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Summing Up

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Google Sheets can monitor competitors’ prices, capture news headlines, and devour data from websites, CSV files, and more. The tool helps small business owners and marketers gain a competitive advantage.

Google Sheets, the search giant’s cloud-based spreadsheet service, does more than just make your financial statements legible. The service has many powerful functions and features. Three of these may even help your business collect competitor and industry data that could lead to better decisions.

IMPORTXML

The first, and most powerful, of the Google Sheets functions I will discuss is IMPORTXML.

Although its name implies that it is for importing extensible markup language (XML) documents, this Sheets feature can be used to ingest several forms of structured data, including XML, hypertext markup language (HTML), comma-separated value (CSV) files, tab-separated value (TSV) files, and RSS feeds.

As an example, imagine that you compete with a popular retailer like Zumiez. Although you don’t offer everything that Zumiez carries, you do have the same particular brand of women’s twill jogger pants.

Google Sheets IMPORTXML function can be used to capture price data from a competitor's product detail pages.

You want to make certain that your price is competitive, so you create a new Google Sheet to track Zumiez. After you have created a title section, perhaps “Zumiez Women’s Pants to Track,” and a few column headers like “Product Name,” “Product Price,” and “URL,” you are ready to start tracking Zumiez’s prices.

You can place the data that IMPORTXML retrieves almost anywhere in a sheet, including below some meaningful headers.

The IMPORTXML function takes two parameters. First it requires the URL for the resource you want to parse for your data. Next it wants an xpath query.

The IMPORTXML function requires two parameters.

To apply this function, click into a Google Sheets field. First type an equals sign and then the function name, IMPORTXML.

=IMPORTEXML

Functions in Google Sheets use parentheses to surround parameters.

=IMPORTEXML()

Next, add the target URL inside of the parentheses. This URL is treated like a quote. In this example, the URL goes directly to the first of the target product detail pages.

=IMPORTEXML( “http://www.zumiez.com/almost-famous-khaki-twill-jogger-pants.html”)

Finally, you will need to use xpath to identify just the element that you want Google Sheets to capture.

=IMPORTEXML( “http://...”, “//h1[contains(@itemprop, 'name')]” )

When you hit enter on your keyboard, Google Sheets will pull in the product name from the Zumiez product detail page.

Do the same thing for the price, and you are starting to automatically track Zumiez. In terms of structure, that is all there is to it.

For some, however, the xpath query might not be self-explanatory. Xpath (the XML path language) is a querying language used to select particular nodes within structured data.

The first part of the xpath — with the two slashes, “//” — tells Sheets to search through the document from the top down, if you will, until it finds a node similar to what we describe next.

In the example, the next description or node is “h1.” It tells Sheets to look for a heading one tag.

Finally, we don’t want just any h1 tag. We want one that contains an attribute called “itemprop,” where that attribute is equal to “name.”

//h1[contains(@itemprop, 'name')]

Finding the proper xpath can take some practice and experience with HTML. One of the easiest ways to find the xpath is to use the developer tools that are built into your web browser. In Google Chrome, as an example, right or alternate click on the product name and select “Inspect Element.”

The developer tools in Google Chrome can be helpful for defining an xpath.

Chrome’s developer tools will open, showing you the element (node) you are focused on.

Repeat this process for each product that you want to monitor.

IMPORTFEED

The IMPORTFEED function in Google Sheets is designed to parse an RSS or ATOM feed. The function has one required parameter — the URL for the feed you want to ingest — and three optional parameters.

The IMPORTFEED function only has one required parameter, but option ones help you zero in on the data you want.

Imagine, for example, that you wanted to bring in the entire Practical Ecommerce article feed. You would click into a Google Sheets field and type the following command.

=IMPORTFEED("http://www.practicalecommerce.com/feed")

When you clicked enter, Google Sheets would bring in all of the articles in the feed.

Google Sheets can act like an RSS reader, gathering all of the articles from a feed.

The second parameter, which is optional, can be used to get a feed description, a feed attribute, or even a particular node from the feed. In this example, Google Sheets will return only the article titles.

=IMPORTFEED("http://www.practicalecommerce.com/feed", "items title")

The third parameter can be used to include column headers. Simply, add “true.” Note here that the second parameter is set to an empty string, which is the default.

=IMPORTFEED("http://www.practicalecommerce.com/feed", "", "true")

The fourth parameter will limit the number of items to return. So if you only want the last five articles, your function would look like this.

=IMPORTFEED("http://www.practicalecommerce.com/feed", "", "true", 5)

IMPORTDATA

The Google Sheets IMPORTDATA function will pull in information from a CSV or TSV file. This can be helpful for absorbing data from web tools or government services.

The Sheets IMPORTDATA function has just one required parameter.

To use an example directly from the Google Sheets documentation, if you wanted to look at the U.S. 2010 census, you could pull it into a Sheet just like this.

=IMPORTDATA("http://www.census.gov/2010census/csv/pop_change.csv")

Pulling in data from a CSV or TSV file is easy with IMPORTDATA.

Summing Up

Google Sheets has some powerful tricks that will help small business owners collect actionable data. The best on this list, for me, is IMPORTXML and its ability to track competitor prices.

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As Google rolls more features and functions into Google+, marketing on the new and fast growing social media network is increasingly important.

Last week, Google announced the launch of Google+ Local, which provides users with recommendations and information about local businesses including restaurants and retailers. The service looks like a combination of Google Places and Yelp! and seems like it could potentially create new marketing opportunities for businesses.

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Google+ Local is the most recent update to the search company’s growing social network.

Google+ Local is the most recent update to the search company’s growing social network.

