neteating, netdrinking, or netsocializing. None of which are the same as networking.
So why am I including a section on networking, which is essentially a face-to-face activity as opposed to an online marketing activity?
Simple. All marketing is about convincing real humans to either buy from you, follow you, work with you, or generally help you in some way or another. Traditional networking will help your online marketing because it will deliver great insight into the human condition - and therefore make you more effective online.
Why & how to network
In fact, to network effectively you need to have a goal in mind. Networking is the process of building a stable of contacts that can help to facilitate your goals.
Having a clear goal in mind gives you direction. This makes it easier for you to direct new meetings to desired outcomes that further your aims.
A goal provides direction. Direction makes networking productive.
What makes a good network?
One of the most important lessons I learned today was that a network needs to be diverse and robust. It's not sufficient to hang around with the same group of friends and colleagues. This lack of diversity is bad for two reasons:
- it prevents you from practicing the art of networking and becoming adept at it
- all your eggs are in one basket
In addition, a good network needs to be robust. It must consist of people who are going to share your success when times are good and support you when times are bad. Relationships like these require effort and input. They don't come for free but are a fantastic safety net - should the need arise.
How to network effectively
There are two main themes that govern how to network effectively, namely:
- Mutual benefit
- Interaction is training
Laying the groundwork with mutual benefit
I personally don't enjoy the feeling that someone is talking to me purely because they feel I am of value to them. I tend to prefer organic relationships that may or may not develop into fruitful relationships. With that said, it is very important to demonstrate that you are willing and able to benefit the other person. It is also important to make this your first initiative.
Lay the groundwork for a mutually beneficial relationship, instead of skipping ahead to sales or what's in it for you. Do this genuinely. People are perceptive when it comes to deciding if you care about them or not.
Interaction is training
By demonstrating that you care, that you are reliable, and that you are competent, you are training new contacts.
The interaction you have with people teaches them about you.
It's one of those things that seems self-evident once you've heard it, but think about it for a moment. The way in which you interact with people informs the way they view you. Knowing this it is easy to "tweak" the way you present yourself to enhance a desired outcome.
Networking, marketing & sales are human activities
One of the most poignant aspects of listening to Karl's talk was how much sales, networking and marketing relies on understanding the human condition.
I spend much of my time interacting online. I develop highly specialized solutions for businesses - for people I haven't met in the real world. I write technical books that train tens of thousands of people, who I never get to meet.
The Internet makes communication more efficient, at the expense of actual human interaction.
Would I recommend going to listen to a talk on networking? Yesterday, probably not. Today, definitely.
It's important to get a sense of the human aspect of networking and marketing. This is not something that is immediately obvious from reading about marketing - no matter how good the writing is.
If you are serious about your business, find a networking event and go along.
7. Be creative (think outside the box)
The awesome thing about online marketing is that the opportunities available to you are limited only by your own imagination. The online world changes and evolves so quickly that new marketing strategies are being discovered all the time.
Here are a few strategies you might want to consider (taken from our big list of marketing strategies):
So those are my tips for getting your first batch of online customers in the door. Do you agree with these, or would you do things differently? What other ideas would work well in the online startup sector? Share your ideas and advice in the comments.