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2014

Increase_Online_Sales_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.


When small businesses rely on their ecommerce sites or online operations to generate a healthy revenue stream, it can be frustrating when sales slow to a crawl or reach an impasse. If the slump is temporary, attributable to a sluggish economy or bad weather, for instance, then small business owners need only to stay the course until customers start buying again.


However, if the slowdown in sales has been happening for a while, then it makes sense to look at the entire online sales process. Remember, it's not just content but context that can help drive customers to your site.


Following are five tips that can help small business owners increase their online sales.


Leverage SEO for your content
You could have the greatest product in the world, but if few people know about your site then your hopes of increasing online sales are severely limited. To drive traffic to your site, you will need to broaden audience awareness of your business and product.

 

A great way to do that is to make your site, specifically the content on it, as search friendly as possible. This way when customers are using a search engine, such as Google, to look for online sites that sell a desired product, they will easily find out about yours via high search result rankings.


Brian Forrester, owner of Dynamic Web Solutions, a digital marketing business in Richmond, Virginia, works with small businesses and is a staunch proponent of this tactic. In fact, his firm has used targeted paid search, which is the practice of increasing web traffic by purchasing ads on search engines, for a local client, which boards pets. Not only did it double traffic to the site but the client ended up with numerous leads.


Paid search such as Google AdWords, tends to capture traffic further along the buying cycle,” explains Forrester. “This often results in higher conversion rates than other website traffic sources.”


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And for those with a tight budget, Anna Lundberg, owner of Crocus Communications, a digital marketing consulting firm that works with small to medium-sized businesses, recommends making a paid search campaign as specifically targeted as possible. This includes putting the limits that you can set within Google Adwords, to define the maximum amount to spend per day.


Says Lundberg: “This means that you can make sure that you don’t go over the budget you have available. It’s very flexible and you’re never charged more than what you’ve specified; you can start as low as you like and increase as you learn from the results which keywords and which ads are working best as your business grows.”


To illustrate her point, Lundberg says that for one client, Grace & Wilde, a new luxury shapewear brand, her firm optimized their website so that it ranked on Google for select keywords. They also launched a paid search campaign that matched ad copy to the specific keywords.


“We also ran targeted Facebook and Twitter campaigns to go from zero up to over 2,000 fans and 500 followers respectively in just a few months,” she continues. “And these were real fans, not just fake or non-interested accounts,” as evidenced by their level of engagement and purchasing interest they showed in the product.


Build up social media presence

This might sound like a given for most business owners but the question needs to be asked: Do you have an active Facebook page? Do you post regular updates, which might include photos of items, special discounts, and even giveaways? Do you even have a Facebook page? If you've answered no to any of these questions, then it’s time to establish a better social media profile. The same applies to Twitter and YouTube. The more you can use these tools to actively promote your brand, the more you will be able to attract prospective customers to visit your site and buy your products.


At the same time, be careful not to oversell. Balance the sales pitches with content relevant to your target audience, such as how-to articles or whitepapers.


Says Forrester: "Creating content that resonates with the small business audience can drive targeted traffic via organic search. These visitors can convert into leads for service-based businesses and sales for ecommerce businesses.


Study dropout results in your analytics

Another way to boost your online sales is to see if there are any bottlenecks in your checkout process. Check your analytics to see if customers are not completing purchases and if not, when in the sales cycle that is occurring. Perhaps the fault isn’t with your actual products or digital advertising efforts as much as it is your online checkout procedure. Review the steps: Is the navigation complicated, full of superfluous steps? Does the customer have to click through too many pages? If so, you might want to tweak your checkout process to help convert these dropouts to sales.


Offer loyalty rewards

Regardless of the nature of your business, all customers like to feel special. Offering loyalty programs, such as cards or points that will award customers discounts or other rewards for their continued purchases is not just an effective way to increase sales but a best practice when it comes to customer retention.


Digital marketing consultant Lundberg agrees, noting that loyalty options can be done via e-mails that target customers based on specific purchases or information on their profile. “For example, this can be done via exclusive offers to reward Facebook fans,” she explains.


And once the customer signs up, he or she will receive regular news alerts, free shipping offers, and even birthday wishes, according to Lundberg.


