How can I make online a bigger part of my business?

Alexis Bradbury, Director of Browndog Agency, explains how business can use online channels to sell their products or services to overseas customers.

This question pretty much sums up the gist of all the conversations my colleagues and I have been having with potential and existing clients alike over the past three months. Every business we have spoken to wants to explore new routes to market, consider direct selling, and support traditional salespeople with an enhanced online proposition.

One of the few positives of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the way in which business owners and their teams have rapidly adapted to new ways of working, and in many instances it is the use of technology and an increase in their online presence that has led the way.

As a WordPress and Woo Commerce specialist, we have been frantically pulling together proposals on how to make landing pages work better, how to drive more traffic to online stores or physical shops and appointments, and how to replace salespeople on the road with a set of virtual sales tools.

Many businesses have come to realise that relying on one route to market does not make for a very resilient business model, and that however reluctant they might be to risk damaging existing retail partnerships, they are going to have to consider direct selling alongside other models. Every current trend points this way, as in-store footfall decreases and online sales continue to grow.

We practice what we preach for ourselves as well as for our clients, which is why over the past four years our £2m annual sales now comprises almost exactly half from client services, and half from our own e-commerce business. It’s no surprise that since lockdown was announced it is this side of the business that has held up best and, despite a small drop in volumes of sales year on year, profits for Q2 are actually set to rise, due in part to reduced competition from physical stores.

Another aspect of online retailing that has seen recent growth is in international trade, whether that is from larger demand for niche products, or constricted supply chains within domestic markets. Indeed, of the 60 websites that we manage for our clients, over the past two months more than 70% have seen an increase in traffic from overseas. With that in mind, a number of our current projects revolve around adding foreign language landing pages to client sites, expanding payment gateways to accept foreign currencies, and rolling out paid search campaigns in other countries.

For many of our UK manufacturing clients, they have also found that their quality and innovation is much respected overseas as well as domestically, so creating relevant content that showcases just why their products are so in demand can massively help with overseas lead generation.

Another key to building on the initial success of online sales activity is customer service and retention, and there is no reason why an online model can’t provide an excellent service proposition. You have lots of customer data, detailed analysis of what pages your customers visited and which products or services interested them, even at what point they left your site.

By segmenting your customer base, listening to the questions they ask and the search terms that led them to your door, it is relatively easy to respond with a meaningful relationship, including content that they will be interested in, answers to the questions they ask, and clear benefits to engaging with you on an ongoing basis.

Couple this with the benefits of a semi-automated customer management system (order acknowledgements, delivery details, requests for a review, up-selling, abandoned baskets etc), and you have the foundations of a more robust and resilient online model.

Hopefully every business is now putting the creation of an online strategy at the very heart of its business planning and done properly there is no reason why any organisation can’t build a much stronger model for the future.

You can learn how to set up on online during the Department for International Trade’s Selling Online Overseas Accelerator Programme. This is a six-week opportunity available to businesses in Yorkshire, free of charge, where I and other industry experts will show you how to use online channels to deliver your products or services to overseas customers. Apply at bit.ly/sellingonlineprogramme.

Enterprise Growth Solutions, in partnership with the Department for International Trade, is delivering the contract for the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which provides £7.1 million of support for first time, but also experienced exporters as part of the Exporting for Growth Programme.