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John T. Unger

So Who Wants Blog Stores?

John T. Unger April 3, 2006

So who would use a blog-based storefront if it were available? I just got off the phone with one of my closest friends who's been following the Hacks story offline… She's 53 and has never used a computer on a regular basis, but she's really excited about the idea of blog-based stores. I 'd like to introduce her to you.

Mary lives just down the street from me. To get by, she works three jobs, requiring her to drive an hour each way even during severe weather advisories (which we get a lot of here). Despite holding two degrees, and having worked all her life, Mary has no health insurance or retirement plan. She currently makes about ten bucks an hour. After putting in 80-100 hours a week at work, she still finds time for her gardens, which are among the most beautiful I've ever seen, and she's slowly building up a clientele for landscaping services. She's no slacker.

Her passion has always been community-building. From 1989 to 2000 she designed and ran Myaheyyun, a community-based day treatment program for kids at the end of the line in the court system. For 11 years, she fused elements of the local community, courts, schools and human services in a partnership that still holds the record for the lowest recidivism rate ever seen. Myaheyyun was written up in the Kellogg Foundation's International Journal and studied by the Annenberg Foundation. Many kids who attended the program went from being the county's worst offenders to actively working to better the local community.

What made Myaheyyun work was a focus on the needs of the individual and the community. Each kid had a one-on-one apprenticeship with a local craftsperson or tradesman, learning a skill they chose. The educational component focused on individual's learning styles. Disciplinary measures focused on education rather than punishment— for instance, after destroying a garden in an act of vandalism, one boy spent the entire next summer helping to replant that same garden. It was poetic justice, with a touch of good humored irony. In many ways, Myaheyyun was improvisational. Having assessed the needs of the indivdual and the community, it sought to fill in the blanks. When the program closed due to funding conflicts, Mary decided to take a break from public life. She was waiting for a new vision that she felt like investing her energy in.

So what's that got to do with storefronts? Well, it's about dreams, really, and the people we don't call dreamers because they actually build the things they envision. And it's about the economic realities of rural areas. I've been able to make a decent living as an artist here for the last six years, but about half my income was from sales and commissions in Chicago, 6 hours away. Last year, my income rose dramatically when I started selling art directly through my blogs… probably 20-30% of my sales were through TypePad blogs, not counting large commission inquiries which have started coming in with more and more frequency.

As mentioned above, Mary really doesn't use computers or the web much. She still gets news from the radio, weather from TV, goods from catalogs or local businesses and her social outlet from real live people or the phone. When I talk about my online projects, her eyes usually kind of glaze over and (I suspect) she starts thinking about compost or seeds. But recently, when I mentioned the idea of blog stores her eyes lit up instead. You see, she's found her new vision and has just been looking for a way to make it work.

For the past couple years, Mary's been thinking about putting a sculpture garden on her 50 acres. She's enamored with the ideas of local economies, collaborative business models and finding sustainable uses for resources at hand. Her social circle includes artists, craftspersons, organic growers and small business owners she feels would benefit by promoting their goods and services collectively. She's decided she'd like to work towards finding a way to foster growth in the economy here by helping her friends build sustainable businesses through collaborative marketing. When I first set up shop out here, we started talking about what it would take to make something like that work. The idea certainly has potential… and there is a need. The area has little employment available. Most local jobs are seasonal and pay virtually nothing.

So, this morning Mary called, and it went like this (I took notes):

Mary: So if this idea of yours takes off, I could set up an online store with a blog and sell work for all the artists in the valley? And maybe take a small commission?

Me: Yeah, exactly.

Mary: I was trying to explain to my dad what a blog is the other day. He thought about it for a minute, and then he said 'so, it's kind of like fill in the blank.' That's what you're talking about, right? I'd just drop pictures, text, prices and shipping info into different fields and it would build the store automatically?

Me: That's the idea.

Mary: Wow, cool. I mean, I grew up after computers, and don't really have much experience with them, but this sounds like it would be simple, fun, easy to set up, and easy to maintain. I can see this being really huge for Baby Boomers who didn't really adapt to computers that much. I mean, people who haven't grown up with them like you did. Heck, if my dad can get it, and he's 83… I'd be really into it if I didn't have to learn how to write all the code and build stuff from the ground up. How much does it cost you?

Me: I'm paying $150 a year. Right now it costs about $300 a year for an account with Yahoo stores, and the interface there isn't as easy to work with. And the stores are usually really ugly.

Mary: Well, it'd be cheaper than renting a real storefront in town for even a month… and I wouldn't have to be there every day, either.  I'd probably be able to get stuff seen by more people in a day than I could in a whole week around here. If I took a ten percent commission, say, I'd only have to sell 3 of your firebowls to pay for a year's subscription.

Me: And I'd make more through the sale than if I sold it through a gallery or store that takes 50%.

Mary: But how would I get attention for a blog store? There's so many websites out there that I'd be competing with. Do you think I'd really be able to sell enough stuff to make it worth my while?