Solicit customer feedback

Perhaps the best way to find out what you can do to boost your sales conversion rate is to go directly to the source—your customers. Ask for their feedback on your site. Poll them on their level of satisfaction with your business. What kinds of products would they like to see added to your offerings? Has your price point ever been an issue with them? (And to encourage free and unfettered disclosures, allow customers the option of remaining anonymous or cloaking their identity).


Sure, you may hear some cold hard truths about your business and your selling practices. But at the same time, the information gleaned could jolt you from complacency to begin the steps you need to take to increase your online sales.

email_management_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.


In an average day, Cris Sgrott-Wheedleton, founder of Organizing Maniacs, a professional organizing company, gets between 200 and 300 emails, which is not uncommon for the average small business owner. “Granted, most of them are not important,” she says, “but it still takes time to delete all of them.”


How much time? The McKinsey Global Institute, a management consulting firm, revealed in a recent study that the average person spends 13 hours per week reading, answering, sorting, and deleting email. As a small business owner, that’s 13 hours that could be better spent working on and promoting your company. Here are some helpful tips on how to get a handle on email:


Schedule specific times for email

“The biggest challenge for many people is that they don’t schedule specific times of the day to process email,” says Stephanie Shalofsky, a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant. “This means they are constantly on email, which doesn’t leave sufficient time for other tasks.” She recommends processing emails at specific intervals during the day. “That way, you can quickly respond to new messages that can be dealt with in two minutes or less, identify new tasks that need to be tackled and add them to your to-do list, and delete or file messages that don’t require any further action.”


Create a goal for yourself

Many business owners would love to see their in-box completely empty. “I personally believe that having an empty or near empty (less than 10 messages) inbox is an excellent goal as it gives me a feeling of control over my email,” Shalofsky says. “Then I know for certain that I am aware of all important tasks that need to be addressed and can then schedule time to do so.”


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Sgrott-Wheedleton takes a different approach. “Zero inbox is a nice goal to have, however, not a realistic one for most small business owners,” she says. Instead, she recommends that business owners view their in-box more of as a to-do list, filled with action items. For instance, using an in-box as a to-do list allows you to keep all your tasks organized in one location, Sgrott-Wheedleton says.


“This method means I’m less likely to miss something that went into a folder that will never be opened again,” she says. “On any given day, there will be 20 action messages in my inbox. I have to work on them in the order of priority, and within my available time constraint. Sometimes, I can take care of all 20 and then I can move to yesterday’s lingering items, and the day before and so forth.” Consistency is key to this approach, she says. If you are going to adopt it, commit to working on your to-do list every business day.


Know when enough is enough

“In order to keep the number of e-mails in your inbox at a manageable level, determine the maximum number of e-mails that you will allow to collect in the inbox,” Shalofsky says. “Once this quantity has collected, your priority task for the day will be processing your emails so that you are back in control.” Determining what that ideal number is requires some measure of self-knowledge, as well as the awareness of how long it takes you to deal with a typical email. If you know it takes you five minutes to answer an email, and you want to limit your email management sessions to a half hour, that’s a maximum of six emails that can be addressed.


Use technology to make life simple

There are apps, such as Unroll Me for iPhone and Android devices, that identify and list all the email newsletters you’re subscribed to. It takes only one click to unsubscribe from the newsletters you don’t want, and all the newsletters you do want are collected in a single, easy to read location. Another option is to hire a virtual assistant to handle email management for you. Even if all they do is delete junk mail, that’s still a major time-saver.

 

Digital_Tools_Checkout_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

 

Before Pure Fix Cycles, which sells bicycles online and via wholesalers, began using Lettuce, an app that streamlines the order fulfillment process in 2012, the checkout process for ecommerce customers was arduous.

 

"We were spending too much time relaying inventory and sales numbers to employees and sales reps, and doing data entry, such as inputting invoices and payments into QuickBooks," recalls co-founder Michael Fishman.

 

But since adopting Lettuce, Fishman says PureFix Cycles has experienced 250 percent sales growth. In addition to improving the online retail process, Lettuce has also improved his company's order processing and inventory management. With PureFix Cycle’s staff of 15 employees and 23 independent sales reps, Fishman hails the app as a boon for his company's online operations.

 

"We are also able to ship our goods much faster because orders are put in more quickly,” he says. “The faster orders go out, the faster the goods sell and the more orders we get as a result."

