How to shape an e-marketing strategy

Online shopping continues to enjoy extraordinary rates of growth.

According to the Retail Sales Index from e-commerce group IMRG and consultancy Capgemini, the online retail market grew by 14 per cent in 2012 and a further 12 per cent growth is forecast for 2013.

In order to maximise the potential of a business website, however, it is important to develop an e-marketing plan for it. Most e-marketing plans are comprised of a number of strategies, depending on the nature of the business. Not all are applicable to every business, but many firms employ a combination of them.

Offline advertising

The first step is to make sure that your web address is as ubiquitous as your postal address. This means including it on every item of printed stationery from business cards to brochures.

Search engines

Any business relying on search engines to generate significant online traffic may be disappointed. Since few users bother to view much beyond the first two of three pages of search results, there is strong competition for prominent rankings on the major search engine lists. The rewards for achieving a place on those first pages, however, can be high as it is here that a site can pull in visitors difficult to reach in other ways.

To raise the search engine profile of a website, you need to include the appropriate keywords when the site is being put together. And the more reciprocal links a site has with other websites offering complementary or adjacent services or goods, the more attractive it will look to the engines.

Alternatives include: paying for a search engine to include your site on its lists and paying for a sponsored link that appears along with the search engine results.

Maintaining a consistent ranking can be time-consuming, so some firms choose to employ an outside search engine placement agency to do the work for them. But unless a business is fully committed to generating the major share of its custom from its website, and has the resources to invest, there may be better ways of reaching customers.

Email marketing

Perhaps the most obvious way of promoting an e-commerce website is through an email marketing campaign.

The beauty of email marketing is that it can achieve reach but without many of the costs - print and postage - of conventional mailing shots. It allows a business to market its website and goods or services with great precision, and even to personalise the message. Since the target audience can be given the opportunity to click on a link as soon as receiving the communication, email marketing, unlike many forms of advertising, is also remarkably response-driven and interactive.

Marketing communications or campaigns can be sent out as plain text or with graphics according to the message or the IT capabilities of customers. (Remember, there is little point in delivering a campaign in a format that is not compatible with customers' technology.)

Depending on the campaign, a business can email in a number of forms: news updates, for example, about products or services; special offers; or newsletters complete with items of interest and useful links.

But perhaps the greatest strength of a good, intelligent email campaign is that it can become viral; that is customers, if suitably impressed, will forward the emails to other prospective clients.

There are, however, certain restrictions that must be observed when conducting an email campaign. Files should be small enough to be quickly downloadable (no one is going to want to wait long to read your email).

It is important also to comply with the legal rules governing the sending of emails that sell or promote a product or service.

The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations came into force on 11 December 2003 and superseded the Telecommunications (Data Protection and Privacy) Regulations 1999. Details of the regulations can be found on the Information Commissioner's Office website

Banner ads

As with conventional print media, it is possible to buy advertising space on web pages in the form of banner ads. Unlike conventional advertising, banner ads can include sound and video, and can be devised as highly interactive. The level of response to the ads will usually depend on the numbers and types of visitor attracted to the site on which the ad features. The more visitors and the more relevant the link between the site and the advertiser, the higher the response rates tend to be.

Offers and promotions

The web is particularly rewarding of sales promotions, special offers and discounts. In addition to promotions, a business can use such incentives as e-coupons to encourage repeat purchases, or rewards to retain the loyalty of customers who spend above a certain level or who make a purchase for the first time.

Prize draws - provided the rules on running competitions are strictly observed - are not only an effective way of adding value to a site or e-newsletter but also help a business collect valuable data.

Forums and groups

The nature of the web - the emphasis that is placed on the exchange of information - means that businesses can often develop their customer bases by using their sites to set up discussion groups, forums or online seminars. Members and users can then post their own views and share information. In return, the business has access to a group of people who are likely to be interested in what it is selling; a group, moreover, who will tend to visit the site on a regular basis.

Instead of creating its own community of users, a business may choose to join an existing group, relevant to its activity, so that it can make fellow members aware of its products or services. As well as consumer groups, there are a large number of forums in which businesses with similar interests can talk to each other.