Building an eCommerce Strategy: How to Do It
Considering the fact that eCommerce sales are projected to grow consistently through the year 2027, it might seem like now’s a good time to launch an online business.
After all, with easy-to-use and customize platforms like BigCommerce and Shopify, anyone can do it, from anywhere in the world.
There’s just one catch. This is not a get rich quick scheme. Anyone who tells you it is has lied to you.
You can absolutely run a profitable online business, and you can do it from anywhere in the world, but you still need to know how to build an eCommerce strategy.
If you didn’t, anyone would do it, and they’re not. So let’s cover some of the absolute fundamentals of succeeding in eCommerce.
Know Yourself, Know Your “Enemy”
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu quipped, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
Why do I bring up this trite wisdom in a blog about eCommerce strategy? Because knowing what you don’t do well is as important as knowing what you do.
And, of course, so is knowing what your enemies do well. No business succeeds by being exactly like its competitors. That is a textbook-perfect example of fleeing towards the average.
So, what you need to do is figure out what your core value propositions are. Some of these might be:
- A low-cost advantage or price match guarantee
- Fast or free shipping
- The ability to reliably provide very esoteric or niche quality
- Superior customer service
- A unique product or service that can’t be gotten elsewhere
- An easier-to-use website
- A larger product catalog than competitors
- Access to industry experts for content marketing
- And much more, I can’t cover it all here
These are only a few of the items you might list as core competencies or competitive advantages, and it is entirely conceivable that your model might offer more than one, but you must offer at least one if you plan to succeed in the long run.
Once you identify what your core competencies are, you need to understand what your biggest competitors offer, too. For instance, two separate entities in one market cannot both offer the lowest prices.
If you can’t compete on price, compete on selection, or service, or shipping, or a personalized shopping experience. But whatever you choose, make sure that the combination is unique to your model.
Get to Know Your Target Audience
Once you settle on an industry and a model, and know what you’ll be selling, you have to know who you’ll be selling to. That means you need to take some time to get to know your target market so you can define your ideal buyer persona and find your potential customers.
What you offer will have a profound impact on who your ideal customer is. Do not be lured into the idea that you can sell to anyone. Very few markets if any are actually universal, and even products that all people use are often segmented by brand.
So, you need to consider what sort of emotional impression your brand makes and form your target buyer around that. Is your target buyer male or female? How old are they? Where do they live? Is what you sell a common necessity, or do buying patterns indicate seasonal demand?
These are the basics, however. There are other ways you can segment your target market to help drive a more refined understanding of who they are and why they would want to buy from you.
Consider the customer’s needs. They’re buying something from you to solve a problem. What is it?
What would make them start their search for a product like yours? How likely are they to research before buying? Questions like this will help you define marketing strategies as you move forward. Customers who are going to be buying based more on reviews and testimonials will need to see those on your site or on social media. Others that are more interested in content marketing will likely find you on YouTube or through your blog. But more on that in a moment.
You have also to consider what the budget of your target market is and how important the shopping experience will be. If your products are highly commoditized, then it is essential to offer a seamless, easy shopping experience. Think of any opportunity your website produces for a bounce or abandoned cart as one that will result in as much.
One thing to remember about building an eCommerce strategy is that you are never done. Brands that do not invest in market research, social listening, or periodic updates will soon fall prey to newer, leaner competitors – or old ones, for that matter.
As you define your target market, remember that the process is one of give and take. As you amass followers on social media, see what you can about what their impressions are of your brand. Offer something – like a discount or free shipping – in exchange for the customer to fill out a survey after a purchase.
Things like these will take extra effort from you and your marketing team, but they will also furnish you with valuable insights about how to manage and position your brand, and what efforts, if any, you need to make to adjust your marketing to remain competitive.
Define Your Goals
After defining your target market and your core competencies, you need to define your goals. You can’t really build an eCommerce strategy without doing so.
There are a lot of criteria you can apply, but make sure to keep it realistic, especially if you are just starting out. You can aim for a specific number of sales in a given period, define success by revenue, or go by the number of leads or new customers captured.