Google had previously integrated its profiles with Google+, included Google+ content in search results — more on this below — and more closely aligned Google+ with the popular Gmail service.

Google+ Matters

Earlier this year Google+ reached 100 million users, including about 44 million in the U.S. It had taken the new social media network seven months to reach the milestone. By comparison, Facebook took four and a half years to reach 100 million; Twitter took five years and two months to reach 100 million; and LinkedIn took eight years and ten months to acquire 100 million users.

Beyond user count, Google+ content, as mentioned above, is included in Google’s search results. So having good Google+ presence may improve how a business performs in organic search results.

Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger, wrote that “building an audience on Google+ may be the smartest thing you can do as a content marketer when it comes to improved search rankings. You still need to understand the language of your audience and reflect it back in your content, but Google will now have direct indications that you’re putting out quality stuff.”

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Google integrates Google+ content into search results pages.

Google integrates Google+ content into search results pages.

Search results expert Danny Sullivan described the integration of Google+ results, even private ones, into Google search results, as the “most radical transformation ever.”

Whether or not Google+ integration in search results is truly radical, it should be considered.

Google+ Marketing Ideas

Google+ offers a few opportunities for marketers.

Just like on Facebook or Twitter, marketers can easily publish content, offer discounts, or otherwise encourage links on Google+. There are no character limits, and integrating video, particularly video hosted on YouTube is seamless.

For example, clothing retailer H&M — one of the most popular brands on Google+ — recently published a 31-photo Autumn and Winter “lookbook,” featuring some of the company’s forthcoming products.

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H&M's Google+ page can be a good example for marketers.

H&M’s Google+ page can be a good example for marketers.

Similarly, the Amazon Google+ page, which has nearly 300,000 users following it, frequently offers discounts or specials.

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Amazon is actively publishing content, including offering discounts for interaction, on its Google+ page.

Amazon is actively publishing content, including offering discounts for interaction, on its Google+ page.

Google+ also offers “Hangouts,” which are similar to hosting an online meeting. Businesses could use Hangouts to introduce new products, put a very human and responsive face on customer service, or get immediate feedback from customers.

As a third marketing idea, Google+ is very friendly to photography, making it easy to upload images and display those images. Retailers, as an example, can post new products image or even insider photography.

Google+ Concerns

I have a couple of Google+ marketing concerns. For example, some studies indicate that Google+ users only spend about three minutes a day using the service, which is very low in the context of social media engagement.

A second concern is that Google+ does not allow posts from third-party tools. This means that there is presently no way to automate posts. Perhaps, this is intentional since some have argued that automated social media posts broadcast to every possible channel are simply a new form a spam.

Summing Up

Google+ is growing both in terms of features and users. Marketers interested in engaging customers where they are might be wise to use Google’s social network.

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Popular photography and video tagging site Pinterest and its many clones have sparked a product-photo sharing frenzy that may present a good marketing opportunity for retailers.

Pinterest and similar sites allow users to “pin,” “fancy,” “tag,” and “tap” images and videos in a manner very much like how Digg, Delicious, and other social news sites allowed users to share articles in the middle of the last decade. Popular pins can mean a significant amount of exposure and traffic.

Marketers will certainly want to begin any pin-based marketing on Pinterest itself — since it is the pinning-movement’s flagship site — but there are also other pinning and tagging sites that present niche opportunities.

Pinterest is the flagship site of the photo tagging and sharing movement.

Pinterest is the flagship site of the photo tagging and sharing movement.

What follows are several Pinterest-like sites worth paying attention to.

Fancy

Fancy is part pinning site, part store, part blog, and part magazine, according to its creators. The site allows users to find, share, and purchase products from participating merchants, and may be the best of breed site for online retailers.

Fancy introduces users to products and lets them buy those products.

Fancy introduces users to products and lets them buy those products.

Shopcade

Shopcade ties its social sharing into a Facebook-based shopping application that allows users to shop together on the site. Shopcade has millions of products already listed, according to some estimates.

Shopcade is one of the newest pinning sites with an ecommerce bent.

Shopcade is one of the newest pinning sites with an ecommerce bent.

Pinshoppr

Pinshoppr collects Pinterest’s most popular pins, finds the pictured items for sale online and republishes them, making it a sort of ecommerce search engine. This model will have to evolve a bit to be a useful marketing tool for retailers, but it has great potential. Like Pinterest, it is primarily focused on women’s interests.

Pinshoppr is an ecommerce search, of sorts, with a lot of potential.

Pinshoppr is an ecommerce search, of sorts, with a lot of potential.

Curisma

Curisma focuses its attention on high-tech gadgetry, allowing users to discover, like, and even purchase technology oriented items. The site may be more appeal to male users.

Curisma features high tech pins.

Curisma features high tech pins.

Tapiture

Tapiture is a not-necessarily-safe-for-work photo-sharing site aimed at readers of The Chive as an edgy site featuring humor, gear, and images of bikini-clad ladies. The site offers a distinct alternative to Pinterest, which at times can seem like a very large wedding registry.

Tapiture is an edgy photo sharing site aimed at young men.

Tapiture is an edgy photo sharing site aimed at young men.

Pinspire

Pinspire is almost identical to Pinterest in function, purpose, and audience, but it still provides another possible channel for reaching shoppers.

Pinspire lets users pin their inspirations.

Pinspire lets users pin their inspirations.

Gentlemint

Gentlemint is, according to its creators, “a mint of manly things.” The site seeks to be an anecdote to Pinterest’s alleged femininity. The site may tend to link to more article-like content than products, which might make it an interesting option for merchants wanting to promote, as an example, photo-rich blog posts. Gentlemint does require invitation.

