I just returned from attending a writers workshop at which budding authors were exhorted to develop a "platform." What, you ask, is a platform, and what does it have to do with selling online? It's quite relevant to anyone who wants to connect with others online, in fact, whether they are buyers or readers (or my own dream audience, buying readers).
A platform is a base of people who know you and who want to hear what you have to say. Once you have a platform, you can sell to it, whether your product is a book, an e-book, jewelry, electronics, or other products.
How do you develop a platform? You network, in person or online. Social networking through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter is all the rage. But lectures, visits to flea markets or other venues, and media appearances are still essential to develop the all-important word-of-mouth market.
If you're looking for a good example of someone who continually works at building a platform and who enthusiastically sells to that platform through multiple online venues, look no farther than Nathalie Girard. The 45-year-old artist, jewelry designer, and metalsmith is the owner of Canadian Rockies Art/NGOriginals, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Girard has all the basics: a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and a website (NGOriginals.com). She also sends out 3-4 email newsletters per year. Not only that, but she operates five separate Pro-level storefronts on the arts and crafts marketplace Artfire and two stores on Etsy.
As someone who has a hard time posting on a blog or on Facebook, I had to ask Nathalie how she finds time to write, email, post photos, write sales descriptions, or otherwise contribute to all of these venues.
Her first response: "I don't sleep...LOL."
Then she added that she is not always consistent with her blog, Twitter, and Facebook. "I have not been efficient enough about handling social media up until now, but I realize that this is an important part of doing business online." She did admit that she checks emails and answers customer inquiries seven days a week.
And she's a fast typist.
"I usually handle correspondence when I first get up in the morning (usually as of 9 to 9:30AM in the morning on weekends, and as of 8:30AM during the week) for emails that have been received during the night. Then I check them again every couple of hours until I go to bed basically. If something comes in that requires an answer, I reply immediately. If I have to go out for errands, etc., I get my messages on my Blackberry, so I can see if something needs a quick reply on the spot or if it can wait until I get back at home."
A blog might have some obvious benefits for a writer, but how can it help an ecommerce store owner? First of all, it helps gives your website better placement on Google search results, explains Girard. "Google loves blogs, which makes it an important tool to use when selling online. The more quality link-backs to our online selling venues and listings, the better."
One of the perennial obstacles to having a blog is the question of what to talk about every day. It turns out that ecommerce store owners have a solution: you can always talk about your products. Girard describes where they came from, what makes them special, what they're made of, and more. "We talk about our latest creations, talk about techniques and materials, and share tutorials. The more we develop brand recognition, the more we increase sales over time."
Talking up your business, your expertise, and your products is just one way of using a blog to support sales. Another is straightforward inclusion of sales descriptions and prices for selected merchandise. Girard says it's not at all uncommon for readers to make a purchase of merchandise advertised on her blog.
"I've had people purchase something after seeing it on my blog," she acknowledges. "Others have contacted me to inquire about custom work because seeing one of my designs inspired them to get something adapted to fit their special needs or their own taste more closely. Blogging helps to open the dialogue. It also offers a glimpse of the magic in the creative process and a peek at the artist's life. It's an important part of connecting with potential buyers."
Girard uses WordPress to create her blog, which appears on her website. Hosted for less than $5 per month by a service called HostGator, her website serves as the focal point for linking her five ArtFire and two Etsy storefronts. (My next column will examine how this busy seller juggles all these business presences and how she chose this host as well.)
Perhaps the most important way Girard connects with buyers is by answering questions promptly. Like virtually everyone who sells regularly online, she is a frequent "multitasker" and will return calls and inquiries as soon as possible, no matter what she's doing or when the question comes in. "Good customer service is important to me. I don't leave buyers or potential buyers hanging without answers," she says.
Email newsletters are an especially important part of a platform, and one of the most difficult to maintain. On hers, Girard promotes special holiday sales and products. She offers sneak previews of new items to come, special sales and special discounts or giveaways for her subscribers.
All of this promotion and customer service might seem like a lot of extra work for a seller. But Girard says it all fits in with her philosophy, which is one I've heard from other sellers over the years, though perhaps not expressed in the same words. As she puts it: "The more we share, the more we have."
Do you have an interesting story about your business or a set of tips to share with other ecommerce entrepreneurs? Contact me at email@example.com and you may be profiled in a future AuctionBytes column.