How to make advertising work for your online store

4 · by Dennis Moons · Updated on 23 December 2014

I finally convinced my friend I could help him fix this.

We were sitting in a coffee shop, looking at the screen of his laptop.

It had been a while since I’d seen Steve. He had been working as a consultant for the last 4 years, slowly moving up the ranks.

“The work still is really interesting, I’m well paid and working with big companies.” But something was missing.

Over the years he had a growing feeling that he wanted to do something different. Not a new job in a different company, but something of his own.

After a lot of thinking he had decided to act on the feeling. That’s why he bought an online store a couple of months back.

Ecommerce was a whole new world for him. So during the first months he had been learning the basics of products, pricing and promotion. Afterwards he had tried to grow the store any way he could.

“Advertising doesn’t work for me.” Steve said.

He knew I’d be asking him about this because that’s what I do for a living: running advertising campaigns for other clients.

“It’s way too expensive for me to get new customers. I’ve spent a lot of money and the sales just aren’t there.”

After talking to him for a while he got more silent.

“I am ashamed of the amount of money I have thrown away.” he said quietly. I looked at the totals on the screen and quickly did the math. About $4500 spent on advertising, slowly trickled out over the last 6 months.

I told him I had seen this before. It is easy to spend money on ads, but getting a return for it can be damn hard.

From what I had seen about his store and his numbers, I knew that there was room for improvement, lots of it. So I offered to help him turn things around.

From his enthusiasm it was clear that he wanted his store to succeed more than anything. It was his dream for a different kind of life, one where he would be in charge of his job!

So we got to work.

Step 1: trimming the fat

“Advertising is a numbers game”, I told him.

“You put money in, more has to come out.”

If that equation doesn’t work there are 2 reasons. Or you put in too much money, or not enough has come out.

He had spent the biggest chunk on Adwords campaigns so we started investigating where he could trim his advertising spending.

Luckily he had enabled the conversion tracking so we could see which campaigns and keywords brought him sales, and which didn’t.

After seeing hundreds of Adwords accounts one thing had become clear to me. The main goal of Google’s advertising platform was to make Google more money. To do that they had created a whole set of pitfalls for business owners to fall into.

“On Adwords, there are three magic tweaks” I said. “These do not only limit your spending, but make sure you get more qualified visitors to your site”.

  • Switch off the Display network and limit your campaigns to the Search Network. You want your ads to appear next to relevant search queries, not on video sites, games or random mobile apps.
  • Add negative keywords. Monitor the actual keywords that your advertisements trigger. If keywords seem irrelevant, be sure to block them. This prevents unqualified visitors from ever seeing your ads.
  • Use narrower match types: People usually put a lot of thought into the keywords they want to appear next to. But by default, Google will use broad match. This means that they will show your ad when people are looking for other keywords as well. This includes synonyms and misspellings, but Google takes this way too far. They will try to show your ad for any search query that is even remotely relevant. If your keyword is about sport shoes, they will include any type of shoe or sports equipment.

30 minutes later, we had finished making the necessary changes to Steve’s Adwords account.

His face was a mix of disbelief and confusion. Seeing the actual keywords and websites he had wasted his money on, it sank in how unaware he had been doing it all wrong.

I didn’t give him much time to fully process that, because we were on a mission!

Step 2: figuring out whom we are selling to

“Who are you trying to reach?” I asked him.

“Everyone that needs the products that I sell”, Steve answered.

I had seen this before. Store owners get busy running their business and forget the most essential thing, their customers.

“Who is it that buys from you? Are they men or women? Young or old? Students or young parents? Geeks or car lovers? Seniors?”

He knew exactly who was buying from him. Young people between 17 & 25 who love outdoor music festivals.

“Why do they buy from you?” I asked.

“Most of them need some new gear for a music festival they’re going to. Or they want to buy a little gadget as a gift.”

A lot of store owners know who buys from them and why, but they don’t show it in the design of their website, the language they use, the product images or the products they sell.

“When a qualified visitor lands on your website, he should feel at home and know that this is his kind of site.”

When I finished telling this to my friend he understood what I was talking about.

He was selling the right products, but his images and language were not at all connecting with his target customers.

A lot of business owners are afraid to choose one type of customer to focus on, because that means they’ll reach fewer people.

But what would you rather have: a store that targets everyone and sells to no one, or one that speaks to a small group of people that love everything about your site and your products.

This wasn’t a small tweak we could make in 5 minutes. There were hundreds of little details he could change to get a better fit with his audience.

