Thursday, February 5, 2009

What I Learned From My Study Of Selling Online

In my previous two posts I talked about online selling venues. I have also talked in the past about selling online in general. I have mentioned many times that I have been studying all aspects of it for months now, to see how to make them work. I will tell you what I have learned. Please keep in mind that what I have learned applies to myself, I am not an expert. You may not find that it works this way for you. This is an insanely long post for which I apologize, but I hope you take something positive away from it if you take the time to read it all.

One of the most important things to remember is that whether you have been in business five minutes or fifty years, it's a constant learning curve. I have been in business for 28 years. I have rode waves of major success and seen business drop off only to come back and ride another wave. In order to stay, you have to figure out how to ride those low tides to the next high tide and maintain your work ethic and public presence. You have to be adaptable to new ways to sell, especially if the way you previously employed is dying off.

Longevity does give you insight and an ability to look at the big picture. But in order to have a successful business you have to be able to admit that you don't know everything. Business's that have staying power learn to adapt (within reason) and are always open to suggestions from their customers for improvement. I am not saying you need to follow every suggestion, but you should at least stop to consider it and your customers motivation for suggesting what they did. Especially if you have more than one customer making the same suggestion. You have to be able to handle the negative with the positive without taking it personally. While it's important to stick to your main concept and mission statement, business's that aren't willing to admit they might be doing something in a less than productive fashion and take steps to correct that very rarely survive. There is no shame in admitting that you don't know everything.

I worked for many years before the onset of the internet. So bringing my business to the internet has been a little bit like starting over. No matter how much you have sold in the past, on the internet you're a small fish in a big pond, because it's so easy to set up a website or a shop through one of the myriad of online sales venues that more and more people are doing it.

I have spent a year and a half trying to figure out the best way to drive customers to my website. What I have discovered is that a lot of the options online don't work for most people. Many people use Twitter to link bomb to their site or shop. While you may get sales from it, you run the risk of alienating a lot more people who could potentially be a customer. Social networks are called social for a reason. I have mentioned before that I remove anyone from my list who does nothing but post links. Even the people who intersperse their chatter with links don't really prompt me to click on them unless I get to know them and build a rapport so that I want to see what they have made. I post a link maybe 1-2 times a week and the rest of the time I just chat and get to know people because I like to meet people...they are interesting.

Blogs are a great way to make people aware of what you do as long as you don't cram it down their throats. People read blogs because they are interested in the people writing them. I have links and images to places I sell and what I sell on my sidebar. I post pictures of new items with a link to where to find those items and that's it. I also intersperse those posts with a lot of other kinds of posts. My blog is about all sides of me. I don't separate my personal life from my professional one because what I do is another facet of my life. There is nothing wrong with having separate blogs, it's really just a matter of personal choice. You have to remember that some people will admire you for what you write and some won't. You also have to be ok with that. It's easy to be misunderstood in your intent online because people can't hear you. I tend to say things in the calm, even manner of an observer, but people often read what I write as me being angry. I am rarely angry. It's up to you how you choose to present yourself, but for me, I like people who are three dimensional and real. It's fine to always put your best face forward, many people like to read only positive things. I prefer to throw it all out there and be as objective as I can. Judge me however you will, I can't control that, nor do I want to. I just know that in order to be true to myself I have to be as real online as I am in person.

On the internet we are literally bombarded with ads from every direction. Most of us don't come online with that intention. If we are going to shop, we seek out where we want to shop as our main focus. But when we are hit with ads on a site that we went to looking for something else we tend to tune those out. The only time I click an ad from someone I don't know on a site I went to for another reason is if they have a really, and I mean REALLY eye catching image. But what appeals to me might not grab another person's attention. Also it's important to remember that there are so many places to put ads that it can be overwhelming to choose where to spend your money. A few dollars here and there might not seem like a lot, but it can add up real quick.

Online selling venues have proven to be a great success for some, but not for the majority. There are certain keys to making those work. You have to have a product that is in line with the concept of that particular venue so that you are hitting your target audience. It's also important to remember that some of these sites are run by people with less business experience than we have. They are a business of their own with the goal of making money, they don't know you and they don't really care that much about you. If you don't sell they already have your listing fees. Many of these sites tout themselves as being open to everything, but in truth if you don't blindly follow the precedents and trends they set and drink the purple koolaide without question you won't get featured, you won't be seen as much as you would like without an insane amount of your valuable time spent on promotion on your part. If you're willing to do this, that's great. You can be very successful. If it's cutting into the time you might want to use for creating things, spending time with your family, cleaning, getting out of your house and computer chair, and just generally living your life...then you might need to go a different route.