Just make sure you start somewhere, and track the data. Most importantly, remember that any time you fall short is an opportunity for growth. Just like no business can grow forever, there’s only one way to go from rock bottom.
Creating a “Shoppable” Online Store
With your core competency and target market defined, you now need to build and launch an eCommerce website.
There are two main types of software you can use, unless your venture has deep enough pockets to develop your own platform, host it and manage it. I have to assume you’ll fall into the former camp, though, and so your options are to use an open-source platform or a SaaS, or software-as-a-service, platform.
Open-source platforms, like WordPress and Magento, will require you to secure your own hosting. These platforms are literally limitless when it comes to making customizations and integrations since the source code is available. However, be aware that managing a large website built on one of these platforms can amount to the full-time jobs of several skilled developers.
On the other hand, there are SaaS platforms like BigCommerce and Shopify that charge subscription fees for access to pre-configured, templated platforms. These are not as customizable as open-source software platforms, but they can be managed much more easily by a much smaller team. In fact, small stores on SaaS platforms might not even require the help of a full-time developer since the subscription model provides hosting, security, and a whole bunch of out-of-the-box features for building and running a basic eCommerce website.
Here’s some fairly impartial advice. Go with a SaaS platform if you need a templated solution and don’t have resources to devote to development. If you do have resources to devote to website maintenance and development, and customization is an absolute priority for you, go with an open-source platform. Just recognize that website maintenance with an open-source platform will be more expensive and time-consuming than it will be with a SaaS platform.
Once you have chosen a platform, you need to design a website that will offer a high-quality customer experience, support an effective eCommerce strategy, and increase sales in the long run. Here are some vital bits of insight for eCommerce success with respect to design:
- Keep all web page elements consistent and brand-integrated across all pages on your website.
- Make sure you have CTAs and urgency plays embedded in your design, preferably near the tops of pages.
- The fewer the steps in your checkout process, the better chance you have of bringing down cart abandonment.
- Your website must be fast-loading and secure.
- Your design needs to be responsive as an increasing number of shoppers are shopping on their phones and other mobile devices.
- The website should be easy to navigate and there should be options for visitors both to search or shop through a menu. Most visitors will look for search bars and menus at the top or the left side of a page.
- Contact information should be plainly visible at the top and bottom of the page.
- Make sure your website has a clickable logo that brings users back to the homepage.
- Embed clickable “sign-in” and shopping cart icons on the homepage at the top right; this is where most users will look for them. They should be visible at the top of the page not only on the homepage but on all product pages.
- Ensure all visual elements are not overwhelming and scale properly given the size of the screen. It’s hard to navigate websites with overwhelming large hero banners, for instance.
- Balance your content and visuals. Most shoppers are visual-oriented but a page with mostly pictures and almost no copy can really produce a terrible experience.
These are some of the easiest-to-follow, top-level guidelines for producing a high-quality online shopping experience, but there are many, many others, and an eCommerce website designer can make personalized recommendations on what tips you should follow. There is no one-size-fits-all design for all industries and brands.
One more suggestion I have is to practice A/B testing. This will help you make changes to areas of your website that are not performing as well as you expected, enabling you to run continuous design optimizations over time.
Identify the Opportunities Each Marketing Channel Offers
The next step in building an eCommerce marketing strategy is identifying what mix of marketing channels will work best for your model, given what you sell and the “who,” the target customers to whom you intend to sell it.
Coming up with the right mix of channels will help you produce a unified marketing campaign that will bring you leads, resulting in higher long-term conversion rates over time, and happier customers, some of whom might become repeat customers.
The main digital marketing channels are as follows:
- Search engine optimization: I’m leading with this because it is by far the most important digital marketing channel of them all. It is the sum practice of optimizing your website by changing “ranking signals,” the cues that Google uses to assign authority and rankings. Search engine optimization, better known as SEO, takes the longest to start producing results, but efforts compound on themselves over time, making this the most sustainable channel. Even though it can also be one of the most expensive, most digital marketers agree that SEO produces the highest ROI of all marketing channels. Also, SEO is the main marketing channel for eCommerce businesses that serve PPC-restricted businesses.
