An overview of 8 digital business models and strategies in an online-first world

Whatever 'normal' looks like post Covid-19, expanding in digital is a prudent move to insure and diversify a business.

Jeff Strang
Jeff Strang
Oct 21, 2020
An overview of 8 digital business models and strategies in an online-first world

I'm not going to write this piece and pretend all is rosy out there, it's not. The winds of change are blowing more than a few fallen leaves around this Autumn.

That said, there'll be opportunities to create a better planet in the wake of COVID 19.

Many prospects for improvement, perhaps even the majority, will directly leverage digital and online technologies.

I'm in the business of creating and growing digital businesses. For the last three weeks, I've been advising clients to consider options to partially insulate or supplement uncertain revenue streams with a digital toolbox.

Whatever 'normal' looks like by the end of this year, investment in online capability is likely to be an asset. This advice doesn't only apply to the big end of town - digital entrepreneurship doesn't discriminate based on social status - so let's get started:

8 tips for businesses exploring the digital space in an online-first world.

1) Sell your expertise online

Creating monetisable value from your existing skill set in the digital world can take many forms.

Consultants, physical service providers like hairdressers and mechanics, freelancers, practically anyone providing a service face-to-face can leverage an online platform to grow a business.

For simplification purposes, let's break the models into three categories:

  1. Online training
  2. Subscription and membership models
  3. Marketing and delivery platforms for services suitable for remote (online) fulfilment

Online training

Ask yourself, could I teach my area of expertise online? The answer is almost certainly, yes.

Perhaps it could be delivered via video, written and illustrated content, webinars, podcasts or a mixture of all four. The key to generating revenue is in the packaging.

Paid digital downloads and gated (paid access) content are the most common mechanisms for receiving payments. The essential component is in the value you offer potential students.

Numerous platforms such as Lynda.com (now part of LinkedIn), offer immediate opportunities to get started. However, I believe the long-term value is in controlling the audience. For this, your plan should eventually include building a website.

Subscription and membership models

No, you don't need to build Netflix to succeed with a subscription or membership business.

In their specific niche, many small businesses have developed a fan base through social media and email newsletters. Converting those followers to paying subscribers has underpinned their success.

For example, there's a lady in Australia teaching paying subscribers how to play bridge. There are numerous examples in business consultancy fields, the real estate industry, even software development.

Again, the key is in packaging the value proposition, gating the content and managing the audience. I strongly recommend the MemberMaker podcast for inspiration.

Marketing platforms for services suitable for remote (online) delivery

Maybe you are a creative freelancer, a counsellor, a yoga instructor or even an accountant. If you can deliver services without face-to-face contact, the digital space offers massive opportunities.

With some caveats, fluent English speakers can access a potentially global customer base. With the New Zealand dollar comparatively low, Australia, much of Europe and the northern Americas all offer lucrative markets for your work.

Platforms already exist to get you moving – UpWork.com is one I've used. As always, I believe a website of your own is a smart medium-term move. The opportunity to grow customer loyalty and consistency of work is best leveraged through a structure not beholden to a third party.

2) Sell and manage physical services online

Almost any physical service-based enterprise would benefit with a small investment in web-based technology.

Gardiners, plumbers, mechanics, hairdressers, bakers and restaurateurs faces unique challenges which require innovative thinking to resolve.

Start by considering how you could serve customers better. What problems are they trying to solve when interacting with your sector? What obstacles do they face in the process?

Regardless of the solution – a delivery app, a booking's website, an automated notifications and payments facility - technology is not likely to be the roadblock.

For the services sector, a digital platform offers opportunities to improve the marketing reach and brand perception of your business. It can hugely enhance operational efficiencies, streamlining the client acquisition or booking process, both mitigating overheads and reducing down-time. Costs will go down, and revenue will go up.

3) Selling products online (e-commerce)

E-commerce is not new but its time of rapid expansion, especially locally, seems imminent.

The roll-out of GST on imported goods and our current status of social distancing are two factors accelerating the space.

Internet traffic is at record levels with consumers either stuck at home or travelling to shop much less than before COVID 19.

Digital advertising costs have fallen through the floor, albeit temporarily. If there was ever a time to diversify retail channels or launch a home business into e-commerce, it is now.

Additionally, subject to the end of Level Four restrictions, the next few months of 2020 offers an unparalleled opportunity to grow e-commerce loyalty.

Because of this massive growth, advice on standing out from the crowd with first-rate branding and customer service should be valued.

A few web-building services like Shopify and Squarespace offer capable DIY-focused e-commerce platforms. The problem is that they are based on templates and require advanced coding skills to create a unique, customer-loyalty evoking experience.

As a professional web design agency, we use a product called Webflow. It allows full, pixel-perfect design flexibility on one of the world's fastest and most reliable platforms.

Webflow does have a learning curve but it is worth persisting if you have visual-design skills (Adobe Illustrator or similar).

It's my view that Webflow will change custom web-design forever. We use it because of the infinite flexibility, speed of design and reliability. For a skilled Webflow developer with some coding skills, if you can imagine it, you can build it.

A quick note on drop-shipping

In case you haven't heard of drop-shipping, it is one of the web world's fastest-growing e-commerce trends.

In essence, a web-based retailer lists and promotes products online but doesn't hold or often even purchase, the stock.

