EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 271 - September 26, 2010 - ISSN 1528-6703     3 of 7

ArtFire's Unique Approach to Sellers - An Interview with Tony Ford

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ArtFire has taken a very different approach than most other online marketplaces. While it is often compared to Etsy because it attracts sellers who offer handmade and fine art, craft supplies, vintage goods, (and even media), ArtFire uses a very different model in dealing with its artisans and online sellers.

Most marketplaces such as eBay prohibit sellers from linking to their product listings on other venues. ArtFire has no such restrictions, as it reminded users in a recent communication to users. With 65,000 sellers two years after launching, are they doing something right? AuctionBytes spoke with Tony Ford, ArtFire cofounder and Chief Operations Officer, to learn more about this philosophy, how the model works, and what it means for sellers.

AuctionBytes: You blogged recently about ArtFire's market philosophy, and you talked about Marketplaces of the Past. What are they, and why doesn't that model work for sellers?

Tony Ford: When John Jacobs, our CEO, first called me about ArtFire, we really spent most of our time discussing eBay. John was a Triple Titanium Power Seller on eBay and, as such, he really experienced both the best and worst of eBay/seller relationship. He was extremely frustrated with that relationship and felt boxed in, limited, and in many cases prohibited from further success by eBay policies and site structure. He called me to join him in building something better for the people who were his primary customers, artists.

In analyzing what was so frustrating for John as a seller on eBay we found that the old marketplace method of insertion fee and final valuation fee has to (by its nature) work against the direction and habits of internet shoppers and interests of sellers as business owners. Internet shoppers expect high interaction, information rich, low-friction purchasing. They want to be able to purchase where they are at, or where they are comfortable and interact with a seller across the communication platforms that they (the shopper) are comfortable with.

Forcing someone to create an account, log in and only complete the transaction on the marketplace site creates friction. Yet to avoid fee avoidance, support the old-style feedback methods and ensure the marketplace keeps the most possible revenue ( and traffic), that is the process you must follow. eBay and Etsy both have these requirements.

After benchmarking best practice lessons learned by other sites, we found that eliminating those friction points roughly doubles sales for the sellers on the marketplace.

ArtFire was built different from the ground up. We offer a free unlimited listing account and a PRO account with one low monthly subscription. There are no commissions, fees, contracts or other charges. With a revenue model that is essentially a subscription to selling tools and software, we can adapt our marketplace to how shoppers shop, not how old marketplaces make money.

We don't have fee avoidance issues, so we encourage sellers to cross-link to blogs, social media sites and even Etsy. By enabling guest checkout and carefully constructing a new method of feedback checks and balances, we have not only doubled the sales for artisans, but also eliminated feedback extortion and abuse (we have zero reported cases of either).

Without the fee avoidance concerns, and moving from selling traffic to selling tools and support, we can branch out and push items to shoppers. We feed to thefind.com, Google shopping, and are working on another partnership with a major commerce player right now. These shopping engines allow us to push ArtFire sellers' items out to nearly 50 million potential shoppers per month with just shopping engines alone.

All of this means that when you list an item on ArtFire, the item goes:

  • in the ArtFire.com marketplace proper (SEO optimized at the item level for organic search engine traffic)

  • to the major shopping engines

  • to your Facebook Kiosk which is checkout enabled right from Facebook

  • to your rapid cart on your blog or independent webpage which is checkout enabled

No matter how the shopper finds you, or even which site they are on when they purchase, all of the sales and inventory tracking tie in to one account on your MyArtFire control panel.

Perhaps equally important is that because my team is not worried about sellers "stealing" our traffic by routing them to other sites, their blogs, etc., we can SEO optimize items and studios instead of trying to reroute all of the Search engine traffic to our own category or shopping pages (to later resell it).

This helps the seller build their own brand, organic traffic and over time, a great deal more sales - without having to constantly pay an insertion fee to get the exposure.

The ArtFire model is a better partnership between seller and marketplace as it better aligns both groups' goals and the shopper's preferences. I believe this is why we have seen nearly every new marketplace in this vertical that has started since ArtFire launched adopt the ArtFire model.

AuctionBytes: ArtFire allows merchants to cross promote their other online businesses and link to other websites. That's pretty innovative compared to the traditional eBay point of view.

