Starting an online business may seem like an overwhelming task… and it can be if you let it. The idea is to focus on a concept, determine your objectives and take it one step at a time. Keep in mind, there’s a lot of competition online, so If you’re looking for a quick cash out, keep looking. But if you’re willing to dedicate some effort to building your online empire the sky’s the limit.
As an online marketing professional, I’ve worked with fortune 500 companies, national artists and even small businesses and entrepreneurs. And the formula is the same: start small, focus on a niche.
Choose a Niche
So the first thing you want to do as an online entrepreneur is — determine what industry you want to enter and focus on a small concentrated group.
For example, PayPal started with Ebay, Facebook started with Harvard students, Ebay started with Beanie Baby’s, and Groupon started with 2 for 1 Pizza deals at a bar in Chicago. Start small so you can make the most of your resources and build momentum by targeting a niche. When you go after large markets too soon it’s hard to create excitement because your efforts are too spread out. It’s a rule of nature, not even fire can spread if the fuel is scattered in various places. Each flame will die out on its own and the fuel (trees, vegetation, your promo) can never be reused.
The trick to finding your niche is identifying secrets. As the founder of PayPal Peter Theil says, “What secrets are nature not telling you, and what secrets are people not telling you?”
Figure this out, and you’ll have a valuable online business.
Decide a Business Name and Website
The next essential thing you want to do is pick a name that represents your brand. It can be tricky finding a catchy business name and domain that represents who you are… but it can be done. A site I like to use to help me with ideas is namemesh.com. All you have to do is enter site name ideas and it will generate thousands of domain name possibilities for your brand.
Make sure your name is catchy, easy to remember and easy to spell.
After you find the perfect business name you need to determine what platform you will use to host your online business. By far the most popular platform is WordPress. WordPress is great for blogging and just about everything else (e.g. e-commerce, news). If you’re not too tech-savvy, the easy way to go is with WordPress.com, but if you want more control over the look and feel of your website, go with WordPress.org. Hosting providers like Godaddy and BlueHost have made it easy for you to set up your own WordPress.org site.
But if you would like someone to set everything up for you at a low cost you can use a service like Digital X to build you out a top quality site within 24 hours for only $250.
Optimize Your Website (SEO)
Optimizing your website is about making it searchable (on Google) and easy for people to use. However, SEO is becoming less and less valuable. Other than having a user-friendly — mobile-friendly website, SEO won’t do you much good. To drive traffic to your site you’re going to have to use a mix of efforts including social media, brand ambassador programs, and advertising. What’s even scarier, soon people won’t even visit your website unless it’s to make a purchase. My friend and mentor Mark Schaefer wrote about all content going to the cloud… meaning, no one wants to spend time surfing your website, they want your content to come to them in their Facebook and LinkedIn news feeds. Scary but true.
Which Brings us to our next point.
Optimize Your Social Media Channels
Now it’s time to pick your most valuable real estate. It’s not logical to promote your brand on every social network known to man, so the best thing to do is focus on the platforms your audience frequents.
A lot of entrepreneurs have taken a liking to automation tools (tools that generate posts for you). I don’t recommend this. This strategy can get you a lot of likes and follows but it won’t help you build any meaningful relationships. And “social media” is all about socializing… using automation tools is like having that annoying friend in your circle that never says anything relevant. Remove them from your circle and strengthen your online voice.
Determine Your Content Strategy
Now that you have a business name, website, and social media plan, it’s time to develop your content strategy. What are you going to say? How do you want to be perceived?
Are you going to be the guy with the funny videos? Or the girl that encourages broken women in her podcast? You have to determine the best way to deliver your message and give your audience something to look forward to.
If you can only produce one video a week, that’s fine, just be consistent. However, quantity rules online, quality is only valued by a dedicated few. So the best thing I can suggest is to produce as much content as possible while also mixing in quality material to appease your core audience.
