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COVID-19 lockdowns hit brick-and-mortar stores hard, leaving retailers scrambling to shift their business online. Smaller, independent stores don’t have the same financial safety nets of bigger brands, so getting this transition right is essential. Setting up an online store seems simple enough, but don’t be fooled — there are several important steps you need to take so your transition to an e-commerce business model will be successful.

Here is a guide to selling your products online.

STEP 1: Nail your brand guidelines

Even if you already have brand guidelines — logo, fonts, brand colors, etc. — you’ll need to make sure all these elements translate properly online.

As you can imagine, an e-commerce brand looks a little different from a physical brand. For example, you’ll want to determine your brand’s distinctive visual style (i.e. illustrations vs. photography), which will appear on your website and social channels as well as your brand’s tone of voice and personality. Your style will need to be communicated across multiple platforms (social media, ads, and so on).

Do this step before you begin building your website or buying ads. Having brand guidelines in place will make creating promotional assets and promoting your brand on online 10x easier. With a strong brand, you’ll start your e-commerce journey off right, and not have to spend time fixing this later.

STEP 2: Choose a platform

Generally speaking, you have two options for building your e-commerce business: On an e-commerce-specific built platform, like Wix, Shopify or Magento, or on a CMS (content management system) that supports an e-commerce plugin, such as WordPress combined with WooCommerce.

If you already have a website, you’ll likely want to integrate a plugin to enable online shopping. If you’re starting from scratch, you may want to consider the former option to make things easier and faster. You want the experience to be smooth for both you and your customers.

STEP 3: Choose a domain name and secure your website

Your domain name represents your brand on the internet, and for the most part, it should be the same as your brand name.

Tools like Wordoid and Domain Hole’s Domain Name Generator can generate lists of domains that aren’t real words, but may feel or sound appropriate to your market. Shopify’s domain name generator is also helpful to make sure your domain hasn’t already been taken.

To ensure that customers are able to find your brand easily on various platforms, be sure to use Namechk to pick social handles that are identical (or very similar) across the board.

STEP 4: Select initial products to place online

Ideally, your inventory should be strategically chosen to appeal to a broader audience — especially when you’re just starting out. If you’ve got a wide selection of products to choose from in your brick-and-mortar store, start with your best-selling items and build from there.

You don’t have to put your entire inventory online at the outset. By tracking sales through your analytics platform, you can see which products are most popular and build your inventory in those verticals. Also, take into account how the relationship between your customer and your product(s) may have changed in light of recent events. For example, many clothing retailers have taken to selling fashionable face masks, and food retailers have started selling kits for customers to make gourmet meals at home.

STEP 5: Consider your shipping and return policies carefully

Free shipping, local delivery, and extended return/exchange times can make a huge difference in luring customers. Statistics show 36% of online shoppers abandon their cart due to shipping costs. Meanwhile, 64% of consumers say that shipping costs “greatly” impact their decisions to buy, and customers who received free shipping reported an “overall customer satisfaction score that was 10% higher.”

By removing any obstacles to purchase, you’ll have a better chance of completing a sale at checkout. Of course, you’ll want to calculate whether or not these options are affordable for your business and viable, given restricted shipping and travel. But be aware that customers have come to expect these conveniences, and your competitors are likely offering them, too.

STEP 6: Build SEO-driven content and engage on social media

Now that your website is all set up, it’s time to start marketing! On your website, write SEO-driven product descriptions and create blog posts related to your product to increase your search ranking. Don’t forget to engage on your social channels, either. They’re the first means of communication with your customers, and a great way to not only promote products,deals and promotions but to forge an intimate relationship with your customer base. Remember those brand guidelines? They’ll come in handy as you leverage your unique voice or appeal to your customers’ sense of humor.

STEP 7: Create a paid promotional strategy

Most brands will leverage multi-channel digital campaigns, including search advertising, display advertising and paid search, to drive online traffic. How you go about your paid strategy will depend on a lot of variables — your product or industry, your budget, and where your audience hangs out. You’ll want to do some audience research before spending money on ads that don’t deliver.

STEP 8: Leverage email marketing

Targeted emails, especially to high-intent customers who have bought at your brick-and-mortar stores in the past, can also be an effective way to increase online sales. Some estimates have the ROI of email marketing for e-commerce at approximately 3,800%.

There are lots of email marketing platforms to choose from, each with different price points and benefits. MailChimp, Active Campaign and ConvertKit, are just a few. Do some research and consider your funnel when choosing your platform. Most offer free demos, so feel free to shop around before committing.

STEP 9: Join a community

Running a successful e-commerce business isn’t easy, and digital marketing is harder than ever. But even if you can’t afford a marketing agency, that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Take advantage of the communities and platforms out there to help you learn the ropes and optimize your digital marketing strategy for your online shop.

There are communities like Product Hunt, a website that lets users share and discover new products (and launch your own!), and Indie Hackers, a place where founders can share their stories, get feedback and rely on each other for support. There’s also my company, Phlywheel, a DIY marketing community and platform that offers webinars, one-on-one coaching, and forums for asking any marketing questions you may have to fellow entrepreneurs.

There are many benefits to setting up an online store, such as the ability to reach customers 24/7, retargeting, and more. But whether you want to move online completely or are adding an additional sales channel, follow these steps to set yourself up for success.

Stefani Forster is currently the Creative Director at Phlywheel, a DIY marketing platform designed to help small and medium-sized businesses who need the creative and analytical expertise of an agency, but don’t have the budgets they demand.

Business stock photo by fizkes/Shutterstock