Australia’s smaller e-commerce businesses are generally ignoring the global market, despite the potential sales opportunity from the world’s online community.
According to the 2012 Sensis e-Business Report, only 5 per cent of the 1800 SMEs surveyed identified overseas customers as their main e-commerce customers. While 27 per cent made at least some sales abroad through e-commerce, only 12 per cent were using the internet to target international markets.
With exporters being the main users of the internet to target overseas customers, how can time and resource-poor SMEs better reach international markets?
E-commerce expert Edmund Pelgen says there are ways of reaching audiences overseas, but it depends on the nature of the business as to whether the investment is justified.
“If you’re selling Australia tourism packages to Japan, for example, I would build a big online presence in Japan, writing a blog about Australia and promoting it via social media,” says Pelgen, Director of SEO at digital agency Traffika.
“But for the average e-commerce business, dealing with local customers is easiest as overseas transactions tend to be incidental and have extra costs involved, such as shipping and paperwork, as well as the risk of fraud.”
Build a presence overseas
For businesses that have identified an opportunity overseas, Pelgen suggests the first priority is to acquire a domain address in the target country.
“It’s challenging to try and service the Australian and international market off a single platform, whether that’s social media or e-commerce.”
Business owners need to create a simple, easy-to-access website and establish a social media presence in the target market, via such platforms as Facebook and Twitter.
The nature of the social media platform used depends on the product or service, but Pelgen says Facebook’s ads offer a targeted means of reaching specific countries and demographics, even including individual cities, likes and interests.
Similarly, Twitter offers the potential to build a broad audience through a relatively small investment of time and effort. However, businesses should not use social media solely as a marketing mouthpiece.
“For example, my wife sells children’s shoes on her e-commerce site, but on Twitter she talks about parenting and being a business owner, building an audience around these topics while also sharing links about her business.”
Most small businesses do not cater for foreign currency transactions due to the costs involved. However, if the overseas market is the target then this could be facilitated on the website.
Getting found online
Search engine optimisation (SEO) has long been about chasing links from high-ranking websites and using them to boost a site’s Google search ranking.
However, the days of “gaming” the system through using excessive commercial keywords or acquiring low-quality links are numbered. Instead, business owners need to focus on creating unique, compelling and keyword-rich content on their sites to build an audience.
This applies equally whether the target market is domestic or international, given Google’s global reach.
According to Pelgen, Google now ranks pages higher in organic search results based on the quality of the content and the quality and types of external signals pointing to a page.
BlendTec’s famous YouTube “Will It Blend?” videos have created a global audience for the company almost by accident, and at low cost compared to traditional television advertising expenses.
The benefit for small business in e-commerce is shown by the Sensis survey, with 55 per cent of those polled reporting they had recovered their investment in online technology.
For those seeking inspiration, there are numerous Australian international online successes, including accommodation provider Wotif.com, English language school Browns or graphic design marketplace 99designs.
“Small businesses have the opportunity to move faster and be smarter than their larger rivals. There are plenty of one-person enterprises with a website, good blog and great content outperforming traditional corporate businesses, as they have the opportunity now to connect with people at a one-to-one level.”
This article represents the views of the author only and not those of American Express.
Anthony is a communication consultant at BWH Communication and a freelance writer with 15 years' experience in the stockbroking and media industries of Australia and Asia. He is a regular writer on business and other issues for publications in Australia and Japan. He consults on communication strategy to businesses ranging from private enterprises to professional service firms and publicly listed companies, with a particular interest in entrepreneurship in all its forms.