How to Start an Online Boutique Successfully
I get a ton of questions from shop owners who thinking through how to start an online boutique. How do I get sales? How do I grow my customer base? Which social media channels should I be on?
But what’s interesting is, so many boutique owners are asking these questions after they’ve already secured their inventory and paid an annual subscription to Shopify or BigCommerce. What they haven’t done is audience research, product research, or any sort of validation and testing.
Before you start your online boutique and focus on getting customers, you need a solid foundation. As such, this guide will walk you through the step-by-step process for creating that foundation and then move into the actual set up of your online boutique.
Definitions + Goals
Before you decide to do anything — and that includes buying inventory and setting up your ecommerce platform — you first need to figure out who you’re marketing to, what you’re selling, and what you’re trying to achieve.
This is where boutique owners get hung up, or they skip it entirely and move directly into the build and sell phase. While getting your shop out there is great for getting data, you need a balance. It’s just as important to shoot in the right direction as it is to pull the trigger once you’re generally right.
There are three things you absolutely need locked down before you dive into setting up your boutique:
- Who you’re selling to (your audience)
- What you’re selling (your product)
- How much you can spend on promotion (your revenue)
Audience research is the foundation of marketing. You have to know who your people are, what they want, and how you help them before you can actually start providing products and selling to them.
The first step to starting your online boutique is creating 2-4 personas (marketing jargon for a profile of your target audience) that outline your ideal customers. Be as descriptive as possible by including things like job title, favorite device, pay scale, main frustrations and problems, end goals, what they do in their spare time, etc. Use this detailed guide by Moz to guide you through the process.
Remember that your personas don’t have to be the end all be all. The focus here is to define your initial target market that’s small enough you can effectively reach them but large enough to get sales and feedback to polish your product(s) and overall online boutique.
Since you’re starting an online boutique, you most likely already have an idea of what you’re offering. But your product isn’t just what you’re selling — it’s how you’re selling it.
What is it that you’re actually offering? What’s your brand? What are you providing that’s different in any way?
Remember, this is your product offering — not your life’s mission. It needs to be clear, simple, and straightforward. And it needs to be different. A competing boutique shouldn’t be able to copy and paste and be you.
For example, don’t sell men’s shirts that “look great and are affordable”. Instead, sell men’s shirts that are lightweight and wrinkle-free. Sell the tangible benefit.
You should also be validating your product offering before you stock up on inventory and build out a full online boutique (more on that in a minute). Getting feedback early prevents wasted time and money promoting a product that doesn’t resonate with your ideal audience.
One of the biggest mistakes I see new business owners make is underestimating the time it takes to really get things moving. Building a successful online boutique isn’t an overnight thing — in fact, in the first year, you can usually expect to see very little traction.
Which means you have to put real money goals in place for your online boutique. Even if you don’t plan on spending money on ads, building this thing is going to take time.
Outline all of your product costs, profit margins, and what kind of marketing spend gives you a positive return. Here’s a more extensive post on “quant-based marketing.”
And most importantly, don’t quit your day job! But do get going as soon as possible and do one thing to keep building your boutique every single day — even if it’s something small. The goal is to keep momentum. 1% improvements rapidly add up to significant gains.
Planning Your Website Content
Once you’ve got your definitions and goals set, it’s time to start thinking about the actual content of your boutique. No matter which ecommerce platform you use to set up your shop, you need three main content pieces to launch:
- An About Page
- Category/Focus pages
- Product pages
An About page is one of the most crucial pages on your website — especially if you’re a new brand. Think about your own online behavior. Where is the first place you go when you’re checking out a new brand? Their about page.
The About page is the perfect place to tell your brand story and detail your product offering (which if you’re following this guide, you’ve already defined) and build customer trust by featuring customer testimonials or your top product reviews. For a detailed guide to creating your about page, check out my guide here.
Next, you need to create enough high-quality landing pages to get some sales.
When I say “landing pages” – don’t think of anything too complex. I’m simply referring to pages that visitors can land on and make a purchase.
Why set up landing pages?
Because here’s the cold hard truth: nobody cares about or even sees your homepage. Seriously. Your homepage is for people who already know you and are just navigating around.
Landing pages are for new (or returning) visitors to land on and convert. Before you build out all your boutique pages, you should develop focused landing pages that sell to one or all of these buckets:
Persona specific – These pages are all about the product benefit for who you are selling to. They might be a product page. Think “Aerodynamic Swimcap for Ocean Swimmers.” But they also might be a category page or specific landing page for a bundle. Think “Swimcaps for Women Distance Swimmers” or “One-piece Swimsuits for Ocean Swimmers.”
