How to make your ecommerce site profitable – Part 5: Online marketing on a budget | Heart Internet Blog – Focusing on all aspects of the web

This next part of our series on making your ecommerce website profitable looks at how you can promote your business on a budget. It covers a variety of free and cheap methods that you can experiment with and refine to see what works best for you.

If you’re new to this series, we’d recommend you read at least a couple of the previous parts first. They are:

Developing a marketing strategy

The first task is to create a strategy for promoting your business online. To do this, start by making a list of all the different types of marketing you want to utilise. Many of the main ones are covered in the rest of this post, for example:

  • Email marketing
  • Paid advertising
  • Online listings
  • Social media
  • Outreach
  • On-site marketing

These are all tried and trusted methods of marketing online, but they need to be backed by strong messages and incentives, such as competitions, sales, interesting unique content and so on, to draw in potential customers and ensure existing customers place more orders.

If your list of options feels overwhelming, pick one to start with and work on getting that established before trying something else.

Once you have your list, you can develop your plan. This can take whatever format you prefer, for example a calendar, spreadsheet with dates, or Gantt chart.

Your plan doesn’t have to be too specific to start with, particularly if you’re not sure which areas of marketing you’re intending to focus on or how much time each will take. Simply add the type, such as ‘Email marketing’ or ‘Social media’, to a box and an approximate time to dedicate to it. You’ll want to co-ordinate your marketing plans with specific events, such as your website launch or particular seasonal sales, so add those in too and play around with the order until you’re happy.

When you have your main plan, create a new document to break down each type of marketing in more detail. We’re going to outline each in more depth below, but for each type answer the following questions:

  • How much time do I have to dedicate to this?
  • What’s my budget for it?
  • What tools (if any) do I need?
  • How will it complement my other marketing channels?
  • How will I track success? (Don’t worry too much about this for now as we’ll be covering testing and tracking in the next part of the series, but keep it in mind for now).

Email marketing

One of the most important features of any online toolkit is email marketing. In fact, some businesses use nothing else and rely solely on their subscriber list for directing people to their website.

The key factor here is that you’re marketing to people who are already interested in what you have to offer and are actively happy to hear more from you. This means that you should build your list as organically as possible and encourage people visiting your website or placing an order to subscribe to your mailing list.

Email marketing campaigns are a living process and need regular testing and tracking in order to reap the biggest benefits. To save time, try a service which gives you all the tools you need to create, send, test, and track responsive emails. You may also want to check out our email marketing series, which covers Crafting the perfect subject line, A beginner’s guide to A/B email testing, 15 must-read articles for getting the most from your email campaigns, and Tricks & Tips for running email campaigns using WordPress.

There are many different types of emails you can experiment with, from newsletters to special offers and discounts. It’s also worth investigating ‘trigger’ emails, i.e. emails that are automatically triggered to send when a customer completes an action (such as putting something in their basket and then leaving your website, or signing up for an account). This functionality depends on what ecommerce platform you’re using, although it may be worth commissioning a freelancer to code what you need if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

Paid advertising

PPC (pay per click) advertising is one of the fastest ways to get targeted visitors to your website. The cost varies tremendously depending on how competitive your niche is and how expensive the product is, for example video game keywords tend to cost pence per click whereas web hosting keywords can cost up to a whopping £50 per click. To see how expensive keywords are in your niche, type some terms in the Google Keyword Planner and look at the estimates.

To find out more about how Google Adwords works and to see if you’re eligible for one of our “£75 when you spend £25” vouchers, see our Free Google Adwords Voucher page. For tips on writing your ads, check out Essential tips for wording PPC ads.

Google Adwords also gives you the opportunity to advertise on the Google Display Network. This basically means your text link or banner link can be shown on other people’s websites if they’ve chosen to integrate Google Adsense advertising.

Finally, if you’re selling your products online, you may want to investigate Google Shopping listings.

There are also plenty of other worthy options when it comes to paid advertising. Always go with a reputable website or company, and never fall into the trap of ‘buying traffic’ directly as these are automated bots rather than genuine visitors. For specific advertising on a budget, BuySellAds is low-maintenance and offers a lot of different options. If you have any contacts in your niche who don’t pose a conflict of interest (such as bloggers, reviewers, or influential social media users), it’s worth getting in touch to see if they’d be interested in any paid advertising or sponsorship, or even a trade for advertising on your website or in emails. We’ll cover that in more detail in the “Outreach” section below.


There are three types of listings worth having your website and/or products on:

Google Shopping – this allows your products to be listed in Google search results on an individual basis, along with images and short descriptions. There is also a Bing equivalent.

Major review websites – such as For best results dedicate your focus to those that Google uses to create a star rating of your website. These all have individual sign up and verification processes, and some have paid premium accounts that offer additional features if you’re planning to focus on this heavily.

Google Local (if applicable) – this is aimed at businesses with a physical presence, for example florists or coffee shops. For more information, see How to set up Google Local for your business.

Avoid small web directories, particularly ones that request a link or a fee to list your website. They are generally frowned on by the search engines and will refer zero traffic to your website.

Social media

The first rule for successful social media marketing is choose your networks carefully. It’s easy to get sign up happy and spread yourself too thin, or register for the wrong networks because a friend or an article has told you that ‘X is the best’. It all comes down to two things: what kind of products you’re selling, and what networks your target customers favour.

Having said that, there are some general rules you can use as a good starting point for your initial testing. Facebook is good for consumer products, particularly those that offer strong visuals. Google+ users tend to be more technical. Instagram is another good option if your products make for attractive photos, and it has the added bonus of having a broader reach than most other networks if you utilise hashtags effectively. There’s a wealth of information on the internet about social media “best practices”, although they should only ever be used as a starting point for your own ideas and testing. There’s no one size fits all solution for all websites, businesses, and customers.

