If you are serious about starting or expanding your ecommerce site, you have spent money somewhere, be it for a well-designed usable site geared towards converting users, a fantastic new product, loads of available inventory, or a well-staffed back office. Why, then, when it comes to marketing, do you expect it to be free? Even the so called free advertising (SEO, email, social media) all have an associated cost. No matter how bad you want to believe that you’ve found a way to get your brand recognition for free, building a successful and sustainable ecommerce business without spending money on advertising is simply not possible, and to be perfectly honest, chasing after “free” might cost you more than a sensibly applied paid strategy would.

…but I don’t want to lose money
Marketing is a common area where new or established ecommerce players looking to expand can get stuck. The reason being that it’s often hard to release funds for an advertising campaign with no guarantee of results (guaranteed results are a topic for another day). While it may seem scary, with a solid strategy and well executed tactics, results shouldn’t be an issue. Optimizing the campaign to achieve your ROI goal (if not immediately achieved) can sometimes take a little effort, but it is extremely uncommon for paid campaigns to launch and not achieve at least some level of success.

…but my traffic comes from word of mouth
No matter how good your website is, if no one visits it, you won’t produce any sales. And no matter what anyone tells you or how badly you want to believe it, word of mouth is not a sustainable advertising strategy. Users are bombarded at every turn by advertising, so even if you do have a unique product or offering, someone else is probably already there speaking to that audience. Even the best converting sites rely on a steady stream of paid traffic to fuel their continued growth. This means in order to produce or grow sales, you will need to engage in paid advertising.

…but “free” is all I can afford
While many people believer erroneously that social media or SEO are “free” they, are actually quite expensive:
Let’s start with social media and say that you have chosen to start a Twitter and Facebook presence. You will need to: setup the accounts; share updates; like/follow other people; read, comment, and share  updates of the people you follow; and reply to people on your accounts. All of those things take up time and, at the onset, it’s a lot of time. Who is going to do those things? If it will be you, then there is an opportunity cost:  how much money could you be producing if you weren’t spending your time on those things? If it is an employee, then you are paying them for their time (same goes for hiring an employee or agency). So just to set up and maintain the accounts you have to pay for somebody’s time. And the worse news is that even if you do all that, you still won’t have many fans, and your updates won’t get very wide exposure if you don’t pay to advertise (given Facebook’s recent changes, your updates may not be seen at all!).

…but SEO will get people to my site with free organic rankings
A lot of the same issues hold true for SEO. To do it right, you will need to change your site copy, meta data, internal linking, and technical structure, not to mention that you will have to produce good, high-quality inbound links on a regular basis (which is getting harder and harder everyday), write great content regularly, and a lot more. Unlike social media, where one person can normally handle all the tasks, SEO often requires the input of multiple people: copywriters, site developers, marketing folks, etc.

…free isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be
Call me crazy, but those free traffic sources sure sound pretty expensive to me. If you have decided to begin or expand your e-commerce business, you are going to have to pay to advertise. What you decide to spend your advertising dollars on is a question of strategy and analysis, but no matter which way you look at it, you are going to have pay. The good news is I have found that if you are willing to spend the time to organize your strategy and tactics, spending money to advertise, will reap far greater rewards than trying to get by on “free.”.

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