Gentlemint targets male users.

Gentlemint targets male users.

Manteresting

Manteresting, as its name implies, is another Pinterest-like site aimed at addressing things other than women’s fashion. Sites like this one may present an excellent opportunity to reach hobby-focused men.

Manteresting often features crafts, gear, or even books aimed at men.

Manteresting often features crafts, gear, or even books aimed at men.

Chill

Chill focuses its pinning on videos. Because videos are more difficult to produce than still images, marketing on the site will require more work than simply posting on Pinterest, but clever marketers willing to invest in entertainment marketing, may find Chill to be an excellent community to join.

Chill lets users pin video.

Chill lets users pin video.

Bo.lt

Bo.lt is a sort of combination Pinterest and Evernote — to use apps as descriptors. The site allows users to permanently store entire pages. The image from the page will be featured, but the entire contest is stored.

Bo.lt archives entire pages.

Bo.lt archives entire pages.

We Heart It

We Heart It targets an audience very similar to Pinterest’s — but perhaps younger — and offers similar functionality and use.

We Heart It is aimed at young women.

We Heart It is aimed at young women.

Knack

Knack is a Pinterest-like wedding registry that allows young ladies to pick the products they most want as wedding gifts. The site could be a good resource for retailers who want to reach the bride market.

Knack is a pinboard registry.

Knack is a pinboard registry.

Juxtapost

Juxtapost allows private pinning and features an inline “More Like This” feature that can help users find just the sorts of posts they want. Like any of the pinboard sites mentioned here, Juxtapost may represent a marketing opportunity for merchants.

Juxtapost adds a few additional features to the pinboard model.

Juxtapost adds a few additional features to the pinboard model.

DartItUp

DartItUp is something of a newcomer in the Pinterest-for-men field, but it had garnered significant media coverage. Online marketers seeking male shoppers could find it a good community to market to.

DartItUp is a relatively new Pinterest alternative.

DartItUp is a relatively new Pinterest alternative.

Summing Up

The sites listed above plus Pinterest represent 15 pinboard marketing opportunities. Some offer a relatively broad demographic, while others reach a particular niche. Ecommerce marketers might be wise to choose a handful of these sites and seek to engage shoppers with excellent, product-related content.

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Merging affiliate marketing with photo sharing on social media sites may help online retailers boost site traffic and sales whilst earning loyal patrons.

Affiliate marketing is pay-per-performance marketing wherein merchants reward affiliates — sometimes called “publishers” — that drive web traffic or sales for the merchant. Affiliates are typically responsible for the actual marketing to the customer on the merchant’s behalf.

Social media marketing garners relationships with customers or potential customers through engagements on social media sites. As these social relationships grow and consumers develop an affinity for a particular seller, those consumers are more likely to make a purchase from that seller.

Combining Affiliate Marketing with Pinning

In March 2012 a Pinterest user called “Steve” claimed to be earning more than $1,000 per day, posting product images from Amazon’s affiliate program on Pinterest pin boards. Eventually, Steve admitted that the claim was, in fact, false. But it did shed some light on the interesting combination of pinning and affiliate programs.

Pinterest — and presumably some similar sites — could be good sources of site traffic and sales.

As an example, in May 2012, Mark Hayes wrote in the Shopify blog that the number of pin-generated orders had quadrupled in just six months for merchants using Shopify ecommerce platform. The actual number of pin-powered sales was still relatively low, but good relative to some other social media sites like Twitter, for example.

Separately, reports in June and July of this year, suggest that Pinterest drives more site traffic (referrals) than Twitter or Google+.

Online merchants could offer affiliate content that affiliates could pin on social sharing sites like Pinterest, Fancy, Tap it, Dart it, or similar. Traffic from these sites should be just as valuable — and perhaps more valuable — than click-throughs coming from affiliates’ own blogs, digital magazines, or other sites.

What follows are three tips for arming affiliates with pin-worthy photography and good reasons to post it.

1. Offer Lifestyle Images

There are certainly some Pinterest users who pin product images directly from a merchant’s product detail page. But more often, good quality pins are typically either collages showing many related products or so-called lifestyle photos that show products being used.

As an example, consider pinner Patrick Minkley, who is district visual manager for Anthropologie, a U.K.-based clothing retailer, has more than 880,000 thousand followers on Pinterest. Minkley’s pins most often show fashion, furniture, or beautiful objects, not on plain white backgrounds as one might find on a product detail page, but in “real” life use.

Patrick Minkley, who is one of the most popular Pinterest users in the world, most often pins what marketers call lifestyle images.

Patrick Minkley, who is one of the most popular Pinterest users in the world, most often pins what marketers call lifestyle images.

Offer affiliates a broad collection of lifestyle photography.

2. Use Reasonable Incentives

Affiliates are typically paid when a shopper completes some action, like visiting a retailer’s site or making a purchase.

These are certainly metrics that can be measured for pinning affiliates. But it may also make sense to pay for actually pinning an image.

Each merchant’s specific industry (and competition) will in some respects determine how much to pay affiliates. But an example might be 10 cents for each pinned image, 15 to 20 cents for each individual sent to a landing page, and perhaps 1 to 3 percent of the value of a sale for each purchase.

Offer strong enough incentives to encourage affiliates.

3. Comment on Affiliate Pins

It can also be a good idea to engage with affiliates on Pinterest or similar sites. Comments, for example, can be an indicator of interest, thus getting a conversation started around one’s affiliates’ pins may encourage sharing.

Don’t be afraid to comment or like pins from affiliates.

