"How do I make sales online?” I know you're looking for a short, clear, and definitive answer. Unfortunately, the best response to such a broad question is: “It depends.”
First of all, it depends on what you mean by “start selling”. Depending on what you want to sell and the sales goals you set for yourself, in fact, there are at least 3 different possible scenarios.
- Occasional sales: new and used items sold by one individual to another
- Selling services: from a favor for a neighbor to a freelance professional
- Sales in a store: from general marketplaces to your own online store
Then there’s a new, increasingly attractive frontier which intersects with the more “traditional” channels for online sales:
- Social media sales: Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram
Let’s discuss them one at a time.
Occasional sales: new and used items sold by one individual to another
This is a fairly common situation: you find yourself with presents you don't like, furniture you no longer use, or tools that still work but that you don't need anymore. All this stuff takes up room in your house, and you want to de-clutter while hopefully earning some cash.
In these cases, the solution is to sell your new or used items online: there are many sites that allow you to do this for free or at low cost, by creating listings, starting auctions, or even opening “virtual stores” in just a few clicks. Here are a few of the most widely-known listings websites:
- Subito.it: is one of Italy's most-visited listings websites.
- Bakeka.it: another famous website with all kinds of listings, for jobs as well.
- Kijiji: part of the eBay group, a free site for small listings.
- Secondamano: gathers listings for various types of used items.
- Autoscout24: a website that’s solely dedicated to car, motorcycle, trailer, and camper sales.
- Etsy: specifically for selling hand-made or vintage products.
With a quick web search, you’ll find dozens of other listings websites: from the most generic to those that specialize in a specific sales market. What they have in common is the ease with which you can generally create an account and make your listing, which will be shown to a truly very wide audience of potential buyers. People interested in your product contact you through the platform, so it's easy to manage your transactions. On the other hand, keep in mind that your listing will be presented alongside many other similar ones: competition can be extremely high. To increase your visibility, which may mean staying at the top of the list for a certain time, you might consider investing a small sum of money to promote your ad within the site. Of course, it all depends on how quickly you need to make the sale, and how much you want to earn.
Selling services: from a favor for a neighbor to a freelance professional
Just because you're not selling products doesn't mean you can't make online sales. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
Basically, instead of focusing on selling physical products, you can sell services. The services you can offer and which people are willing to pay for may vary widely: it all depends on what you know, what you can do, and what your interests are. Of course, you’ll need a degree and relevant experience to offer your services as a corporate consultant, but if you want to advertise yourself for small jobs like dog sitting or mowing lawns, all you need is a good attitude and some time.
In order for people who may need you and your services to find you, you can once again use a series of websites that were created to connect people seeking work with those offering it. For more clarity, we’re distinguishing between websites that help people find odd jobs and those dedicated to freelancers.
Odd job websites
The basic idea of these portals is that they work like communities: I have a green thumb, I’ll help my neighbor prune his garden; he’s good with computers, he’ll fix my printer. Each website has its own specific characteristics: some of them connect individuals offering certain services, others recommend professionals; some are more generic, others focus on specific services. Here are some of the most widely-known among these sites:
- Tabbid.com: works like a social network for odd jobs. You sign up through Facebook and view the closest offers.
- Vicker.org and Localjob.it: allow you to find professionals and workers near you.
- Taskhunters.it: was created specifically for students looking for small tasks to complete during their free time.
Basically, we used to rely on personal acquaintances, word of mouth, or flyers on notice boards, but now searching for odd jobs has gotten a lot “smarter”: thanks to websites and phone apps, finding a way to make some extra cash in your free time is easier than you think. All that’s left to do is roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Sites for freelancers
The number of people who have decided to make the leap from traditional employment to a freelance career is growing steadily: in Europe, the self-employed make up around 4% of the workforce, and that number jumps to 23.8% in Italy.
If you're ready to take that big step, know that there are a number of online marketplaces dedicated to freelancers: These outsourcing platforms, which may be more or less specific to different sectors, connect professionals with agencies through an application system. The clients decide who to hire for the job, and once their completed work is approved, the freelancer receives the payment agreed upon.
The best sites for finding freelance work are:
- Freelancer.com, Fiverr, WeWorkRemotely: all of these are international websites, in English, with job postings for a variety of sectors.
