Talk to enough business owners about web design and you will almost inevitably run into this myth. It’s a particularly difficult one to get past because it has two parts that seem like they would logically go together:
- First, that you should profit from your business website because it’s a business tool (true).
- And second, that the best, or only, way to generate a profit online is to sell products (not necessarily).
So, while you definitely should be thinking about the return on investment you’ll be getting from your business website, we don’t want you to fall into the trap of thinking that it has to come directly from online sales. It might, but there are other ways to come out ahead.
We’ll explore some of them in this article. The point isn’t necessarily to convince you to pursue any one strategy or another, but instead to keep you from falling into tunnel vision when thinking about your plan for profitability.
Not Every Business Is Built to Sell Online
Some new businesses are built around an ecommerce profitability model. And certainly, there are websites for brick-and-mortar retailers that measure success through shopping carts and completed orders. But the vast majority of companies don’t fall into these categories.
For example, how does an engineering firm make money by generating online sales? Or what about a publicist? Can a landscaping company have a good website even if there aren’t any products?
The obvious answer is that there are plenty of ways to generate customers and revenue without taking orders directly through web pages. There is no full list of the way you could generate money from a website, of course, but let’s break out some of the more obvious paths:
- You could sell products – digital or physical – and collect payment directly from your website (i.e., ecommerce).
- You could use social media to draw attendees to live demos and presentations.
- You could draw traffic to your pages through search engines and online ads to generate B2B or B2C leads.
- You could optimize your website for local visibility and drive walk-in visitors to your shop.
- You could get links from colleagues in adjacent industries to collect referrals.
- You could collect online reviews and social recommendations so referrals would feel more comfortable working with you.
- You could set up your website to support your live sales team with online demos, downloadable catalogs, and other resources.
- You might attract better employees through online recruiting.
It’s impossible to argue that any services company, big or small, wouldn’t benefit from having their phones ring more often. Any retail shop can benefit from additional foot traffic. And word-of-mouth advertising can be the backbone of any successful marketing campaign.
Each of these results could help you grow your business in a dramatic way. And naturally, they are all outcomes that can be gained by having a stronger web presence. So even though most of them don’t involve direct sales (i.e., ecommerce), the bottom-line improvements are just as significant.
In our experience, something like 99% of all the businesses that see the most success with web design and digital advertising either aren’t selling products online or at least aren’t using that as their primary profit strategy. We would even argue that it’s probably harder to make money from ecommerce than through other channels.
When you open an online store you’re going head-to-head against companies like Amazon. You may be able to get away with that if you have a niche product in a very tightly focused industry. If you make what you sell and can promote it at good margins, then you may slice off a piece of your customer base that the bigger retailers won’t touch.
For everyone else, though, it can be tough to get a foothold in the market. For one thing, you can struggle to get any kind of search engine visibility when you’re matched up against five or ten huge competitors. Even then, they will likely undercut you on price and offer faster fulfillment. You’ll also run into a trust issue since people know big brands but probably haven’t heard of your company.
Putting it all together and launching a successful ecommerce website can be one of the toughest challenges in the digital marketing world. Does that mean you should abandon the idea of selling products online? Absolutely not. As we will explain, it’s often a matter of balancing different revenue models to find the right mix.
Ecommerce Doesn’t Have to Be All or Nothing
If you have followed us this far, you might get the sense that we’re offering mixed messages. But really, if you understand our logic, you’ll see the bigger picture: that you need to make money from your website, but that selling things online isn’t usually the best way to do it.
Here is where we get into the fine print, though. Because even though you might not want to make ecommerce your primary profit strategy, it could have a place in your marketing mix. Or to put this another way, selling online doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.
To get more from this conundrum, let’s look at a simple example. Imagine for a moment that you run an independent pet store in a medium-sized city. You probably wouldn’t expect to outsell the national chains on your website. They can buy and deliver at scale while you can’t. But, there are certain things you can offer and sell profitably from your website.
For instance, you might have a special kind of food that is made specifically for your store. You could have homemade toys and treats. You might offer information products about caring for your dog in a specific climate. Or, you could have a video course that teaches owners how to train certain kinds of exotic pets.
Even if none of these ideas fit your business model, you could still integrate ecommerce features into your website. For example, you might allow customers to place recurring orders for pickup and/or local delivery. You could accept payment for pet insurance, vet appointments, boarding, or mobile grooming.
These are simple examples and you might be able to think of lots of others. You could probably apply many of the same principles to your own industry. What matters is that you see the power of ecommerce as a complementary or supplementary revenue source.
This strategy can be powerful for a couple of important reasons. First, because it can help you unlock more sales at lower costs. It’s probably easier and cheaper for you to take a web order than it is to service a customer face-to-face or over the phone. That means you’re getting a healthier bottom line.
Just as important is that adding ecommerce features to your website can make things more convenient for your most loyal customers. To return to our pet shop example, there could be times when pet owners want to buy food or schedule a visit but can’t get to the store. Using your website might be a better fit for their schedule. By giving them the option you can capture revenue that might have otherwise been lost while also improving their satisfaction with your company. Those are the sort of double-sided wins we should always be looking for.
The two reasons we’ve already given would be enough to consider using online sales as a secondary sales strategy. Let’s give you one more: you might be able to use small ecommerce transactions as part of the bigger sales funnel.
Imagine for a moment that you owned a fitness studio with personal training, nutritionists, and massage therapists. On your website you could sell an at-home starter kit, or a 30-day back pain relief guide (as examples). These products might help you pull in sales from individuals who weren’t ready to commit to a bigger package of training sessions. At the same time, they could also have those same customers get used to thinking about your expertise.
By selling these items instead of giving them away you might even attract more serious potential clients, rather than people seeking freebies. It’s not a tactic that would work in every business, but it’s one you might want to consider.
What Is Your Business Strategy?
There are a lot of ways to make money from a great website. Selling products, aka ecommerce, is certainly one of them. But for most of the executives reading this, offering digital or physical products shouldn’t be the primary focus.
The real point of this article, however, isn’t to convince you to change your business plan or launch ancillary revenue streams from your website (although that might not be a bad idea). Instead, it’s to make sure you don’t fall for the myth that you need to generate sales directly. And more importantly, it’s to get you thinking about what your approach to profitability will look like.
In the same way that going with an aesthetically pleasing website layout won’t guarantee conversions, adding a shopping cart to your home page won’t necessarily attract revenue. But if you have a comprehensive and well-thought-out strategy for what you want your site to accomplish, then you can use multiple elements to reach that goal. In other words, the design, the content, and even your ecommerce tools will all point visitors in the same direction.