Many businesses are setting up an online presence to stay relevant and retain customers during the COVID-19 lockdown. Having a strong presence online will of course continue to be useful after the lockdown restrictions are lifted, as it builds brand awareness and improves accessibility to customers. However, when setting up online there are a number of steps you need to take to protect yourself and your business, and ensure you’re getting the most out of your site.
In a recent news story, Joe Wicks, aka ‘The Body Coach’, got in trouble for using copyrighted music for his online fitness classes without compensating the music owners. Like Joe, if you are setting up online you will need to take care not to use copyrighted material like music, pictures or writing, without permission. This is just one example of an issue that might arise when you are trying to set up online – this article will tell you how to set up an online business and help you through common pitfalls.
Where to start – how to build a website
Various online website builders are available that let you create and run your website yourself. Alternatively you could commission a bespoke website from a website designer, if your budget allows.
When building your website, you should:
- make sure your site is optimised for mobile phones;
- check your site is secure (has https at the start of the address);
- consider what ecommerce features you want (if you will be making online sales, you may prefer a website builder that offers features like promotional discounts or customisable shipping costs);
- pick a domain name that is similar to your online business’s name and register all of the extensions you might need (eg .co.uk, .com, .org) and likely spelling variations of the name. A shorter name is usually better, as there is less risk of losing traffic to typos. Use sites like GoDaddy to check if your domain name is available; and
- make sure your business email address matches your domain name.
If you do not want to set up or maintain a new website, consider selling through an online marketplace like Amazon or Etsy, which provides a large pool of potential buyers and can save you money on marketing and maintenance of your site. However, make sure you’re aware of the marketplace’s terms, fees and commissions payable as these vary by marketplace. You can find further information about online marketplaces at Online marketplace versus own website.
The fine print – what policies and terms and conditions you’ll need on your site
By law, you’re required to include various information on your website (including contact details for your company, product and service information, privacy and cookies information, cancellation, refunds and deliveries information and more). See our Checklist of information to include to ensure your website is legally compliant for a handy guide to help you build your website.
As part of ensuring you have the right information on your site, you’ll need the following policies and terms and conditions:
- terms and conditions of sale to set out practical terms like payment and delivery, limit your liability as much as possible and protect your intellectual property. Depending on what you are selling, you can use Terms and conditions – sale of goods,Terms and conditions – services; or Terms and conditions – sale of goods and services; and
- a Cancellation form for customers to use if you sell to consumers (rather than other businesses only) as they have greater rights to cancel online purchases compared to face-to-face sales.
Provide a clear link to your terms and conditions of sale (eg in the footer of each page and when a customer makes a purchase) and make sure the terms can be downloaded and printed.
Show me the money – invoices and payments
There are strict legal requirements for what to include in an invoice, depending on whether you are VAT registered and your sales include VAT, or you do not charge VAT either because you are not VAT registered or because you are selling zero-rated or exempt goods or services. Usually you should be using the same invoice templates for online sales as you would for your offline business, if you are selling the same goods or services. Use VAT invoice or Non-VAT invoice for legally compliant templates.
Think about what type of payments you want to accept through your website and whether you will accept direct debits. You should liaise with your bank or payment service provider if you are switching to an online business model, and make sure you are aware of security requirements (such as two factor authentication for payments) and relevant laws (eg you usually cannot charge an extra fee based on the type of payment a customer uses, and you usually cannot refuse payment to EU customers based on the country their payment card is registered in).
Make sure your work is original – taking care with your website content
As Joe Wicks found out, writing, music and pictures are usually automatically covered by copyright (so you’ll need the copyright owner’s permission before using their work on your site). If you don’t get the right permissions, the owner may demand that you remove the work from your site and pay them compensation.
You should also make sure that your branding and website design is original and does not closely resemble any recognisable brands. Many well-known businesses monitor new sites to check whether their logos, slogans or brand names are being infringed (and may require offending sites to be taken down or amended, and/or compensation). You can search for registered trade marks and registered designs online, and it’s also a good idea to conduct general internet research to check whether any competitors have used similar branding to yours.
Getting it right – knowing customers’ rights
Consumers have more rights to return goods or cancel booked services when buying online than in person. You’ll need to know your customers’ rights around returns and cancellations, in order to maintain your reputation and good customer relationships. You can use our Q&A on Customer service for online sales to check what rights consumers have when returning or cancelling goods or services.
Make sure you use a reliable freight or delivery provider, so that your delivery timeframes are kept to, and you are clear on what delivery charges will apply (so you can charge customers correctly). See Outsourcing storage and delivery for what to look out for in potential providers’ standard terms and conditions.
Great, I’m all set up – now how do I get customers to my site?
Depending on your budget and what type of business you are pivoting from, it may be worth hiring a marketing specialist to help you get traffic to your site. If you are going DIY, some possible marketing methods include:
- Direct marketing: for example, emailing existing customers. You need to be careful about data protection laws here, for example you can only market similar products and services to those they have bought from you before and you must include an unsubscribe link in your emails. See Direct marketing for guidance;
- A social media campaign and/or paying influencers to promote your brand (you’ll need to make sure the influencers make it clear to potential customers that they are receiving a benefit to promote your brand and that their content is labelled correctly as an advert). See Advertising, labelling and pricing for guidance;
- Improve your SEO (search engine optimisation) to make your business more likely to appear in potential customers’ search results;
- A PPC (pay per click) campaign, whether on Google or social media networks; and/or
- Affiliate marketing (paying other websites to promote yours).
You can find further guidance on marketing and advertising your business at Advertising, labelling and pricing.
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