In every industry and on every channel, brands compete for consumers’ attention. For online businesses, it is daunting to cut through all the noise and stand out in an ever-growing pack of competitors. Even if launching an online business is easier than ever before, with capital being the primary barrier, for most founders the challenge is setting up a business that can continuously and sustainably scale over time.
As a brand, it begs the questions: What is the cost for online growth? What channels work better? Is it possible for a brand to keep growing in the long term without overspending in customer acquisition and paid marketing? What kind of resources need to be put into growth initially?
While founders can’t expect an absolute answer to all of these questions, they can choose to better understand their consumers and to grow their online sales channels with a smart approach. We’ve rounded up best practices to prepare online businesses for growth and ask themselves better questions.
Be strategic but authentic about your storytelling
Consumers are starting to sift through the noise and are looking to engage with brands that are connecting with them. Overusing paid growth strategies without having a clear message and an authentic voice can be harmful for the brand. “It is best to identify new ways of communicating or starting to work with microinfluencers to ensure the message is more authentic and resonates with the audience”, states Agna Poznanska, CMO at DRVE.
Influencer marketing is a good tactic to engage with consumers but it is not enough for brands to get to the next level. Over and over again brands rely too much in one channel and forget to complement their strategy with traditional marketing and PR actions. Consumers expect a brand to reciprocate by either making them feel part of a community or offering them something special. It is about discounts, bundle offers, exclusive services but also about making them feel they belong to the brand’s community.
Diversify your growth channels
Channel diversification is crucial to successful growth and a common mistake is to rely on one channel. Ideally, companies should invest in both acquisition and retention, both prospecting and retargeting from the beginning.
The challenge is that when it comes to customer acquisition, founders usually focus on short term strategies and set up their growth channels in an unsustainable way. The marketing breakdown tends to be focused on acquisition and it is estimated that 93% of marketers allocate their budget toward acquisition and out of that budget a significant number goes toward what every consumer sees, with marketing dollars being actively spent in the same area.
Instead, the goal should be to strike a balance between acquisition and retention because it is always cheaper to retain a customer than to acquire one. Retention outshines acquisition in the long term because brands can get firsthand insights on who their customers are and how to engage with them so they stick around.
Since thriving in paid growth requires a lot of time and money, many brands tend to be cautious about it. The best bet for new businesses is to diversify and make smart data-driven investments. “There are a number of tools such as Criteo or Adroll that companies can use without big budgets”, points out Poznanska. Her recommendation is to start early on with this diversification so “the brand doesn’t have just one touchpoint with its audience”.
Define what channels to test (and track their performance!)
There is a false perception about promotion that leads companies to throw money at leading social platforms with the hopes of just gaining traction and market share. The first step to execute any paid marketing strategy should be to narrow down and define the target customer – Aim small, miss small.
Poznanska warns against choosing a platform without doing previous research: “Don’t select a channel just because it looks easier or more affordable. Many times founders think Facebook Ads will be easier to set up and that’s the main driver behind that paid marketing decision. And even though it looks more approachable than Google Ads, all these tools require expertise to make them work”.
Learning best practices and considering the associated costs of each channel is not a side-hustle so her advice for early-stage companies is: “If you can’t hire marketers early on, hire a freelancer to set up the campaigns so you have a solid start and make sure the data you get from this tactic will be reliable”.
Get email automation right
Sooner or later ecommerce businesses work on how to nail email automation, which is essential to generate repeating purchases and customer loyalty.
“One mistake that online businesses make when using platforms like Shopify is that they will use the default email automation process. This is a missed opportunity because you can invest some time and personalize those emails to improve the experience of the consumer”, recommends Poznanska. “If you have more control about the email automation process, you can switch things up by changing the number of emails, frequency and playing with different campaign sequences”.
The key takeaway is to not saturate the consumers’ inboxes with discounts and invitations. Instead, companies should also share other types of content like advice, news, tips or tutorials to help their audience and improve their experience. Remember to always offer value before you ask people to buy, commit, or opt-in.
