cyber-selling

1. A Quick Tour of Cyberspace

At this point the Internet has encircled the whole world with its electronic tentacles. All communication media – wire, cable and microwave – have been marshaled to support this effort. Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village is a 21st Century reality.

We are most familiar with the World Wide Web (WWW), but it isn’t the entirety of the Internet. Back streets abound: tens of thousands of newsgroups, File Transfer Protocols (FTP) and the original backbone, referred to as Arpanet. But for our purposes today, some general explanation of WWW will suffice. We need to know a little bit about:

> Domains. Every computer connected to the Internet has a unique number, really a set of coordinates like those of a map or a telephone number. Called a Universal Resource Locator (URL) it enables one computer to connect to another. A domain name is simply a human-friendly way to describe this URL. It is much easier to remember, type in or look up the address www.artsbusinessinstitute.org than it is to use 209.250.36.50, which are the coordinates in cyberspace where the web site of the Arts Business Institute lives.

> Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are a computer’s link to the Internet. America Online is the most ubiquitous ISP. Using phone lines, cable networks and satellite connections computers around the world log onto the Internet and surf it. Your ISP can be one of the giants, such as AOL, Mindspring or Earthlink, or it can be a small independent mom-and-pop outfit. As long as your ISP has a speedy connection to the Internet, it doesn’t make much difference who you use to access it.

> Hosts are the storage providers for the millions of web sites that make up WWW. Typically your web site does not live on your personal computer. Instead a company that specializes in this by having made a huge investment in servers and backup systems and redundancy capabilities hosts it. Your host may or may not be your ISP, but it is not unusual for them to be the same.

> Web sites are our little pieces of real estate on WWW. They can be as simple as a web page with a graphic or two and listing contact information, or they can be large interactive sites with message boards, chat rooms, shopping carts, etc. What we expect from our cyber-selling efforts dictates the effort we put into producing our web site.

2. Methods for selling online

First we have to decide what we want to do in this brave new world of cyberspace. We can just dip a toe in it with a billboard on the Information Highway; we can use it as an electronic catalog to display our up-to-the-minute work; we can use it to sell to the public or perhaps sell to retailers – or maybe a little of both. Whatever we decide to do should be based on a serious conversation with ourselves about our goals. A small effort will yield fewer results than a major commitment. But a major commitment means time and resources must be dedicated to our online project – not just to get a web site online, but to maintain it continuously. A few methods for obtaining an online presence include:

> Obtain a free or paid listing on an existing arts and crafts-oriented web site. This can be as simple as an online classified ad asking visitors to call/email you for further information, or it can be as major as one with graphic(s), a bit of story about you and full contact information. An hour or so of Internet searching will provide you with many candidates for this type of listing. Prices are very reasonable, i.e., don’t expect to pay much more than $100 a year for a decent listing of this type.

> Join an online arts and crafts mall. Here, too, an Internet search will bring up many candidates. Some may be better than others, and a few may be complete rip-offs. They will either charge a fee to “rent” space on their site, or take a commission on your sales, or even both. You must be the judge of what works for you. Two reputable sites are Guild.com, which sells to the public, and Wholesalecrafts.com, which sells to the galleries. While malls will do all the WWW promotional work for you, they act in a capacity similar to sales reps in that your work is competing with all the other work they show and promote.

> Set up a sub-domain web site with a hosting company. Most of the mega-hosts offer this option. You pay a monthly fee based on the size of your site, and perhaps the activity it generates. In return the host provides you with a site, web authoring templates, email addresses and perhaps even a shopping cart. The primary benefit is that this method is relatively painless. Upload a few graphics; add some text and you are in business online. The downside is that you are pretty much invisible on WWW, so Internet searches will not find you. Your URL will look something like this: www.we’ll_host_anything/crafts-r-us.com. Search engines robots will not normally index sub-domain sites, and you won’t appear to be all that serious about your online presence in the eyes of your visitors. Another downside is that neither your email address nor your web site is portable; they work only so long as you pay the hosting service its monthly fee, so make certain that you are going to be happy with the host you pick.

