While I've learned many interesting lessons during my recent foray into e-commerce, one thing has become abundantly clear: There is a lot of competition out there.

But where there is a lot of competition, there is also significant opportunity. Online e-commerce sales are expected to exceed $4 billion by 2020--and that's just in the United States.

If you want to become part of the rising tide of successful e-commerce brands, you need to find ways to stand out in your niche. With the right branding techniques, you will be able to set yourself apart and make a lasting impression on potential customers.

1. Use word-of-mouth growth. 

While paid marketing efforts are certainly important, you cannot underestimate the power of your customers. Even if you have a relatively small sales base now, nurturing trusting, authentic relationships with your clients is key to future growth. Brands like PopSockets have leveraged word-of-mouth growth to propel them from a tiny convention show booth to selling 60 million products per year.

You can cultivate relationships that will help your business grow in a wide variety of ways. You can participate in industry forums. You can expand your influence through a useful, informational blog. Providing value to others is a great way to build trust.

Most important, however: You must deliver on your brand promises when someone decides to buy. According to data from iPerceptions, 71 percent of customers will recommend a product or service after receiving a great experience--and 50 percent "would choose word of mouth if they were asked to pick only one source of information" when making their own buying decisions.

Word-of-mouth testimonials will ultimately be more powerful and convincing than any of your paid branding efforts.

2. Focus on the product.

While many companies try to focus their branding around a lifestyle or mindset, this doesn't have to be the case in e-commerce. In fact, many of the most successful branding efforts focus entirely on the product itself.

This became especially clear during a recent conversation I had with Jacob Elggren, founder of leather goods maker Andar. Elggren founded his brand in 2015, starting out as a Fulfillment By Amazon seller before shifting the focus to his own website. The company has experienced continuous year-over-year growth, and is on track to reach $3 million in revenue this year.

One thing that stood out in our conversation was how Elggren's branding has always been focused on the unique design of his company's wallets. Marketing messages focus on the wallets' minimalist functionality, rather than trying to emphasize a particular lifestyle. This has helped expand the potential audience--even smoothing the male/female sales split from 80/20 to 65/35.

3. Find a cause.

Today's consumers are increasingly socially conscious.

According to a 2018 RetailMeNot​ survey, 66 percent of consumers feel that brands should "take a public stand on important social values," while 52 percent stated they were willing to spend more with companies that aligned with their shared values. These numbers were even higher among Millennials, who are now the largest population group in the United States.

Of course, you should be cautious when determining what cause you want to support. Some brands court controversy when they speak out on politically divisive issues. However, there are other causes that garner almost universal support, such as reducing your environmental impact or volunteering in the community.

Even something as simple as charitable giving can help you appeal more to socially conscious buyers. Giving a little could lead to a lot of growth.

4. Leverage the power of influencers.

Influencer marketing is a trendy topic, and for good reason. Many of today's most successful e-commerce brands are fueling growth by partnering with social media influencers who are popular with their target audience. 

You don't have to partner with big-name celebrities, either. Micro-influencers with fewer than 100,000 followers can have higher engagement rates, making it more likely that a paid partnership will reach their audience. 

Influencer partnerships are a great way to associate your product with a lifestyle, or to simply show it off. And these partnerships deliver real results. According to Social Media Today, brands see 11 times greater ROI when using influencers instead of traditional marketing, earning an average of $6.50 for every dollar spent.

It doesn't matter what niche you're focused on--to appeal to your target audience and stand apart from the others in your space, you need to nail your branding. By applying these tips to create a likable and memorable brand, you will be better positioned for lasting sales success.

Published on: Sep 24, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.