What stops a successful brick-and-mortar business from succeeding online?

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Helen Culshaw, director at Ascendancy Internet Marketing, answers a reader's question about taking their business online.

This article is part of BusinessZone’s Winning on the Web campaign in association with .com.

Many successful bricks and mortar businesses make a very successful transition to marketing themselves on the web, however, there are several things to keep in mind.

With such a vast range of brick-and-mortar businesses it’s difficult to generalise about what stops these businesses from succeeding online, but these five pointers cover the issues we’ve observed over the years:

1. Business owners need to buy into the idea of ‘going online’

Often, the business owner will have been advised that they need to ‘go online’ and will go along with this advice because they feel they ought to.

Without real buy-in from management any new online plans for the business are likely to fail. This is often the case where the business has been running quite successfully for many years without any kind of website.

What can happen if the business’ new website is not immediately a runaway success is that the business owner will quickly see this as justification for sticking with the way things have always been done.

Getting online is within the grasp of your brick-and-mortar businesses, but it’s crucial you manage expectations and the whole management team has bought into the process.

2. Get access to the skills and knowledge needed to build a successful website

Even in businesses where the management has fully bought into the idea of taking their brick-and-mortar business online, this does not mean that they really understand what is involved in achieving this.

Businesses may use an external web company to develop their website, but it’s still important that someone within the business understands what it takes to succeed online.

When the decision maker within the business has not taken the time to learn at least a small amount about marketing themselves online, they are more likely to make poor decisions when selecting and briefing a supplier.

They are also likely to have unrealistic expectations, for example thinking that simply building a website and ‘putting it out there’ is enough, rather than realizing they also need a plan for how to market the site once it’s live.

Getting online is within the grasp of your brick-and-mortar businesses, but it’s crucial you manage expectations and the whole management team has bought into the process.

That said, it’s possible to get started with a simple website that’s limited to a company description and address; a website doesn’t have to be rocket science to be successful. The key is to understand what you’re trying to achieve and manage expectations.

It’s important to educate yourself about getting online and what helps businesses succeed. Make use of resources that are available online and learn everything you can about getting your business on the web.

3. The decision maker thinks their website needs to be a reflection of their own personal tastes

Too many business leaders – not only those who run successful brick- and-mortar businesses, either – make the mistake of forgetting the customer when working to develop their website.

Building a strong, successful website is not like choosing wallpaper or furniture for the home. Over the years, we have encountered time and again the situation where the design and functionality of the website is built around the personal preferences of the business owner.

In this scenario, colour schemes are chosen because the business owner likes them, not because they are more likely to entice the potential customer to trust and buy from the business. Menu bars are positioned in unconventional places because the decision maker thinks they look better there. Things fly around the screen because someone thought that it would make the site look ‘dynamic’.

A website should be viewed as a machine for generating business and be built around the preferences and behaviours of customers; it is not a reflection of personal style or taste.

4. The business does not set aside sufficient budget

There is a common perception that everything on the web is cheap and/or free. And many things on the web are indeed cheap or free – but if you’re trying to compete in a crowded market, you’re unlikely to succeed as an online business if you’re doing everything on the cheap.

It’s possible to build a simple website using a cheap online tool, which gets some traffic from Google for free, generates enquiries and makes some money, particularly if you’re targeting customers in your local area. If you’re the only chiropodist in Shifnal, Shropshire, and you want to get to the top of Google for ‘chiropodist Shifnal’ then you may well succeed, as you do deserve to appear for that phrase!

It’s also useful for your customers, and potential customers, to be able to find out more details about your business after seeing your off-line marketing or visiting a location. This means even if you don’t get a huge amount of traffic your business is benefitting from being online.

5. Think about how your business model works online

Sometimes there are businesses that will not work if the brick-and-mortar sales offering is translated as-is to the web. Think of the small, independently run DIY store in your local market town. It’s a great shop – it’s an Aladdin’s cave of everything you might need to buy in a hurry when your light bulb blows, you urgently need some wood glue or you suddenly need to replace a paint brush.

However, the prices of the products in this small independent store are actually significantly more expensive than the competition online. The only reason the business works in its brick-and-mortar form is that people can get things they need from that store in a hurry.

This is not to say that the owner of the DIY store can’t build a successful business online, but he or she will need to be prepared to build a different kind of business online, one with different products, cheaper products or better products, perhaps.

Alternatively it might be the case that you build a website simply to advertise your business or let your customers know what’s going on, rather than try to create a full ecommerce offering. Even if the store has a website with only their address and opening hours, the store can profit from the site because they can be found online; going online is key for a local shop too!

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