With worldwide ecommerce showing rapid growth, there’s no better time to think about expanding your business to include online sales. An ecommerce model can be an excellent choice for entrepreneurs or small businesses looking to diversify or expand.
The most obvious advantage is the ability to earn money when normal brick and mortar shops are closed. But making sure you have a solid strategy and marketing plan in place – as well as the right software to accommodate all of your needs – will be the key to not only getting up and running, but as to how successful you become.
Rich: Casey Armstrong is the Director of Marketing for BigCommerce, a leading e-commerce platform that has processed billions of dollars of transactions for their customers across the world. Prior to BigCommerce, Casey held Executive Leadership and Marketing positions at leading e-commerce and SaaS companies including Watchmaster and Mavenlink, along with his own projects which have attracted billions of page visits. Casey, welcome to the show.
Casey: Thank you for having me, Rich.
Rich: I know from the introduction that you’ve had e-commerce experience before BigCommerce, but what drove you to e-commerce in the first place?
Casey: Ecommerce in general I love planning opportunities where the market is getting bigger and also e-commerce in general is a trillion dollar industry. So even if you are not necessarily growing, the market is growing, so therefore you have to grow with it. So you get to ride the wave as well. So obviously everything we do we’re trying to improve or optimize or grow. And if the wave is getting larger then you get that much more success as well.
Also with ecommerce it’s just a shift in how people are shopping or operating, all you have to do is look at the growth on Amazon alone to see the impact. And also with e-commerce and BigCommerce in general, it’s cool to be able to help aid in the success of so many companies and what they’re trying to do to succeed.
Rich: I live here in Maine, and Maine is often referred to as “vacationland” and we definitely have spikes in tourism where we get a lot of local retailers who have a surge in business. But things quiet down for other parts of the year and so obviously e-commerce might be one way in which they can extend the buying time that people might do business with them.
Casey: Yeah. There are of course cons of the internet, but I think one of the biggest pros is removing barriers or walls between people and countries. And such is like with education, if you have an internet connection in your mobile phone to access YouTube, there is so much you can learn and educate yourself with right there. And similarly with e-commerce, whether you’re in Maine or outside of the U.S., the world can still be your market if you’re running your e-commerce store appropriately.
Rich: So a lot of small business owners – even those who have real world stores – are hesitant to jump into ecommerce if they’ve never done it. Maybe they think it’s too expensive, maybe it’s too complicated, or there are maybe too many rules that they’re going to have to follow. What do you say when you hear those arguments?
Casey: So it is true that things can be a bit complicated, but an idea I’ve been juggling with lately really is ecommerce is the new blogging. And a lot of people looked online to take their business to the next level and try a new opportunity so they started blogging or trying to find opportunities to monetize there, whether that be through affiliates or through ads. And it’s just getting tougher and tougher there.
We’ve seen a lot of blogs morph into e-commerce stores. To use a Wayne Gretzky cliché saying, “that’s kind of where the puck is going”. We’ve seen this a lot with BigCommerce customers – and not just to promote the platform but as an example – these blogs grow very large followings and they’re trying to monetize and take their business to the next level, and the natural evolution is to e-commerce.
Also, software across the board is just getting a business off the ground – whether that be a blog or software or an e-commerce shop – it’s so much easier to get things off the ground and start testing things whether that be digital or physical products.
Rich: And I think there’s a lot of people out there who have built up some sort of audience or following with a blog or a podcast, and then the question becomes, “that’s great, but can you monetize this?” So it sounds like some bloggers – and possibly podcasters – are finding ways to use different e-commerce platforms – including BigCommerce – to start to monetize their creations.
Casey: Exactly, and it’s tough not to look at the person next to you and say he or she is selling 100,000 or a million products a day. Start by just selling one item and figure out the learnings that you can extract from that, and then try to sell 2 items and then 10 items and then 20 items, and see what resonates with people and where there are opportunities in different marketplaces or different marketing channels to sell your products.
