Of the nearly 350 million people living in North America, 74 percent of these are Internet users. So it’s not surprising that this powerful, universal medium for information consumption, networking and commerce has also emerged as one of the most important elements in almost every business toolkit.
But for many small business owners, the Internet is more than tool - it’s a lifeline that has helped them survive and prosper through the current economic climate.
Just think back to last year’s holiday shopping season, for example. Despite the recession, 2009 saw the heaviest-ever online shopping day (December 19) with $913 million in recorded sales. The U.S. Census Bureau also reports that e-commerce sales continue to grow by 23.1 percent per year compared with 5 percent for total retail sales.
Starting an Online Business – One Step at a Time
But for many small businesses, micro businesses and sole proprietors, taking their business online (whether e-commerce is involved or not) is easier said than done. Yep, anyone can secure a domain name and subscribe to a $5.99 monthly Web hosting plan. But an online business is merely a vehicle for the product or service you are selling. So starting a Web-based business – and making it a success – will take more than just “getting online”.
Which is why this question comes up time and time again on small business forums: “I’m starting an online business – where do I begin?“
In response to this question, Business.gov has compiled 10 Steps to Starting an Online Business. This guide walks you through the basic fundamentals of getting started – such as registering a domain name and finding a host – and offers advice for following the rules of the road that regulate online marketing and e-commerce (think sales taxes, etc.)
Starting an Online Store
If e-commerce is your goal, read this valuable primer on making a successful move to e-commerce: Getting Started with E-Commerce – An Entrepreneur’s Checklist.
Generate Traffic to Your Site
Starting your online business is one thing, generating traffic and making it a success is another. But without a store front or obvious physical business location, let alone any kind of physical signage, generating traffic is one of the biggest challenges of starting an online business.
Take time to write an integrated marketing plan that maximizes both online and offline channels – and delivers a consistent brand message through both. Read Starting and Growing an Online Business: An Entrepreneur’s Checklist to get tips on promoting your online business through online channels such as social media, pay-per-click advertising, and optimizing your site for search engines such as Google. The Checklist also offers tips on leveraging offline channels in your market place or community.
Once you have optimized your site – keep it that way. Search engines love good organic content, and one of the most effective ways of keeping your site fresh and search engine-friendly is to incorporate a blog into your site.
Blogs provide business owners with unprecedented ways of reaching and engaging with large audiences in a way that the traditional one-way information push of a company Web site could never do.
Additionally, blogs can help put a human face to your business while showcasing your knowledge and passion for your chosen field. Just about anyone from a landscaping business to an IT security company can share tips of the trade that connect them with their customer base. For example, restaurant owners can share recipe secrets; hair salons could blog about hair care and the review the latest hair products; and tax specialists could offer tax tips.
And unlike the static content of a business Web site, blogs are collaborative and invite comments – a great way to engage with and solicit feedback from your customers!
Read more about setting up a blog, choosing blog software, and planning your blog strategy in Thinking of Starting a Blog? Tips to Help You Start, Maintain & Grow a Small Business Blog!
Ready to dig a little deeper into making your online business a success? Here is just a sampling of other great articles and resources from across the Business.gov Community of small business experts and entrepreneurs.
- All About Domain Names – Explains the ins and outs of selecting, registering and managing a domain name.
- Tips for Choosing a Business Name that is Unique, Web-Ready, and Legally Yours! – Explains the basics of choosing a business name that works for your small business venture in a Web-savvy world.
- Online Payment Services – Explains e-commerce payment options such as PayPal and Bill Me Later and helps you understand if they’re realistic for your small business.
- Making Money Online – When Are You a Business? – Explains the regulatory and tax obligations involved in the various stages of e-commerce from selling on eBay, to affiliate marketing, to opening your own online store.
Marketing Your Online Business
- Google AdWords Explained – Growing Your Small Business with this Cost-Effective Marketing Tool
- Getting Started with Social Media Marketing
- Small Business Marketing: Making Social Media Pay Off for your Brand and Your Bottom Line
- Getting Started with Email Marketing: “The Most Powerful Tool in Your Relationship-Building Toolbox”
Protect Your Customers and Your Online Content
- Understanding Intellectual Property Law and How it Can Protect Your Online Business
Online Advertising Law
- The Basic Rules of Online Advertising Law – From the CAN SPAM Act to customer privacy laws, this guide covers all the obligations you need to be aware of when you operate online.