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When starting an online store, one thing matters more than anything else to get your first sale: your marketing.
That’s right. How you choose to market your store completely determines how much money you’ll make.
Get it right, and you’ll watch the sales start to roll in. Get it wrong and you’ll just have a very time consuming hobby on your hands.
In this post, we’ll show you how to create an online store today, and how to get your first customers to show up.
How to Start an Online Store
There are six steps to marketing, building, and optimizing your online store:
- Pick your marketing strategy
- Find the right product niche
- Pick a name for your brand
- Create your online store
- Do a 60-day marketing burst
- Build your marketing flywheel
The sooner you start, the sooner you can pick up on the trends that really matter to your market.
Step 1: Pick Your Marketing Strategy
A good marketing strategy should be the bedrock for your online store. It should go before anything else.
In fact, ignore everything else for now.
(We’ll get to the how to setup an online store stuff soon — I promise.)
If there’s one step that will make or break the success of your online store it’s this one. You need to choose your marketing strategy. It’s not a hard choice, but it is one that you need to make thoughtfully and in advance.
Most online stores use one of three marketing strategies:
- Paid marketing
- Platform marketing
Let’s go through each.
SEO for Online Stores
This marketing strategy is pretty simple: find keywords for products that you want to offer, then get your site to rank in Google for those keywords.
In this example, IKEA, Target, and Amazon rank very well organically (the ones underneath the carousel and the ads) SEO for the search term “bookcase.” That means when hundreds of people search the term bookcase everyday, they’ll be led directly to their websites where they can purchase them.
If you get this strategy to work for your business, you can make a lot of money with your online store.
SEO has a few benefits that are ideal for a business:
- The traffic streams are very dependable, which means dependable revenue for your business.
- Search traffic usually has the highest volume of traffic of any traffic source.
- Even at scale, search traffic can be enormously profitable.
Dependable, high volume, and profitable. It’s everything you could want.
There is one major downside: SEO takes a lot of time and effort. Even if you’re pursuing a product category without any competitors, it can still take a good 3–6 months to see your site appear on the first or second page of search results for a keyword.
The traffic volume will be pretty small until you get your page into the top 1–3 rankings on a keyword. If your category is even modestly competitive, it can take years of effort to get to that point.
If you go with SEO as the marketing strategy for your online store, you’ll focus on three things:
- Optimizing your product pages for product keywords.
- Building useful and engaging content for non-product keywords that are also in your category. This helps your product pages rank.
- Making your content so good that people will link to it as a resource.
When playing the SEO game, there are only two things that matter: content and links. So that’s where you’ll spend the bulk of your time.
Paid Marketing for Online Stores
Some online stores do exceptionally well with paid marketing. This includes sponsored posts on Instagram and Facebook, and paid results in Google search. Paid marketing involves ad placements you buy.
But is paid marketing right for your business? My general rule of thumb: paid marketing is a great option if your product is the type of thing that could be featured in a mall.
But think of the frame of mind that someone has while scrolling through a Facebook or Instagram feed. They’re relaxing for a few minutes, laughing at a few photos, and leaving quick messages for a few friends. They’re enjoying themselves. It’s a lot like how people shop at a mall. Sometimes, people are looking for a particular item, but a lot of people go to the mall to enjoy themselves. Malls have known this for a long time and stores have optimized around this browsing experience.
Products that sell effectively in a mall are also likely to do well with a paid ad on Facebook or Instagram. These products typically:
- Consumer products. Business products have a much harder time on these channels.
- Highly visual and eye-catching. This is why apparel companies do so well in malls and why apparel companies have been really aggressive on Instagram in the last few years.
- Simple to understand. The offer needs to be understood within 3 seconds. If you have a more complicated sales process that requires more explanation, people will have scrolled past your ad long before you have a chance to make the sale.
- An impulse friendly price point. If the price is too high that people need to carefully think through the decision, they’ll skip your ad and quickly forget it.
If your product meets all these criteria, you should seriously consider going the paid marketing route.
Google Ads (formerly AdWords) is one exception to this. Since you’re bidding on keywords within Google, you put your ad in front of people who are already actively searching for that type of product. As long as the keyword has enough search volume and the ad bids aren’t too competitive, it’ll work very nicely.
