If online is the answer, what is the question?

There is no doubt that during the pandemic the one area of business that has developed has been ‘online’. Indeed, some would argue that the pandemic has accelerated the growth of online businesses far faster than would otherwise have been the case.

Certainly, the takeaway food businesses have flourished, as have supermarket delivery services. But there has also been a growth in people ordering many other items online because they were stuck in lockdown. The cashless society has taken off so as not to handle ‘dirty’ notes and coins. Even the use of ‘tap technology’ has increased as people avoid handing their cards to another.

What is unlikely to happen, as lockdowns are eased, is a return to the old way of trading. Because of this, there will be a keenness from start-ups and developing SMEs to move towards online solutions. So, the question is whether or not this heralds a change to the old business model?

The first thing to consider is what type of site you want? If you are selling online, how will you take money? It is not sufficient to just gets some pages up using a simple web creation tool.

The second question to ask yourself is how you will handle returns and what your return policy will be? Returns can often be more time consuming than the original order.

Many people will ask whether they need to have one or more social media pages. For most small businesses such pages consist of their friends and perhaps some of their customers. In other words, people that either know what you do or are only linked because they don’t want to offend you.

What is clear is that social media pages, once established, need to be kept current and that is time consuming as well. If businesses already have such a page, they need to be measuring the amount of business that goes through this route. Unfortunately, social media often doesn’t let you know how many people have hidden you or tell you how irrelevant and irritating your posts are.

The most important question to ask yourself is how you will reach your potential marketplace. Given the size of the internet, the likelihood of anyone hitting your site accidentally is remote. So, promotion is critical. This will depend on where your market is but, unless your market is very local, you will need to find a way of reaching outside your immediate area.

Some people decide to use an intermediary service such as Amazon, Ebay, Shopee, Lazada or Shopify to ensure that their products reach a large audience. You need to be realistic with this approach as you will be competing with masses of large and small businesses on the site. You also need to ensure that your customer service is outstanding because these sites will follow up on each order to get feedback and future potential customers won’t go for those with poor service.

Some people go the affiliate route where their site is referenced on other sites. These other sites need to be complimentary services or products to what you offer to stand a reasonable chance of getting linked business.

Some people may fall back on more traditional forms of promotion such as advertising, exhibitions, press releases, or fairs.

One thing that all these things will have in common is cost. Some of that will be financial and some will be time. Therefore, whatever route you take, you need to do your sums and work that cost into your pricing. Make sure you charge for your time, because doing these activities stops you doing others.

Most importantly, you need to question how the chosen mechanism is working. You need to know how much business you are getting and is it worth the cost. That means that the marketing plan needs to be implemented in a staged manner rather than a shotgun approach with clear measurements against expected targets based on costs.

The pandemic has certainly changed the interaction between suppliers and purchasers. However, has it fundamentally changed the business model? I do not believe so. The marketing plan is still a key element of any business and failure to grasp that is a recipe for disaster.

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