Rich: So let’s start with the 101 here. You just kind of led into that, but assuming we have a store in the real world – which a lot of my clients do – but so far we’ve only been using our website to drive foot traffic to our real world store. How do we jump into selling a product online?
Casey: It always starts with the customer and the product and figuring out where do those kinds of people hand out online. Where are you going to sell, where can you get that distribution, what differentiates you from your competitors. Whenever I get involved in a different project – whether that be ecommerce or software or direct response – is what does my different skillset allow me to differentiate from the competition and get some type of competitive advantage. And that often can just be with certain people you know.
So where can you start trying to sell things online? Is it your own webstore and you offer a discount to customers on the receipt that you give them, just to start getting some type of traffic there. So is it word of mouth because you have an offline store, do you understand paid search or SEO or some of the marketplaces that drive a lot of the traffic and start with one channel and figure out what you can learn, and then start trying to expand to some others.
Rich: That’s actually a great answer. Not what I was going for, but I think what you just said is really important. So what I was thinking about is, what are the literal things do we need to have? Like I can’t just start selling product without some sort of certificate or something, or do I need special hosting or do I need a platform? What are some of my options? I know from personal experience with some clients that you should be on a PCI-compliant host.
There are platforms out there – whether it’s BigCommerce or one of the other ones out there – that can make it easier to create a shop and sometimes people just have an order form. Is there a checklist of things that I need? I’m used to selling things and people come into my store with a credit card and they give me cash and walk out with a product. Are there things that I need to have on my checklist so that I can start selling things on my website?
Casey: Ok great, thanks for clarifying there.
Rich: No, I’m glad you didn’t understand because your answer was awesome, but I’m also curious about this piece, too.
Casey: So like you said, hosting should be PCI-compliant. There are options out there, including Big Commerce, where out of the gates you have PCI-compliant hosting, things like secure checkout. If the person is going to checkout and it’s not secure, you cannot sell to them, so making sure your ecommerce site has a secure checkout.
An interesting thing that people often think is just going to happen is the ability to accept payment. So can you accept payment and how are you going to do that? Does your ecommerce platform integrate with something like PayPal, or Braintree, or Stripe, or Square? You would think that accepting money would be the easy part, but it’s often something that people do last and it’s the most important thing. Because if you cannot transact or refund or make sure that money is changing hands, then you have no business. So I’d say that’s often where I start first is setting up your payment gateways and your payment providers, and different solutions can handle that right out of the gate to make it very easy for you.
And then obviously there’s inventory management and shipping, so it’s making sure that you have the ability to seamlessly send them their packages and track that, whether it be FedEx or USPS or UPS. So I’d say start there. And you can of course start small.
There’s a company called ManCrates – they’re a very interesting company that I recommend everyone check them out – it’s a very interesting gift idea if you’re looking for something for your dad, brother, son, boyfriend, whatever it may be. They have some very interesting gifts for men that comes in this crate with a crowbar and no instructions, and you just have to jimmy the crowbar in there and rip it open then you get your gift inside. And the gift of course is very cool, but I think it’s the experience of opening the gift that really draws people to it.
But they are an example of it started with an idea and they started shipping these things out of a spare bedroom in their father’s house and that of course moved to them doing it out of the garage, and now they have a whole warehouse where they can handle the shipping and inventory management.
I like to test the opportunity and just ship one item, or 10 items, or 100 items, and start small. Then you’re definitely going to learn things there and see if what was working for you is not working for you, and then optimize from there. Don’t force yourself to perfect everything before you sell your first item. Test and make sure there’s an opportunity and send that first item, see if they send it back or if they keep it and collect that money before you try to make the most seamless, perfect solution of all time.
Rich: Ok, so some of what I’m hearing from you is if we’re just getting started is there are a number of ecommerce platforms out there. Some of them – like yours – are going to be hosted environments that are going to take care of the PCI-compliant hosting, other ones will not and I’m going to have to go out and search for my own PCI-compliant hosting. What does PCI stand for again?