But we were on the right path. We’d made sure to attract more relevant visitors and improved his site to connect better with them.

Now it was time to see how we could get more of these visitors to buy.

Step 3: clear the path for your visitor

Instead of just visitors, Steve needed more buyers on his website. People that add products to their carts and complete the checkout process.

Although an important part of a store, it is one that gets little attention.

People usually use the default options that are part of their ecommerce platform.

Looking at the whole shopping experience, there are two big parts:

First we try to inform people, introduce them to our products and help them select the right one. And then, when they’ve made up their minds, we have to get out of the way and make it as easy as possible for those visitors to buy.

To know which part of Steve’s store wasn’t doing well, we calculated 2 ratios that would tell us where to focus our attention:

  • Ratio add to carts/visitors: how many visitors add something to their cart?
  • Ratio sales/add to carts: how many of the people that added something to their cart actually make a purchase?

His sales/add to carts ratio was the smallest so we started there.

Depending on the platform your online store uses, there are a lot of differences in length and layout of the checkout process. But there usually is one step that causes a lot of visitors to bail.

Finding and fixing it will do wonders for your sales, and it will increase the impact of any marketing campaign you run for your store.

I put myself in the shoes of a potential customer on my friend’s site. While I was going through the process I started thinking out loud: what I saw, what confused me and what I didn’t understand.

When I was done, Steve had already written down 10 ideas to tweak this process.

I told him to do this more often: ask people you know or even strangers to visit your website and talk through it. You’ll quickly and cheaply get feedback on how you can improve the process.

The biggest hurdles for visitors usually are when they have to fill in some information.

But his store, a lot of people were leaving the checkout process when they discovered the shipping cost. Until she went through the checkout, a visitor on his site had no idea about what it would cost to ship the products.

So a lot of people started checking out just to see the actual price.

I smiled. This was very valuable.

“How so?” he said. “I can’t afford to offer free shipping, so I want only the people that are genuinely interested to see the actual shipping costs.”

“Just be straightforward with your customers. If you can’t offer free shipping, be transparent about it up front. That way your customers don’t have the feeling that they’re being cheated.”

Step 4: Have a backup if she says no

People usually don’t propose on a first date. It takes time to find out what makes the other person tick.

The commitment is smaller, but the same goes for your store. Convincing visitors that have never heard from you or your store to buy on their first visit is hard.

My friend’s store had only been around for a year and he hadn’t made a lot of sales. So few of the people landing on his website knew about the brand.

Visitors that are looking for a specific product might do some more research and come back later. They ask a couple of friends where they bought their gear or visit competitor sites to compare products.

Other visitors might not be ready to buy yet. They land on your site expecting something else or are just getting to know what’s out there.

In fact, on average only 2% of all visitors make a purchase.

That means that the group of people that are just looking is a lot bigger.

So you have to find ways to increase those odds.

“How can we do that?” Steve asked.

“There are two tactics that I always implement. They are easy to set up and can dramatically improve results.”

When people are visiting your site, get them to leave their email address. Promise them exclusive deals or useful information in exchange. If you send a newsletter to them, you’ll have multiple opportunities to sell to them.

Use retargeting to reach them again. You might have seen advertisements on Facebook or on other websites with the product you were looking at last night. Some people find it annoying, but companies do this because it works.

“Even if this is the only thing you implement, customers interact more with your brand and it will increase the odds of people buying from you.”

A silence fell while he processed all of this. We’d been sitting and talking for two hours straight. His head, and mine as well, was buzzing.

“So when are you going to switch your ads back on?” I asked him.

“Well, first I’ve got some homework to do”, Steve said smiling as he glanced at his notebook. “But I just know I can get this to work. Slowly this time and by keeping a close eye at the money in and money out”.

I knew he had a lot of work to do. But I felt good knowing that I had managed to give some new energy to his dream.

Dennis Moons

Dennis Moons is the founder and lead instructor at Store Growers.

He's a Google Ads expert with over 12 years of experience in running Google Ads campaigns.

During this time he has managed more than $5 million in ad spend and worked with clients ranging from small businesses to global brands. His goal is to provide advice that allows you to compete effectively in Google Ads.

Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.


4 responses on "How to make advertising work for your online store"

  1. alif says:

    Hello Dennis,
    Stumbled upon your site by chance. Because this is exactly what I am going through I really appreciate the walk through.

    1. Dennis says:

      Hi Alif,
      Glad you found it useful!

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