A digital presence is no longer a nice-to-have—it’s a need-to-have. Even before COVID-19 proved why every business needs to be online, the world and its behaviors were shifting to a metaphysical existence. And while some might think that’s a bad thing, regardless, it’s the 21st-century reality.
We talk, shop, emote, connect, journal, celebrate, mourn, browse, research, and so many other things online. To stay relevant (and in business), your company needs to make its presence online, too. However, going online is easier said than done.
Taking your business online is a process—not something you’re going to get done with a little free time this afternoon. It’ll take time, a little bit of money, and some hard work—as most worthwhile things in life do.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. We’ve documented the entire process of starting and optimizing your digital presence. Getting started is the hardest step, but once you get the ball rolling, there’s nothing that’ll stop your momentum.
Before we get into the details of creating a website, social media profiles, and email marketing campaigns, we need to do a bit of research.
Research Your Online Strategy
Taking your business online is an investment of your time and money, so you want to make sure you get it right.
Why do you want to take your business online? What are your digital goals? Do you have the bandwidth to handle online real estate on top of your brick-and-mortar obligations? If not, do you have someone who can help (freelancers or employees)?
Establishing an online presence isn’t just a fun fad or a brief phase—it needs to be something you commit to. If you build a digital brand and neglect it, it’ll decay and bleed its damaged reputation into your physical storefront, too. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take your business online, but it is to say that you should only build online if you’re committed to maintaining it.
First, let’s look at your goals, and then we can discover where your business needs to be.
What Are Your Digital Goals?
What are you hoping to gain from taking your business online? Since it’s going to be an investment, what’s the ROI you’re going to measure?
Rest assured, there’s a lot to gain from doing business online:
- Expanded brand awareness: Reach the whole world instead of your local community
- 24/7 availability: Make sales and help customers while you sleep
- Reduce operation costs: Maintaining a website is a lot cheaper than the rent, insurance, furniture, and other expenses associated with your brick-and-mortar business
- Scalability: Process orders simultaneously regardless of the number of customers
- Emergency-proof: Keep operations going even when a global pandemic shuts down the physical world
Where Your Business Needs to Be
“Taking your business online” is about as vague as “opening a storefront.” You need to get precise with where your brand will live online—it’s a big, big digital world. Think about all of the factors that went into opening your brick-and-mortar shop: location, foot traffic, cost, competition, niche, accessibility, etc. You’ll need that same attention to detail as you determine where to take your business online.
A website is non-negotiable, but should your site have an e-commerce element, or should you put your products on Amazon, Etsy, or eBay? Or should you do both? Should you list your business on Home Advisor or Thumbtack? What about Yelp, Angie’s List, or TripAdvisor?
It’s a lot to think about, and you might not have all of the answers quite yet—and that’s okay. These are just some of the questions you’ll want to start thinking about as you launch your digital presence.
Don’t stress about making all of your plans flawless. You won’t get it perfect right from the start, but that’s the beauty of the internet—you revise, edit, update, and voilà—progress! Don’t let paralysis by analysis keep you from launching your online presence.
Let’s move on to the first (and possibly the most important) step: starting your website.
Start a Website
Your website is your business’s digital storefront. This site is practically the only piece of online real estate that you have complete control over.
Facebook can decide to demolish your reach (and usually does), email inbox providers can filter your messages to the spam folder, Amazon can delist your products—but these tech behemoths can’t touch your website. That’s why your website is your most valuable online property.
A quality website will boost your brand’s reputation and improve your customer’s experience. Think about what would happen if your storefront was challenging to find, cluttered, and difficult to navigate—customers probably wouldn’t hang around very long. The same is true for your website (if not more so). If a potential customer doesn’t like what they see online, they can easily hit the return button and leave your site for good (without the awkward in-person eye contact, too).
Creating a simple, satisfactory website isn’t rocket science. Thanks to modern, easy-to-use platforms, you can get a decent site up and running in no time.
To start a website, you’ll need to follow a few basic steps:
1. Select Your Website Hosting and Site Builder
Web hosting services provide all the servers, connectivity, and technologies to make building, storing, and maintaining a webpage on the internet as simple as possible. Here are a few popular hosts to consider:
- Squarespace: Excels in terms of simplicity and design but lacks more in-depth features to customize every aspect of your site. Squarespace is an all-in-one web host, site-building platform, blogging tool, and more.
- Bluehost: Bluehost is one of the most popular (and cheap) web hosts available. They have fantastic customer support and simple 1-click integrations to convert your domain into a WordPress website. WordPress isn’t quite as sexy or simple as Squarespace’s website builder, but its full suite of plugins and integrations let you customize every square inch and functionality of your site.
- Shopify: You can use Shopify to host and build your website, or you could use another web host like Bluehost or GoDaddy and just use Shopify to build your site. Shopify is perfect for more e-commerce-focused sites that primarily use a digital presence to sell goods. However, it should be noted that any of these web hosts and site builders have e-commerce functionalities.