> Jump in with both feet and become your own Dot.Com. This is the only way to go if you want a serious presence on WWW. You register a unique high level domain name, produce a web site to your specific needs, place it with the host of your choice, and promote it knowing that you have access to the same tools to market www.crafts-r-us.com as does any major league player to market theirs.

3. Reality Check for those who wholesale

Before we go any further here, be aware that your decision to have a major presence on WWW is going to upset many of the gallery owners you presently sell to. Just having a web site will set off many of them, even if you do not use it to sell to the public.

This is very shaky ground for those of you who depend on wholesaling for most of your living. Much of this results from the newness of the technology and the siege mentality of the retailers. As we continue to gain experience with this medium no doubt there will be protocols and conventions established that would assuage most of everyone’s fears. Right now, though, an artist setting up a web site pushes lots of hot buttons with retailers.

This is very similar to the rise of the catalog houses twenty-plus years ago. Retail America saw their complete demise in the spread of catalog shopping. Venders who sold through catalogs were blacklisted by department stores and boutiques. Finally, when the smoke cleared and those same department stores and boutiques were mailing their own catalogs, the percentage of mail order sales flattened out at about seven per cent of the total. Not a big deal after all. I believe we’ll see the same thing on WWW. Retailers will begin to put together major web sites to supplement their storefront operations, and an anxious truce will be declared between them and online makers. And of course storefront retailers will always have an edge in this touchy/feely market. The problem is in getting from here to there.

If you sell only retail at arts and crafts fairs, then skip the following section and go directly to Setting Up Your Own Dot.Com below. For others with retailer relationships to preserve, here are a few suggestions on how to minimize the fallout:

> Build a site solely as an online catalog for retailers to review your complete body of work – your up-to-the-minute additions included; password protect it to keep the public out. This would make sense if you sell exclusively wholesale. And your galleries could use it as a tool to sell to their collectors.

> Configure your site as a way to build your identity and/or brand, but don’t sell work directly online. Think seriously about minimizing the contact information you place on your site, though, as the mere fact that a collector might go around a gallery is enough to upset some retailers.

> Include contact information for your galleries. Do this by linking directly to preferred gallery web sites where a visitor can buy your work online, or by providing phone numbers and addresses of galleries. Either list them on the site, or hire a CGI programmer to produce a Zip Code look up/email form from a gallery database that you upload to your site.

> Do all of the above, but after encouraging visitors to buy from your galleries, offer to ship them directly at the retail price if no gallery is available locally, or does not stock the items they are interested in or won’t drop ship.

> Conclude that it’s every man for himself and hook up a shopping cart and vigorously promote your site. After all, is there an essential difference between attending an arts and crafts show and having an online presence? If you can come to an accommodation with yourself and your galleries about selling at shows in a gallery’s trading area, then surely you can do the same online. Let me know how that one comes out, as we are still gathering data for analysis here.

> And finally: have two websites. One for your galleries to peruse as in the first example above. Then mirror that site, change the name, and add prices and a shopping cart. You now have an online gallery yourself, similar to a retail situation in your own studio.

None of these solutions are perfect, but the effects of cyber-selling aren’t really as draconian as they might appear at first. Gallery owners tend to think in terms of real estate and trading areas – they have a geographical focus. Few have really come to terms with Internet selling the way they have had to with upscale catalogs. In a perfect world a sale to a consumer by you is one less sale that will be made by a gallery. But the world isn’t perfect, and that impulse sale you just made online might be to someone who wouldn’t set foot in a gallery or doesn’t have one available locally. Your job, then, is to examine your particular situation and find a path through this maze that maximizes the prospect of someone – anyone – making the sale. The worst possible outcome is to make it so difficult for the visitor that no sale is made.

4. Setting up Your Own Dot.Com

First you’ll need to choose and register your high-level domain name. There are any number of domain name registrants these days, so shop around. List price is $70 for two years. Try to make the name descriptive of your work. Studies have shown that search queries usually are for products, not names, so a domain name that says something about what you do is more useful than others -- using designs_by_john.com instead of handmade_leathers.com will pretty much ensure that you remain invisible to the search engines.

