Marketing this Thing or how a small maker can make a big impact

Sometimes it is easy to confuse the things we need to do to make our art and the things we need to do to make a business with our art.

Making a business with our art sometimes requires a shift in our thinking from "what do I want to create?" to "how can I use my creativity to provide what people want to buy?" -

both questions are part of the making experience, but forgetting to transition that thing that you just have to make

(and I totally get that "have to" gut feeling of creation and do not want anyone to ever, ever lose it)

into something people want to buy can create a kind of customer-free zone where other people -

who I would argue are the entire point of our business (not the point of our making, of course, but the entire point of our business) in the first place - get lost.

(and we don't want them to wander off into a WalMart)

We can totally make things and never give any thought to selling them and I would agree that the most genius art is created in a customer-free zone, but not the most genius businesses.

If we are making our makings into a business we should already have a good sense of ourselves and what it is we love to do and need to do and what it is that we do really, really well.

If not, we need to take a step backwards and give ourselves some time to focus on this- this is a process after all, a marathon not a sprint, and although everything these days feels like it is going 1000 miles per hour - it really isn't - there are some things that will always take time and be worth putting the time into.

Our work must come from our heart and our soul and be truly unique and our own

(this stuff is hard or everyone would be doing it)

but to turn our makings into a business we need to focus outside of ourselves a bit or we may be left searching for some kind of marketing miracle to sell it for us.

I think if we have to spend alot of time figuring out how to convince people to buy our stuff something has probably gone wrong somewhere along the way.

This week I will be focused on marketing this creative venture of ours - and by marketing I do not mean some kind of uptown version of "selling" - it is much more personal and radical and important than that!!

Marketing is really about aligning our business and our brand and 'our world' with the stuff outside ourself, the living breathing two legged stuff - those other people in the world.

This is absolutely NOT a matter of trying to "please" all of the people all of the time, but targeting partnering with the people

(I hate the word "targeting" because it sounds like our customers are plastic ducks lined up in a shooting arcade and it is our goal to knock their heads off and we really, really want to win the 4 foot teddy bear for little Morgan or Megan or Melissa and it's every man for himself)

that we can connect with most powerfully and match their needs with our own creative skills - this big old internet has actually created a world hungry for the very real and personal skills that only us small maker companies can provide.

In fact the vastness of the internet demands that we not please everyone. It requires us to find our niche. And, if you don't have a whole boatload of people who would never, ever buy your stuff then you don't have one.

Staying true to ourselves while keeping an eye or an eyeball or at least an eyelash on what people want to buy is totally do-able!

* mini alphabet letters by lovemaestore

a little inspiration from the fresh prince:

some stuff I am taking with me:

1. greatness is in all of us
2. when other guys are sleeping, I am working
when other guys are eating, I am working
3. I am not afraid to die on a treadmill
4. your life will become better by making other people's lives better
5. you don't say, I am going to make the perfect wall- you say I am going to lay this brick as perfectly as I can and pretty soon you have a wall

Here's to a day/week/lifetime of wall-making everyone!

Part II

There are 2 types of marketing that those of us with maker businesses have to be thinking about - there is strategic marketing (this week's topic) and operational marketing.

Strategic marketing is about positioning our businesses to make money.

One of the ways to do this is to put the customer at the center of our core business thinking and decide what products and services to produce in the first place based on them.

This is no different than what any other type of business has to do to make money.

Now for makers this is not about selling just to be selling -

if we are not creating a business selling something that we are passionate about and is uniquely our own than we are not creating anything anyone will ever miss when it is gone and it soon will be ...

to make room for the passionate stuff that someone willing to put the time and energy and hours into discovering and working and reworking is dreaming up right now in their pajamas or their office suit or their McDonald's bright red shirt -

someone (to quote Will from Monday) who is not afraid to die on that treadmill.

A photographer who's soul yearns to roadtrip the country and photograph rusty cars in junkyards and battered old street signs should not be snapping birds on branches because maybe birds on branches are trending right now ...

