Epic Fail Guaranteed: Starting Your eCommerce Business Without Step Zero
If you want to set foot in the world of ecommerce, you can do it in two ways: starting with introducing a product or starting with building an audience. In either case, you mustn’t miss step zero: market research. So how to start an ecommerce business smartly?
The first method is used more often, although most companies aim to satisfy present needs, it’s still quite rare that they first build a customer base and then create a product for them.
If you have the big idea, the product, you’d better start a research. The first step is not marketing, or at least not the active part of it, as you don’t yet know what kind of marketing tools you should use.
The first step is to identify and get to know your potential market.
Then you can start formulating a strategy that fits that.
In this article we’ll go over every stage you should examine before setting up an online store.
We’re going to cover the following:
Before you begin your market research, let us tell you about some basic concepts.
Try to identify your target market as precisely as possible, even at the very first stage of the research.
Many rookies make the mistake of trying to shoot at the whole market. This is called TAM, Total Available Market, which is the entire global or regional market for a product or service. This is the largest set of the Venn diagram.
Inside of it, there’s a smaller set, SAM, Serviceable Available Market. This comprises those people that can be served in reality.
A horror movie wouldn’t attract families and a romantic comedy is unlikely to fire up action movie lovers. Your serviceable available market is made up of those who like the given genre.
Finally an even narrower segment can be identified: SOM, Serviceable Obtainable Market, i.e. those who we can not only serve but obtain as well.
If you have managed to define this core target audience, your serviceable obtainable market, then you can describe the segments and buyer personas.
Divide your serviceable obtainable market into major target groups – besides demographic data, take a look at through which channels they can be reached, what kind of media they follow, what kind of content they consume etc.
You can read about this topic in detail in our article about segmentation.
This scenario happens by chance most of the time: someone starts releasing content, say, writing in-depth technical articles or shooting and uploading entertaining videos on YouTube. If all goes well, a large and loyal group of followers develops, which has a considerable buying power.
Now the content creators realize that they can make money because of their popularity and start offering products. A YouTuber, for example, can start selling branded T-shirts, pillows and mouse pads.
Nowadays it’s getting more common that large corporations or marketing professionals start building up an audience prior to product development. They invest money, energy and time to build a group using content marketing.
1) You may ask your followers to fill in questionnaires, write stories or reviews in email, or you can even organize a game describing their problems (in the form of user generated content).
2) Next, some brainstorming and sketching of product ideas can take place, e.g. you can show your 3D models or animated drawings to the audience, ask their opinion about them and then you can fine-tune your product until it fully meets the requirements.
Of course, this process can be time-sensitive: if planning takes too long, someone might steal your idea, but it can also happen that consumer needs get different in the meantime. However, it’s extremely cost-effective as this approach makes pre-sales processes much smoother and ensures much better chances for success.
Before the Internet, telephone surveys or focus groups were used for gauging market needs. Nowadays, it’s basically enough to ask Google.
Google Trends helps you to find out how interest in different products or product categories changes over time: the graphs for properly selected keywords not only show search numbers for the past months or years, but you can see these broken down for regions as well.
It’s worth examining three things more in-depth (using more complex SEO tools, like SEMRush):
- How many organic searches were started for the given keyword?
- How tough is the competition (how much would it cost to advertise with AdWords)?
- Is there an uptrend or a downtrend?
It’s also worthwhile for you to watch social networking sites as well – for the reason that both content consumption and ecommerce started to shift towards these platforms a few years ago.
Find a tool with which you can track how the keywords, related to your products, perform on the most popular social media sites.
Such a tool is Keyhole, which measures real time the popularity of hashtags on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. (You can use it also when you want to sell a seasonal product or create content with the help of newsjacking.)
If you see that the keywords, connected to your products, are not popular in social media, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about them – in this case you may only need to call their attention to these products and start creating relevant content and run promotions.
If you have defined your target group, then you can find those websites where they socialize, talk to each other, ask and answer questions etc.
On such platforms you can not only share your content, but also ask the users if they would buy your product at all. Additionally, you can gather some ideas about how you could improve the product – whether it fully meets the expectations, solves the right problem or has a good price.