Then you will need to produce a website. Please don’t entrust this to your teenage kid or that acquaintance who professes to be web savvy. There are really only two ways to go, and for an artist or craftsperson producing an evolving body of work, only one:

> Hire a web developer. Depending on the size and complexity of your site, this will cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. And don’t forget to set up a maintenance agreement with the developer, because every time you change something/anything on your site, you will have to go back to him. This is a hole into which you can throw a lot of money over the years.

> Do it yourself. You are talented. You have an eye for design and esthetics. You know your work and how to best present it in the real world. Why not take this opportunity to empower yourself. There are any number of web authoring software packages available. The most professional, robust, yet easy to use ones include:

   o Microsoft’s FrontPage

   o Macromedia’s DreamWeaver

   o Adobe’s InDesign

These can be had for $150 to $350 list, with substantial street discounts if you shop around. Additionally, templates or “skins” are available to help you establish the look and feel of your site, as well as its navigation. A web-authoring tool is nothing more than a layout program for an electronic brochure – and you are already familiar with the mechanics of a brochure. Of course it will take you a day or two to hack through the program to familiarize yourself with it; but with all the tutorials, FAQs and user support boards available on WWW you should have little difficulty in coming to terms with it. And with this knowledge you will be able to produce your own web site the way you want it to look. And more importantly, you will be able to maintain it yourself. I can’t emphasize the latter enough: you can add new products, delete old products, and change the look and feel of your site without ever having to go through a middleman.

Next you’ll have to find a host for your site. Think about what you’ll need here. Email addresses and basic hosting is relatively inexpensive. If you add programming for forms or shopping carts with credit card services, this will add some cost to your hosting package. But overall this will still be inexpensive – maybe $50 a month, tops. I recommend using a local ISP instead of one of the mega-hosts. Why? To the mega-host you are just one of a mega-number of sites being hosted. Your account gets lost very quickly. A local host provides the personal touch, and if there ever is a problem, nothing beats a face-to-face dialog. Over the years I’ve found that the technical support from local ISPs is superior – they answer their phones instead of making you listen to Muzak; they will walk you through connection problems and hold your hand while you upload your site to their server (remember the reference to FTP at the beginning; to access your site you will visit another area of the Internet which is not WWW).

Congratulations are in order! You now have planted your flag in cyberspace. You are on WWW and ready to have the world beat a path to your virtual door. Exciting, isn’t it?

5. Promoting Your Site

Now begins the hard part. Your site is up, you’ve run through the navigation several times to verify that there are no broken links, your crisp images pop up on the screen quickly and those buy buttons are just itching to be clicked on. What do you do now?

> On the back end of your site, i.e., buried in the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) in the header section of your web pages, make certain that you have made your site search engine friendly. This header section includes Meta tags, which are nothing more than a method to provide information about your page. We are interested primarily in the title, description and keywords Meta tags. Only the document title shows up on your browser’s screen; the other Meta tags are invisible to a visitor. You make your site search engine friendly by producing informative titles for your web pages, strong descriptions of them, and include a comprehensive list of keywords. Titles are not only used by the search engine ‘bots, they are also what visitors see when they save your URL to their Favorites list. Make them robust and descriptive, and try to include your top keywords in the copy. The description tag elaborates on the title; again, you could incorporate keywords in this tag. Keywords are just that: descriptive words associated with your site. Try to visualize being a surfer, and think of the words you would type into a search box to find a web site offering what you produce. Be as specific and comprehensive as possible. And finally, include many of your keywords in the text of your home page, just to emphasize their importance to the ‘bots.

> Submit your site to the major search engines. I recommend that you stay away from the shotgun approach where you pay a service to automatically submit your listing to, say, the top 1,200 search engines. Those aren’t search engines; in many instances they are email collectors who will turn around and sell your name. You will be buried in junk email. In my experience only three search engines count: Yahoo, MSN and Google. In tracking several sites over several years, those three account for more than ninety per cent of search engine traffic.

> Link your site to other web sites. Many arts and crafts sites have areas where you can post a free link back to your site. Many of them will allow you to do so unilaterally, while others will ask for a reciprocal link on your site. Now you know why so many sites have a separate page for links – they don’t want to clutter their own site with this reciprocity, but they need a home for the required links. In a few cases, it might make sense to pay for a link to your site. It would have to be a targeted, high traffic site, and typically you would be able to post a graphic as a part of your link listing.