Although planning and developing a solid strategy is good, execution is more important. As the popular phrase in Silicon Valley goes “execution eats strategy for breakfast”.
Some people will spend months and years at the round table trying to decide what to do. But the most successful entrepreneurs create concepts and execute them on a small scale. This will allow you to learn and improve your product over time.
Like the company Joost, they spent a lot of time hyping and promoting their video streaming service… By the time it was released no one liked it. It failed miserably… But their competitor Netflix started by sending DVD’s in the mail while planning to launch a streaming service in the future. They started by testing their product first, so customers were limited to ordering physical DVD’s online. After years of “execution”, Netflix now has a solid platform that is invaluable to their customers. They also built relationships with media companies and have one of the largest video libraries online. This is because they created a concept and executed it. Joost, however, invested millions of dollars in a product they didn’t even know people would like. Through early execution and experience, Netflix learned how to best serve their customers with a product they can’t live without.
Zappos is another great example. Its founder Nick Swinmurn captured photos of shoes in nearby footwear stores. Before investing a lot of time and money, he tested his idea to see if it would work. It did, and people started buying shoes online by the droves. Later he attracted investors, improved the website, and increased selections based on customer search queries. In 1999 Amazon acquired the company for $1.2 billion dollars. Execution eats strategy for breakfast…
So if you have an idea, get it out there… You can improve on it over time.
When you’re ready to execute your plan, the quickest way to get it to the market is advertising. When Derek Halpern had an idea to start a new online course, he first spent $50 on a Facebook ad to see if people were really interested. Once his audience responded in favor of the new course he went to work developing it.
In 2013 when I was hired to sell tickets for a national tour, I sold more seats than the organization promoting it. Short on time, instead of trying to promote the event organically, I purchased ads on Facebook and Google. Organic reach is great for building a solid following, but when you need quick momentum, advertising is the way to go.
So my advice to any online entrepreneur starting a new venture, if you want people to know about it, start with advertising.
Build Email List
When promoting your biz, you can’t expect people to buy immediately. Some people need time, and the best way to build relationships with your audience is through email. It’s the difference between a one on one conversation and a group chat. Email is more personal… you can talk to your audience directly.
Using services like Mailchimp or Constant Contact, you can create forms to capture emails. If you need help creating list bait, Hubspot lays out 25 Simple Ways to Grow Your Email List. As you’re building your audience, be sure to segment your followers by creating multiple lists for different types of interest. For example, you may want to create a form for people interested in one of your online courses, but once they sign up you’re going to want to put them on a different list so you’re not trying to sell them the same thing twice.
Tell Your Story
If you’re attracting attention online, don’t waste your efforts by failing to communicate effectively. Tell people your story… they want to know who you are.
Great stories allow people to see themselves in it. So when you write, don’t write for yourself, write for your audience. Imagine where they are and where they want to go, then incorporate it in one of your personal tales. Be relatable. Make people feel like they know you.
To get your story out there you have to reinforce your message wherever people find you. If it’s on SnapChat, tell the story. If it’s on Facebook, tell the story. Determine your principles and don’t waver. Be consistent… this is how you build a strong brand.
Listen and Repeat
Now that you’ve released your idea to the world, listen and watch for a response. Set up Google Alerts so you’re notified anytime your brand is mentioned. Track your website activity with Analytics. Ask your audience questions. Tweak your advertisements. Find out what works and keep doing it, eliminate anything that doesn’t. But most importantly, watch what people do.
All this listening is great, but what’s even better is watching what people do. You can watch how people behave on your website by using a little tool called Hot Jar. Hot Jar video records user behavior anytime someone visits your website. This enables you to see every move someone makes on your site, so you can identify any struggles or points of confusion.
And that’s it. You want a successful online business… it’s all about making yourself known, understanding your audience and offering them something valuable.
Be humble and be willing to learn from the market. Do this, and YOU’RE IN BUSINESS!