- Pay-per-click: Pay-per-click advertising, also known as PPC, is an excellent marketing strategy for businesses to follow, especially when they have just started out. Whereas SEO requires a website to “earn” its position in the search engine results pages, by bidding on keywords with PPC, you can “pay to play” and get Google to show your ads at the top of the SERPs. When run properly, PPC can be continuously optimized and produce a high ROI, but once efforts stop, revenue will fall off dramatically. It’s also important to remember that some businesses cannot run PPC campaigns.
- Social media marketing: There are two main prongs of social media marketing, being paid and organic. Paid social media marketing is like conventional PPC, and some industries are also restricted, but it can still be a viable way to improve visibility, traffic to your main website, and sales. As for organic social media, the main intention is to increase visibility, brand awareness, and traffic. Both of them increase exposure to your brand’s product and service offering and can be highly effective at reaching users across many markets. When building an eCommerce strategy, consider your model and target market. The users of the different (major) social media platforms, like TikTok, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter (X), Instagram, and Pinterest are all different and are there for different reasons. It is critical to tailor the strategy to the platform and to avoid wasting resources on platform-centric strategies and marketing creative assets that will not result in the desired return (for instance, do not advertise long-form copy on Pinterest).
- Email marketing: Email marketing is a great way to increase conversions among existing customers, as well as to convert new leads. The great thing about email marketing is that you can personalize the content and promotional offers you send out based on past behavior, using email marketing apps like MailChimp.
- Content marketing: Content marketing is a bit of a gray area, because what is used in email marketing, SEO, and on social media can also be considered content marketing. However, if it doesn’t neatly fit into one of those categories (for instance, a video embedded on your homepage or a blog that doesn’t have a clear keyword strategy but is highly valuable from a user’s perspective, would be considered content marketing). Content marketing often does not drive conversions and sales in the same way as these other channels, but it has greater potential to improve customer engagement than all of these other channels. It can also make your brand seem more authoritative, more credible, and increase customer loyalty. There are multiple prongs of content marketing, too, including but not limited to long-form copy, short-form copy, video content, guest posts, and podcasts.
Most online businesses follow some mix of the above strategies, and some follow some cultivated mix that includes all of them. That is something you will have to evaluate as you build your eCommerce strategy.
Custom Projects That Will Give You the Edge
The last component to address here in building an eCommerce strategy is to make sure your website has the functionality necessary to encourage conversions, sales, and growth.
It is the functionality of a website that will attract and retain customers, and which will conclude sales. Fortunately, many platforms come with serviceable functionality built-in, but there are other things you can do to give your website custom functionality that will differentiate it from the competition.
For instance, you could work with an eCommerce website developer to:
- Integrate apps with your website, or customize them. Most major eCommerce platforms have open APIs that allow for easy integrations, but customization is not so easy.
- Code custom apps that deliver completely unique functionality to your website. For instance, if you sell furniture or clothing, you could have a developer create an app that uses AR and allows users to see what the furniture would look like in a specific room, or what the clothing might look like on them.
- Integrate different payment gateways with your website. The more payment options you accept, the higher your chances are of increasing sales.
- Develop a responsive design that will produce a high-quality shopping experience on mobile devices.
- Ensure that your website is ADA-compliant and make changes where necessary.
- Scan your website for out-of-date plugins and excess code that are hindering site speeds and harming SEO and UX.
- Create login authentication tools that improve website security, benefiting both you and your customers.
These are only a few of the many customizations that a website developer can create for your website, but they are some of the most important.
Why It’s Important to Build an eCommerce Strategy
Before parting, let’s cover some of the basic reasons it’s important to build an eCommerce strategy in the first place. Doing so can help your business:
- Set a framework for growth, helping to eliminate uncertainty about goals and directions.
- Set benchmarks that are trackable so you can measure success.
- Create a more competitive landscape for new entrants into your market.
- Create operational and cost-efficient protocols.
- Set realistic objectives.
- And become more competitive over time.
There are, of course, other advantages, but these are some of the main ones and should create a favorable enough argument in their own right for why you should set a strategic course from the outset.
Now that you have a framework, it’s time for the heavy lifting.