Summing Up

Encourage affiliates to pin compelling images and link back to good landing pages. The additional traffic and the potential for sales at least make the effort worth trying. Be sure to monitor and measure a pin-based affiliate campaign just like any other marketing program.

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A new study finds that social media influences just one percent of ecommerce transactions, meaning that thousands of merchants could be, potentially, wasting valuable marketing dollars. But consumers and small and mid-sized retailers are claiming social success. Is there a social media marketing paradox?

A much reported study from Forrester seems to indicate that social media marketing is a bust for ecommerce. The study, which Forrester conducted in conjunction with GSI Commerce, an ecommerce platform owned by eBay, looked at 77,000 online transactions conducted from April 1 to April 14, 2012, presumably from GSI Commerce clients, which include large retailers like Roxy, Timberland, Toys”R”Us, Levi’s, and similar brands.

The study found that social media contributes to just one percent of those 77,000 transactions.

Now for the Paradox

An earlier Forrester consumer survey conducted in 2011 found that 48 percent of shoppers found retailers and products on social media sites and 17 percent said that they had made a purchase based specifically on a post seen on a site like Google+, Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. If 17 percent of consumers made a purchase based on a social media post, can social media truly be an ecommerce marketing failure?

Separately, Monetate — the personalization and testing platform — reported in January 2012 that Pinterest alone accounted for 3.38 percent of all same-store referral traffic to five specialty retailers, marking a 389 percent increase in just six months.

As further examples, Nielsen found in 2011 that 70 percent of social media users shop online; Ticketfly indicated in September that 23 percent of concert ticket sales for certain types of electronic dance concerts came from social media; PM Digital found in its study of luxury brands online that Pinterest and Instagram were important for customer engagement; and a comScore case study found that shoppers who were fans of retailer Target on Facebook were 97 percent more likely to make a purchase form Target than were consumers in general — likewise friends of Target fans were 51 percent more likely to make a purchase than were consumers in general.

Resolving the Paradox

Reconciling the recent Forrester study results — that seem to indicate that social media is overrated for ecommerce — with a myriad reports from consumer surveys and merchant accounts praising social comes down to an understanding of company size and a misunderstanding of what social media is supposed to be accomplishing.

Company Size and Marketing Power

First, the Forrester study that has been making headlines, could be biased toward large ecommerce sites.

Forrester itself pointed out that the study does not consider transactional data from small and mid-sized online retailers. Rather the findings are specific to large sellers with many millions of dollars in transactions and many millions of dollars in marketing investments that could be influencing the results.

For example, what if Adidas, which is a GSI Commerce customer, had been included in the Forrester study? Adidas markets directly to consumers across many channels and has its own ecommerce store. Adidas would almost certainly outperform a small shoe retailer selling its products in terms of total transactions, organic search results, and email list size.

But that small shoe retailer might be able to engage some customers directly via a platform like Facebook or Google+. Those personal engagements could lead to sales that represent a much more significant percentage of the small retailer’s total transactions. What is, perhaps, a drop in the bucket for Adidas, could be the key to success for a small merchant.

Marketing Expectations

The Forrester study’s media coverage would have one believing that social media can do nothing to market ecommerce businesses. Consider these headlines.

  • “Social Media Influences Less Than 1% on Online Purchases” — Mashable
  • “FORRESTER: Facebook And Twitter Do Almost Nothing To Drive Sales” — Business Insider
  • “In occupying the minds of online shoppers, social media is the 1%” — Direct Marketing News
  • “Social Networks Don’t Drive Sales, Study Finds” — Jeweler’s Circular Keystone Online
  • “Study: Posts on Facebook Almost Never Lead to Retail Sales” — Time

These headlines may be true if social media was expected to directly drive a large number of sales in a single click. But that may not be what social media is really supposed to do for online stores.

For example, what if social media is supposed to make a retailer top of mind?

Imagine a scenario wherein a shopper watches a video on YouTube showing how to use a new fishing rod. A fishing supply retailer had posted the video. Months later that same consumer searches for a popular fishing rod brand on Bing, sees several links, and clicks on the aforementioned fishing supply retailer because that consumer remembered the brand name from the video.

Forrester’s study would not have attributed any credit to YouTube, but without that video the hypothetical shopper might have clicked a different link.

What if social media was supposed to improve customer service?

Imagine a shopper having trouble finding a replacement part for an older vacuum cleaner. The shopper posts a question about the part on Google+, and a housewares retailer replies that the part can be ordered directly from the manufacturer and provides a link. Although that housewares retailer was not involved in the transaction for the part, that consumer might be disposed to shop for other household items. The social engagement could lead to sales that the Forrester study would not have considered all while genuinely helping a customer.

Even if social media marketing was only about driving immediate sales, one percent is not too bad. In the Forrester study this would have been some 770 transactions. If the average ticket value was $75.00 that would be $57,750.00 dollars in sales in two weeks or about $29,000.00 per week in sales.

If U.S. ecommerce spending reached $200 billion in 2012, which is within analyst estimates, one percent of sales would be $2 billion.

Summing Up

The Forrester study is probably very accurate for large online sellers, but there are still plenty of good reasons that small and mid-sized retailers should be using social media to market their products.

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Finding your ecommerce niche is an exercise in discovering passions, solving problems, networking, and testing for supply, sales, and competition viability. But once discovered, marketing and selling products to a niche can lead to online retail success.

Nearly anything can be sold online, from a $300 custom ax to a $30,000 airplane on eBay. Many retailers can sell the same product too — just think about all of the companies selling Levi’s jeans. Some retailers offer a broad range of products while others offer one or two specific items.