 

This is just one example of a small business that has greatly benefited from adding an app to its checkout process. What other tips should small businesses keep in mind when using digital tools to optimize the online checkout process?

 

Do your homework
No two businesses are the same and neither are their needs when it comes to the online checkout process. Evaluate what you require most in your online retail operations, and then speak to others who have used the same systems or read the reviews. As with any product, never buy a digital tool unless you investigate it thoroughly beforehand. Kevin Morgan is managing partner and chief operating officer of Anant Corporation, a company that helps small businesses run and grow their online operations, and agrees with this guidance.

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“I can't tell you how many clients have come to us for emergency help after their original developers caused serious problems by not following industry standards in modifying their shopping cart,” he says. The company currently has a client that has spent nearly double their original investment on fixing a badly coded cart that prevented successful checkout. As a result, they experienced months of delays in launching their online product. “For small business owners dependent upon online sales for revenue, nothing is worse than a delayed rollout,” Morgan says. “Don't skimp: invest in quality developers the first time around.”

 

Dodd Caldwell, co-founder of MoonClerk, a web-based software that allows small businesses to accept online payments, says every ecommerce site owner needs to make sure the digital tools for the checkout are “efficient, safe, and easy for your customers to use.”

 

According to Caldwell, ask developers the following questions:

 

  • What security systems does it have in place?
  • What resources are available to you for troubleshooting problems and resolving potential failures?
  • Does the checkout process do everything you need it to do without tiring consumers with redundancy or unnecessary steps?


Never store a customer's credit card information on your site

This may sound contrary to a small business owner’s wish to expedite the checkout process, but the repercussions could be costly should your online vendor fail a compliance audit. According to Morgan, storing customer credit card information on your site and/or server is a “huge” financial and security risk.

 

While there is no legal prohibition preventing a non-PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant merchant from storing credit card information online, the terms of service of major credit card issuers require that transactions are completed using a PCI compliant service,” he says. “A merchant's ability to accept cards may be rescinded should an online vendor fail a compliance audit. If a business owner is not compliant, the time and money to resolve the issue could be significant.”

 

Make cyber security a priority
With recent headlines of fraud and consumer identity theft at major retailers, small business owners need to place a premium on data security. Dom Morea, senior vice president of First Data, a provider of mobile and ecommerce solutions, concurs.

 

Fraud costs both merchants and individuals billions of dollars each year,” he explains.. “Small businesses must do everything they can to protect themselves and their customers. Merchants should look to payment processors that encrypt card data upon the swipe, which will help provide customers with protection from fraud during and after the transaction.”

 

Check your analytics
Is there a drop in your sales conversion rates when customers begin the online checkout process? Examine what your analytics are telling you. Perhaps it's not the digital tool you're using that's causing customers to not complete online purchases, but rather the way your site is guiding customers through the checkout process.

 

According to Caldwell, customers often drop out in the checkout process if they read “confusing information or text about shipping or delivery [of products].” To prevent this, Caldwell advises small businesses to be as specific as possible about “when, how, and for how much the product will be delivered or shipped.” 

 

In this vein, rather than swap one digital resource for another, small businesses might only need to make tweaks to improve the checkout process. An example would be making sure that the checkout process has the same style and design (such as colors and fonts) as the rest of the site, says Caldwell. He feels this can improve the conversion rates. Also, keep the checkout process as short as possible.

 

Eliminate any unnecessary fields or questions that the customer has to fill in and answer,” explains Caldwell. “People will give up during the checkout process if it feels too long.”

 

Update technology
It’s not enough for your company’s website to have the right digital tools for online purchases. You need to be mobile ready as well. “Consumers are turning to their mobile devices for browsing and shopping now more than ever,” says First Data’s Morea. “Plus, with the ability to easily bounce between pages, customers are likely to return to the site, select items, purchase gift cards, or share 'wish list' findings with others.

 

And by making sure your technology is current, customers will not be hampered with the burden of printing out coupons and rewards or holding on to paper loyalty cards, adds Morea. They will be able to use their smartphones or tablets to find online coupons, which can further streamline the checkout process.

 

“Merchants should respond to their customers' desires by seeking out a point-of-sale system that has an integrated loyalty program,” explains Morea. “It simplifies the loyalty process for merchants, and customers can connect via their smartphone to receive offers and redeem rewards.”

 

Related Link: Merchant Services: Payment Processing Benefits

 

 

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