Why go online?

First, it’s just expected these days – no getting around it – your customers expect to find your brand online and unfortunately, may bypass your brand for a competitor that’s already online. Plan on it as a cost of doing business. On a positive note, getting your business online allows you to provide clear information about your products and services, help customers, prospects and potential partners find your business, and most importantly, generate leads and sales!

It doesn’t have to be difficult. Like anything, take it one step at a time. Stay organized. Make lists – like this one. Ask for help at every step – whether that means finding an expert to guide you through each step (or to execute the steps for you, if you prefer), or using the live support option for your website platform, domain registration, or hosting provider when you have questions (even if they tell you to go to online to find your answer – persist!) Most of all, trust your instincts – it’s your business after all, and you know how best to represent your brand values wherever you set up shop.

To help you get started, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide which will lead you through getting your business or store online in five steps. Of course, if you want to hire someone else to handle it instead, contact us and let’s consider working together!

First, some tips to make this whole process easier

TOP TIP #1: As you go through these five steps, save everything – every scrap of paper you generate, every email sent to you, every username and password you create – and store them in one well-named folder on your hard drive or cloud storage (better yet, make hard copies of everything as a backup). You will need all this information again and it will be hard to find later if it is not centrally stored.

TOP TIP #2: Try to use the same username and/or email address each step of the way when you register for a domain name, set up a web host, set up an Instagram account, etc. I’m talking about the “behind-the-scenes” email address here; not the address you show to the public. It will make life much easier if you do this. Most online providers use your email address as an identifier, and if you use two different email addresses when you interact with them, they won’t be able to locate all your information.

TOP TIP #3: Use providers and partners (your web host, your website platform, your email host, etc.) that have a live phone-based customer support option. Many companies provide only standardized, online support which means you can’t ask those nuanced and essential questions that will inevitably come up as you work through your to-do list. How to do this? Before you buy, just check the “Support” page (often listed in the footer of any website) to determine contact options, and pass on any company that doesn’t offer phone support. Of course, there are always exceptions, but it’s a good goal to start with as you set up your online partners.

And now, let’s get your business online.

STEP 1. Stake out your online territory by registering your domain name

A unique domain name gives your business credibility and tells customers you’re here to stay. If your business already has a name, use it as your domain name, assuming its available – check here. Make sure your domain name isn’t too generic-sounding (easy to forget), but is easy to type, and represents what your business is and does. The “.com” extensions are still the best. If not available, “.co” is a good alternative, but skip “.net” or other unusual extensions. And don’t settle for something like “companyname.myshopify.com”; get your own unique domain. Here’s a domain name suggestion tool.

You might take this opportunity to find a web host at the same time, as most web hosts will register and host your domain. What is a web host, you ask? It’s a business that provides the technologies (servers) and services needed for your website to be seen on the Internet. No host; no website. Bluehost, Dreamhost and Hostgator are web hosts we’ve worked with – they offer domain registration mechanism as part of the sign-up process. Hosting services may even offer initial free domain registration when you sign up for a hosting package but know that domain names are only free for 1-2 years, after which the Registrar will bill you for the annual fee. Here are CNET’s recommendations for the web hosts.

And by the way, your domain name can function as more than just your website address: a branded email address using your domain name is more professional and makes it easier for people to remember your contact information, e.g., alice@bluedoorshop.com is better than bluedoorshop@yahoo.com. When you are registering your domain and setting up hosting, that’s the time to ask about getting a domain email address.

To recap Step 1: You need to register your domain name and find a web host in short order. Many web hosts will also register your domain for you – we recommend this route, otherwise you’ll have to engage two organizations for this step. Make sure to get an emailed receipt for your domain registration and hosting contract – you’ll need proof of each.

STEP 2. Create the “face” of your business – get a logo designed

A logo states your identity, distinguishes your business from others, and facilitates brand loyalty. Once designed, put it on everything your business touches: your website, social media, business cards, flyers, stickers, packaging, mailing envelopes – you get the picture. It’s so important that it’s one of the very first things you should do. In fact, don’t build a website until you’ve got a logo.

Get a logo designed by a professional designer to give your business credibility, authenticity and an aesthetic that matches your company values. Once you and your designer have settled on a logo design, ask for it in multiple file formats – jpg, transparent png, pdf, eps – and get a color version and a black and white version.

TOP TIP #4: Your logo files are among your company’s most important assets, so store them in a secure and clearly-named folder on your hard drive (or get cloud storage if you don’t have a hard drive) for easy access.

STEP 3. Build your website – it’s your storefront on the “Main Street” that is the Internet

First, answer these 10 key questions about what you want your website to do. This will give you a better sense of what kind of website you need. Next, take a look at well-known website building tools like SquareSpace, WordPress, Wix or Shopify (this last one for online stores) – these are often a good place to start to get an idea of what’s going to be needed to build your site. Next, decide what type of website you need. “Informational” websites allow customers to find you and learn more about your business. For this kind of website, you’ll need several web pages with content and graphics. An “ecommerce” site allows people to purchase products and services directly from your site, by providing shopping cart, payment, and shipping functionality. In addition, decide if you want additional functionality like a blog or event calendar on your site.

Once you know what you want, if you’ve purchased one of the web building tools mentioned above, you can build your site yourself using one of their templates, or hire someone to build it for you. Either way, you’ll next need copy describing your business and its services (and about each product if you are selling online).