Offer specific – These pages are all about the product information. They might be a product page. Think “Blue Stripe Lycra Two Piece Swimsuit.” But they also might be a category or specific landing page for a bundle. Think “Blue Oceanwear” or “Lycra Swimwear.”
The goal here is to sell to people at the very bottom of the marketing funnel – the customers most likely to convert.
They already know what they want and are ready to buy. These people will be more expensive to bring to your site, but if you can get them there, will give you the best data and most money quickly.
I touch on this idea in my post on keyword mapping, because it plays into SEO as well.
In order to sell a product, you’ll need a product page. As mentioned above, this might also serve as a focus page. Either way, you need a page that clearly outlines what you’re selling and why someone should buy.
Your product page should be clear, concise, include high-quality product photos, and nail your value proposition (AKA why buy from you vs. a competitor). For more on how to create a great product page, check out my product page best practices here.
Creating a Promotion Plan for Early Validation
Now, before you go all-in on your boutique, you need early some early validation. This means data and feedback — and in order to get it, you’re going to need some traffic to those key pages you’ve set up.
This is where online boutique owners tend to get way too detailed way too fast.
Not all marketing channels work the same, so throwing all of your eggs into one basket doesn’t make much sense… and neither does focusing only on getting sales, sales, sales.
Instead, think of all marketing channels as supplements and complements to one another. It’s all about how to make them work together to bring customers to your boutique so that you can get feedback and data on your site, products, and positioning.
Here’s a channel-by-channel breakdown to help you create your promotion plan for early validation.
I call this channel direct outreach, but other people would call it just hustlin’. This channel consists of all the tedious and tough pitching that you know you need to do…but don’t want to do.
This means emailing and Facebook messaging people that you know might be interested in what you’re selling and sending them to your focus pages, product pages, or About Page to learn more, buy, or subscribe to an email list (for discounts, etc).
Paid advertising encompasses a whole host of options, from Google search ads to display ads to Facebook ads.
For the purposes of starting an online boutique, I’m going to focus on two main paid advertising approaches: Facebook Advertising and Google Search Ads.
Facebook allows for some hyper-targeted audience advertising. Everyone on the network self-defines themselves into neat little marketing packages. They tell you exactly what they like!
So if someone says they like hiking, chances are they’ll like your boutique store that sells hiking t-shirts.
If you’ve done your audience research (see the beginning of this guide), then you most likely know a decent bit about the audience you’re trying to target, which makes Facebook a great paid advertising approach.
Google Search Ads
Running search ads is a great way to show up for customers who are already searching for what you’re selling. With that said, AdWords can be expensive for a good return on investment, especially for the close to converting keywords that you should try to buy.
But your goal is slightly different.
You are buying data. Lots of data. And spending some money to acquire this data is a lot more effective than spending tons on an ecommerce content strategy right out of the gate.
You should be doing a few things with your new traffic:
- Look at what keywords are driving sales. AdWords gives you this information.
- Look at what landing pages are driving sales — is it your product pages or another focus page?
- Optimize your landing pages.
- Test ad copy and figuring out the right messaging.
- Test things like free shipping and other theories.
- Testing related products to try to increase average order value.
- Set up retargeting campaigns – not generic “buy, buy, buy” campaigns but interesting retargeting ads that you can afford to do when your traffic is small. If you want to divert some paid budget to Facebook, follow this guide.
- Once you have retargeting campaigns going, look and see where your audience goes online. We covered this topic on this podcast episode.
- Improving your ad campaigns in general.
Now that you have some sales and some data, you should have some sense about where to head next with your online boutique.
Organic Search (SEO) Traffic
Organic traffic (SEO) might not be the best next channel to pursue after paid traffic, and it especially isn’t the best for early validation, as it takes some time to grow. There’s a great big wide world of paid and organic traffic sources.
And yet, most online boutique owners do have a strong sense of the sheer volume of traffic that Google organic search can drive. For most, a successful SEO campaign would be a huge win. They just need to execute in the right context.
Google processes 3.5 billion queries per day. And for most queries, most of the clicks go to an organic result. And you’ll know from your AdWords campaigns that clicks for commercial keywords can be quite expensive. That’s a cost you don’t have to pay if you rank in the organic results.
So I won’t hide my enthusiasm for SEO. It’s my specialty and is the giant battleship that will keep on going once it’s headed in the right direction.