- Wix: Wix is one of the most prominent website builders out there thanks to its incredibly easy-to-use drag-and-drop editors. However, Wix websites feel more like prefabricated houses—they look good, but they’re pretty cookie cutter.
- GoDaddy: Like Bluehost, GoDaddy is another web host that provides site-building integrations like WordPress, Shopify, and more. GoDaddy’s range of hosting plans for basic to advanced sites makes it one of the most flexible and affordable hosting options on the internet.
2. Choose a Domain Name
All of the web hosts above also sell domain names. However, you’ll be surprised by how much digital real estate has already been claimed. There’s a very, very good chance the domain name you want for your website is already taken—but don’t panic! We have a few tips to help you find a domain name that works for your business:
- First, open up a domain search tool. There are plenty on the internet, but we’ll use Instant Domain Search for these tips. A domain search tool will let you know which domains are taken, expired, and for sale—and it’ll also help generate variations of your desired name to find you an available domain.
- Next, enter your desired domain name into the search bar. If your restaurant was named “Portland Hotdogs,” you might want to claim that for your domain. However, you’ll find that portlandhotdogs.com is already taken, and it just so happens to be for sale for $500 from GoDaddy.com.
- You could buy that domain, and that wouldn’t be a bad idea—domain names can be a lot more expensive than $500.
- You typically want to buy a website with a TLD (top-level domain—the last segment of your domain, like .com, .net. .io, etc.) that’s a .com. Yes, other TLDs are cheap and available, but that’s for good reason. The world and its internet users are conditioned to type in website names with a .com ending, so if you choose something else, your visitors won’t always be able to find your site.
- Think of some alternative words you could use to convey the same message and brand. For example, pdxhotdogs.com and hotsdogsportland.com are available for just $7.49 per year. Get creative, and you can find a domain name that nails your brand at a very cheap price.
3. Build Your Site
Start with a simple foundation: homepage, about, contact us, products/services, etc. You can add additional pages and features later, but this framework is all you need for a perfectly functional site.
Research your competitors and other brands (even in different industries) that you admire. Check out their websites and determine what you like and don’t like. Once you have a good idea of what you want your site to look like, begin the process of Frankensteining your site design together.
All of the site builders come with fully functional templates. There’s no shame in using these templates for your site—it doesn’t need to be 100% original. Find a template that works for your digital goals, swap in your logo and brand colors, and presto—you’ve got a suitable site to work with.
4. Continue Optimizing
Don’t try to do too much too early on—this can make building a website an endless nightmare! Remember, it doesn’t need to be perfect at launch.
Over time, you can continue adding functionality to the site: blogs, resources, FAQs, e-commerce integrations, email signup prompts, and so much more. Yes, you’ll want these things eventually, but you don’t need them all on day one.
Optimize your site one page, one feature, one goal at a time. Run A/B tests to see which words, colors, and CTAs (call-to-action) work best. Set some time aside each week to make improvements to the user experience of your site, and you’ll eventually have the website of your dreams.
Now that you at least have a basic website up and running, it’s time to make it worth visiting—on to the content!
Create Valuable Content
The internet is all about give and take. And sometimes, you give a lot more than you take.
Your website is where you give to your audience. Yes, it’s also where you can sell your products and services, but it’s primarily where you become a thought leader by providing free information, entertainment, how-tos, FAQs, and more (aka, content).
This free content builds trust in your products and credibility for your brand. Before anyone buys from you, they’re going to need to trust you—and you’ll need to earn that trust by giving away free content.
Think about what you can offer your audience that’s relevant to your business: how-to guides, relevant articles, videos, webinars, answers to FAQs, checklists, etc. You can’t do it all, so focus on the content that’ll resonate best with your niche.
However, don’t get too carried away. There’s no point in creating amazing, high-quality content for your audience if they never see it! When creating and promoting content, remember to follow the 80/20 Rule, which says that you should spend 20% of your time creating content and 80% of your time promoting it.
Next, let’s look at the promotion process and how best to spend your time.
Get Active on Social Networks
Don’t try to be everything to everybody. This warning is especially important when choosing your social networks. It likely doesn’t make sense for your business to have a Snapchat, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Strava, Tumblr, and TikTok account—even a full marketing team would struggle to keep up with that.
Choosing the Right Social Platforms
Focus on quality over quantity. Pick 2–3 social networks where your audience engages, and invest your time and money into making those profiles and engagements top-notch. To help you choose the right channels, here are the most popular social media networks and what makes them special:
- Facebook: With over 2.45 billion monthly users, Facebook is the most monolithic of all social platforms. Practically everyone from your niece to your great-grandma has an account. It’s hard to grow a Facebook following without an ad budget, but it’s still a great place to have a profile to inform and engage with those interested in your brand.