- Starbytes, Zooppa: two of the best-known and most-used Italian websites .
- Speaklike, Textbroker, Melascrivi, TranslatorsCafe: dedicated to content writers and translators in particular.
We recommend spending a little time researching the platform that's best suited to your needs, considering: the kind of service you offer, how many offers you can receive, the deadlines you’ll need to meet, and the compensation you could earn.
These portals can serve as great launching pads if you're just starting to make a name for yourself, or become an extra source of income for established professionals.
The risk is that while chasing jobs, you might be very tempted to sell yourself short, both in terms of time and money, which ends up hurting your earnings potential.
Emphasize your image and your professionalism to increase your chances of standing out from the competition and being selected by clients. Create your brand: having a website, possibly one with a blog, is a great way to explain what services you offer, show that you're an expert in your field, and let potential clients find you, including outside of outsourcing platforms.
Sales in a store: from general marketplaces to your own online store
This is where things get more interesting. We're not talking about just selling your old toaster or “selling your time” to make some extra cash on the side. We mean starting your own online sales business, a virtual store in which you can offer your physical and/or digital products.
You can choose from two options here: selling your products through a marketplace, or creating and opening your own online store. Both solutions have their pros and cons. Plus, they're not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, you could decide to go down both roads, combining them into one comprehensive strategy.
Let’s look at them one at a time.
Selling through a marketplace.
If you can't or don’t want to front the initial investment required to create your own online store, you can choose from a range of marketplaces instead: these are platforms that bring together a huge number of vendors, allowing buyers to browse through an online department store. Some marketplaces are vertical, meaning they are dedicated to a specific category of products, while others are horizontal or general.
There’s no debate: the biggest international marketplaces are Amazon and eBay. They are both target small and mid-sized businesses. Amazon can also take care of logistics, while eBay mainly rose to fame for its auction system. If you sell apparel, you can also join the Zalando or Privalia marketplaces. But there are many others, including: ePrice, one of Italy's top online marketplaces, especially for household electronics; AliExpress, a Chinese marketplace belonging to the Alibaba group; Rakuten, a Japanese giant with a huge presence on the Asian market. Another very popular marketplace is Etsy, which stands out because it's only for selling hand-made products, or vintage items that are at least 20 years old. Curious about Etsy? You should also read Selling on Etsy: why it's not enough.
Amazon is now definitely the undisputed leader of the online shopping sector: as proven by its dizzying sales figures and unrelenting growth. Everyone likes making purchases on Amazon because it seems to have just about any product you can imagine, and especially because of their unparalleled customer service.
Market research regarding online consumer habits also adds the following, very interesting details: people are generally most likely to search for products on marketplaces (38%, of which 29% on Amazon and 9% on other marketplaces), followed by retail websites (29%, of which 13% in physical stores, 12% in private online stores, and 4% on private apps), and finally on search engines (15%).
As a result, it seems that selling on these marketplaces, particularly on Amazon, could be a good strategy because it means taking advantage of their high visibility and the fact that the traffic they draw is made of people who are very likely to buy.
On the other hand, there are some drawbacks you should be aware of. First of all, any marketplace requires payment for the services they offer in the form of sales commissions, whose percentage depends on the platform and/or the category of sales that applies to your products. Second, competition is extremely high: there are many other vendors just like you on the marketplace, who offer the same products as you do. The chances of remaining just one of many vendors, and not achieving a strong brand, are very high. But the greatest challenge is that you will always be a guest in someone else’s online home: you’ll need to follow the rules they set, and you’ll be subjected to the whims of the platform’s algorithm, which uses its own internal logic to determine how to rank your products compared to those of your competitors.
The reality is that Amazon and every other marketplace offer significant opportunities, but in order to turn them into real sources of income, you’ll need to really study them and put in a lot of effort to get the most out of this approach.
Opening your own online store
The alternative to using marketplaces is to open your own online store, the digital equivalent of a brick-and-mortar shop.
Opening an online store used to be very complicated. In the past, you had no choice but to hire a programmer to create a site, and you would be forced to call on them again and again to implement the slightest change or update to the store.
Today, however, there are other solutions: software and online services that allow entrepreneurs, even those without any coding or design knowledge, to easily create their own online stores. In general, these services are also low-cost and are scalable: meaning you can start with a basic plan and then move on to more professional solutions as your business grows larger and larger.