If you find out, with any of the techniques, that there is considerable demand for a product, next you should run a competitive analysis.
Check how many ecommerce stores sell similar products, how successful they are, what marketing and sales strategies they follow, how they reach out to their audience etc.
It well may be that you don’t have your own products. E.g. you don’t have the time, funds or the idea for developing one, but you’ve found a market niche.
In this case you may look for somebody who has or had such a product and they are not your competitor. Here are a few solutions for that.
Just imagine: you have an audience that has purchasing power, they’re loyal, you can easily reach them. You have everything at your hands, but you don’t have a product and you don’t have the money to develop one.
Now, you can sell someone else’s product – you don’t need to start a lengthy and costly product development process. You can be a reseller or a distributor of a brand that has similar values to yours and that your audience accepts easily.
The greatest advantage of such a network is that the majority of the work has already been done by others so that it will not affect your budget considerably. Most probably the biggest costs you will face will be related to setting up your brand new online shop.
Dropshipping is becoming more and more popular among online stores as well. It gives you the opportunity to be able to sell products without having to make large investments. The idea is simple: the online store doesn’t have its own goods on hand, it “connects” the customer with a wholesaler.
The shopper orders the item in the online store, pays for it and gets it delivered by the wholesaler.
So the ecommerce store is basically an intermediary in the shopping process.
This model, however attractive it may seem, has some drawbacks as well:
- Because dropshipping is quite an easy way to do business on the Internet, there’s a lot of competition in terms of nearly all kinds of products.
- The wholesalers are generally not very good at online marketing, but on the other hand, the smaller online shops fight hard for market share. This often leads to price wars, which bites into the profits of all the competing participants.
- The process itself has a number of problems: you need to communicate with the wholesaler continuously and watch the inventory. And even in spite of this, it can happen from time to time that a product is not available anymore after a customer has ordered it. This may result in customer disappointment and loss of trust.
- The involvement of a third party makes the sales process more complicated ‒ more paperwork, more things to keep in mind, more complex accounting.
- Marketing the products can be problematic too. It’s always easier to sell your own products since you know them inside out, you know exactly what they’re capable of as well as what it’s like using them.
- This can be quite difficult with a product you’ve never held in your hands, never used to solve a problem. So your communication about the product may not be 100% credible and answering questions in this respect can be problematic.
If you know exactly what type of product you want to sell, the simplest way is probably trying to find the manufacturer and then ask for a list of wholesalers.
You may start your search on Google, but keep in mind that such wholesalers are not very easy to find – they are quite inexperienced in online marketing, having old-fashioned websites etc.
Despite this they may turn out to be good partners, so don’t judge on appearance.
A lot depends on what platform you use to sell your products. There are many free and paid ecommerce systems out on the market.
We’ve compared the most popular ones in several articles here.
After having looked at these comparisons, you’ll probably have a more precise idea which platform suits best your expectations.
In a few words, let’s summarize the key characteristics of the three major systems:
- Without any partiality, we can state that Magento provides the highest quality. This comes at a price, of course. The main benefits are: high capacity, lots of options and can be fully customized. You can create any kind of store you like, both on terms of appearance and functionality. However, professional developers need to be involved to build up the perfect store, and this costs money and time.
- WordPress based free-of-charge WooCommerce is another very popular platform. Since it is a WordPress “product”, it’s rather easy to use and can also back nicely any content marketing strategy. On the other hand it is not as sophisticated as Magento so it is not that customizable and features less functions.
- Finally, Shopify is a fine choice for simpler online stores with smaller traffic, where you can find an array of useful functions, e.g. a simple payment process. Unfortunately, because of its simplicity, it is the least customizable system among these three.
It’s also worth examining what exactly your target audience wants.
If your product is rather complex or you market various types of it, you may start a store in which the users can pick the attributes they are interested in and are provided with advanced search options.
If you offer only some simple products, then you should create a very simple purchase process where the user can select the desired items and after just a few clicks close their purchase.
There’s also the option that you don’t build up your own store, but offer your products on a different website. Your best choice may be Amazon.