When you are working on getting customers to start and grow your online boutique, you just have to know what it takes to get organic traffic and what it will take on your part to get it done.
SEO boils down to 3 components:
The first component is technical SEO.
Technical SEO is all about ensuring that Google/Bing bots can crawl and index your website effectively. It’s about making sure you’re not generating tons of duplicate content. Here’s “Technical SEO for Nontechnical Marketers”
If you are already using a different platform, a technical audit might be the one SEO thing worth paying for. Mentioning a “stand-alone technical audit with recommendations” to an SEO expert can be valuable if you’re on a proprietary platform or something like Magento or Volusion.
If you are using Shopify or Bigcommerce, then your technical issues are 90% solved if you have it set up by the book (Shopify’s guide and Bigcommerce’s guide). You should just be sure to use their SEO-related toolset to implement your on-page content, which happens to be the second component of SEO.
The second component of SEO – on-page content and optimization – is all about “targeting” the right keywords and ensuring that your website is laid out in a coherent way that is understandable by search engines and users browsing your website.
But on-page content means more than just optimizing your pages. For ecommerce, there are a ton of different pieces of content that can bring in visitors. From Buying Guides to How Tos to Product Comparisons to niche topic ideas to even coupon page – there is near infinite potential to create content around your product and how your target market buys it.
The goal is to bring in new people AND support sales. Don’t create keyword-stuffed pages that won’t help customers on your website make a decision. Make the authoritative content that addresses problems, questions, etc. of your market.
The great part about creating the absolute best content that you can find about everything your target market cares about related to your store is that it will naturally drive the third component of SEO – off-page factors.
Pro-tip: If you want to see on-page content done right, look at REI.com.
“Off-page factors,” the third component of SEO, is SEO-speak for getting links, with the caveat that links are not all considered equal.
Sketchy links, the type that you buy for $5, can harm your website. However, quality links placed on a related or well-known website are the primary factor for getting better visibility in search results.
There are a lot of ways to get links. But the best ways that I’ve found for ecommerce are:
- Creating content that no one else has done well, and then promoting it. I wrote this guide to creating prequalified content. I’m a fan of this guide for the promotion angle as well
- Hustle PR promotion – Find the blogs they read. Find the news websites they follow. Find the social media feeds they are involved with. Research and stalk every single one until you can craft a manual email pitch.
- Get even more ideas in my guide to Ahrefs
Social media can be a great way to show off your products and get customers to your boutique, especially for early validation. However, boutique owners tend to make it way more complicated than it needs to be. Getting customers from social media isn’t rocket science. Unless you started a business you know nothing about, you should know where your audience hangs out online.
And if you know where your audience hangs out, don’t think that you have to be 110% present on every single social network. The key to social media is direct interactions where you build relationships and learn more about your audience.
Sure, claim and put your branding across all the various social networks, but choose the one or two that will generate an outsize impact on sales, links, and awareness of your store. Run a flash sale, test your products and pages, gather data and feedback, then move on to improving both your boutique and your presence on these channels.
And remember, you can pay to jump to the front of the line on social media (see Facebook Advertising above).
Setting up Your Online Boutique
Here’s the thing – there are a lot of online store builders out there. There’s a lot of choices across the entire spectrum of ecommerce. You could spend all your time looking for the *right* choice.
But all that time spent looking does not really matter if you keep delaying getting sales. For a successful boutique – you need to be less concerned about initial design than about initial selection & audience.
Write out what you want / need the software to do. Decide on your budget and think through what you are comfortable with.
The go-to choice for most boutiques is Shopify. I reviewed Shopify here. They are a “hosted” service that bundles all the technical elements of an online store into a single subscription. They also do a lot of integrations and do well with offline inventory.
BigCommerce is also solid for online-only stores who don’t want or need some of the complexities of Shopify.
I wrote about the tradeoffs of Shopify vs. BigCommerce here.
Either way, they both have excellent “onboarding” with solid out of the box designs.
If you are comfortable with handling hosting & want either more options or to save on costs, you can setup a store with WordPress + WooCommerce. It’s a great choice, I’ve consulted on several boutiques that use this option. Follow my setup guide here.
If you are still not sure, take my ecommerce platform quiz here to find out more.
Takeaways and Next Steps
Setting up a successful online boutique is more than picking ecommerce software and having a nice logo.
Those are actually later steps. Start by setting your online boutique apart with unique selection, strategy, and most importantly – a unique audience.
Once you have that settled, build a minimally viable site on a platform that matches your needs & budget and go from there!