Even if you only have a small social media presence, you’ll want to reserve your usernames to stop others registering them. Take a look at our article Making social media work for your business for more tips on developing a practical social strategy based on active and passive networks.

For greater efficiency, investigate time-saving tools such as Tweetdeck and Hootsuite that will save you time searching and posting, as well as allowing you to schedule posts.

A proactive presence on social media isn’t for everyone, particularly if you see it as a chore; it works best when it stems from an innate interest and passion. However, you should still develop a strategy; people will still talk about you, even if they aren’t talking to you. To avoid missed opportunities, create trust, and build authority, consider using a service like Hootsuite to track mentions of your brand, links to your website, recommendations, and similar.

You’ll also want to create a schedule that complements your main marketing plan so you know when you’ll want to promote specific content and campaigns. Remember to set aside extra time on a regular basis for interacting with people, replying to queries, and so on. Set yourself specific monitoring and replying hours so you don’t work 24/7 and it doesn’t creep over into time allocated for other areas.

Unless you have extremely attractive consumer-happy products don’t expect to get a massive number of direct sales from social media. Instead, utilise it as a supporting promotional channel for your other sales and marketing efforts. See Why your marketing should be like a football team for more information on supporting and direct marketing channels.

Finally, don’t forget social media goes both ways. Make sure you have clear social sharing options on key pages of your website – many ecommerce platforms and content management systems offer this as standard or via a free plugin. Don’t provide too many sharing options, and make sure the social networks your customers use most frequently are listed first.


In the SEO part of this series we recommended that you should build links to your website as part of a promotional strategy rather than just for the search engines. As well as increasing the benefits to your business for the same amount of work, it’s also a more sustainable and natural long-term strategy.

A big part of that is outreach, which we’re using as a broad term to cover everything from press releases to guest posts to building relationships with third parties.

The most important thing to remember is being realistic. You don’t have the weight of global established brands, so there’s little point trying to mimic what they do. Consider where your contacts and customers are: if they’re at local events or fairs, arrange a talk or run a stall. If they’re visiting particular interest or industry blogs, get in touch with the owner and arrange a giveaway or guest post. If they’re in LinkedIn groups or follow hashtags on a particular theme, create content and start discussions. Depending on what you sell and where you’re looking to promote your website, it may also be worth getting involved in more general “small business” themed outreach, for example applying for local award schemes, contacting a local radio station, or getting in touch with a local newspaper. These options always work best when you have a story to tell, so anything interesting about how you started, recent achievements, or anything that sets you apart from other businesses will increase your chances.

If you create good guides, blog posts or similar, consider pitching them or your skills in general to a third party website that can send you potential customers. See our slide deck Content Marketing: Pitching to third parties for more details on the hows and whys.

For best results, contact people in a context that has less noise. For example, engage them in conversation on Twitter or look them up and send a message on LinkedIn. It’s even more effective if you time your message for when the person is looking to promote something of their own (e.g. a new service or an upcoming event). Always list the benefits to them first, and include mentions of free products, trials, or exclusive first looks. Target relevant bloggers and online journalists by asking if they’ll review one of your products.

Many people believe that in the age of the web, for an online ecommerce business, it’s not necessary to develop a good base of contacts. In fact, this couldn’t be more wrong. The more targeted people you build relationships with, the more opportunities open up to you. You can never predict where they’ll pop up, so it’s definitely worth investing the time and getting out there in the real world as well as the virtual one. If you live in an area that has groups, meetings, and talks for small business owners, consider getting involved. As well as growing your network, you can get your questions answered and get support from people in similar positions to you.

On-site marketing

“Refer a friend”

Many ecommerce platforms include “Refer a friend” and even affiliate schemes out of the box (or as easy-add plugins). These are great for getting happy customers to recommend you to their friends, usually via email. If you extend this with a promotion where both customer and friend get a discount as a result, you can quickly see sales start to mount. Stack this approach with social media sharing for an even bigger impact.

Friend referrals tend to work best when you’re selling desirable consumer products. If you’re not, consider how you might adapt the wording, for example by making it “Tell a colleague”, “Tell my assistant”, or similar.


Internal linking

We covered internal linking previously in this series, but from a marketing perspective, you’ll want to look at how products are presented and described on your landing/category pages as well as ‘social proof’ style recommended products. Take a leaf out of Amazon’s book and try bundling and recommending items in different ways:




Your main website landing pages will often be category pages if you use your ecommerce platform as-is. However, it can be worth creating specific pages using your platform for sales, offers, email campaign landing pages, advertising landing pages, and similar so you can target your visitors properly and show your products in the most effective and consistent light.

Homepage heroes

‘Hero’ products are just what they sound like; featured products that take centre stage on the page. Offline, these are the products you see displayed in the centre of a shop window or those that are given the biggest images on a catalogue page. This translates pretty simply to the web in the form of more webpage space (usually above the fold) given to promoting a particular product. Many ecommerce websites combine their hero products with a carousel, allowing them to devote the same large amount of space to several products. However, there are pros and cons to this so it’s worth testing for your own website first.


It’s worth noting that ‘hero’ products are traditionally always popular/bestselling products, rather than products you feel don’t sell as well as they should.


There’s a lot to take in when it comes to the marketing of your online store, but see it as a positive: there are lots of things to try that can help improve your sales and build your customer base. Once you have developed a practical marketing plan and strategy, you’re halfway there.

The final part in our “How to make your ecommerce site profitable” series looks at how you can test, track, and analyse your website and data with a view to building and improving sales long-term. Keep an eye on the blog for more ecommerce tips!


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