The biggest downside to paid marketing is that you’ll have to invest a bunch of money upfront before you know whether or not you can turn a profit. Many of us don’t have those thousands of dollars to invest without a reliable chance of getting it back.
Most paid campaigns don’t turn a profit initially; they usually take a lot of iteration and work before they start making a profit. Most professional paid marketers need 3–6 months before their campaigns become profitable. So be careful and make sure you don’t invest more than you can afford to lose here. If cash is too tight for you, choose one of the other marketing options.
Platform Marketing for Online Stores
This is a completely different direction than the two methods above.
Instead of creating your own store and using a type of marketing to acquire traffic, you’ll leverage one of the main ecommerce platforms:
It’s definitely possible to be successful at any of these three. We recommend that most folks go after Amazon. Amazon’s audience is much larger which gives you more upside and just about every product niche already exists on Amazon.
The main exception is if you’re doing a craft business of some kind, like making your own bookends to sell to people. In that case, Etsy is a better fit since the audience expects more craft-oriented products.
eBay is still great if you’re doing a bunch of buying and reselling. But if you’re producing the same types of items consistently, the potential on Amazon is much higher.
You treat whichever platform you choose as your marketing channel. First, you’ll create your store on that platform and list all your products. Second, you’ll optimize your store to the best of your ability so the platform wants to feature your products.
Optimizing your store usually involves focusing on two areas:
- Targeting your product pages to specific terms searched for within the platform
- Getting as many 5-star reviews on your products as possible
As you improve your search terms and reviews, more people will see your products on that platform, which will produce more sales for you.
How to Choose the Best Type of Online Store for You
Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far. There are three types of online stores you can open. These types are based on the marketing strategy you employ.
The three marketing channels for an online store are:
- SEO — You’ll focus on content and links. Requires: time and patience
- Paid marketing — You’ll pay for placements. Requires: 3–6 months, money upfront, and a highly visual, simple-to-understand consumer product with an impulse-friendly price point.
- Existing platforms like Amazon, Etsy, and eBay — You’ll focus on winning the search terms within that marketplace and stacking up 5-star reviews. Requires: Committing to understanding that platform.
I strongly recommend that you pick one of these and build your entire business around it. That’s right, just one.
“Why can’t we do more than one? Wouldn’t we want to use multiple marketing channels for our store? More marketing means more sales right?”
I’ve made this exact mistake so many times myself. After a decade of working in online marketing alongside some of the most well-respected marketers out there, I’ve noticed one overwhelming trend: folks that are good at one type of marketing are generally pretty bad at the others.
Why would this be?
A couple of reasons why it’s hard to be good at more than one kind of marketing:
- Every marketing channel is completely unique. While some marketing principles apply across all channels, you’ll have to learn all the tactics from the ground up. Constantly trying to learn new channels really slows you down.
- Online marketing channels constantly change. What works right now won’t work in 12 months. Even though I’ve spent a decade doing SEO, I still feel like I’m relearning it every year. If you’re focused on a single marketing channel, you’ll have a much easier time keeping up.
- Online marketing channels are power laws. That means the majority of the profits go to a few big players — everyone else fights for scraps. If you’re not one of the winners, you won’t be making much.
If you stick with one marketing channel, you’ll get through the learning curve a lot faster. The faster you unlock your marketing channel, the sooner you’ll be making real money with your online store.
OK, step one is done. It was a long one, but it’s important that you spend time on it — it’s the very foundation of every other choice you’ll make in the process of setting up your online store.
Step 2: Find the Right Product Niche for Your Online Store
After choosing your marketing strategy, picking your product niche is the most important decision that you’ll make.
One tip: Don’t just jump into product categories. Yes, being personally interested in the category really helps with building the business. But it’s also an easy trap.
You might pick a category that won’t support a thriving business. It doesn’t matter how much time and energy you put into it. If there’s no demand, the business won’t succeed.
There are a few things I look for in a good product category for an online store:
First, avoid picking a category that’s too niche.
A common best practice in marketing is to differentiate yourself. And this is powerful advice — it’s a huge advantage when you have it.
It’s also tricky to find a genuine way to differentiate yourself that the market is willing to pay for. There are countless ways to differentiate any given product, but only 1–2 actually matter.
