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Whether you’re selling your knowledge or products crafted by your own hands, there are online platforms to help you reach an audience of customers and make sales. Here is my top ten:

Business services

 If you’re an IT contractor, graphic designer, business coach or expert translator, these sites might help you:

  •  Peopleperhour.com – more than 45,000 freelancers use this site to source work and new clients. As the freelance, you respond to job opportunities, pitch for work and receive payment, all via www.peopleperhour.com
  • Business Smiths – companies needing anything from business plans to web design head to www.businesssmiths.co.uk to find experts who can help.
  • Wooshii – a new kid on the block, this site has been created for creatives who produce video and rich media. Companies upload their projects to www.wooshii.com and Wooshii-registered creatives respond with their best offer.
  • Lingo24.com – for linguists, Lingo24.com can become your business development tool as work is sourced on your behalf. Clients include multinational companies and government bodies and Lingo24.com services these clients with a workforce of thousands of freelance translators spread across the globe.

Personal services

If health, beauty and wellbeing is more your thing, here’s where to head:

  • Return to Glory – London’s largest home massage and mobile beauty company, the site is a displaying ground for beauticians and health experts who deliver treatments in the client’s own home. Visit www.returntoglory.co.uk
  • Wahanda – welcome to the world of therapists, stylists, practitioners and trainers. They gather at wahanda.com as customers come looking, ready to order their services.

Handmade crafts

There is a growing number of sites for the artisan and handmade community. Here are just three of them:

  • Etsy – the mother of all craft sites. Since the company launched in June 2005, more than 250,000 sellers from around the world have opened up Etsy shops.
  • MyEhive.com – launched in September 2008 to promote the products of handmade devotees. Visit www.myehive.com
  • Notonthehighstreet.com – this site offers personalised gifts and other delights you won’t find on the high street. At the end of 2009, the company reported 1,500 craft designers using the site with sales of £6.4m. Visit www.notonthehighstreet.com

Manufacturing

  • Alibaba.com – through this site you can make your niche manufacturing dreams come true by sourcing production in China and then selling the finished item. Visit www.alibaba.com  
  • Emma Jones is Founder of Enterprise Nation, the home business website, and author of ‘Spare Room Start Up – how to start a business from home’. Her next book, ‘Working 5 to 9 – how to start a business in your spare time’, will be published in May 2010.

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There are a huge number of companies peddling different solutions to boost ecommerce sales, and of course they all state that they are the future. Some claim that they will address the “trust” issue of online commerce; others are working on smart imagery, providing the consumer detailed product information via zoom, crops and 360 degree transitions. Then there are the latest developments enabled by smart phones, including augmented reality.

Anyone considering starting an ecommerce business needs to take all of this into account. There are many different things to think about, and in this blog I try to touch briefly on a number of them.

Actinic has around 12,000 sites using our solutions to sell online, so I do feel that we have acquired some insight into what works and what doesn’t. Interestingly, the most successful sites seem to focus on some of the most basic things: like a great range, helpful descriptions, competitive pricing and a dedication to customer service.This may be the case, but complacency is not a business virtue. So what is really likely to prove important to the future of ecommerce?

Payment on the mobile

The first area is payment. It’s difficult to make payments online, and the fact that it’s still possible for buyers to see charges appear on their card if their details are stolen is a real issue. We’re waiting for the banks and the mobile operators to get their collective acts together. There’s lots of optimism that the next couple of years will see progress towards the mobile being the prime payment and payment validation device.

Multiple channels

It’s never been easier or more cost effective to sell online, and the trend is to put online, in-store and telephone sales together in one integrated application. It makes sense that some people want to see merchandise for themselves, think about it at home, then order online. Conversely, some people want to look at what’s available in the web store, then visit the shop to pick up the goods in person. As demand has risen, ecommerce suppliers have been able to provide these integrated systems without breaking the bank.

Mobile commerce and augmented reality

Nowadays a large and growing proportion of the population are carrying around sophisticated computers – aka smart phones – that know their geographical location, can combine this with real time pictures or sound and are continuously talking to the web. This is very exciting and brands such as RayBan sunglasses and IKEA are already demonstrating the possibilities. Companies such as Red Lazer are also working on innovative applications that allow you to use the power of the smart phone to combine real world items with online shopping; I’m convinced that there is much more to come.

Reputation management

One area that has moved from beneficial to vital in ecommerce terms is reputation management. I’m very excited about this  because my company has recently done a deal with one of the companies that we see as a rising star in this field – Feefo. This area is about managing online merchant’s reputation online, and services like Feefo have a vital role to play. Feefo (which stands for Feedback Forum) runs an independent service which asks customers for feedback on both merchants’ service and products. The merchant can’t change the feedback (anything illegal or obscene is edited), but has a right of reply. There will always be feedback about merchants on the web. Having it in one place where the positive balances the negative, and having a right of reply are major benefits of an independent feedback service. The result tends to be around a 10%  rise in sales, more on some sites.

The final word

We are now in the second ecommerce boom. The first, around the year 2000, proved partly illusory and partly a harbinger of the future. This time it’s for real. Someone contemplating a start up needs to assess pursuing brand new areas enabled by the latest technology and where much more technical skill, money and luck is required. In contrast there’s more chance of success with a traditional ecommerce venture, although the potential rewards are smaller and it’s still vital to be aware of the latest trends.