Casey: PCI is for Payment Card Industry.
Rich: Thank you. SO you just need to make sure that you’re compliant with the payment card industry. We need to get a gateway processor, you mentioned a few of them like PayPal and Stripe and Authorized.net is another one, I believe.
Casey: Yes, Authorized.net is another great one.
Rich: And then we have to figure out our shipping, where are we going to ship to too and what tools are we going to use, USPS, FedEx, UPS. And then a great piece of advice – this is true in so many aspects of life – start small, test and optimize.
So that’s a good way to get started. We may have a thousand products in our store, but let’s start with just a few of them to kind of work out some of the bugs and see what people like and go forward from there.
Casey: Exactly. And how can you kind of short your path to success. When you sign up does it come with PCI compliance and an SSL certificate so everything is secure? And then from shipping can it integrate with a ship station so you can instantly estimate shipping costs and help manage your shipping there.
And there are ways you can do this very quickly versus trying to create everything from scratch. And as we both said, it’s getting something out there to try to make everything 100% perfect, because no matter what you do your business is going to evolve and your approach is going to evolve, but nothing will ever be 100% perfect.
Rich: Now you mentioned earlier a little on the marketing side, I’ve heard – and maybe this is no longer true – that it’s notoriously difficult to optimize your website for the search engines for any ecommerce store. What are some of the things that you’ve seen work out there and what are the different ways that we might get our ecommerce store to really start driving some qualified traffic there?
Casey: So is your question around SEO?
Rich: Let’s start with that, let’s keep it narrow. So what are some of the tactics to optimize our ecommerce sites and products for search engines?
Casey: This isn’t a sales pitch but certain platforms have built in SEO features where some of the larger ranking factors as title tags, the content, the meta description – which isn’t a ranking factor but shows up in the search results – so it can help the click through rate. Things such as if you change your URL does it properly redirect out of the gates so you’re not having to do a bunch of technical dev work. If you can make sure that your platform handles all that, that will get you from an onsite SEO point of view, 80-99% of the way there. And so I would definitely evaluate that.
And then from an SEO point of view it’s interesting. Anybody can do this, just start Googling some of the more head terms and you’ll often see 80-90% of the results are actually different category pages from different sites. And so just by Googling around and seeing what results Google is rewarding, and the head terms usually have more traffic in the long tail. That just shows the extra emphasis that I need to place on making sure that my category pages are top shape, and if I’m going to try to do some link building or offsite SEO, maybe I should focus on showcasing my category pages because that’s where I can get the biggest bang for the buck.
Rich: Can you explain “top shaping” to me?
Casey: Oh, I said IN top shape. Maybe I misspoke, but just as well optimized as possible.
Rich: I see. I was envisioning some really svelte shape, I don’t know. Maybe you can have a new catchphrase or something.
Now this may be completely outside of your expertise, but some of the searches I do at Google, I see the Google Shopping options that I can click on right there – which is a little bit different than the advertising – is that something that we should be thinking about. And if so, how do we get out products to show up in that ecommerce section on a Google search results page?
Casey: Google Shopping is a paid option, so those are sponsored. If you have the budget or the skillset or the desire to dive in there, I highly recommend it. So with Watchmaster – who you mentioned prior – outside of word of mouth almost all of our traffic and sales were driven through Google Shopping. The power of Google Shopping is off the charts and I think it’s just going to get more and more powerful.
If you search “red shoes”, you get these bright red shoes at the top of the search results that are screaming for you to click them. So it’s not just the 10 blue links which are the Google results, but there are images with them, there might be star rating, there will be the prices. So if you can find opportunity there, you have to pay for that traffic, but it can often drive a large amount of your sales and also you can optimize for intent. So if maybe they want red dance shoes or red basketball shoes, especially early on if you can get more granular. If you start off with a more specific query like “red Nike basketball shoes”, then you can expand out more from that and see where else you can get ROI.