Does the top-rated toothbrush holder on Amazon need to do something wacky and unique? Not at all. It needs to be simple, easy to use, reliable, affordable, and have a ton of reviews on Amazon. That’s it.
Instead of trying to differentiate yourself from every other product in your category, find a category with competitors that aren’t dominating their marketing channel.
Are the Amazon reviews low for all the top products? Are the SEO results of low quality? Are there no companies putting serious ad dollars behind a product? If the answer is yes, there’s an opportunity for you to out-compete them with your marketing.
A moderate price is also key.
Good rule: Avoid any product category with too low of a price.
After all, if you only earn $1 in profit for each sale, you’ll have to sell 100,000 products every year to support yourself. After taxes and overhead, that’ll give you about $50–60K per year to live on.
Selling 100,000 of anything is a lot of work. No easy task.
Is it terrible? Not necessarily. Could it be better? Definitely.
Now let’s assume that you’re selling something for $80 and making $40 in profit on each sale. To make $100,000 per year, you’ll only need to sell 2,500 items. That’s much more manageable.
However, you also want to avoid selling something with a price that’s too high. As pricing changes, so does buying behavior. Prospects demand more proof. They may even demand a completely different buying process.
How many people buy cars without test driving them first? Not many. They want to see the car and talk to a real person before making a purchase that big. Cars require a lot of extra work and sales skills to sell effectively because of their higher price point.
We recommend finding a product that you can sell between $50 and $100 dollars. It’s high enough that sales will add up quickly for you. It’s also low enough that the buying process will be straightforward.
Lastly, make sure there’s demand.
You can tell if there’s demand by doing some easy research using the marketing channel of your choice.
For SEO, Google Ads has a Keyword Planner that tells you how many times something is searched in Google every month. If the keyword for your product gets less than 1,000 searches per month, it’s probably too small to build a business on.
Same with Amazon. If you have trouble finding products in your category with more than 100 reviews, it’s probably too small.
These days, I’d much rather pick a category that I have zero experience in but has genuine demand. That’s much better than realizing that a passion category of mine has zero demand later on.
Step 3: Pick a Name for Your Brand
Heads up: This is a TOUGH step.
That’s because a lot of the good names have been claimed. The websites are taken, the best names have been trademarked, and you’ll feel like you’re hitting dead-end after dead-end.
You might feel tempted to cut corners. You might even want to choose a less-than-ideal name just to get on with it.
Do not do this.
It’s 100% worth the effort to find a good one. It will pay off.
Here’s the naming checklist I use:
- Easy to spell. I never want any friction when people are trying to find my site.
- 3 words or fewer. I like to keep it at short as possible so it’s easier to remember. 1 or 2 words is ideal, 3 is still good.
- Pass the Bar Test. I should be able to say the name in a noisy bar without repeating it. That’s a great sign that it’s easy to understand. This is huge for word-of-mouth marketing later.
- Can get the .com domain. Every online story needs a .com. It’s become too much of a standard. Some folks use weird domains like company.online or company.io. In my opinion, this causes problems later because whoever owns company.com will know how valuable it is once you try to buy it. I either buy the domain early or find one that’s instantly available.
- Relevant to your category. Make sure the name relates to your product category in some way.
- No trademark conflicts. Any corporate law firm can do a quick check for you on this. Since legal time is expensive, find 3–5 name options that check all the above items. Then have an attorney check for the trademarks all at the same time. It’s rare to not have at least one of them work.
We have an in-depth guide on how to pick and buy a domain name here.
Once you have your name picked, grab the domain using your domain registrar. Or if you’re buying the domain from someone, get it transferred into the domain registrar that you want to use for the long term.
Step 4: Open Your Online Store
If you’re pursuing an SEO or paid marketing strategy, this is a crucial step.
Why? Simple: The quality of your site has a huge impact on how much of your traffic will turn into buyers.
To make sure you make the highest-quality site, we recommend you use Hostinger.
It’s just that Hostinger offers a great deal on WooCommerce (starting at $3.99 per month), and they make the set up of your online store as easy as humanly possible.
Even if you have never built a website before, let alone an online store, Hostinger offers a truly a plug-and-play solution. You can be adding your first products in less than an hour of signing up, even if your an ecommerce rookie.