Budding entrepreneurs need to decide whether to build a traditional business with reasonable chance of success, or shoot for the stars in areas that are yet to be discovered. Whichever route you take, good luck.

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One of the main reasons I’m approached by new B2B clients is they feel frustrated having spent £X on a new website expecting customers to flock to it and make contact so sales teams can simply ‘finish the job’. This simply doesn’t happen.

Actively developing leads through a B2B website isn’t necessarily an aspect of your sales strategy that requires a major cash injection. The real investment is time; time to understand your visitors, their motivations and requirements. Only then will your website provide a successful lead generation platform.

So what key mistakes should you avoid?

1 Jargon and unnecessarily complex language
If the content on your website unnecessarily technical it will drive visitors away. Keep the language plain and accessible – only include more complex information data if absolutely necessary. You must quickly capture visitors’ attention, so tell them what makes you special and explain how your products/services will benefit them.

2 Missing conversion opportunities
Time and again I speak to new customers who struggle to convert readers into leads. Why? They’re not drawn to communicate. You’ve earned the right to request contact details from visitors, but don’t bombard users with “CLICK HERE” and “CONTACT US” messages throughout your site. A simple, clean and professional call to action on every page will do. Don’t have one laborious contact form. Use simple tools throughout your website to engage new visitors and quickly build your subscriber base.

3 Badly thought out AdWords campaigns
The key to a truly successful Adwords campaign is to match your ad and subsequent landing page to the requirements of the Google searcher. Give them what they’re looking for. Deliver visitors to a landing page that is tailored to their needs. Talk to them in a language they understand and engage them by showing how your business can meet their needs.

4 Ignoring Analytics
Google offer site Analytics for free. It’s essential information. It tells you how site visitors found you, what they did on your site and from which page they left. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing perfectly relevant site traffic without conversions. Spending just five minutes a day looking at your daily Analytics report can answer a whole range of key questions that can help you understand where you’re going wrong.

5 The ‘build it and they will come’ mentality
They won’t – it takes a lot of hard work. You might have Tweeted a couple of Tweets (please, not how much snow there is outside – people aren’t interested), setup your Facebook business page and updated your Linkedin profile. Well done. How much traffic will this generate for your business? Probably none. You’ve got to work your social media outposts as hard as website traffic generation.

6 Ignoring your local attraction
If the price and quality is the same, many (most?) people prefer to ‘buy local’, so let people nearby know you’re there. Look at your website – how obvious is your location? Maybe you have a few locations? Fantastic. Tell your prospects. Not only does location assist with search engine rankings, it also leaves you better placed to convert prospects not your doorstep.

7 Borrrrrrring content
Want to drive away potential leads from your website? Dull and uninspiring content will do it every time. You must grab visitors’ attention. Ask them questions, inspire them, engage them, amuse them, let them know why you’re special, show them you can meet their needs or solve their problems. Don’t merely focus on features – people buy benefits.

8 Give it all away for free
Even if you’ve got loads of content ready to be made available to your website users – hold back some of it. Produce an e-book or simple PDF download that offers information in return for visitors signing up. You can make your site into a definitive resource to build ‘authority’ within your industry. Maybe an additional income stream can be built using a ‘premium’ subscription service to your website?

9 Giving up the chance to be an authority
Your lead-generation process can be as simple as requesting visitors’ email addresses in return for your free monthly e-newsletter. Building frequency with prospects not only assists your business sales strategy significantly, it also allows you to build ‘authority’. Being seen as a leading voice within your industry makes things much easier throughout the sales funnel.

10 Assume web users have loads of time
If a prospect has found your site, they’ve probably found your competitors, too. No SEO or content structure can ensure visitors’ first click is their final click. Optimise your online campaigns around every click your potential client may make and keep the process simple. Some visitors will happily sit and read your content. However, most simply won’t have the time, which means your site must capture their attention immediately and tell them what they need to know.

It’s never been so competitive, but the rules of online selling remain the same. Keep your message simple, fully engage your site visitors and know exactly how to differentiate your site messages for those who are simply browsing and those much closer to buying.

Ian Rhodes, Webformula

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I love the internet; in the last 50 years has there been a more important development in the history of business? People compare the net to other important media developments, such as the printing press, the TV or radio. Wrong. The internet is bigger than all of those put together.

For business the internet is the ultimate leveller. For the first time we have a platform that allows the small guys, the spare room businesses and entrepreneurial spirits to compete with the big goliaths. And competition generally has intensified. As a software and services provider I can tell you it has forced the entire industry to up our game radically.

The internet makes it much easier to find all of the products and services you need to start a business. Much of your business can be run online and you can even access cheap but talented resources from across the world. When your product or service is ready, you can let the world know too.

Ten years ago I recall working for a mammoth international TV and media company that invested millions of both time and money into its billing and subscription platform. All it wanted to do was ensure no matter how or where you subscribed, it all came into a single system. This wasn’t rocket science, but at the time it was complex to stitch disparate software and web systems together, and it came with a suitably horrible price tag.

The internet has turned this problem on its head; you don’t need a million bucks any more. There are hundreds of free or low cost solutions available to help you run a startup professionally.

My own company, Actinic provides functionality out of the box for controlling multiple retail channels (e.g. web, shop, phone, mail). Ten years ago this concept wasn’t even around. Today you can buy standard applications and services at a commodity price.

So, this is a very exciting time to be starting a business. The tools are out there for you to create both great products and services. For once you don’t need an IPO to afford them.

What are you waiting for?

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