Instead, the drop-shipper does the marketing, receives the orders with payment and forwards the request to the supplier, who ships directly to the consumer.

Drop-shipping is a valid business model and is worth considering in the mix. However, it can be associated with scams. Read more on Wikipedia/drop_shipping

4) Content marketing and affiliate marketing

There are multiple ways to monetise website blogs and Vlogs (video blogs).

Traditionally it was with digital advertising, which is still a viable option. Today, the significant trends are via sponsorship, content marketing and affiliate marketing.

Sponsorship used to be primarily corporate based. Today it is increasingly community orientated through platforms like Patreon and By Me A Coffee. If your audience loves what you do, it may be happy to make a small contribution to your continued success. Many indie musicians are discovering a way forward through the generosity of their fan base. It's a model that defines honesty and integrity.

Content marketing is where an organisation sees value in reaching your audience through the most authentic channel possible – your content. Perhaps it's a paid travel blog or a line of clothing you promote through social media. If content marketing is on your radar, you'll need to develop an audience that believes in what you stand for.

Again, while social media is a valuable tool in your marketing kit, supporting it with a platform you own is vital. Social platforms are notorious for changing the rules. They hold the audience, not you, and they can charge you to access it.

Affiliate Marketing is similar to content marketing, except remuneration is paid on actual goods sold. A typical example is the promotion of software, where the blogger reviews or promotes a product in tandem with an affiliate marketing link.

Important! Content Marketing and Affiliate Marketing are subject to stringent advertising laws. Disclosure of commercial relationships is mandatory. Start by reading the Code of Practice for Direct Marketing in New Zealand. More resources are available at the Advertising Standards Authority

5) Native Digital Businesses

Yes, I made that term up. What I mean is businesses conceivable only in the digital era - the TradeMes, the Air BnBs, the Instagrams, the Ubers. Big, bold, brash disruptors.

But do they need to be big and brash? Not necessarily. Successful small ideas that provide value and solve customer problems fill the start-up world.

The cost of entry for many such ideas has fallen dramatically. Five years ago, suggesting a NZ entrepreneur with big ideas but limited means approach a developer to launch an app would have been laughable. Today it is a genuine proposition.

For example, say you want to launch a hospitality app showcasing New Zealand's best but least known cafes. You want to include locations, booking/ordering services and community reviews. At Fathom, we could probably deliver you a fully functioning platform for that in less than a fortnight.

What about something more complex that uses the phone's built-in services like geolocation, the camera and notifications for an exploration of council-managed walking tracks. Turn-round for a native mobile product could be less than a month, plus app-store approval.

A bike-sharing app? An expense tracker? A personalised CRM system? All very achievable on small business budgets.

Start with a blank sheet of paper and sketch out the problem. The solution might be more straightforward and cheaper than you think.

More quick ideas and comments

I want to conclude by briefly covering a few extra points, just to be sure you've got maximum fuel for the imagination.

6) Digital Automation

Digital products don't have to be cool and sexy to deliver value. Automating mundane processes for costs savings and improved customer experience is a perfectly valid reason to go big in digital. Consider the following for your business:

·Sync product/stock databases across a website, Facebook and TradeMe

·Automate text reminders and notifications to clients

·Automate email newsletters

·Automating content strategies and social media posts

·Track inventory and automate reordering

·Fast-track and streamline a client payment process

7) Niche media and digital publishing

Niche digital media is getting exciting fast. The exit of many legacy media businesses, as highlighted in the magazine industry last week, is likely to relieve some pressure on digital media. It may well free up potential advertising revenue and creative talent.

I've managed or built three or four digital media businesses. The way forward in a small market like New Zealand is still challenging but not without opportunity.

The most viable revenue stream in the short term remains digital advertising – sold directly or via Google's programmatic ad platform Google for Publishers. Outbrain is another programmatic option.

However, most niche digital publishing businesses will need to evolve revenue models quickly. Including content marketing and paid subscriptions in the mix may help insulate them from the market-dominating effects of Google and Facebook.

8) Donations

Many not-for-profits rely on donations to survive, but the coin-based campaigns of street corner bucket collectors face an uphill battle in our cashless society.

Payment gateways like Stripe allow for customised online donation schemes. For info visit Accepting donations through Stripe.

For the less technical website creator, numerous plugin services are available for almost any WYSIWYG website product. This article by the Whole Whale looks like a comprehensive guide to options.

Give us a shout. We're happy to help.

Please don't take this advice as trying to fit every business into a box. Think of it as guidance to get your creative thought process rolling. In most business cases, the opportunities to advance your prospects are limited only by your imagination.

Traditional industries are ripe for digital disruption. A savvy entrepreneur leveraging digital technology can quickly create a competitive advantage. Consider what Uber did to the taxi industry or Netflix to linear TV. Disruptive innovation doesn't have to be enormous and expensive, but it usually needs to be of high value to the customer.

Feel free to drop us a line or email for advice. We won't charge for a short conversation and a few pointers on the phone.

If you do decide more professional help makes sense down track, we’ll be here to help.

About the Fathom Studio

Fathom offers a full-service web and digital business development team. We leverage world-class visual development tools to strategise, design and build digital products faster and cheaper than is traditionally possible.

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About the Fathom Studio

Fathom offers a full-service web and digital business development team. We leverage world-class visual development tools to strategise, design and build digital products faster and cheaper than is traditionally possible.

Fathom Agency