Me: That's a whole 'nother conversation, really, but even without a storefront my blogs have done a really good job of selling art. And I figure art is one of the more difficult things to sell online, partly because people like to see it in person and partly because no one actually needs art, it's not like tires or shoes or food.

Hang on, let me read you something from Felix Salmon's blog:

Adsense in Rajasthan
This is not a beautiful webpage. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? And looked at in a certain way, this particular webpage is capable of changing the world. It's run by Deepesh Agarwal, out of a cybercafe in Rajasthan. Average earnings there are $300 a year. Deepesh, by contrast, makes $1,500 a month, just from the Google ads on his webpage.

That's a great example of how blogs can make a decent income with almost no overhead for people in economically depressed areas. On the other hand, I definitely don't believe that everyone is going to be able to make a living by selling ads… To really do well with ads you need to get tons of traffic, more than most authors are gonna be able to generate. And most of the time, you only have limited control over what the ads are going to be.

On the other hand, if your profit comes from selling things or services that you're passionate about and which are unique or hard to find, I think the odds of making a living go way up. You don't need a ton of traffic to do well in a niche market— you just need the right traffic. Blogs make that a lot easier to accomplish than regular web sites for a bunch of reasons. Google tends to rank them higher, for one thing. Bloggers tend to link to each other when they find something they like. Blogs are great for building community online because they allow more participation… people can write back to you right on the site and have a dialogue. If you get other people excited about what you have to offer, they go out of their way to tell their friends. And so on. There are tons of blogs which review and feature products, art and design. If you have something in your blog store that you think would make sense for them to share with their readers, it's pretty easy to submit it to them. They'll actually be glad you did, because most of them are publishing every day and need material to write about. And then, there's the personality thing too… Because blogs are an active conversation, people are likely to feel like they know you after a while, which in turn tends to help them to trust you and like you. You're not just some schmuck trying to make a buck off them, you're someone who provides what they're looking for in an informative, personable and hopefully entertaining way.

Mary: So call me as soon as Michael says I can have one! I gotta go, my tulips are blooming on the window sill.

Me: Okay!

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More Like This: Agenda: Analysis , Community , TypePad Stores

Comments

Seshu says:

If it were available, I would have multiple store fronts - one for books, one for photography equipment, one for my images and one for a community based stock photo agency. It's an idea that I have been mulling about but I am not so sure TP is the tool for this. MT seems a whole lot more robust - but then again this about making TP robus isn't it?

john t unger says:

Seshu,

Yes, it's about making TypePad even more robust ;-)

Part of what excites me about blog stores is the idea of being able to use category archives to handle different items from a single storefront (especially when items overlap categories). So yeah, I don't see why you couldn't have multiple storefronts just as you have multiple blogs… it would be useful for branding purposes, for example. But on the other hand, I think a single blog storefront could also handle different kinds of items quite well by generating a catalog page the same way it handles categories.

I'll be posting store examples soon, and then after that, more about how I feel blog stores will work.

Mike Sansone says:

Florists, Artists, Speakers, Authors, Quilters, Photographers, Bands, Online & Offline Retailers, Trade-Show blogs, the list can go on.

I have three clients holding off on other options as we see what comes of your efforts.

john t unger says:

Mike,

Exactly… this could be huge for anyone with a small business. I'll try to get more details soon… I'm basically trying to figure out the absolute bare minimum needed to make a store template useful, as well as thinking about the easiest interface.

JHill says:

I'm not sure why it needs to be blog focused... There's some infrastructure that could be leveraged, but I think that Amazon/Ebay/Yahoo could probably acheive the same end results by more narrowly focusing a small part of their marketing. What advantages do you see with the stores being blog based?

To the Boomers comment, we had a client, Experience Works, that aspired to do a lot of what you're describing. At the time that we worked with them, they had grants to enable senior artisans to sell their wares via the web. It never really took off as well as anyone hoped, but it was such a good idea.

john t unger says:

JHill,

What advantages do you see with the stores being blog based?

Some initial thoughts here

Kirsten Harrell, Psy.D. says:

I think typepad stores would be awesome! I would love to see this feature at typepad... soon! Thanks for having this discussion about it.

Steve says:

I'm interested in having a blog store for a indie record label. Has this gotten off the ground?

john t unger says:

Hi Steve,

I'm planning to publish a list and reviews of the available options from third parties later this week. So far, there are no plans to incorporate stores into the TypePad app itself but the more support I can drum up for the idea, the more likely it is to happen.

Paul O Mahony says:

Hi John,
Delighted to find your blog. I've been hammering on about the suitability of blogging for artisans for over a year now. Currently trying to get a group of Irish artists set up in a blog. My observations are very similar to yours.
http://siopaeile.com/blog/?cat=20
I was originally going to push wordpress as platform of choice, but recently come round to the more intuitive interface of Typepad.

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