Regular readers of Fiber Focus will have noticed that I haven't posted much lately. I admit it. I am overwhelmed by all the tasks involved in having and marketing an online business. And, I am sure that this is a common challenge for any of you who are also following this road. I thought I would share some of where I have been in cyberspace in this post. Those of you who are starting out, will hopefully avoid some of the growing pains by learning from those of us who have been hitting our heads in the School of Hard Knocks.
First, a general backdrop: I started down the road of retail sales, always focusing on ethnic crafts and textiles, in 1988. Most of those years were in Chicago, in four different stores, the last one being the largest at 5,000 square feet. I started selling online in the late 90's. Yep, while everything was still on dial-up! The goal has always been to have a business that was solvent and that could support my artistic endeavors on my off-time. (Ha!) Marketing has changed a great deal over the years. We used to place ads in real papers, have events, join local organizations and do a lot of hoofing around with fliers and business cards. Now, that hoofing is done mostly online.
My business, Rayela Art, has three online stores:
Rayela Art on Etsy, my biggest store.
Rayela Art on eBay, my oldest store,
but currently seriously low on product for lack of time...
but currently seriously low on product for lack of time...
Rayela Art on 1,000 Markets, my newest store.
Rayela Art's focus is on ethnic textiles, both finished hand made items and supplies like fabric, textile stamps, trim and remnants. I also make things: textiles, hats, bags and other things out of fabric. 1,000 Markets does not allow any imports, so I moved all of the things I have made there. Shoppers can combine purchases from all three stores together to save on shipping.
Last year I realized that I needed to get out there and market my stores. It used to be that having a presence on eBay was enough to generate sales. But, as more countries have gone online, I have more competition for my ethnic products. I buy from small traders and importers so my prices will always be higher than someone who is selling directly online from Uzbekistan, Tibet, or Indonesia. Having a good track record, a reliable postal system and decent shipping rates does help my business. Each of my online stores belongs to the larger community where it is housed. When I started selling on Etsy, two years ago, I followed their forum with avid interest and learned a lot about what other people were doing to market their stores. Looks like I needed to have a blog. Thus, Rayela's Fiber Focus (this blog) was born, a little over a year ago.
Most bloggers write about what they are selling or about their art. I knew that I wanted this blog to be the educational component of my business. The cultural importance of what I sell is central to my interest in these products. Yes, I also love the techniques represented, the colors, and the tactile feeling of these pieces, but more importantly, I would like to help talented low income people access larger markets through my stores. Unfortunately, Etsy does not allow new imports, so I am unable to represent fair trade products anywhere except on eBay. I decided that the blog could be a place where I could explore how fiber art and textiles impact society, how they contribute to economic development and how contemporary fiber artists explore traditions they have been handed. I also decided that I wanted other people to contribute posts on fiber-related topics they were interested in. It has all been very interesting for me. Yet, each post takes me several hours to do and the time commitment can be difficult to sustain.
The blog hopefully sends potential customers to all three stores. Instead of spending gobs of time marketing each store, it makes more sense to try to get the blog out there. So, there are many networks where a blog can hopefully attract new readers. I am on Blog Catalog and Technorati.
Both of these also have communities and forums where a business can promote itself. A pundit I saw on TV said that every day 50,000 new blogs go online. It is easy to have your blog just disappear in the sea of cyberspace. Many people hope that their blogs will generate income (I know I wish mine did!) by selling ad space or participating in affiliate programs. I do both. I sell ad space and advertise through Project Wonderful, a great concept that is affordable and manageable.
Having an online store and a brick and mortar store is similar in that you build customer loyalty and your reputation through relationships. This is done through social networking sites and social media. Another thing that has changed greatly since I started selling online is that this has become a movement. We are in the middle of a craft revolution here in the United States and that has led to a huge increase in our own cottage industry production and online presence. All of these little businesses have absolutely no chance of succeeding unless they either come up with an extremely desirable product or they build relationships and become rated by their customers as an excellent place to shop.
Here is a little video that explains how this works:
The relationships are built through social networking sites. Wikipedia's list has more places than you can imagine! I kind of roll my eyes at Twitter, but am there:
Flickr's focus on photography has been an extremely useful tool for finding blog images or networking with other people interested in cultural textiles.
Then, there is Ning, an umbrella organization that hosts templates for anyone who wants to start their own social networking group around a theme. I belong to several and started the Fiber Focus Group there.
My favorite social network has become facebook. You can have a private page for family and friends or a public one for your business. I have both:
Do you see a pattern here? On each of these sites, my logo, the snake with legs, is repeated. This is called branding. You get out there and repeat, repeat, repeat, both with your logo and your message. The primary goal is to increase your sales, to become a viable business. But, the relationships that grow out of this effort are also valuable. I live in a small town in Kentucky and spend most of my time in front of the computer. There is a wonderful community of artists here, but most are not interested in the specific topics I like to explore, so I can satisfy some of that by chatting online with people in Australia, Turkey and who knows where. I have a nice group of cyber friends now that I can whine to or rejoice with about any number of things. It can be a lonely existence, this business of selling online, and having some history with people whom I've never met has made it interesting for me.
All of this takes time. There are little gadgets that you can get from each of these sites and post them all over the place. You have to log in and out everywhere you go. What about all of the time it takes to physically run a business? Making or buying things to sell, photographing them, posting them, answering questions, keeping records, getting taxes ready. What about the normal demands of life? A yard that's out of control, a house that is falling apart, a piece of furniture that needs to be painted, two weeks of rain with four dogs and muddy paws, dishes to do, laundry to wash. Oh, and you have to eat, bathe and brush your hair and teeth. One of my cyber friends, Susan Sorrell, is the networking queen. Everywhere I have gone, she is there first. I have let several things slide, but she is constantly posting, writing, chatting, AND making her art. I really don't know how she does it.
My advice is this: pick three things and do them well. If you have a blog, make it a thoughtful one. Facebook is a rewarding place to be. And, then maybe a social network that reflects your interest. Everything you join generates new e-mails. I think I delete a hundred a day, but I do skim each one first. Over time, you find where your interests are best served. I have not slowed down here on my blog because of lack of interest. I have tons of stories to explore and look forward to these times. But, I also need to get the rest of my life into order so that I feel both productive and less chaotic. I try to structure my days with computer time in the morning, anti-potato action in the afternoon (anything physical), and then either creative work or more computer stuff at night. Days are full and whiz by.
What about you? Have you learned how to juggle all of these things successfully? I would love to hear how each of you deals with all of these opportunities and demands.