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Every Friday, I post a small insight into running Curio City and/or Blue Hills Editorial Services. My most recent posts are directly below. You can also start with the first post, or use the subject labels to the right to home in on particular topics. Feel free to comment on anything that interests you.
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Friday, April 25, 2008

Focus, Juice. Focus

Back in the Olden Days, when I spent my miserable days earning real money at a real job, and we could afford real vacations, we once sallied forth from a booze-soaked villa in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, for a Blue Mountain Bicycle Tour. We rode a wheezing bus to the top of the Blue Mountain Peak, whence we would coast downhill for two hours. Some previous visitors had tipped us off to make sure we rode “the Juice bus”, and so we did. Juice (the driver) kept up a patter that made the two-and-a-half-hour drive along Jamaica’s narrow, potholed roads entertaining and informative. As the bus started its 7,000-foot ascent up a winding, goat-infested road without guard rails, his monolog started to trail off. At each increasingly perilous turn of the steep switchback, Juice admonished himself: “Focus, Juice. Focus.”

As our sleepy New England spring slowly yields to the lazy summer, I have to repeat that mantra to myself more and more often. When business is slow, it’s easy to lose interest in Curio City, put it on autopilot, and spend my time gardening, doing yard work, or just frittering time away on the internet.

And business is slow – in fact, it flatlined for two consecutive days…the first back-to-back shutouts of this year. This week is on track to be my worst since May 2007. In 2006, the corresponding week was among the year’s best. Last year was no great shakes, but still delivered at least a small Mothers Day bump. This year…nothing. Once again, I failed to do any kind of marketing for it, and this year’s recession can’t be helping – shoppers who can afford gifts at all are probably buying “mom stuff” instead of my merchandise.

What do you do when there are no orders to fill, no inventory to reorder, no new stock to bring in, and no investments to make?

Focus, Juice. Focus.

A while back, I identified three strategies for this year:

  1. Increase and improve my merchandise selection;
  2. Increase the number of visitors; and
  3. Increase the percentage of visitors who buy something (conversions).

A wife-induced financial error conspired with the price of last year’s profit to drain some of my startup money for a substantial 2007 personal income tax bill. And I still need to divert some of my Kraken money to a long-deferred and desperately needed home repair (in fact, contractors are coming to bid on the job this afternoon). So much for beefing up my merchandise. This is not a huge setback; nothing on my wishlist is especially exciting. Infusing cash to buy marginal merchandise would be foolish. Even though I know that making this business grow faster is going to cost me, I would far rather pull money out than put more money in. Curio City can carry its own weight while I wait out this trough. My second bank CD matures in June.

I had one serious merchandise disappointment: The artist behind the new jewelry line that I found at the Cavalcade of Crap is facing a potential health crisis. At best, introducing her jewelry will be delayed for some weeks. That was the only thing that I was enthused about. Now I've got nothing in the works.

Focus, Juice. Focus.

If priority 1 is becalmed, how about priority 2? I know of four ways to increase traffic:

  1. Get more referrals from other websites;
  2. boost my organic search placement (which means the Search Engine Optimization topic of which I’ve written 100 times);
  3. improve my PPC ad results; and
  4. buy display advertising.

A few link exchanges have brought in a wee bit of new traffic, but nothing significant. The Boomer Marketplace is still under construction (no link because its creator has not unveiled it yet), and only a few of my products fit there anyway. Daily traffic has historically hovered between 60 and 100 visits; lately that range has risen to 80-120. With a 2% conversion rate, I should be averaging two sales per day. People just aren’t buying like they should. Conclusion: Referrals are great, because referrals are free. I could do more in this area. But link swapping is never going to amount to very much. The visitors that those links deliver are less motivated than ad-driven customers.

Every time I look at SEO, I get depressed by chronic low rankings that defy my clumsy efforts at improvement. Even where I have a hazy grasp of principles, I can’t put them into practice because I don’t know how to change my PHP templates. It’s the same old programmer dependency of which I’ve also written 100 times. Most SEO experts are strictly HTML people. I did put out a feeler to a new developer this week, but it went nowhere. Conclusion: I can’t spend on SEO until I have the technical ability to implement recommended revisions.

PPC ads keep getting more and more expensive while delivering roughly the same results. Writing new ads, adding and subtracting keywords, and adjusting bids sometimes brings measurable results…but OMG, what a tedious process, and the gains are short-lived as competitors quickly adjust their bids and improve their ads, too. The only winner in this game, of course, is Google.

Yahoo finally rolled out the new pricing scheme that retailers have long been dreading. I fared pretty well at first; only four minor keywords were knocked out of competition. That rose to 22 keywords a few days later, as competitors adjusted. I got out the ax. Yahoo Search Marketing never delivered very good results, and it’s gotten worse with each revamp. My ads and word groups need to be more granular. If Yahoo’s objective is to drive out small companies and rape the big spenders for all they’re worth, they are on the right track – I deleted at least 25% of my campaign, and I’m sure that more of my remaining 350 keywords will fall away. I don’t know if Yahoo will win at this game; I do know that small retailers are the losers. Conclusion: There’s always room to improve PPC, but it’s getting too expensive to justify putting more resources here.

That leaves buying display ads. I have zero experience with that, no plans, and even less enthusiasm. I’m skeptical that a clumsy, amateurish print ad would drive enough business to do more than just pay for itself. I suppose I ought to explore it. Focus, Juice.

Finally (#3 in my main list), there’s increasing conversions:

My conversion rate ranges day-to-day from 0 to 5.75%, and averages around 2%, which isn’t bad. Website improvements are the best way to increase that. I added PayPal Express and Google Checkout, and got the new shipping estimator working. There isn’t much else I can do without design changes or new features (see “programmer dependency”).

Screw it. I can’t focus. I think I’ll line up another contractor or two to bid on my back porch.

Coming Topics:

  • Social Networking Sites
  • Rearranging the Deck Chairs
  • Running with the Big Dogs
  • Kicking It Out
  • Legal Extortion
  • Where Traffic Comes From

1 comment:

  1. Bummer on the new jewelry (though don't take this response as an indication that I'm likely to purchase any in the future). As with nearly everything in life, having any reason for optimism can be a driving force for success.

    The PPC paradigm seems one in which you've got a lot of eggs. I understand that you're struggling with other advertising options, but it seems that Juice's focus should be in figuring out what else brings in the people. From what I'm reading, if PPC dies, so does CC. :(


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