The main open-source platforms for creating online stores are Magento and Prestashop. Both of these platforms provide you with the basic building blocks for online store (themes, product catalogs, shopping cart, order management, etc.), they are free to use (in addition to its open-source version, Magento also has a business version that charges a fee) and offer a number of free or paid plug-ins, many of which are basically mandatory for creating an online store that works correctly. Generally, Magento websites are less visually pleasing and a little harder to use, but it offers very advanced features and works well for mid-sized/large businesses. Prestashop, on the other hand, is more user-friendly and is a better choice for small businesses that are just starting out in the world of online sales.
As open-source platforms, both Magento and Prestashop need to be downloaded and installed, and also require a hosting service. If you don't have the necessary technical knowledge to handle these aspects, you can choose a different category of services: CMS (Content Management Systems) which are not open-source, including solutions like Shopify or BigCommerce. These are low-cost solutions that area easier to use: the advantage here is that they allow you to focus on creating and selling products, rather than worrying about the many technical questions behind creating a website: these solutions are great form creating an online store that’s not too complicated.
Finally, an alternative to online CMS solutions is WebSite X5, a software for creating websites, blogs, and online stores that’s extremely simple to use. This is a desktop software with no recurring fees: once you purchase your license, it’s yours forever, and you can create all the websites you want for yourself, your friends, or your clients.
Social media sales: Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram
Having a store - whether physical or online - isn’t enough. You also need to let people know that it’s open and that it offers fantastic products at exceptional prices. There are many strategies for promoting an online store, but in general, a good marketing plan should always include a social media component. In fact, social media, starting with Facebook, is a great means of publicity: sponsored posts can grow your audience and increase your sales.
Using social media to make direct sales may seem less obvious, but Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest have all developed and made available the necessary features to do just that.
Selling on Facebook: Marketplace shop
Although it may not be what it’s best known for, Facebook can be the perfect platform for both individuals and businesses, whatever their size, to sell their products online.
First of all, thanks to features introduced in 2016, selling on Facebook isn't that hard; secondly, you can benefit from an immense audience that’s easy to segment and can be targeted with promotional campaigns for relatively low prices.
As an individual, all you need to do to create an ad is open Facebook, log in, and click on the Marketplace icon on the left-hand sidebar. Then, click on the Sell something button and add all the information necessary for the sale. Remember: sales are privately managed and interested users may contact you for more information.
As a company, on the other hand, you first need to create a company profile on Facebook. Once you've accessed your page, you’ll find the Shop button: click on it to view that section. Here, you’ll find all the necessary steps for creating your products, linking your online store, and setting up payment methods.
The Marketplace and Shop are free features: Facebook does not take any commission. Instead, expenses may depend on the payment system you choose to use. PayPal and Stripe, for example, which are the most widely used, will subtract a commission for each payment you receive from a sale.
Selling on Instagram
Founded in 2010 and acquired by Facebook in 2012, by 2018 Instagram had more than one billion users and has become one of the biggest social media networks in the world, together with Facebook itself and YouTube.
It’s no surprise then, that Instagram can offer any company great opportunities for increasing their sales and drawing public interest. Especially once you’ve turned on the Shopping feature, which is intended to reduce the number of steps required for an Instagram user to complete a purchase after discovering products on the platform itself.
So, in order to use Instagram to make sales, you first need to open a business account: this kind of account is reserved for companies and requires a Facebook profile with an active Shop as proof. It’s important to sync this account with your Facebook store because that’s where Instagram pulls information about which products you're selling. Once your account has been verified, the Shopping feature will turn on and you can start tagging your posts to make them shoppable.
That means that once you've uploaded your photo, added a caption, and added filters, you will be able to click on one or more of the products in the photo itself and link them to products in your Facebook shop. When you're done, all you need to do is confirm and share.
Your followers will see the photo, and if they're interested in a product, they can simply tap on it to view information like its name and price, and complete the purchase if they want to. It couldn't be faster or easier!
Selling on Pinterest with rich pins
Although it can’t compete with Facebook’s numbers and therefore remains a niche social network, Pinterest can be a surprisingly effective sales and marketing tool. The main reason is that users use it as a search engine, especially when looking for things to do or buy. Plus, data says that buying intent is greater on Pinterest than on other social media networks, that ads are well received, and that there is a high level of sharing.
