Internet marketing guru Jim Cockrum was sitting in a hotel on a business trip when he did something that would change his life and lead to the building of an online empire: he decided to give away the secrets of his eBay niche, selling tickets for exclusive seats at events. From there, he learned more and more about how to build an online audience, and now he runs multiple online businesses and websites, and has mailing lists with over 120,000 avid readers.
Cockrum recently published an "on the shelf" book called "Free Marketing: 101 Low and No-Cost Ways to Grow Your Business, Online and Off" (Wiley). He spoke with AuctionBytes Blog editor Julia Wilkinson about what he teaches in the book, and he shares some interesting advice for eBay and online sellers, from guarding their reputation, to blogging and social networking, and the importance of email marketing.
He also has some daring advice for online sellers about "irrational generosity" and explains how it can have a snowball effect.
Can you talk about reputation and what online sellers on their own websites and on marketplaces such as eBay, Amazon and Etsy can do to defend themselves against the negative impact of bad reviews?
Jim Cockrum: The biggest risk of me being an eBay seller isn't the feedback I'm going to get from any one buyer. The biggest risk is eBay itself. You wake up one day and two or three customers in a row didn't like you and they've frozen your PayPal account pending further investigation, and they've frozen all your listings for a week.
I've been pleading for the same things with eBay for 10 years…we need some sort of tenure program.
I've got four families that rely on my eBay business, plus my own. And a storeroom of inventory that I can't put on Amazon, because it's not bar-coded. It's eBay inventory. If they decided tomorrow to shut me down, I'd take a big hit. Nothing I could do about it. Almost any business model you get into there's ways to insure yourself, hedge yourself. eBay's made that next to impossible.
But, as far as return policies go, the stories in the book of people selling very unique items at very high price points with the friendliest of return policies, this is one way to protect your reputation and stay on eBay's good side. If the customer wants their money back for whatever reason, you give them their money back instantly; completely refund them. And if they totally rip you off, you just keep in mind - that's the price of doing business in the real world.
We do free shipping on everything, we do very lenient return policies - basically what we're doing is negative feedback prevention. Because the cost of a negative feedback, it isn't just that one-time thing, that one little hit. You're now showing up on eBay's radar; you're now putting your entire business at risk.
And it's a sad state, it's a tough situation that eBay's put us in. I'd like to see them change a few things. But at the same time, I like playing a high-risk game, where those with weaker hearts can't quite cut it because the world is left to those of us who are willing to really work quite hard. I've seen a lot of sellers drop out.
One of the secrets to getting a good reputation is to instantly respond anytime anything shows up about your business, positive or negative. You need to be right on top of it, in a friendly and professional manner.
No matter what you're doing on the Internet, I love Google alerts. We have multiple Google alerts set up - you get an email notice any time your name shows up anywhere. People are very shocked when someone writes a negative blog post, for example, and I jump in and say thank you so much for that feedback. We can start a discussion, and instead of it escalating, suddenly it's wow, the author's on your blog talking about his book.
It can be that easy to defend your reputation; you can monitor the conversation. Most people aren't doing that.
What is your concept of "being irrational" in great marketing? What are some of the "irrational" methods that work for you? And do you think eBay sellers should have "irrationally" lenient return policies?
Jim Cockrum: It's one of the concepts in the book: the irrational generosity concept. I think it's always worked in business. And you can make the argument that in other times, say 30 years ago, you could be irrationally generous and put yourself out of business doing it.
Well now, we're in an era where you can be very irrational. You can go very overboard, and it actually makes financial sense. Because every customer you're touching has this megaphone and they can announce to the world - Facebook friends, Twitter followers, their blog, etc. If you create an exceptional experience, they've got this waiting audience, excited to hear what happens. That was the magic of Zappos; that was the example I used in the book.
We've had people that bought things from us two years ago come back and return. And we say yeah, how else can we help you? And inevitably those people become the most loyal raving fans.
A lot of people are coming into my funnel by way of some irrationally generous act that my staff did - they gave them free access to something, or they gave them a refund on something...just irrational generosity is our theme.
And it leads to more customers with the snowballing effect. I really believe it s driving our business and I really believe you're missing out if you don't tap into it in some fashion, not just in the return policy but in the front-end. Give away product - give away stuff. Traditional businesses can really benefit from this.
When it comes to blogs, what are the key things people should keep in mind in using it to drive sales and help their business?
Jim Cockrum: Well, to me a blog is a communication tool for someone who already has an audience. It's a hard way to build an audience.
I put blogs in the same category as having an ebook or having any other product or creating a website or any of those things. "Hey, I'm gonna start an Internet business...what's step one?" I always back up and say, where's your audience? Not who is your audience. On the Internet, where do they hang out, and what's your strategy to get in front of those people?
The best strategy is to partner with the gatekeeper of that site or that blog. For example, if you know a lot of people are reading a blog about cats, how do you jump in and make that person look great?
