How to take your small business online

An entrepreneur prepares online orders for dispatch

Small firms across the UK are taking their businesses online in order to keep trading during the COVID-19 pandemic. With many businesses affected by local or national lockdowns, developing an online presence may be the only way you can stay in touch with customers and continue trading. Here's how you can start selling online and stay connected with clients

If you're one of the many small businesses across the UK that has had to close its doors during the coronavirus lockdown, selling online could be your best chance of long-term survival.

Here are some of the most important things to consider when creating your own ecommerce business and building your online presence.

Design a great website

Customer experience is the name of the game with any ecommerce website. If your website look's like it's gathering dust, the first thing visitors might see is out-of-date images, old news stories or an abandoned blog. Your website should be appealing, easy to navigate and it should work just as well on phones and tablets as it does on a laptop.

Start by posting information about how you are operating during the pandemic. Have you changed your opening hours? Are you operating a click and collect or takeaway service? How are you ensuring that staff and customers are safe? Can shoppers buy online?

Use this time to update your website. Online shoppers want to see pictures of the products they are looking to buy, from different angles and with the ability to zoom in. It's also a good idea to publish a picture of you and your team on your website to show the real people behind the online brand.

Choose the right ecommerce software

The easiest way to start selling online is with an off-the-shelf online shop template like BigCommerce or Shopify. These ecommerce systems will do everything you need, including helping you to take payments online. Another option is to get an all-in-one solution which offers credit card processing, point of sale and an ecommerce site builder from an online payment provider.

Make your website fast

According to Google, a 30% increase in page load speed can result in a 30% increase in business – and a fast ecommerce website will rank better too. This mainly comes down to the hosting package you choose so it can be worth paying a little more.

Sell your products via online marketplaces

If the idea of setting up a dedicated ecommerce store is daunting, you could start selling your products via online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay. Although eBay started life as an auction site, some 80% of its sales are for fixed-price items and it's used by thousands of small firms as a shop window.

Accurate product descriptions, good images, clear delivery information and positive reviews are all critical to your success on marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay. Amazon also offers the Fulfilment by Amazon service. Small businesses send their stock to Amazon and it takes care of storage, delivery, customer service and returns handling. Although this option costs money, it can save on warehouse and staffing costs. Other useful marketplaces include Gumtree and Etsy.

Try drop-shipping

Many product suppliers offer a drop-shipping service – it means that you offer a range of products through your website but when you get an order, it is sent to the supplier and they fulfil it for you, using your branding. It's important to choose a supplier carefully and check the quality of their products.

Get found on Google

Search engines like Google love websites with lots of up-to-date content so make sure you include plenty of product information and keep the site fresh. In simple terms, search engine optimisation (SEO) is about making sure that you include key search words and phrases liberally in your website so when someone searches for a business like yours – and in your area – your business comes at or near the top of the list.

Start by researching which keywords and phrases are most commonly used when someone is searching for the kinds of products or services that you offer. Google's keyword planner is a useful tool.

The next step is to insert them into your site content, meta tags, product and page descriptions and image tags. However, Google will spot a cynical attempt to stuff a website full of keywords. So, make sure they appear naturally within good-quality content. And post new content regularly to show Google that your website is up to date.

Take advantage of online advertising

Pay-per-click advertising (PPC) is a good way to get your business to the top of search engine results. These sponsored links appear above the natural search results and help your business to stand out from the crowd.

Popular PPC providers include Google AdWords and Microsoft Advertising. These services allow you to create targeted ads using specific keywords that take online visitors to a landing page on your website. The good news is that you only pay when someone actually clicks on the ad and you can control your advertising costs by setting limits.

PPC is all about conversions. With a certain amount of trial and error, you can discover which key phrases attract the customers who are looking for your specific products or services. There are plenty of online tools that can help you optimise your ads too.  Then it's up to you to use your landing page to convert that interest into a sale.

Raise your game on social media

If you have been half-hearted about using social media to engage with your customers, now's the time to get serious.

Start by identifying who you want to reach and choose the social media platforms that will be best for your business. LinkedIn is essential for business-to-business operations; Facebook is essential if you sell to consumers. Twitter and Instagram are also incredibly popular and can help you reach a wider audience.

Your social media profile should reflect your brand values and support your vision. It's a place to show people who you are and what you believe in. Remember that social media platforms have become very public customer service channels. Protect your reputation by engaging with your customers and deal with any issues politely and promptly.

Social media is all about making connections and building relationships. Overt selling is frowned upon; helping people is the way to go. By putting in the effort now, you'll be rewarded with more sales over time.

Build trust with your customers

Trust is paramount when it comes to persuading people to buy from you online. You can build that trust by including lots of information about your business and products on your website. You're required by law to publish your address on your website but it will help reassure shoppers if you also provide an email address and a phone number. Demonstrate your credibility by including the logos of trade bodies and schemes you belong to including merchant accreditation schemes like SafeBuy.

Publishing customer testimonials is another way to build trust. Shoppers use reviews, ratings and testimonials for reassurance when they're buying everything from food to holidays. However, customer feedback can be a double-edged sword because you may receive complaints as well as praise. The good news is that shoppers understand that there will always be one or two people with an axe to grind. It's the big picture that counts.

One way to manage reviews is to use an independent service such as FeeFo or Reevoo. They work on your behalf by contacting your customers and collecting their feedback. The reviews – good and bad – are then added to your website.

Put customer service first

Demonstrate your commitment to customer service by being clear about your delivery promises and your returns policy. Testimonials and reviews should include feedback on your customer service as well as the products you sell. Make it easy for customers to get in touch and respond to their queries promptly.

Get your delivery strategy right

Your delivery strategy covers everything from how you present delivery information on your website to the packaging you use. There are plenty of delivery options for small firms to choose from so make sure you offer a delivery service that meets the needs of your customer base. Delivery is all about the details – provide dispatch dates and outline postage prices clearly. Offering free delivery can boost sales significantly.

Make buying easy

Many online stores lose buyers at the checkout stage. Offering address look-up from a postcode is one way to make the process faster and easier. Avoid asking for too much information and don't insist that customers set up an account with a password – most shoppers hate having to do this, especially when it's their first purchase.

Take PayPal

Many shoppers also sell items on sites like eBay so they may have money to spend in their PayPal accounts. Ecommerce experts say that taking PayPal can increase your sales by 10%.

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