(although I would totally hop on the hedgehog train if I were you - I had previously predicted the fox trend and am now predicting the hedgehog trend)

but a strategic, customer centered marketing focus would ask the photographer to think about just how infrequently most people change their wall art and maybe license her images for use on other products or maybe create a humorous 'junk in your trunk' greeting card line or package her photos in such a way that customers are more likely to buy them such as producing a Blurb coffee table book of her photos and selling that.

Now in one sense this does not really expand this photographer's "target" market (again I am picturing ducks in a shooting gallery) because her market is really the people who love her aesthetic (and the people shopping for those people) but it does give them more reasons to buy from her and more ways for her to operationally market her work.

Before I discovered Etsy I created and sold a line of scrapbook-type hanging boards that I called Graffiti Boardz.

I sold them in a few stores at the Jersey shore, but mostly I sold them at local craft shows, street fairs and music festivals.

I made them for about 3 years (it was a part-time thing) until I talked to the album frame manufacturer who fabricated the metal framing I used around the boards about resizing them just for me. I wanted them to make me a 12" frame (the size of standard scrapbook paper) instead of the 12 1/2" frame (the size of a standard record album).

Within a few weeks they had fabricated the special sized frames (yippee) for me and (not so yippee, maybe just a yip) for Michael's and A.C. Moore which they promptly stocked the frame department with and labeled scrapbook frame.

(yes, I am taking total credit for scrapbook frames in the craft stores ... as well as the Cheesecake Factory's crispy crab wontons ... I take total credit for those, too and possibly Obama's economic plan, but we'll see how that works out first)

Anyway back to the new (to me) Etsy marketplace because although these boards had sold very well at local craft shows where you need a broader appeal product with a high 'mom' factor (niche products will not make you the queen of the local craft show circuit) I knew instinctively they were not the right aesthetic for Etsy and that the big old internet, which was getting bigger by the nanosecond, demanded niche thinking.

(plus I thought hanging scrapbook frames were about to be everywhere - and I was tired of making them and my scrapbook store-owner friend, who sold me all her scrappy leftovers at below wholesale prices was ready to move on, too)

Of course, if my heart and my soul were still screaming Graffiti Boardz, I would still be making them (I am sure with a gazillion little adjustments by now) and truly if my heart and my soul were still needing to make them, then I would be making the selling part work ... even on Etsy.

So, what does all of this have to do with listening instead of talking and our so-called elusive "target market" - well, I knew that a successful creative business needed to be customer "focused" at its core -

putting the customer at the center of our business thinking in the beginning as hard and as much work as this can be -

is still alot easier than putting them at the center of our bullseye and "targeting" them later on by firing products at them and seeing what we can hit.

(due to the popularity of video gaming, customers are increasingly agile and able to avoid this type of 'targeting' anyway)

If we don't make what people want to buy

(note - I am not talking about things that everyone wants to buy - we'll leave that to Target)

then no matter how clever or creative our operational marketing is - it will probably fail.

Now, we have to do this without silencing our creative voice because if there is not a whole lot of what is uniquely us in our making then no amount of operational or strategic marketing is going to work for long anyway.

This is where alot of makers get stuck - they either decide to make what sells and it ends up looking an awful lot like what everyone else is making

and then spend alot of time looking for someone to buy it or get pissed or depressed if no one does

or they decide they want to make what they want to make no matter what

(which is, of course, totally ok if you are not wanting to sell it)

and then spend alot of time looking for someone to buy it or get pissed or depressed if no one does

but if other people are the center of a business, and I think they are, then it is just as important to listen to them in the beginning as it is to talk at them at the end.

Staying true to our own voice while seeing customers as active partners and not passive 'targets' is totally possible for all of us.

*listen print by the amazing and uniquely herself elle moss

Part III
OK, now strategic marketing is going to mean getting very close to the customer

(not close enough for any type of disease transference, but close enough that we maybe could benefit from a wintergreen tic tac before proceeding)

and it includes market research although hopefully no trips to the mall with clipboards trying to make eye contact with people who are suddenly very focused on the shiny, tile floors.

