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Is your local business a good fit for online expansion?

If you’ve maxed out your ability to grow locally, it may be time to branch out.

Here are a few questions to help you decide if online expansion is right for your business and how to get started.

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Do People in Other Places Need What You Sell Locally?

Before you spend time and money on any other element of your expansion plan, do your market research. Answer the following questions to find markets with enough prospective customers to make your outreach worthwhile.

1. Where are the lookalike audiences for your products/services?

Whatever you sell, there’s a target demographic you’re aiming to reach. Let’s say you sell premium stand up paddleboards, and your business is based in Austin, a city awash in rivers, creeks, and lakes. Your local customers are mostly professionals in their 30s to early 50s who are into fitness.

The Small Business Administration has a long list of free market research sources you can use to find similar groups in other areas. Once you’ve identified one or more markets that seem like a match, it’s time to see what’s already available there.

2. Who are the competitors in those areas?

Google is your friend here. Find the competitors in your prospective new markets. Are there none? That might be a good thing, or it might mean there’s no demand in that area. Time for more research. If there are competitors, it’s time to answer the next question.

3. How can you set yourself apart from the local competition?

Study their websites, online stores, social media accounts, and customer reviews. Maybe one shop specializes in inflatable SUP boards. Another makes bespoke handcrafted high-end boards. If your product has a price point and value between those two options, there’s your selling point.

Will the New Markets Make Financial Sense?

Let’s switch gears and say you’re a plant nursery owner who wants to sell wildflower seeds and succulents online. First, find out if you’ll need any permits to ship to other states, and what those permits cost.

Then think about how you’ll ship your products, so they arrive in good condition. Take a close look at shipping costs and delivery times. Seeds are inexpensive to ship, but our SUP board business needs to make sure shipping costs don’t eliminate their profits.

Finally, know the sales tax rules if you’re looking at new markets in other states. Since 2018, states can require online sellers to collect tax for items sold into their states, even if the sellers aren’t based there.

Will you be able to make a profit selling into the markets you’re considering? If so, it’s time for a website overhaul.

Is Your Website Ready for Online Sales?

You have a website for your local business, to appear in local searches and show that you’re an established, trustworthy operation, right? If not, you can register a domain name and set up a business website in a snap with Gator Website Builder—no coding or design skills required.

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Your current or new site will need product pages, a shopping cart, and a way to accept payments. Gator Website Builder’s e-commerce plan includes those elements. It also lets you create coupon codes, manage your inventory, and calculate shipping and taxes for your orders.

You’ll also need to write and post your shipping and returns policies. Visitors are more likely to buy if they know what shipping costs, when their order will arrive, and what happens if there’s a problem.

What’s Your eCommerce Marketing Plan?

Marketing to remote customers is different from selling locally. They don’t know you (yet!) and they will want to know why they should buy from you, especially if there are local options. As you write your marketing copy, circle back to your market research. Use it to create messages that explain what sets you apart from your competitors.

You also need to establish trust. Your business may have years of positive word-of-mouth in your community, but none (yet!) in the markets you want to target. Fortunately, people who shop online trust customer reviews almost as much as personal recommendations. If you don’t already have glowing reviews on Google, Yelp, and social media, start asking your customers for that feedback. You can also ask individual customers for testimonials you can use to market to new areas.

With your message and your social proof, go after your target audience where they hang out. From your market research, you should have an idea of what social media platforms they use. You can target social media ads to match your ideal customer demographic in specific cities or states.

Search advertising can also help you reach people in your target markets who want what you’re selling. With Google Search Console, you can see the keywords that people use to find your site and include those terms in your ads. Gator Website Builder gives you $200 in ad vouchers to help you get started.

google ads for local business

Finally, consider a special offer for customers in the new markets you’re targeting. Shipping upgrades and first-time customer discounts are good options. And a referral program is a smart move, too. Offering your remote customers a credit on their next purchase for each referral can help build word-of-mouth in your new markets.

Ready to get started? Once you’ve found the best markets for new customers, figured out your costs and pricing for online sales, it’s time to get started. Build your local business website and start marketing beyond your local area.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance B2B content marketing writer. Her specialty areas include SMB marketing and growth, data security, IoT, and fraud prevention