Rich: And how are we getting that, is that like and XML feed that we’ve got to prepare to get out to Google or something like that?
Casey: You can do an XML feed. Make sure that all of the data from your shop matches the XML feed, because if it doesn’t they won’t approve your ads. You can manually do it as well.
Rich: Alright, sounds good.
Casey: If you have 5 items, you can manually go in there and just see how everything works before you start to do things in a more automated fashion.
Rich: Makes a lot of sense. So what’s your top tip if we’re selling physical products?
Casey: It all starts with understanding your customer and what job do your products serve. And then from there what products of yours have the highest demand or the largest margin, what are you trying to optimize for there. And then the next step is where can you get distribution opportunities.
So to kind of walk through those really quickly, let’s say you sell dog toys. What people are really trying to purchase your dog toys? Is it because they love their dog so much, or is it because it helps them get outside and be more active, or do they like to go to the park and talk to people that they’re trying to court and they use their dog as bait. I don’t know, what is the real reason for that dog toy, how do people view those things.
And then maybe figuring out which of your products have the highest margin if you’re trying to sell for volume, what should you optimize there, what’s the biggest market. And then where are these opportunities. Let’s say people are using their dog toy sand their dogs for dating, can you partner with a dating website or podcast that will promote out your products from an affiliate point of view, and can you pre-structure the agreement so you know that you’re only going to pay them on units sold and you give them $5 for every transaction and you know that you’re still going to net $7 per product. And you can test something like that, because that way if it fails you don’t lose any money. But if it succeeds or is mildly successful, you’re going to make money and capture a lot of customers.
Or maybe you know someone who is extremely proficient with Facebook ads, you can really drill down to targeting these people and you can start driving ROI on Facebook. And obviously everybody in the world is on Facebook so the ability to reach the right people is there is you can optimize your ads. So just really trying to think that based on the data I have and the products I’m selling, where are the opportunities. It’s not the same for any two businesses.
Rich: I really like the idea of the dog toys and the dating, that’s a very creative idea that certainly most people would not come up with. I was going to ask you next if you have any tips for selling digital or virtual products, but would you say they’re kind of the same thing, just find some creative partnerships out there and find new ways to distribute that information or is there something specific that you might think about for virtual products?
Casey: The beauty of virtual products is often the margin is greater. You put in the tie to create the virtual product to start, and after that it should be all revenue for the most past, maybe some hosting costs or something.
I think you still need to think about your customer. If you’re selling e-books for MP3’s or whatever the digital products, the customer is going to be different. Some people just do not want to buy ebooks, some people want physical books. So again it’s just about really understanding who your customer is.
Rich: What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see small business owners making when they jump into ecommerce? You mentioned that you want to start small so I’m sure one of them is that people maybe try to sell too much or try to get too big right away. But what other mistakes are you seeing people make out there?
Casey: I’d say that’s the biggest. The next is not fully understanding your true economics, like what are your costs of goods sold, how much does it cost to market them, what is your true margin. You need to incorporate all those factors into calculating how profitable business is. If your costs of goods sold plus your marketing unit economics are negative, then obviously you need to re-evaluate business.
Rich: That makes a lot of sense. We don’t want to be losing money on every single product we sell and ship.
Casey: It sounds obvious but it’s something that people don’t necessarily do, and it’s also maybe because they don’t want to necessarily face reality.
Rich: Or do the math.
Casey: Or do the math.
Rich: This has been great Casey, I really appreciate your time today. Can you tell us where we can find you online?
Rich: Awesome Casey, thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise with us today.
Casey: Of course, I appreciate it. Thanks, Rich.
- Be sure to check out more of what Casey is doing in the ecommerce space at his website, or follow him on Twitter.
- Rich Brooks uses his superpowers for good to help others – as President of flyte new media, founder of the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference, and author of the a new book – all designed to help businesses find, attract and retain their ideal audience and reach the next level in their growth and success.