People have this idea that these venues don't owe us anything in the way of promotion. But if that's true, why are we bothering with them? The whole point of these venues is to get seen and let people know your product is out there. If they are only going to promote a handful of people who don't even sell the same type of product you do, then how will you get seen? How will people know to look for you or your type of product? If you're going to spend a lot of time and money promoting your shop on one of these sites, it's just as easy to promote your own website where you don't have to give these venues a cut from your sale or pay listing fees. I know there is a general idea that it's better because they have a large customer base. That only matters if those customers are buying from you. Websites aren't that hard or expensive to create. In the long run if you create enough product to support it, it's cheaper to have your own site than pay the fees to a venue. With the programs available you don't even have to have programming knowledge, although it helps. If you are an artist, then you should be able to create a pleasing site because it's another form of creative expression and you control how it looks, what gets featured and what image and feeling you want to portray.

Another thing I see over and over is people blaming the economy. Ok yes, the US economy may not be that great, but I can think of quite a few people who do website updates with expensive, non essential items that sell out within an hour of doing their update. On the internet you aren't just reaching one country, one economy, one market or one earning class. People are still spending. Billions of things are sold every day online.

So what is the answer then? For me...there are a couple simple answers. One is if you want to use a sales venue, find one that is specific to your target market and art form. Yes your competition will be greater, but so will the customer base be because they are looking for what you make. There is no harm in leaving your other shops open as long as it's not eating too far into your time and profit margin. You will still hit a few people who weren't aware of you and your product. But look upon it as cheap advertising and don't expect great sales if the concept of the venue isn't mainly geared toward your style and what you make.

The second is, have a great product that is well made, don't cheat yourself or your customer on price point, have great customer service, learn to take good pictures (I am still working on this one, but I am getting there) and pony up the money for print ads in magazines. The reason print ads are more successful than online ads is because when someone sits down to read a magazine they are focused on images. Your brain is geared towards looking at images without distractions. Plus the ad never expires. People save magazines to reread, they pass them on to friends, they leave them in doctor's offices and laundromats. So you have the potential to hit several people with one magazine, and to have that ad seen a few times by one person. I have gone back as much as a year later to look at a site I saw from rereading a magazine. If you pay for a week's spot on a site after that week, it's gone. If you pay for a print ad it's forever in that issue. It's not inexpensive to advertise in magazines, but in the long run it's worth it. There is also a general perception that if it's in print it's more serious and professional. Just make sure you choose a magazine that is appropriate to sell what you make. For instance it would be folly for me to try to sell teddy bears in Handyman magazine.

The last piece of advice I can offer is don't worry about anyone else's business. One of the interesting things to me is when I see someone on a forum making a post about a business practice someone else has. Why do you care? It doesn't pertain to you. The only time I study other people's business practices is to learn from them, or if I intend to buy something from them. But what they do, how they do it, what they charge, what kind of customer service they have...that's up to them. It has no bearing on my business. Don't play the comparison game either. If someone sold a bear for $4000.00, good for them! That's great, I am happy for them, but it has nothing to do with me. I am not going to copy that bear, their style, or anything else because it wouldn't work for me the same anyway.

Just remember to be yourself in all your flawed glory, learn to admit when you are wrong, celebrate your triumphs, learn all you can, don't take yourself too seriously, know that it probably won't be an easy ride but believe in yourself and stick with it, make smart choices, don't blatantly copy anyone else or jump on the latest fad bandwagon just to sell, spread the wealth and help others, realize that it takes time to build a business, and you will be a success.


ginger@bearbits said...

Hey Kelly, Lots of good advice in your post which I will enjoy reflecting on. It did give me pause to think how valuable my 'years' in the bear business have become because now I can look back over highs and lows and say to myself, "I made it through that one." Like you, I think we often times have to reinvent to some degree according to our own situation. Oops! The comment is beginning to look like a post! :D

Posh Girl Couture said...

Hi Kelly,
Thank you for all your time writing this up. Great post.
It makes you stop and think about things because I know people can get carried away without thinking and make rash decisions. WORD is a powerful tool. Good & bad. It helps to have honest people share their knowledge/experience.
I found this post through twitter : )
Best Wishes! Your sites look wonderful!
Joelle XO

365 Letters said...

Great advice! Thanks for sharing your observations with us.

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