- Instagram: If your target demographic is under 35 and you have a visually appealing brand or product, Instagram is a shoo-in. This platform is a hodgepodge of eye-catching pictures, videos, and GIFs.
- LinkedIn: LinkedIn was once primarily for hiring purposes, but it’s now expanded to become a hub for B2B and even B2C content. If your product or service requires permission and signature from the big dogs, then this platform is where to find them and start building professional relationships.
- Twitter: The Twitter community loves engaging brands, not salespeople. It’s a platform to share information, respond to customers’ concerns and questions, and post nonsensical GIFs of cats—and get away with it. If you want to build your brand and create loyal followers, Twitter is the place to be. Need an example? Follow Wendy’s.
- Pinterest: If your business deals with fashion, food, DIY, decor, weddings, or workouts, Pinterest is a good social network to join. It’s a visually rich platform for sharing everything from recipes to motivational quotes to how-tos. However, keep in mind that more than 80% of the users are female—if that’s your demographic, you’re in luck.
This list just scratches the surface. There are other unique communities across the internet that service different niches. Find where your audience spends their time and engage them authentically on those platforms.
Social Media Management Tools
Managing 2 or more social profiles is still a lot of work. Fortunately, there are a few tools at your disposal that’ll streamline and simplify your social media management. These tools can help you schedule messages, engage with your community, measure progress, and manage all aspects of your social profiles from a single platform.
- Buffer: Buffer is arguably the most simple and easy to use of the social management suites. It doesn’t have extensive features, but it gets the basics right.
- Hootsuite: Hootsuite offers a bit more than Buffer, like support for additional social networks, greater analytics, and engagement capabilities.
- Sprout Social: Sprout Social offers just about every social media management feature, including social listening, influencer identification, CRM (customer relationship management) capabilities, link shortening, team permissions, and more. However, its pro plans are a bit more expensive than Buffer and Hootsuite.
- TweetDeck: If Twitter is your network, then you’ll love TweetDeck. TweetDeck is a free social media dashboard for monitoring everything on Twitter from a single browser tab: hashtags, accounts, conversations, DMs, and more.
- Later: Later is a simple, no-fluff-about-it social management tool. It doesn’t have a lot of features and integrations, and that’s by design. If you just want to schedule messages with attention to detail, Later is a good option. Plus, it’s super cheap, with options as low as $7.50/month.
Commence Your Promotional Strategy
Now that you have a website with content, products, and more, you’ll need to drive traffic to it. That’s where social networks and other promotional channels come in handy.
Like with everything online, there are a lot of shiny bells and whistles, and you won’t have the time and resources to do it all. You have forums, social media (organic and ads), email marketing, SMS marketing, display ads, affiliate marketing, influencer marketing, SEO, and so many, many, many more.
To help you decide which mediums you should focus on, here are the most common marketing channels and what makes them unique:
- Email marketing: Email marketing boasts the highest ROI of any marketing channel with an average $42 return on every dollar spent. Unlike most marketing tactics, it’s permission-based, meaning users opt-in to receive your messages. This decision makes recipients more likely to engage, and it makes every email more valuable.
- SMS marketing: Like email marketing, SMS marketing (or text message marketing) is also permission-based. The global average open rate of SMS is 94%, and 9 out of 10 customers wish they could text with businesses, but only 48% of businesses have the capabilities. If you have short-and-sweet, timely messages to share with your audience, SMS marketing is the way to go.
- Social media marketing: Most social media marketing has become pay-to-play, meaning you won’t be able to rely on organic reach to market your online business. However, if you can nail your paid social ads strategy, you can drive traffic to your site for pennies.
- SEO (search engine optimization): SEO is the method of optimizing your website, content, and site infrastructure so that you rank higher on Google, Bing, and other search engines. It’s a long-term strategy that often doesn’t yield results for months and even years, but when you get it right (which isn’t easy to do), you’ll essentially drive traffic to your site for free.
- Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising: These are the ads you see on search engine result pages (SERPs) and websites across the internet. PPC ads drive traffic to your site by charging per click (hence, pay-per-click). It’s a competitive advertising method, but it can earn you super cheap traffic if you can identify the right keywords and competitive ad pricing.
- Word-of-mouth marketing: Word-of-mouth marketing is both a real-world and digital-world marketing tactic. Only 42% of consumers trust banners ads, 46% trust social media ads, and 56% trust billboards and outdoor advertising—however, 92% trust recommendations from friends, family, and even total strangers. Word of mouth marketing uses campaigns, consumer reviews, conversations, and brand messaging to get customers talking about your product, and thus, marketing it with their words.
Choose a few promotional channels and spend your time honing and optimizing these campaigns. A select few high-quality, targeted campaigns will perform a lot better than a spray-and-pray promotional strategy across every channel.