Don’t forget about organic content
Over the last years it has become increasingly difficult to tap into overcrowded social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram for organic traffic. As a result, more companies have turned to performance marketing which can be expensive and harmful for the brand if there is no other form of content to support it.
Weak storytelling will eventually do a disservice to the brand so it is advisable to take care of organic content even if it is only through small actions. “At the bare minimum, make sure there is always fresh content on the website and that you have good product pages. If you cannot fully optimize what you publish, at least find a few keywords and just focus on those at the beginning”. Another option is “to do historical optimization to refresh ‘old’ content published on the website by using relevant keywords to generate more organic search views”, adds Poznanska.
One step up is working with user generated content. For instance, gifting is a good and affordable option to encourage consumers to create content for them by offering products in exchange of reviews. “This strategy both builds trust and also provides the brand with valuable feedback and information about your customers”, shares Poznaska. She adds that “it is always about building a great product and supporting it with a great strategy that gives your audience a reason to share your message for you”.
Video content is also a low-effort tactic that many companies disregard because they assume it takes time to produce outstanding content. The reality is that more and more consumers are trained and used to brands publishing less polished material. An easy way to publish this type of content is to share more video testimonials of happy customers or some behind the scenes footage. A different approach to video is live streaming with professional storytellers or influencers.
In addition, it is advisable to keep an eye on the comments section for user research since it is a direct space to interact with users: companies can listen, ask questions and get first-hand feedback.
It is key to map growth levels and set up some basic tracking early on by setting up at least Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager to centralize data. If possible, founders should get support to implement the tracking tools early on so they can measure the results of all actions and support future decisions with data.
One of the points of collecting data early on is to find and measure indicators of customers getting value from the offer and aligning actions for long term success of the business. “The track record of tests and experiments will always help with decision-making in the future. Whether companies decide to partner up with growth experts or go through a due diligence process with investors, they will require historical growth data to evaluate performance and assess the brand’s efforts”.
For Poznanska, a very common mistake early-stage founders make is misreading data: “For attribution data, you typically need to allow a 15-30 day time window to really see the performance of an ad. But very often founders don’t wait long enough and take decisions based on erroneous or incomplete data”.
Another challenge is to be aware of seasonality: there are months where the traffic is lower and running a test won’t provide meaningful data. This type of issue can be tackled by planning ahead and knowing there will be moments to run different experiments.
Team up for high-value brand partnerships
The journey people go on to acquire a product or service is so multifaceted that a main challenge is to meet the consumer at multiple points in their shopping experience. A strength of early-stage ecommerce businesses is their potential to partner up with other businesses talking to a similar audience and experimenting with different consumers.
“If a brand’s following is not big yet, an interesting option is to piggy-back off of an existing online community”, advises Poznanska. This strategy is not scalable but it can really help at the beginning: “Find another online business with an audience that would potentially buy your product and reach out to do a cross-promotion. There are many possibilities like doing PR together or co-organizing an event. If both brands offer products that complement each other, they can launch a kit featuring those items and join efforts to market it”.
Build a unique brand concept
Finally, it is crucial to consider that businesses are not only about the product or services but about the brand.
A brand is an end result of how people perceive and feel about a product/service that customers are attracted to and are loyal to brands that are purpose-driven or present a strong proposition. The goal is to create a brand that makes customers proud to belong to and this will enhance retention in the long run.
For that, companies need to adopt a differentiated approach and remember that having a great product doesn’t equal having a great brand. Crafting and developing a brand can’t be outsourced, since it is an ongoing work that is never finished. “Hiring professionals such as freelancers or agencies to think through the creative process can help but at the end of the day, the responsibility for building a brand day to day lies on the entire company”, affirms Poznanska.
Although there is no magical recipe to scale brands, following best practices from the beginning provides for the basic foundation and necessary pieces to scale a brand later on.
It is the initial work that will define who the customers are and how they engage with the brand which will be valuable information in the future. So when the time comes to fuel the fire by running more strategic and scalable solutions, brands can be sure they have a strong brand to back any tactic.