You’ll also need photographs or illustrations to go along with the copy – it’s a visual world these days, and images sell products and services! So, prepare to purchase stock photography, or hire a photographer to take high quality pictures for you; the more gorgeous the images, the better, even if you are selling something which doesn’t at first glance seem to be a “visual” product. Trust us on this! If you are selling products online, check with your distributors first to see if there are any restrictions on photography using their products; they may also be able to supply you with product shots, so you don’t have to take them yourself. Here’s a good resource for product photography best practices.

You may also consider selling on Amazon, eBay, Etsy or another third-party marketplace in addition to your own online store.

TOP TIP #5: Make sure your website has a “sign-up for our emails” form displayed prominently – you want to start collecting email addresses immediately from people who are interested in your products and services. This is your “mailing list” to which you’ll send regular email updates (more on that below) to generate leads and sales.

STEP 4. Get your business noticed and stay top of mind with social media AND email

No doubt about it; you can’t ignore social media if you are in business today. Your customers are already on social media every day. Join them there to create awareness of your business, brand loyalty, and leads and sales. But which social media site should you be on? Instagram is the one channel we advise everyone to be on, if you only pick one. It’s a very visual channel, so be prepared with those gorgeous photos and product shots. Most businesses use Twitter for sharing links to company news and announcements, “retweeting” other industry news, and responding to customer questions. Facebook has great tools for running contests, posting photos or videos, hosting “live” events, and writing longer posts. LinkedIn is great for connecting with other businesses, and joining educational groups or associations related to your industry. Whichever platform you choose, be sure to add buttons on your website encouraging people to follow, share and connect with your business on social media.

TOP TIP #6: You can pay a small amount of money to advertise your business on any of these channels; in fact, we highly recommend it as an effective and efficient way to create brand awareness.

Once you’ve set up your business page(s) on social media, prepare to dedicate time to them every day – best practice is to post 3-4 times a week, more if you can. When you write your posts, be witty, be warm, be interesting! And don’t abandon your social media channel(s) – there’s nothing worse than a prospect going to your Instagram feed and seeing one or two old posts there. In addition, you should “follow” and monitor other organizations and companies related to your business (your suppliers, for example) and interact with them there – social media is absolutely a two-way street. Learn the most effective hashtags for your industry and use them frequently. If you’d prefer to get help setting up and posting regularly from your social media accounts, we can help.

In addition to social media, emailing a “newsletter” regularly to your mail list is one of the most cost-effective kinds of marketing you can do. As your newsletter list grows, so will your ability to attract new visitors to your site—just remember that the goal is always to include links to your site in your newsletter to drive leads or sales. Marketing emails can highlight new products and services, educational tips for your customers, sales and special promotions, customer testimonials or success stories, and surveys or feedback requests. Send an email at least once a month; twice a month if you can. Some of the best email marketing platforms for small business are Mailchimp, Constant Contact, and ConvertKit.

To recap Step 4: Email marketing + social media marketing (at the very least, be on Instagram) = business success!

TOP TIP #7: Email marketing is a really, really good way to stay top of mind with your customers. And don’t worry about “bothering them” with too many emails – if you’re not emailing them, someone else is! Bottom line is if you aren’t “in front of” your customers when they want a service or product like yours, they’ll purchase instead from whoever is top of mind at that moment. Don’t risk losing the sale – email and post on social media frequently.

STEP 5. Rank high in Google search by using keywords on your site

Wondering how your website gets “found” by people searching on Google? Here’s a brief overview: Using software called “spiders”, Google regularly “crawls” through the millions of websites on the Internet (including the pages of your website) to analyze content, determine what each site is about, and how valuable its information is. Among other things, Google’s software spiders look for 1) what “keywords” you are using and where they are located on your site, 2) what other reputable sites link back to your site and vice versa, and 3) how recently your site’s content has been updated (Google’s spiders like fresh and continually updated content; hence, one of the benefits of including a frequently updated blog or event calendar on your site). These things make your site rank higher than other sites in Google search results.

So what are keywords? Keywords are words and phrases used within the content of your site that help search engines identify what your site is about. They usually relate to your industry, your products and services, location and anything else customers might search for when trying to find a business like yours. For example, a site selling lamps online might use keywords like “residential lighting”, “commercial lighting”, “lightbulbs”, etc. To identify potential keywords for your site, you can brainstorm with customers or partners, or use Google’s free keyword suggestion tool. There, you enter words related to your business to see how often they’re searched. Next, create a list of often-searched terms for businesses like yours – these are your keywords – and then work them into your website copy and meta data (the behind-the-scenes introductory HTML coding on your website).

If all of this seems very technical, don’t worry, there are experts here to help. Let us guide you through the process of setting up your site for successful search engine optimization (aka SEO).

Whew! You did it

You’ve worked through these five steps, and your website and Instagram page are launched. Now it’s time to announce your online presence to the world! Put your website address on your business cards and hand them out everywhere! Consider having branded postcards or flyers created and snail-mailing them to local customers. Create an email marketing announcement using some of your photos from your site and send to all your family and friends. Announce your online business on your personal social media account and provide your brand’s social media pages to follow. Put your logo on a trade show tablecloth or banner so you can attend local fairs or relevant events to hand out samples and business cards.

We hope you’ve found this guide helpful as you think about getting your small business online. If you want to hire someone to handle it instead of doing it all yourself, contact us and let’s consider working together!