Here’s a step-by-step walkthrough of how to set up your WooCommerce store with Hostinger. There’s a much more detailed process there.
If you plan on carrying thousands of items, or have multiple inventory locations (brick & mortar stores, warehouses, etc.), you probably want something like Shopify or BigCommerce that is built to scale. WooCommerce is still a solid choice, but those two platforms handle bigger operations better.
But for most people starting their first store, running WooCommerce on Hostinger is all they need at a lot lower price.
Every ecommerce platform I’ve recommended comes with built in marketing tools. You” also be able to connect your online store to social networks, like Instagram and Pintrest, as well as marketplaces, like eBay and Amazon.
Let’s talk about how to drive some digital foot traffic to your new shop.
Step 5: Do a 60-day Marketing Burst
When you start an online store, you’re likely starting small.
Though you’re going to experience growing pains, even a small bit of momentum goes a VERY long way.
Your first review, your first page that ranks in Google, your first purchase from a paid ad — it’s life-changing.
At this stage of the process, don’t worry about systems, scalability, or trying to do things in an efficient way. Instead, look for momentum any way you can get it, no matter how much outreach or personal work you have to do.
You need a huge burst of personal effort and momentum. Even if you have to do things that you know aren’t sustainable over the long term.
Here are a few examples:
- I might tap my personal network to see if anyone is willing to do an interview with me and publish it on their own site. This will help me get a few initial links to my site.
- I could ask personal friends and relatives to leave the first couple of Amazon reviews.
- I’d try spending some of my own cash on paid ads to test if the offer produces revenue at all.
I’m looking for any marketing idea that involves my time but also allows me to quickly get my first few wins.
At this stage, do some research on your marketing channel and come up with a list of 50 ideas that you could personally do yourself. Then prioritize them and plan a 60-day Marketing Burst. Ship as many of those ideas that you can within those 60 days.
This is the time people typically put in long hours, drink too much coffee, and really push themselves. However, I think you should do everything within reason and be careful not to burn out.
By the end of the 60-day Marketing Burst, some of your marketing ideas will have worked and you’ll have your first couple of sales. You’ll also have a small but steady stream of sales coming in because you’ve focused on a single marketing channel. That steady stream is enough to start building your marketing flywheel on.
Step 6: Build Your Marketing Flywheel
Once you have some initial momentum, it’s time to start building the marketing flywheel that will grow your business around the clock without you having to personally accomplish every task.
What’s a flywheel? It’s a big wheel in an engine that helps create and preserve energy. We’re taking the same concept to your marketing plan to create big growth.
In the early days on Amazon, you’ll need to personally ask for a lot of your first product reviews. But that’s not sustainable.
Instead, look for marketing tactics that help create Amazon reviews for you without you asking for them.
Here’s an example:
A popular tactic on Amazon is to ask customers to leave a review. Some will even promise a discount code on the next purchase if a review is published.
You can automate that tactic. Have an assistant send the same templated email to every new customer, asking for a review and promising a discount code on their next order. All the platforms allow you to message customers personally through the platform. So while you can’t email blast all your customers at once, you can have an assistant send messages out one-by-one every week on your behalf. That’s a repeatable flywheel that doesn’t take up your time.
A quick side note on this review tactic: Before you try something like this, make sure to check the guidelines and policies of the platform you’re on. There are always rules about these sorts of things and every platform is slightly different. Be careful to not push things too far, putting your store in danger of getting removed entirely.
Look for as many of these repeatable marketing flywheels as you can.
Instead of creating content yourself, can you pay someone for content? If you did the keyword research, made a list of requirements that you want on each piece of content, and hired someone else to write the post itself, you could create a lot more content to help you win with an SEO marketing strategy. That’s a flywheel.
Instead of optimizing your paid ads yourself, can you delegate that? If your conversion rates are consistently improving and your cost to acquire a customer is going down, that lets you buy more customers with the same amount of capital. That accelerates your business without your personal effort. Another flywheel.
Focus on your core marketing channel and then build a marketing flywheel that will keep your online store growing without any effort from you. This is the key to opening an online store, generating sales quickly, and accelerating its growth.
So what are you waiting for?
Start your free trial with Hostinger today and start your online store in just minutes. Then follow the rest of my tips above to get an edge on the competition.