In this context, an ecommerce niche is the intersection of interest — or even passion — and market viability. It embodies the idea that a small ecommerce business can succeed by either focuses on specialty products or offering mass-market products in a special way.

What follows are four tips for identifying a marketable, ecommerce niche — a business opportunity if you will — for entrepreneurs that want to sell online but who are not really certain what they want to sell.

List Your Passions

Your ecommerce business should be a source of profit and enjoyment. If you don’t like what you do, you won’t want to keep at it. In fact, many people decide to open an online store because they are unhappy in their “regular” job. You will want to choose products and categories that truly interest you.

One way to find an ecommerce niche is to list out everything that interests you and everything you are passionate about — regardless of whether you think those interests represent a business opportunity.

As you make this list of interests and passions, think about how you spend your time. Do you watch a lot of old John Wayne movies? Add it to the list. Do you love coaching youth soccer? Put that on list. Do you play the piano, follow fashion blogs, collect early American scientific drawings? Whatever you do when you can do anything you want should be on this list.

Next, go down the list, asking yourself if there are products related to one of the items on your list that you could sell. If you had “watching John Wayne movies” on your list, could you sell classic CDs, movie memorabilia, or cowboy hats? If you enjoy coaching youth soccer, could you sell soccer balls, cleats, or soccer instructional videos?

Solve Your Own Problems

Another way to identify an ecommerce niche is to solve your own problems. As an example, there was a mother and daughter team working to start selling baby blankets on Etsy. Both ladies had made a list of passions and discovered a common love of quilting. They’d each made dozens of baby blankets for friends and family members, and were ramping up their inventory to start selling online.

In the process, they purchased several large cones of thread. In this form, the thread was significantly less expensive per foot. Unfortunately, these cones didn’t fit on the sewing machine. They were worried that they would have to somehow transfer the thread to spools, unwinding and rewinding hundreds of feet of thread by hand. Instead, with some help from an engineer friend, they built a simple cone holder with a “thread arm” that makes it easy to use large cones of thread with a standard sewing machine.

Now, the duo has found a second ecommerce niche selling their innovative thread feeder.

If you encounter a problem, however small, you may have just identified an ecommerce niche.

Network

Often the most valuable asset in business is whom you know. When you’re planning to open your own online store, a network of friends and business acquaintances can be an excellent source of niche ideas.

Consider going to a convention or exhibition focused on one of your interests or passions with the aim of trying to meet folks. In fact, Tim Ferrris, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, recommends attending panel discussions at these sorts of events. At the end of the discussion, introduce yourself to the moderator, explain some of your interests, and ask the moderator if she could recommend one or two people that you should meet at the convention.

Mostly likely, you’ll enjoy the resulting conversations and get many good product or marketing ideas.

Test for Viability

Finally, anytime you have an idea for an ecommerce niche, test it against the market or, at least, your own perceptions of the market. You want to think about three things, at least.

First, who else sells this product or something similar? If you want your ecommerce niche to be fashion jeans for women, you are going to have a lot of competition. This does not mean that your idea isn’t viable, but it does imply that you are going to need to market differently.

Second, can you actually get the product? If you’re planning a new product, how and where will it be manufactured? If you’re planning to resell products, have you found distributors or manufacturers that will sell to you? Do they require minimum orders?

Third, how will you market your products? Will you buy pay-per-click ads, dominate Facebook, or choose some other marketing tactic to spread the word about your business.

After you’ve asked yourself these questions, share the ideas with a few select folks in your personal network. They can provide helpful perspective.

Summing Up

One might define an ecommerce niche in a couple of ways. It can be a specialty product or a special way of marketing a product. Regardless, discovering your ecommerce niche might meant that you need to identify your passions, find problems to solve, network, and test your ideas.

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Office supply retailer Staples announced March 6 that it would close 225 brick-and-mortar retail stores by 2015, in part, focusing investments and marketing on the online channel. The move may provide examples of why the ecommerce channel is so important to retail and lessons, if you will, for other merchants.

For Staples fiscal fourth quarter, which ended February 1, the company’s total retail sales fell about 10.6 percent to approximately $5.9 billion. The company has faced increases in inventory and problems with retail overcapacity. As a result, Staples missed its sales and profit projections.

To help solve some of these problems, Staples is doing many things, including focusing additional efforts on ecommerce. This invigorated ecommerce effort, may provide a few lessons or considerations for the online retail business and new ecommerce entrepreneurs who could be thinking of opening an online retail store.

To help solve some of these problems, Staples is doing many things, including focusing additional efforts on ecommerce.

While interpreting these lessons from Staples’ action will require some speculation, here are some of the things worth thinking about.

Ecommerce May Cost Less and Be Changeable

Brick-and-mortar retail can have a relatively high cost of entry since merchants need to lease or buy buildings, order fixtures and equipment, hire employees, and outfit the location with inventory.

In good times, these locations are well worth the investment, but they can also become costly when buying habits or conditions change.

In Staples case, the demand for its office supplies and equipment has been waning, but it was compelled to keep open something like 1,800 stores — some profitable and some not — contributing to a office supply  retail oversupply.

Staples physical stores may have also been subject to changing location dynamics. Perhaps, competitors opened new stores near an existing Staples location, or maybe a retail neighbor who had been contributing to shopping center traffic closed or moved elsewhere. Even changes in roads or new home construction can have an impact on retail store locations, which in turn are not easily adapted.

In fact, doing what Staples is proposing, intelligently and systematically closing some locations, is probably the best thing that the company can do to respond to the business changes and challenges it faces.