Create a product with them, write an article for them. So before you set up your own blog, you're already trying to establish your audience and your connections with true leaders. Then once you have a blog, it's feeding your audience what they want. Asking them what they want. Seventy percent content and at most 30% selling. Ideally the first several points of contact you have with someone, its 95% content and only 5% selling.
The first ten exposures that someone has to me should be just giving them in an irrationally generous way stuff that other people paid a lot of money for in the past, but here it is, completely free. We're always lowering that "free" line in our funnel.
With regard to social media - what are the top things people need to keep in mind to use it effectively? For example, you stress the importance of being brief.
Jim Cockrum: I've yet to get really excited about the business prospects of social media. It's a very hard connection to make still. No one has proven to me yet that there's a formula for making social media work as a marketing tool.
That being said, you're insane not to be using it. So it sounds like a contradictory message, but it's not. Here's why. People want to connect with people when doing business. If you can somehow get it down to a personal level, if you can turn this huge mega corporation into a Facebook account, where people can interact on an individual basis in real time on any topic, that's cool. There's something there that you need to tap into. And you'll be left behind if you don't.
But at the same time, there's no formula out there for exactly how to approach it.
Some rules of thumb that I use…keep it personal. Anytime I'm doing something on social media, even if it's for a business purpose, it's all mixed into one pot. The picture my five-year-old drew can be right next to a promotion for my new book.
How do you use YouTube videos to market your business? And is it important for online sellers to be making videos on YouTube? How does it help their business?
Jim Cockrum: I think the first mental block about YouTube is they can't make that leap of seeing themselves on camera. It's like, I don't know if I want to do that. Do I have to look right, speak correctly - I'm competing with television. That's not true. If you need a lesson on what's good enough to go on YouTube, talk to any 12-year-old. It doesn't have to be polished, it doesn't have to be perfect, it doesn't even have to show your face.
It can be you talking, showing something on your computer screen. For this reason I love Camtasia jingproject. You can capture up to five minutes free; capture whatever you want to capture, turn it into video and throw it up to YouTube.
I put together some really cool quality stuff, start to finish took me about 10 minutes. It's a video that's gone on to get tens of thousands of views, and it's just me talking people through how to do some simple basic thing that I do every day and take for granted. (Jim's channel is Silentjimdotcom on YouTube.)
Can you talk a little about the power of testimonials?
Jim Cockrum: It's well-known in Internet marketing circles that the best possible content on any sales page is real testimonials from real people. Your only job with selling something as the copywriter is to say here's what I got, here's what it does, here's how you can get it. Anything else you say about how great it is, or how wonderful it is, doesn't matter. But my ears perk up and I get very interested if you have real people talking about exactly what they experienced and it's obviously genuine, straight from the mouth of someone who experienced it.
People are going read the testimonials and skip the other stuff. If a stay-at-home mom who just got into Internet marketing last year is now making $10,000 a year and thanking me for the advice, now that is gold for me, and it's evidence for other people.
You say in your book, "pictures make great content." How can online sellers get their customers to contribute photos they can use in their marketing?
Jim Cockrum: If you can get a picture of your customers with your product, and a little testimonial of "Hey I love it, this is how I'm using it" - that's gold. That will be the most-viewed part of your sales page. Actively go after that, actively pursue it.
If you have an offline business you could encourage people, "Hey, take a picture of yourself using our product for a 10% discount if you send it to us on Twitter right now." It's so easy to do that sort of thing, and there are so few people taking advantage of it.
What are the benefits of having an online mailing list?
Jim Cockrum: The Free Marketing book covers it in depth, as does every product I create. I'm a huge fan of email marketing. In my opinion it is the best form of marketing ever invented by man. There's some of Jim's opinion in there, but there's an awful lot of data to back it up.
I can literally, in the next 30 seconds, type out a short message and send it to 100,000 people, and the cost to me is free, nothing. And there are multiple occasions - I have video proof of several of them - where I've sent out an email and in the course of the next hour or five hours I've got thousands of dollars of orders for whatever it was that I was promoting.
But it's very targeted, very specific, and if I've earned their trust and loyalty, they're going open it and read to what I have to say. Before I earned the right to be in that position I've given away great content, free information. But at that point I say, hey guys, this is worth your money.
I spend my time doing two things, building my relationship with my audience, and growing my audience. That's it. Those are the two things I do for a living. Everything else is kind of residual.
You can become the Oprah of your niche. She doesn't have to write a bestselling book to make money next year. She doesn't have to come out with a new product, or concept, or tool, to make money next year. That's why I don't want to be in the tool business, or creating products or constantly writing books. If I can have an audience that cares when I talk, I can bring in the best of the best and benefit from that affiliate arrangement of some kind.
You can find Jim's resource page for his Free Marketing book at 101freemarketing.com. Other places you can find Jim include the Silent Sales Machine, on Twitter and on Facebook. And you can find his book on Amazon.com":http://www.amazon.com/Free-Marketing-No-Cost-Business-Online/dp/1118034716.
See more information from Julia Wilkinson's interview with Jim Cockrum on the AuctionBytes Blog.