Most makers -

(I am thinking all, but there may be someone out there who for some strange reason most likely having to do with trends is out there making things they do not love)

who are making a living with their makings are selling things that they are passionate about - things that you and I may not love - but things that they think are freakin' amazing!

They have also either taken the time to figure out that there was a market for their makings and where that market is or they got really lucky.

(and I totally believe in luck, but only beginner's luck - which life has a way of bestowing on us once as a kick in the ass to get us going, after that our luck is kind of like our face at 40 - we've earned it)

I think successful business owners need to have a personal passion for their business beyond paying their mortgage.

A friend of ours has a house alarm installation business that he started after his own house was robbed. Early on he thought marketing to new home owners would be a smart idea and he got lists of them and did mailings to them, but what he found over time was that his primary customer was not a new home owner at all, it was someone whose house had just been robbed.

At first he felt kind of weird to directly start marketing to them (even though this was the reason he got into the business in the first place) but when he really thought about what he is selling which is safety and peace of mind, plus he offers people all kinds of free services and advice, he started talking to these people and letting them know what is available and talking to their neighbors and he is doing really, really well. It is sometimes hard to sell the solution to a problem to someone who has never had the problem.

And strategic marketing is all about solving a problem for your buyer. It helps to be thinking - what problem am I solving and who and where are the people with that problem? And the earlier in your creative business start up you think about this the better.

When I saw Etsy I fell in love hard and fast - the head over heels at first sight kind of love that could have left me barefoot, pregnant and with high credit card debt if I wasn't careful ... luckily I was.

I was already a greenie (although an imperfect and sometimes lazy one) and remaker of all things remakable and I knew in my heart that there was a segment of the market - a pretty untapped segment - of people like me who were thinking about the impact of the things they were buying and who also wanted stuff that was modern and different.

I knew this would be my niche. Modern eco for people like me was what I was thinking. People who wanted to feel good about the environmental impact of what they bought, but who still wanted to buy really cool stuff.

People who wanted to own and wear things that were different - things that made a statement about who they were and that made other people ask them - what is that?

(but in a good way, not in a skin rash - is that contagious? - kind of way - or at least that was what I was going for)

This - "people wear things to make a statement about who they are" - is something everyone who makes wearables can think about when developing their line or planning advertising.

Now, I could see right away that there was alot of jewelry on Etsy, but I did not see this as a bad thing.

Think of how all the car dealers and furniture stores group themselves together on highways.

It would be hard though if you were a Honda dealer right next to another Honda dealer so you need to be working uniquely from your heart and you will probably need to be selling in other places - certain types of art will probably always do much, much better at shows and shops where people can really see them and touch them and hold them and walk away with that art in their hands.

Strategic marketing 1. Opportunity Identification

(this is more than I really love my stuff and so will they)

We need to be seeking holes in the market that might be opportunities.

Double Click Ad Planner
by Google is an awesome tool for some strategic thinking. It's free and based on the incredible amount of information Google collects from us on a daily basis probably very accurate.
We can use it in 2 ways:

1. by looking up a site's url and even better 2. we can search by audience where we can choose our own parameters

I LOVE to enter a site where I might want to sell my work or buy advertising, etc and then click around on the other sites the same people visited! It is addicting.

Checking out I can see that Etsy's average browser (and I say browser and not shopper and you will see why in a minute) is a female, 25-44 years old making $25K-$45K a year, with some college or a bachelor's degree living in the U.S.

The keywords they most frequently searched on the day I checked were: fabric, pioneer woman, land of nod, hancock fabrics, joann fabrics, ballard designs, I should add though that the most frequently searched keyword by far was "etsy" or some misspelled version of it -

other sites they visited that day include artfire, craftgossip, craftster,, regretsy, twopeasinabucket (scrapbooking supplies) and firemountaingems.

So what does all this mean to us -

(other than the fact that alot of these viewers are makers, too based on the other sites they visited and the keywords they searched and this is ok because we sell to each other all the time)

well, the income levels tell us something about the upper price points that will likely sell well on Etsy (in general) but other than that I think most of us would find our general customer categories working within these profiles.