The takeaway here may be that in the current retail environment, ecommerce is less costly and more adaptive than is the brick-and-mortar channel, meaning that ecommerce investments could be less risky in today’s rapidly changing retail environment.

Even retailers committed to having physical stores can use ecommerce to test locations or regions. For example, rather than spending thousand to lease space in a mall for five or ten years, a retailer might test out the location for six months using a kiosk that featured a handful of select items and iPads that show the retailer’s full product catalog. This test kiosk could even offer free overnight shipping for catalog items, and eventually provide insights about mall traffic and customer buying behavior that demographics could not have.

Similarly, retailers could test new product lines online first before investing in square footage. Staples stated that it needs to change or add to its product offerings. Some of these new products will appear in physical stores, but other lines could be tested online first.

If Staples actions are being interpreted properly, the company is saying that ecommerce costs less and is more adaptive than its brick-and-mortar counterpart.

Ecommerce Can Provide Better Customer Satisfaction

Ecommerce may provide better customer service and satisfaction than the brick-and-mortar shopping experience for some product categories.

Staples does not sell sexy products. Pens, paper, printers, and the like are not usually the fodder of emotionally driven consumerism. Folks don’t often enjoy going shopping for office chairs, waste baskets, or even office cleaning essentials, which were recently featured on the Staples home page.

Staples home page

With this in mind, online orders can actually offer a better shopping experience. Shoppers who just need coffee filters for the break room and pens for the accounting department, should find ordering online far more convenient.

Similarly, many office supplies are considered commodities, so that shoppers will want to be able to compare prices online before deciding where to get file folders or document storage boxes. Why, in that context, would someone want to visit a physical store?

Staples, which is also adding to its business-to-business sales force, seems to be indicating that customer service is not confined to physical locations.

Online Price Competition Is Stiff

To revisit the point made about customer comparing prices online that was mentioned in the previous section. Staples actions may also demonstrate that online price competition is very stiff and retailers need to find ways other than just price to differentiate online.

Here is what Staples CEO and Chairman Ron Sargent said in response to an analyst question about pricing.

“It is much more about the value proposition versus strictly the price. We’re going to continue sharpening pricing in a lot of key categories to ensure that we in the reasonable range of online competition. … I don’t think we have to be the lowest price on all items, but there are many other things that are important to customers. Things like free next day delivery with no minimum order size [or] five percent back for Rewards customers,”

Summing Up

Faced with changes in product demand, location dynamics, and customer shopping behavior, Staples announced that it would close about 12 percent of its stores by the end of 2015.

The company may have also reminded retailers that ecommerce, with its promise of low costs, adaptability, and great customer service, is vital for the future of retail and is an opportunity for new entrepreneurs.

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Maintaining spreadsheets, composing business documents, or even building slide-style presentations are a mainstay of modern business, including small and mid-sized online retail operations that often depend on the Microsoft Office suite to compete these tasks.

The dependency on Office has also prevented some businesses from considering alternatives to the popular Microsoft Windows operating system or Apple’s Mac OS X, both of which are proprietary, relatively bulky — in terms of memory and storage requirements — and potentially more expensive than Ubuntu Linux, an emerging, open-source, and often free operating system that may be more suitable for some small businesses.

What Is Linux?

Linux is an operating system. It will be the first thing a user sees when a computer — running on Linux — is turned on. Linux will (a) provide the login screen, (b) manage file storage, and (c) provide the platform on which other software — like spreadsheet or word processing solutions — run.

An engineer named Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel — the most basic part of the operating system, if you will — in October 1991. Since then, Linux has grown to become the most popular operating system on web servers, running more than 90 percent of them. It also manages more than 60 percent of all servers of any kind for any use, and Linux underlies the majority of mobile smartphones, since Google Android is based on Linux.

For desktop computing, Linux has trailed in popularity for two reasons. First, many consumers, if they knew about Linux at all, believed that Linux was for more tech-savvy folks. Second, Linux could not run some software designed for Windows or Mac OS X, like Microsoft Office.

Ubuntu Linux is a Linux-based operating system that is every bit as easy to operate as Windows or Mac OS X. It includes all of Linux’s benefits, and can either run Office via a program called WINE or use any number of free or paid alternatives to Microsoft Office that work natively on Ubuntu.

If someone knows about Ubuntu and has been putting off trying the operating system, here is good news: There are actually many excellent Office suite alternatives.

As Rickford Grant and Phil Bull wrote in their recently released book, Ubuntu Made Easy, from No Starch Press, “Linux can get down to business as well as the next [operating system]. More importantly, since there are so many applications freely available for you to try, you might find that you actually end up using far more office-related productivity apps than you would if you had to pay for everything upfront.”

Microsoft Office Alternatives: LibreOffice

Perhaps the leading Microsoft Office alternative for Ubuntu is LibreOffice, which according to Grant and Bull is the “open source community-supported descendant of OpenOffice.org.”

LibreOffice is pre-installed on current versions of Ubuntu — version 12.04 was the most recent at the time of writing — and it “is not some lightweight sour-grapes substitute for Microsoft Office…it is a full-featured contender,” wrote Grant and Bull.

LibreOffice has four applications, Writer, Calc, Impress, and Draw.

LibreOffice Writer is a word processing suite similar in purpose to Microsoft Office’s Word. It has all of the most common Word features — although these may be accessed in different ways — and some features that Word does not. I wrote this article, as a point of interest, in LibreOffice.

LibreOffice includes a full featured word processing and document creation application.

LibreOffice includes a full featured word processing and document creation application.

LibreOffice Writer can read and write Microsoft Word files too.