> Paid listings on high traffic sites make sense as an aggressive marketing tool. Overture, LookSmart and Sprinks all have affordable programs where you bid on keyword positioning. Set up an account, make a deposit, set your bid to maximize the trade-off between the cost and the visibility you get, and that’s it. You pay only when a viewer sees your link and clicks on it. Is it worth ten cents, a quarter or a buck to have a highly qualified visitor to your site? Bidding on keywords is like an auction, and can be fun. Some keywords are under priced and some are overpriced; you’ll just have to go through the exercise using your own specific ones. Essentially, you are paying for a preferred position in search engine rankings. The Overture and LookSmart programs are tied in with the major search engines that cover eighty per cent of the Internet’s search activity. Sprinks focuses on WWW’s content providers, such as About.com, iVillage and Forbes.com.

> Promote your domain name in all of your print materials. Business cards, brochures, catalogs and postcards should include your web address. Print advertising should include your web address. All that very expensive print literature should be designed to drive traffic to your web site, where you have a much greater opportunity to inform and entertain and tell your story.

> Finally, consider an opt-in email newsletter. For retail audiences, you can develop a mailing list by asking for emails at your shows. For wholesale audiences, go through copies of The Craft Report, Niche Magazine, AmericanStyle and American Craft. You can also poach addresses from the Internet. It is amazing how many artists and craftsmen publish full contact information for their galleries. And then there are the arts and crafts portals themselves to check out for email addresses.

A couple of caveats, though. I said opt-in newsletters. Make certain that your newsletter includes a way for the recipient to opt-out, too. And your newsletter should contain news, too, or you’ll be considered a spammer – a junk mail emailer. Write about your new work, or your upcoming shows or the birth of your son. Reinforce your story. Keep it interesting, and do it every month or every other month. I’m not certain that less frequent newsletters will have much impact, as your audience needs that repetitive reinforcement to keep your name in front of them.

6. A Few Closing Thoughts

If you’ve gotten this far, you are well on your way to marketing your artwork online. And you are in control of those efforts. But you can’t rest now. As this is written, the rules of the game are changing. The algorithms used by the major search engines to rank web sites change almost daily, advertising gurus are always finding new ways to squeeze money out of folks who want to be found on WWW and the techies are up all night figuring out new applications to jazz up our web sites. Here are a few random thoughts on taking all this in stride:

> Don’t be tempted to hook up a bunch of JavaScript or music on your site. All that baggage takes time to load, and your visitors will be long gone by the time they start hearing that great trance music clip you incorporated into your home page.

> Neutral backgrounds are best. Black type is best. Ever try to read yellow text on a black background?

> Don’t get hung up on fancy shopping carts. I am a huge fan of Mal’s E-commerce. The basic cart is free, it’s easy to set up, and taking credit card information online is truly secure. And if you are selling online, secure ordering is an absolute necessity.

> Use quality images, but don’t choke your site with high-resolution graphics. More than half of us still use a dialup connection. Your monitor will only display 72 pixels per inch, so make certain that your images are resolved for WWW. Don’t use many images per page. If you must display lots of graphics, use thumbnails with links to the larger images.

> Don’t make your viewers scroll horizontally. We’ve gotten used to vertical scrolling, but we click right off a page that’s too wide.

> Use lots of white space on your pages. A big block of text is plain boring.

> If your host does not provide one, sign up with one of the site statistics services. Particularly at the beginning of your web presence, it is important for you to know how many visitors you are getting, where they are coming from, and how they are getting there. This information allows you to tweak your site, perhaps in changing the emphasis on certain keywords.

> Don’t be impatient. It will take several months for you to even appear on the radar screen of WWW, and then probably only as a tiny blip on the edge. Even if you are successful the first time out at listing your site with the major search engines, they are overwhelmed in trying to keep up. It may take months for their spider ‘bots to crawl over to your site and index it.

> Tired of answering the same old questions over and over? Add a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page to your site. But keep your FAQs relevant and timely.

> Change your content and change your images often. Having a static web site is the kiss of death. If someone has bookmarked you, then he/she is going to be coming back frequently to see what’s new. Having nothing new is boring.



   
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