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Keep your business thriving – online. A quick guide to e-commerce for SMBs

The Covid-19 crisis is profoundly changing how we live and work. Small and midsize businesses are exploring e-commerce options – and for many of them, it’s unfamiliar territory. What’s involved in taking an SMB online? I talked with Sandy Ono, HPE’s VP of Marketing Strategy and eCommerce, to find out.

Robert Checketts: Sandy, as HPE’s VP of Marketing Strategy and eCommerce, you manage HPE’s online presence, which runs in 30 countries, so you have a lot of expertise in this area.  Where do you suggest business owners start with establishing e-commerce?

Sandy Ono:  When you’re building a digital business, the first and most important thing is to determine the business model you want to apply. eCommerce is just a platform and set of tools, but it’s important to be clear about your purpose. Are you building a website to get the word out about your product or service? Do you want to build a site to generate leads that you’ll take from online to offline? Or are you looking for customers to fully transact their purchase with you online?  Each one of these has very different implications around the technology, software, and IT resources that you’ll need to get it done. 

Small Business IT.jpgBecause e-commerce is so prevalent today, companies often assume they should adopt the full transactional model, without considering all of the hidden costs. But a lighter-touch approach to e-commerce may achieve all of your business objectives. Whichever route you choose, your e-commerce initiative should start with the business decisions before jumping into the technology – affordability and ongoing investments, pricing strategy, tax implications, and cybersecurity, to name a few.

Robert: In a B2B digital business, how do you think about channel partners and distributors?

Sandy:  Many small and midsize businesses provide goods, products, and services in a business-to-business setting.  While we can all relate to shopping and buying things online as consumers, the nature of B2B and B2B e-commerce for small and mid-sized corporations is different. Historically, you’ve probably depended upon channel partners or distributors to get your product out to the end customer. But today, e-commerce is likely top-of-mind, given the quickly changing dynamics of needing to communicate and engage with your customers directly - and with retail storefronts closing as well.

While e-commerce can often seem threatening to the traditional way of doing business and the relationships you’ve established with partners and distributors, it doesn’t need to be. As you consider how digital can help your business survive and grow (without alienating your partners), there are two strategic dimensions to keep in mind. First, do you want to take the business direct? And if so, what’s your timeframe? It doesn’t need to be 100% as of tomorrow. Second, what will your online pricing strategy be? Do you still want to give an advantage to your partners? Starting with clear answers to these questions will help you define your online strategy in the context of your channel strategy.

Robert:  So, how do you suggest businesses get noticed with an online store? 

Sandy:  The number-one lesson in e-commerce is: “If you build it, they may not come.” In essence, the presence of an online store doesn’t replace the need for marketing, so don’t underestimate the effort that’s required to attract the right people to your virtual store – it may be just as much as you need for your physical store.

When you have an online presence, the most basic form of marketing is paid and organic search. Make sure you include relevant, helpful content for visitors to your website. Leverage Google search advertising to attract the attention of customers who are searching for key terms related to your business. Think about other marketing vehicles, such as: email, webinars, events, and advertising with adjacent businesses, to further drive attention.

Also, know that it will take a little time. Even the most beautifully designed websites and compelling brands take a while for customers to notice and find, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see instantaneous results. If you build it well, and promote it well, they will come – but it’s going to take a little time and effort on your part to get them there.

Robert:  What does customer acquisition look like in the digital world?

Sandy: Customer acquisition in the digital world starts with knowing who you want to target and determining where they are. Digital is a great way to scale your reach, but without a clear focus, in today’s saturated media world, digital marketing efforts can often get lost in the crowd.

As we all know, acquisition of customers takes multiple touches. Think a bit about the journeys your customers will take to discover you, and how you’d like to progressively move them down the funnel. Much of their journey will likely be via digital properties that are not owned by your business. Think about where customers are learning and educating themselves about the issues and problems that your products and services solve - and earn attention there.

Then, when customers get to your website, think about how to drive engagement to take them through the consideration and preference stages of their shopping and, more importantly, how to drive repeat visits. Foremost, build trust with the customer. For example, your website should be known as the single source of truth on your products and services (e.g., detailed descriptions, configurations, and support available). Next, think about valuable content to inform and educate customers so they keep coming back – how does your product/service solve their problems? What’s unique about what you offer?  How does it compare to everyone else? Keep it simple - think customer-first - and then test and tweak to see what resonates best with your customers, online.

Many e-commerce vendors provide tips on how to fine-tune your website – see this article from Magento, for an example.

Robert:  How do you suggest providing customer service?

Sandy: The myth about digital is that customers don’t want any interaction, and everything is self-service. For many businesses – especially those with products or services that may be a bit more complicated – it’s important to provide an easy way for customers to ask a question. You might consider providing online chat for support.  Also, simplify how you enable customers to go from online to offline. Don’t forget about findability of the phone and email contact information on your website so that customers can start online but easily get through to a live person.

Lastly, think about how you can use online customer interactions to qualify leads and learn more about them. Capturing a few pieces of additional information when a customer submits an inquiry can help you better understand the need, its urgency, and the customer’s intent, so you can properly address the high-priority items first. (You may also want to use web analytics to understand their actions.) Most importantly, think about digital not only as a way to meet your customers’ needs, but to also learn about those needs and understand how they change over time. That will help enable you to keep FAQs updated on your website and adjust your content in an iterative manner to meet customer needs.

Robert: Sandy, any other advice you want to share?

Sandy: Sure!  Making the move to e-commerce may be easier than you think, and it could add a new dimension to your business – one that will support not only your immediate needs, but also long-term growth. We at HPE stand ready to support your e-commerce journey; so please let us know how we can help you.

Learn more about HPE SMB IT solutions.  See detailed pricing, as well as the Deal of the Month and more at the HPE Store.

Featured article: Small business security requires a password manager via HPE's Enterprise.nxt


Robert Checketts
Hewlett Packard Enterprise

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About the Author

RobertChecketts

Robert has over 25+ years of IT Marketing and Product Management leadership experience spanning country, Regional and WW organizations. Robert is a marketing executive with extensive experience in field marketing, channel marketing and product marketing on a global basis and is driven to deliver SMB’s end-to-end affordable infrastructure that’s secure from the start, optimized for every workload, packaged for many consumption models, ready to scale, and easy to manage.