For managing spreadsheets LibreOffice has Calc. Calc can do just about anything that any significant spreadsheet software can, and is a good choice for managing product inventories, projecting sales, or similar.

LibreOffice Calc is also compatible with Microsoft Excel in that it can open, read, and write to most versions of Excel files.

LibreOffice Calc is a capable spreadsheet solution.

LibreOffice Calc is a capable spreadsheet solution.

For slide-based presentations, LibreOffice includes Impress. Impress allows users to create presentations in a fashion similar to Microsoft PowerPoint. Impress is also generally compatible with PowerPoint, but there can be challenges converting files from PowerPoint presentations created on Apple devices.

LibreOffice Impress is an effective presentation solution.

LibreOffice Impress is an effective presentation solution.

LibreOffice also includes a graphics solution called Draw. Draw is by no means a full-fledged graphics or photograph manipulation solution. But for simple graphics it can be very helpful.

Microsoft Office Alternatives: OpenOffice

Ubuntu can also easily run OpenOffice, which, as Grant and Bull noted, is the forerunner to LibreOffice. OpenOffice has its own versions of Writer, Calc, Impress, and Draw that function very much like LibreOffice. To these, OpenOffice adds Base and Math, which are database manipulation solution similar to Microsoft Access and a graphic user interface for working with complicated mathematical equations respectively.

Like LibreOffice, OpenOffice is free to use on an Ubuntu-powered computer.

Microsoft Office Alternatives: SoftMaker

A third excellent alternative to Microsoft Office for Ubuntu users is SoftMaker Office 2012 for Linux. SoftMaker costs $79.99 and offers a word processing solution (TextMaker 2010), a spreadsheet solution (PlanMaker 2010), and a presentation solution (Presentations 2010).

Microsoft Office Alternatives: In the Cloud

There are also a number of cloud solutions — including Ubuntu — that, strictly speaking, will work on any operating system that supports an Internet connection and a modern browser. Google Docs and ZoHo are prime examples. Both of these are particularly good for sharing documents and for users who move from one device to another frequently.

More Productivity Software for Ubuntu

Grant and Bull also pointed out several other available applications that were not, in the strictest sense, alternatives to Microsoft Word. But the applications are productivity solutions that are available for free for Ubuntu, as follows.

  • Dlume. A standalone address book application.
  • FocusWriter. A “distraction-free” word processing solution.
  • AbiWord. A lightweight word processor.
  • gLabels. A label management and printing solution.
  • FreeMind. An idea charting tool.
  • Scribus. A commercial-grade desktop publishing suite.
  • PDF-Shuffler. A PDF management tool that allows for combining or reorganizing PDF files.
  • Labyrinth Mind-mapping. An idea charting tool.
Summing Up

Ubuntu is a good alternative to either Windows or Mac OS X. In the past, some users have not considered Ubuntu or Linux because of an apparent dependence on Microsoft Office.

Fortunately, there are now many excellent alternatives to Microsoft Office for the Ubuntu operating system.

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Manufacturers that make and sell products under their own brand or brands may see increased revenue and deeper customer engagement when they sell directly to consumers online, but competing with wholesale customers and the challenges of managing consumer relationships can be daunting, if not damning.

Released June 10, 2014, a Forrester and Digital River survey of 109 “U.S. sales channel decision-makers at brand manufacturing organizations” about half of which had already begun ecommerce operations showed that these manufacturers are enjoying new revenue and better customer engagement.

It is important to note that the survey, which is titled “Be Direct: Why A Direct-To-Consumer Online Channel Is Right For Your Business,” is not statistically significant, meaning that its findings can only be applied to those surveyed and not expanded or extended to the larger community of manufacturers. Nonetheless, the insights the survey provides may help manufacturers that are considering selling directly to consumers and bypassing or at least competing with loyal wholesale customers in the retail sales channel.

Direct-to-consumer Sales Increase Revenue

According to the Forrester and Digital River survey, manufacturers that sell directly to consumers enjoy increased revenues.

“In the U.S., online retail spend will grow at an annual compounded rate of 9.9 percent between 2012 and 2017, online retail will account for 10 percent of total retail spending. As consumers’ buying behavior turns increasingly digital, companies are realizing revenue growth in their online channels. Brand manufacturers have told Forrester that their online sales in 2013 grew 28 percent over 2012. Our study supported this finding, revealing that 76 percent of brand manufacturers’ online channels are producing sales revenues at plan or higher. Moreover, brand manufacturers expect that their direct-to-consumer online channels will become the highest generators of sales within the next two years,” the Forrester authors wrote.

Specifically, survey respondents believed that their direct-to-consumer online sales would amount to 34 percent of total revenue, while wholesale sales to retail businesses would account for 30 percent of total revenue.

Deepening Customer Relationships is a Keep Driver

The organizations who participated in the Forrester and Digital River survey also reported that improving consumer relationships was a key driver behind the decision to sell directly and in many cases compete with traditional wholesale customers for the same online sales.

The organizations who participated in the Forrester and Digital River survey also reported that improving consumer relationships was a key driver behind the decision to sell directly and in many cases compete with traditional wholesale customers for the same online sales.

“The trend toward customer obsession,” wrote the survey authors, “places a lot of value on customer relationships. Accordingly, developing more meaningful customer engagement is a strong driver for the development of a direct-to-consumer online channel. When asked about the drivers for developing a direct channel, 72 percent of respondents identified ‘building a closer relationship directly with the customer’ as a key factor. The No. 2 reason given was ‘demand from consumers,” which shows that the desire for interaction through this channel goes both ways. However, the benefits of selling [direct-to-consumer] are not confined to the online channel. Companies report that they’re seeing gains across multiple channels.