Now, this is once again getting way too long so I will continue this tomorrow with some specific things we can do. In the meantime if you have never played with the Double Click Ad Planner have fun thinking about the type of customer your work would attract and what kind of things they are looking for and what places they are looking.

* finger cuddle photo by Dancing Pancake Studio
* love is the new black print by The Love Shop

Back to the basics of strategic marketing :

1. Identify an Opportunity -

look for holes in the market that might be opportunities to use our creative skills

At this point things like brainstorming, focus groups of creative peeps, talking to your current customers - there are great survey sites like and that you can use to ask your current customers questions before introducing something new or to find out what they are looking for.

Once you have customers it is a whole lot easier to sell new stuff to them than it is to sell to an entirely different kind of customer.

(I have used surveys a couple times and always offer some kind of freebie when sending something like this out - it is amazing how many people who have already purchased something from you will take the time to answer a short - I have a 3 question max - survey)

A few words about showing your early ideas to people - sometimes they will not be so receptive and sometimes you have to trust your gut with this stuff and totally ignore them.

When I found this drawer of old auto parts in hubby's shop and started talking 'locket', he thought I had lost my mind.

He said, "Cat, girls want to wear silver and gold and gemstones and stuff that is shiny and new."

but I was thinking ... well, maybe not all girls ...

2. Niche thinking makes this strategic marketing a whole lot easier because a. there is less competition b. it makes it easier to find the customers who will be attracted to us c. our stuff has a higher perceived value since we can position ourselves as an expert in a smaller field and d. we can charge more.

It's like the travel agent who specializes in cruises for college athletes (if there is such a travel agent) or the chiropractor who specializes in golfing injuries. Their success comes from the fact that they are not worried about leaving out 95% of the market - they are just focusing on being the go to girl/guy for this niche.

(and it totally helps if the travel agent is an ex-college jock and if the chiropractor plays golf because there will be a kind of passion and presence and energy from that that will be unique to them)

3. Strategic marketing is about fulfilling someone's emotional need with our stuff.

Marketing people will tell us that people buy stuff based on their emotions and those primary purchasing hot buttons are:


How are we solving some problem for other people around these needs?

4. Strategic marketing is about taking what you love and being smart and creative about making money with it.

No one can really teach us how to do this, because it will be unique to what we do but there are lots of incredibly clever people on Etsy doing all kinds of strategic thinking within competitive markets.

Littlebrownpen is an amazing photography shop that could be teaching strategy to generals in the Pentagon.

1. The passion they have for their subject jumps off their pages.

It is clear they have an amazing and developed skill set - composition, depth, perspective, technique - just gorgeous. They live in New Jersey (yay) but their hearts clearly reside in Paris.

2. They have chosen a subject that is not available to everyone with a camera.

(for example - if you are going to sell photos of flowers on Etsy, they will have to be some very special flowers and you will likely need some photographic techniques to set you apart from everyone else because everyone has a digital camera and access to flowers and by everyone else I mean your customers - also people probably don't want to buy pictures of your cat - if they like cats, they have their own cats to photograph

this is the same reason if you make jewelry and buy your supplies at AC Moore or Michaels or other places available to everyone your work is much more likely to look like everyone else's work)

3. They think in terms of how customers use their products.

Sometimes it is hard for people to see how a single photo or print they love would fit into their home.

People often have large wall spaces to fill and by offering the groupings they do by color I could see how customers (even those with no interest in Paris) could immediately see how this could work in their home and be excited to buy. It is, I think, simply brilliant.

They do alot of other smart things; based around the fact that they think their customers are smart, too.

They are a great example of makers creating things from their heart that people want to buy.

Now, we want to be creating our own brand and not copying anyone else's, but seeing someone else doing something really, really well can get us thinking of new ways of looking and thinking about our own work.

Traditional target market thinking doesn't always work for creative makers intent on exploring our own passions and some stuff we just have to make even though we know we will never be able to sell it, but by staying true to our own hearts and factoring in those "other people" that our business needs to thrive I truly believe we can create something totally freakin' amazing, real and make some money, too.

* failed opportunity print by the amazing Jenni Penni