On Amazon’s site, in the footer you can find “Sell on Amazon” where you can register for the service, after which you’re given the opportunity of creating a store within Amazon’s platform.
One disadvantage is that because of the commission you pay to Amazon, your income will be lower, but on the other hand your traffic may be quite high as the ecommerce giant is behind you.
Adding products is simple, the user interface is innovative – beyond giving the necessary information, you only need to check if that same product is offered elsewhere on Amazon’s platform.
When you’ve finished with the market research, product development and segmentation, it’s time to elaborate your sales strategy.
Luckily, a lot of materials are available for free on the Internet that teach you how to market and sell your products. You just need to invest some time and energy to take a look at these.
Content marketing, for example, is an excellent tool to build up your audience.
We’ve already written about why it is wise to run a blog page for your ecommerce store and how you can do it effectively.
We’ve also described how you can promote your content without spending any money.
Now let’s take a look at some free strategies that help you to raise awareness for your products without spending large chunks of your budget.
You can try a simple technique: watch how your competitors communicate about similar products:
- What kind of websites refer to them?
- Which are those websites that your target audience visit regularly?
- Where do they visit those websites (smartphone, tablet or desktop?
- From which points or sections of the page are they redirected to the given online shop?
Use Moz Open Site Explorer: you can find out which pages contain backlinks pointing to your competitor’s website and also what kind of content includes them.
You can promote this kind of content among influencers.
Don’t hard sell the products, just try to get attention and collect “likes” to increase visitor numbers of your website. You can focus on selling in a later phase of the sales funnel.
Send your pieces of content to influencers and with a little luck there will be some that will find them interesting and share them or mention them in their posts so that you’ll get valuable and relevant backlinks. This all will improve your site’s ranking and strengthen credibility.
Take advantage of guest blogging as well: find websites for which you can write articles as an expert.
Be active on professional sites, in forums and groups and build up your personal brand.
You’ll need to invest time in this to achieve awareness and acknowledgement, but in the long run it’ll be beneficial for your whole ecommerce business as well.
There’s a bunch of tools that are worth having before you launch your online store.
Now we’re listing those that you can use with only a minimal investment.
In the beginning they help to raise reach and awareness and then to sell directly.
Create your business accounts with all popular social media websites.
Creating and scheduling content beforehand make sure that you’ll post on a regular basis and making social posts published automatically can save you a lot of time.
However, you need to follow all activities and if you’re asked some questions or required to send some content, you should reply in a short time.
The aforementioned promotional and awareness techniques work best if you already have a blog page which is known and followed by your audience and also by a number of experts in the given field.
Plan ahead what you’re going to write about and publish content regularly.
Don’t forget that you’re not going for sales here, but to get more followers.
Prepare useful quality content with which you can get ahead of your competitors. Read our article about the strategy you should follow here.
You can start collecting email addresses even before setting up your online store.
For this, it’s worth having a bait item that proves to be useful to your audience, at least so useful that they are willing to give their email addresses in exchange.
Such a bait offer can be a free e-book or video guide series or just a newsletter subscription that provide useful information.
Gauge what kind of information your audience is hungry to get and make an educational material of it that has more value than any of your competitors offer.
Make it available through a sign up page, so right after giving their name and email address, they can download this bait product.
Your email list starts growing immediately and when launching your online store, you’ll have a number of potential shoppers already available to whom you can send product offers.
No matter how awesome ideas you have at the moment, it’s not at all for sure that they’re going to bring you success.
It’s the preparation phase we’re talking about her.
Leave time for it. Don’t rush.
It’s not just about getting to know your target audience. You’ll also find out whether you need to fine-tune your product, what ways could work best to sell it and what communications strategy to apply in the future.
Follow the steps described above and you’ll most probably be able to kickstart such an online shop that will return your investments abundantly while truly making the life of your customers easier.
Digital Marketing Manager
Gábor started working for AionHill as a Magento eCommerce project manager. After 6 years, he joined the restructured Marketing Team. His main responsibilities are content strategy and communications partnership management. Gábor has two kids, likes cooking traditional Hungarian meals and playing strategy and online role playing games.