For example, 82 percent of respondents reported a generally improved relationship with customers, and 76 percent reported a similarly improved customer experience.”

Ecommerce Operations Challenging

Manufacturers that have generally sold their products wholesale to retailers may not have the appropriate experience and organization to manage an ecommerce business, and will need to add employees, infrastructure, and software.

“Most manufacturers do not have a dedicated ecommerce department. They often (wrongly) make ecommerce a function of their existing sales groups, when the group really needs its own profit and loss management and executive ownership. But building an ecommerce team is hard, particularly in terms of attracting seasoned online merchandisers,” the survey report said.

According to the Forrester and Digital River survey about 45 percent of manufacturers found developing the internal expertise needed to run their direct-to-consumer businesses challenging or even very challenging.

Although the survey did not offer specific examples of what form these challenges might take, there are some obvious inferences. For example, manufacturers that had previously focused on selling to retailers rather than directly to consumers may find customer service a challenge. There is a significant difference between selling to and dealing with a professional buyer and selling to an individual shopper. If nothing else there will simply be a greater number of customers to manage.

If the manufacturer has not already been doing drop shipping or some other form of direct-to-consumer shipping, order fulfillment may also be a challenge. Ecommerce businesses receive in bulk and ship individual orders and products. But manufacturers are accustomed to shipping large orders to business addresses. Here again there are significant differences, and just because a manufacturer has experience shipping does not mean it has the expertise to ship to consumers — at least not without a bit of practice.

Alienating Retail Customers

The survey respondents seemed to believe that venturing into direct-to-consumer sales had impacted relationships with retail customers too much.

“There is a common fear that creating a direct-to-consumer online channel will lead to conflicts with other channels. When we asked manufacturers without a direct channel what roadblocks were preventing them from developing one, ‘fear of alienating channel partners’ was the top response. However, the responses from those that had actually implemented a DTC channel told a very different story. Most respondents indicated that their direct channels had positive impacts on their other channel relationships — and only 9 percent reported a negative impact,” the survey authors reported.

Nonetheless, retailers often feel betrayed when suppliers start to compete with them online.

Perhaps, the only saving grace is when manufacturers sell at the highest price in the market, but otherwise vendors should be careful not to harm the retailers that sell their products.

Summing Up

Manufacturers that build and sell products under their own brand or brands are finding good reasons to consider selling directly-to-consumers if this Forrester and Digital River survey is to be believed. But it will also be important for manufacturers to acquire or hire ecommerce expertise and manage relationships with existing wholesale customers.

A pay-per-click landing page should be a sales conversion engine, tuned to help consummate an order.

Landing pages “are one of the strongest tools you have to convert visitors to customers,” wrote Brandon Eley and Shayne Tilley in their book, Online Marketing Inside Out. “Much of your marketing activity will be geared around attracting visitors to these pages, so the way you construct these will have a significant impact on your income.”

Personalize for Continuity

When a person clicks on a pay-per-click ad, he or she expects that whatever the ad promised will be delivered on the next page — the PPC landing page. For example, on February 27, 2012, FactoryOutletStore.com promoted a two-day sale on Garmin global positioning systems, offering up to 75 percent off.

FactoryOutletStore.com promised up to 75 percent off on Garmin GPSs in its pay-per-click ad.

FactoryOutletStore.com promised up to 75 percent off on Garmin GPSs in its pay-per-click ad.

The associated landing page reiterated the offer with a large banner, as follows.

FactoryOutletStore.com's landing page offered continuity with its pay-per-click ad, emphasizing the 75 percent off.

FactoryOutletStore.com’s landing page offered continuity with its pay-per-click ad, emphasizing the 75 percent off.

There are a few ways to achieve this sort of ad-to-page continuity.

  • Create a custom landing page for each ad campaign. Using a platform’s user interface to make the page and then copying and pasting the url.
  • Use a server-side scripting language like PHP, Ruby, Java, or similar to add or change landing page content. In this case, a web developer would have the script get variables from the URL and change the page content to ensure continuity.
  • Use JavaScript to add or change landing page content. Here a web developer writes a JavaScript that adds content to the page to promote continuity.
Create a Clear Path to the Sale

Pay-per-click landing pages should be single minded in content and layout. The sole goal for these pages is to make as clear a path to the sale as possible, providing all of the information necessary for a buying decision, but nothing more.

“You should ensure that everything on your landing page is focused on encouraging [one primary objective] to be met — images, text, even the layout should help encourage the user to act,” wrote Eley and Tilley. “Your visitor should find it easy to understand what it is that you want them to do.”

Consider placing “add to cart” buttons near the top of the page. Use large, bright buttons, and try to place the buttons in more than one place. Also experiment with product image placement, reviews, and video.

Be Trustworthy

Landing pages should provide visual clues indicating that a merchant is trustworthy. This can be accomplished in few ways, including a professional looking website design, high quality graphics, and trust seals.

As an example, Things from Another World, a comic book retailer, combines good graphics, a modern site design, and seals from BuySafe on its landing page to help make shoppers feel comfortable making a purchase.

Things from Another World uses a trust seal and solid site design to convey trust.

Things from Another World uses a trust seal and solid site design to convey trust.

Summing Up

Improving a landing page’s conversion rate even marginally can make a merchant much more profitable and the pay-per-click advertising more effective. Unfortunately, there is not one perfect recipe that every merchant can apply to every PPC campaign. But focusing on ad-to-page continuity, offering a clear path or clear call to action, and building trust, should help optimize pay-per-click landing pages for more sales.

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