Based on these factors, Pinterest is a good option whether you're selling on a marketplace or through your own online store.
As with any other social media, carefully evaluate your plan before creating an account. Set goals for yourself and try to lay out an editorial plan: you should be able to create a profile that matches your brand, and to structure your pinboards attractively.
Remember that you can't simply post images of your products on a white background or other slapdash photos that won't stand out in a feed. On Pinterest, images that can inspire, teach the viewer how to do something, or tell a story are the ones that do best.
Try the rich pin product for your online store. Rich pins are dynamically linked to a site’s pages: by updating your site, the pin updates as well. Rich pin products can include a price and a direct link to the purchasing page in addition to the usual information.
One last tip: whichever road you choose, start with a Business Plan.
Let's take another look at our initial question: "How do I start making sales online?” As you can see from this overview, there isn't one unequivocal answer. Instead, there are different solutions to choose from depending on the type of project you want to develop and the objectives you've set yourself.
So, especially if online sales are or will become part of your business, before moving forward with any of these options, take the time to analyze your project in its entirety.
People often underestimate the value of planning, but this is very risky. What you should do is write out a Business Plan for your project. A good Business Plan is not just a document, it's also a process. First of all, writing a Business Plan is itself a process that forces you to fully reflect on the most important aspects of your project: thinking everything through before you start will spare you unpleasant surprises and reduces the risk of failure. Second, the Business Plan is a programmatic, strategic, and analytic document which, among other things, will help you: stay on track towards the objectives you set yourself, identify your project's strengths and weaknesses; plan your budget and schedules; find financing and establish relationships with potential partners.
Regardless of the specific factors of each sector or the variables that come into play, all Business Plans consist of a similar structure. Generally, they start with an Executive Summary, which is an introduction that summarizes the rest of the document, allowing the reader to get a clear, comprehensive overview of the project. After the Executive Summary, you’ll get into the details of the project. To summarize, some of the most important elements that should go into an online store’s Business Plan include:
The description of the business
This part describes the nature of the business and its fundamental features. Start with the mission, explain its short-, medium-, and long-term objectives, analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and identify factors for success.
The description of the products/services
The goal is to describe the products you offer and your plans for their continued development. Choosing the right products to sell in your online store is crucial for the success of your business; analyze user searches, highlight the needs you can respond to, and don't underestimate current trends.
The description of the target
Identify and describe your target audience. This is crucial for correctly configuring a number of processes, for example, your marketing initiatives and promotional strategies. You need to know who you're talking to in order to know what to offer them and the best way to reach them.
The analysis of the market and the competition
The goal is to collect and process useful data to define the sector and environment in which your business is situated. Studying your position compared to that of your competitors will give you a better understanding of the forces that guide the sector in which you want to operate, allowing you to know when you need to correct your course, for example.
The marketing strategy
In order to succeed, your need to spread the word about your online store and incite customers to make purchases. That means you need to identify and explain the strategies that you will implement to get these results, and as a result, meet the objectives you’ve set yourself. Work on the 4 Marketing Mix levers: Product, Price, Point of Sale (distribution), and Promotion. Once you’ve identified the needs and the target, define the marketing practices you’ll put into place and describe them all in your Marketing Plan.
The financial analysis
This is the most labor-intensive part, and you might ask for help from a consultant. To summarize, this should allow you to estimate expenses, forecast your earnings, and understand if you need to find financing.
By asking yourselves these questions, among others, you’ll be able to write a document that illustrates and explains the outlines of your project in an organized way, and it will force you to examine the opportunities you can take advantage of, as well as potential obstacles you might face.
This analysis will help you understand which path is best for you: you might find out, for example, that selling on Amazon doesn't exclude sales through your own online store, but rather that they’ll complement each other. As a result, you could decide to launch both efforts at once, or choose to implement them one after another, as steps in a development plan. Or you might decide that the type of products you sell are best sold on a sector-specific marketplace, and focus on niche social media networks that may not have Facebook’s user numbers but are much more targeted to your audience.
In conclusion, the Web offers virtual store windows that can be seen by an immensely wide and varied audience, and technology has made available powerful, scalable tools: if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, seize these opportunities, choose a winning strategy, and build your own success.