Tony Ford: There are several main reasons we allow this. One, as mentioned above - it is better for shoppers. Having a web presence, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and even an Etsy account linked reduces buyer uncertainty. The seller seems more real and more trusted, so the seller makes more sales. This improves the conversion rate and lets sellers build relationships with their buyers to improve repeat business.

Two, we believe it is better for SEO. Deep, cross linked sites with strong back links to and from many known and trusted web domains helps to increase the crawl rate, crawl depth and overall authority of ArtFire item and studio pages.

Three, it helps sellers establish a cohesive multi-site brand, which increases sales conversions and marketing efficacy.

AuctionBytes: Artisan and handmade goods have different characteristics than vintage goods. How does ArtFire provide a home for both types of goods, and is this difficult?

Tony Ford: There is some challenge here. The success of a marketplace really comes down to building a robust, diverse and significant community of sellers with a wide variety and large quantity of items. While ArtFire is really a selling engine and toolset that pushes product across the web, we also still have the responsibility of creating a shopper destination on the marketplace proper. That requires a lot of sellers and a lot of product to be the bustling, vibrant, interesting shopping destination shoppers expect.

In order to best accomplish that within the limitations of an artisanal vertical, we focused on aggregating affinity groups of products that would attract cross-over shoppers. All of the markets on ArtFire (Handmade, Fine Art, Design, Media, Supplies and Vintage) would fall into a space that we would consider a "creative entrepreneurial" market segment. By cross-promoting and sharing inbound shoppers, the sellers in these sub-verticals create a symbiotic relationship where they can achieve much more together than they could separately.

AuctionBytes: What are the biggest challenges sellers have in selling on ArtFire?

Tony Ford: I think there are two critical things that the majority of initial sellers misunderstand.

One, there is no place online that you can simply list a decent picture of a Product, watch it sell like hotcakes and dump money in your pocket. Anyone who implies that about online selling is selling pure snake oil.

Selling online is hard work that requires education, adaptation and a willingness to learn a new business and put in a lot of effort to compete.

Two, the creative sales space is dissimilar to people who sell commodity products. This is not like selling drop ship laptops, DVDs, or mass produced items. This requires a completely different set of sales psychology factors and seller skills.

To really do well, a seller must be able to take practically magazine-quality staged product photos, write appealing and elegant copy and promote themselves as much as their product.

You (the seller) have to be the creative maker, the mysterious artisan, the confident craftsman, the poet, the photographer, the writer, the passionate, almost shamanistic connection to the creative experience that a shopper lacks in daily life. You have to show the buyer how buying from you is buying a little piece of the magic that is what you do and who you are,...and you have to do it with precision, consistency and panache.

You must create desire for a product that, until I clicked on this page, I never knew existed.

That is completely different than listing an mp3 player at a reasonable price.

AuctionBytes: What are the benefits of selling on ArtFire?

Tony Ford: ArtFire is a place where you can come to learn all of the above, share the process with other like-minded people and let us (ArtFire) do the heavy technical lifting. We have built highly customizable studios, speed and SEO optimized pages, checkout-enabled widgets and promotional tools, coupon codes, batch editing tools and business management tools. We push product out to the shopping world for you, automate the SEO as much as possible, duplicate your images on 70,000 severs in 60 countries and auto-convert the shopper's view to their home currency. We educate, support and encourage you. Perhaps most importantly, we work to create a vital, sustainable and supportive community.

Our goal is to help you sell, even if it means you make sales on another marketplace. That is something that the eBay model could never do.

AuctionBytes: How many people work at ArtFire?

Tony Ford: We keep our team very lean. In total we have 10 full-time staff members and a few contactors. But with that staff we provide phone support for pro members, 24 hour turnaround time on emails (even for free members), custom education, pages of quality content, and a development schedule that averages a new tool or feature rollout every two weeks.

AuctionBytes: Can you provide statistics on the number of listings/sellers/registered users and sales (unit and dollar) on ArtFire?

Tony Ford: In 22 months of open beta we have welcomed 80,000 members including 65,000 sellers who listed 1.7 million products and have sold about $4 million in goods. Over 85% of those sales dollars went to pro members who make up approximately 12% of our current seller pool.

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ArtFire exited beta last Monday and is running a "group deal" promotion to increase the number of paying merchants - you can learn more about it in last week's AuctionBytes Newsflash coverage. Information about selling on ArtFire can be found on directly on the ArtFire website.


About the author:

Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com.


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