Remember the 80/20 Rule. Once you’ve created some content on your website, focus the majority of your time sharpening your promotional campaigns. As you improve your campaigns, your cost of acquisition will decrease and your ROI will soar.
Nail your promotional strategy, and there’s no limit to your scalability.
Pivot to More Online Business
With your website and promotional channels up and running, it’s time to take more of your business online. That’s not to say you should close your brick-and-mortar location (there are benefits to a physical store location), but there are opportunities for your business to do more on the internet: spread awareness, build relationships, find customers, sell, provide customer support, and more.
While many businesses jumped online to stay in business during COVID-19, many shelter-in-place-friendly marketing tactics work well before, during, and after a global pandemic. While you don’t need to take every aspect of your business online, here are some ways you can pivot portions of your business to the digital world:
1. Online Streaming Events
If your business is the type to host live in-person events (music, firesides, interviews, meetups, get-togethers, etc.), consider taking these events online simultaneously or exclusively. Facebook and Instagram Live make streaming simple and free—all you need is a phone and a quality internet connection.
Think of other things you might be able to offer digitally. For example, fitness studios have taken their workouts and yoga classes online, and even some hairstylists are offering DIY training for those who purchase hair-coloring kits. And even once the coronavirus lockdown is over, some people will still find digital events like these useful and perhaps preferable.
2. Additional Customer Support Channels
Not everyone wants to come to the store to ask a question about your products and services—and even if they do, right now, they can’t. Some would prefer to text, email, call, or use a chatbox.
By providing extra communications channels, you’ll engage more customers where they feel most comfortable—and for the rising generation, that’s often online.
3. Website and E-Commerce Platform Sales
According to Statista, 67% of millennials and 56% of Gen-Xers prefer to shop online. They like to shop via business websites, retailers, and e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, eBay, and Etsy.
By offering your products online, you’re reaching entirely new (potentially interested) demographics.
4. Online Consultations
Doctors, physical therapists, hairstylists, and even car mechanics have made online consultations a thing. Think about how you can do the same with your product or service. People love being able to get a personalized quote from home, and this process can help them get more hands-on (although still digital) help with whatever they need.
5. Information About Products and Services
If you have a competitive product, list every possible detail you can about it online. Provide condensed descriptions and in-depth descriptions. Some buyers will want the quick-and-easy information, but others will want to compare and contrast to the moon and back. By providing them the information they need up front, they don’t need to call your business to get additional details or ask their communities questions about the product.
Armed with all the details, they’ll feel confident comparing it to other products and making a decision.
6. Enable Reviews
Reviews, however, are a double-edged sword. Positive reviews will confirm purchase decisions and encourage customers to complete the purchase—but negative reviews can compel on-the-edge customers to abandon their carts and look somewhere else.
Regardless, reviews are a powerful online marketing tool. Enable them on your site and Facebook page to allow customers to show their appreciation or dissatisfaction. If you’re getting a lot of negative reviews, you can always temporarily disable reviews while you use the feedback to improve your products and services.
Secure Financing to Make It All Happen
Taking your business online will take time and money. If you lack the latter, short-term financing can help. Regardless if you need contractors, additional employees, marketing money, or software licenses, plenty of financing options are available to help you launch, optimize, and grow your digital presence.
Business Credit Card
A business credit card is like your personal credit card, just for your business expenses. You can use your business card on just about any expense, and once you pay back the portion you’ve used, you’ll get access to that credit again (this type of financing is called revolving credit).
Plus, every time you use your card, you earn points and cashback, and you also build your credit history.
Business Line of Credit
While you don’t get cool credit card points and cashback rewards with a business line of credit, you do get better interest rates and larger credit lines.
You can use your line of credit on practically any business expense, and like the credit card, the credit is revolving. The best part is that when you use your line of credit, you only pay interest on the funds you used, not the entirety of your loan—pretty cool, right?
Short Term Loan
Business credit cards and lines of credit are perfect for dealing with day-to-day and ongoing expenses, but you may want something with a little more oomph. A short term loan can get you the money you need in no time, enabling you to start building your digital presence in as little as 24 hours.
Short term loans can be used to finance just about anything, and they’re not super hard to score.
Whether you need software, webcams, microphones, or a brand-spanking-new laptop, equipment financing has got you covered. Use this loan to get every simple and complex thing you need to take your business online, and then pay it back once your digital profit starts rolling in.
Take Your Business Online Sooner Rather Than Later
The internet isn’t some passing fad—it’s here to stay. Businesses that hopped online months, years, and decades ago have been enjoying the sweet digital fruits of their labors, and they now have a significant advantage. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late to take your business online.
The sooner you go digital, the sooner you can secure another lucrative piece of real estate. There’s no better time to get online than yesterday, but now’s as good a time as ever. Take your business online, and watch your potential soar!