From newborn business owners, to seasoned sellers on platforms such as Etsy or Artfire, I hear it many times: “I don’t have the money to build a website.” But if you already pay for internet access, have a computer and product, then you have all you need to build a starter site for your business. Whether there is experience with web design or a complete unfamiliarity with HTML, if there is a thoughtful understanding of the customer, their needs and opinions, any website can be a success for you and your business.
But building a business is about more than the website and here is what you need: Branding, platform and content.
Branding, to simplify, is a sort of all-inclusive, customer-oriented package of materials and promises which represent your business, your product and services. Though a recognizable name, logo and consistently-designed presence lays the groundwork for a successfully branded business, it is also important to define the mission statement of your business and understand the projected customer before branding can carry you further. The thing to remember is that you cannot be all things to all customers, so take time to discover and nurture your niche and market that skill or product to the right audience.
- Find your identity. By this, I mean you should understand, with extreme clarity, your product and your customer promise, and should push yourself to exceed every expectation as regards these two basic business-building points. In the creative industry, specifically, many artists lose their identity by failing to find (or adhere to) a focus. A store front which brands itself as a photography studio but sells five unrelated types of product is less likely to grow successfully than a studio store front which brands itself as a destination for fine art prints. Know what you want to sell and promise your customers the best possible experience as relates to your particular product or skill. If you are confused about the direction of your business, I guarantee the customer is as well.
- Be consistent. Titles and tag lines are equally important, but use them both consistently. If your business name is Stacey’s Studio, and tag line reads “Quality fine art prints for home or office”, don’t refer to your business as Stacey’s Fine Art Prints. This inconsistency results in a presence not optimized for peak search results and emphasizes a general air of disorganization or confusion.
- Be honest. If it suits your brand, and best represents your product and business philosophy, don’t be afraid to engage your customers with funny or sarcastic interaction! Know your audience and respect he or she is there because your brand has already created interest or a sense of customer loyalty. One example of this is I Must Be Dead Photography, with a branding promise of “excelling in unprofessional photography since 1845″. The name and tagline are already compelling, entirely representative of the business identity, and sets the customer up for a very particular type of expected interaction.
- Presence. Use images, font, verbiage and packaging that is consistent with your brand and with the identity of your product. If your business identifies itself as a “green” company, for instance, make sure your packaging and marketing materials are consistent with this environmental promise. As a small business owner in the crafting industry, specifically, special care should be taken to emphasize the attention to detail often associated with hand-crafted items. A product packaged with professionalism and care will distinguish your brand from the larger businesses with which we must often compete.
- Finances. Branding, in general, can be either ridiculously expensive, incredibly cheap or somewhere in-between, as defined by your business model. I recommend keeping true to you branding promise, even if it requires a greater financial investment. If your product is branded as high-quality, artisan foot wear, for instance, the customer is going to expect a particular web presence or product presence which showcases this promise. Do not skimp. Or re-evaluate your brand. Either way, it’s important not to cheat your customer of your promise to them. Essentially, branding is about building expectations and then meeting them.
Once you’ve established your brand with a clear philosophy and identity, making yourself, skill or product available to the customer is absolutely necessary for furthering a successful business. Though choosing a platform is part of the all-inclusive branding model, I felt it was important to discuss on its own, since this seems to be the point at which many small business owners (or hopeful business owners) stop and say “Woah, now. I just invested a lot of money in my product and packaging. I have nothing else to give”. But choosing a platform doesn’t have to cost a dime… or many dimes, at least.
- Domain. Though this isn’t absolutely necessary, it’s…. well…. kind of necessary. To keep your brand consistent, it’s important that you and your business are “search friendly”, and owning your business name as a domain (or .com address) is one way to guarantee hassle-free searchability. Also, businesses which own their own domain are often perceived as established or trustworthy. For $10 a year, in many cases, you can own your domain through a provider such as Bluehost, GoDaddy or Hostgator. This does not require the purchase of a web hosting service! Once you purchase and register a .com address, this domain can be linked to any venue or platform of your choice. If you have a store on Etsy, for instance, you can direct your domain to your Etsy shop. Customers will become accustomed to entering a specific and consistent .com address, without you being tied to a particular venue.
- Website. There are many websites that offer free templates, which are especially helpful for those with little or no understanding of web design. Weebly, Blogger and WordPress are three of the most user-friendly options for building a web presence. Find a template that best represents your brand, and start adding content. For a one-time fee of (typically) less than $30, there are many customizable templates available through Weebly or WordPress platforms, and is geared more towards business owners whose branding is more established and requires a particular look to best represent its web presence. Weebly also offers a very simplified shopping cart, but it’s archaic and not exactly customer-friendly. Neither Blogger nor WordPress offer storefront options unless, in the case of WordPress, through a web host provider,which is an additional yearly fee of anywhere between $40-150. However, with free options available, beyond paying for a domain and redirecting the .com address, there need not be any further financial investment.
- Storefront. Though Weebly does offer a simplified free shopping cart, there are also other free or inexpensive storefront options. Etsy and Artfire are probably the two most recognizable storefronts for the small business owner, but are not necessarily the most affordable. Though Etsy has the added benefit of internal traffic, it charges a listing fee and percentage of sales, and now host big business among their indie storefronts. Most other venues charge monthly “rental” fees which are usually quite affordable, but with no real noteworthy internal traffic, these fees are also completely unnecessary for the business owner on a budget. Check out Storenvy to host your storefront. It is free and completely customizable.
Content is probably the most straight-forward of all the business-building elements, requires the most time, dedication and thought, but is often the most over-looked. Though directly related to branding and platforms, content is the one element which supercede them all. Without good content, your business will fail to produce the results you need for continued growth and success. Your product, interaction with customers, and the information your business, website or brand provides to the general public is what defines your business model. So focus on content first and numbers last.
- Product. This may seem obvious, but have a great product. Refine it and define it by your marketing materials. Market your product with quality photos, description and packaging. Poor images, or unprofessional images of products with pet hair or poorly displayed is doing a disservice not only to your customer, but to your product. If your brand is “organic fruits and vegetables from the farm”, then dirt behind the nails can emphasize your dedication to a crop. If your brand is artisan jewelry with precious metals and stones, dirt behind the nails can emphasize…. well… dirt.
- Social networking. Interact with your customers. Earn customer loyalty (do not expect it) with valuable, honest and interesting content. One example of “expecting” customer loyalty is best represented by the Facebook “like for likes” campaign, in which two businesses like each other for no other reason but to increase numbers. However, the numbers don’t drive sales. The content does. Though we should endeavor to support other artisans and indie business owners, their content should also deserve our support.
- Blog. Take time to learn the opinions and needs of your target audience, in order to discover and solidify your place in the market. One way of doing this is through the art of blogging. Even big business is networking socially, interacting with customers and encouraging conversation because these things not only drive sales, but help establish a brand and a degree of trust. Blogs are an amazing way to invite customers into your business in a way conventional marketing doesn’t allow. It helps share the hand-crafted experience with the customer, other artisans, and readers in general. Though time-consuming, blogging and social media are the most satisfying and explosive way to introduce yourself, business and products to the public.
- SEO. Search Engine Optimization. Google it. It’s worth the read. Assuming you don’t, like me, afterwards want to stab yourself in the eye with a toothpick. It’s not easy reading, but it will make a world of difference. And, when you understand it, come back and explain it to me, because I’m still trying to figure it out.