Greeting Card Biz Insider Secrets – Part 1

Art Director/Creative Director Don Ruge guest blogs about the greeting card business and getting started.  He has such a wealth of knowledge that it takes three installments to share it all! I asked him to write about important things to keep in mind when creating your own card line.

Anyone wanting to create their own greeting card line needs to do some research first.  A lot of ground regarding manufacturing and distribution was covered in the article, “What You Didn’t Know About Starting a Greeting Card Line,”so I’d like to focus on the product development side of things.  The following are things you absolutely need to know if you want to create a successful and profitable greeting card line:

Who’s your target customer?

First, you will need to “define your market.”  It’s something the major card companies spend big bucks on, but that’s because they are usually targeting a wide range of customers.  If you’re planning to design a line of cards that you yourself would personally buy, then you’ve got a great head start on defining your market.  You’ve also got a great head start in developing a successful greeting card line!  Why?  Because the most successful card lines are usually those that are started by artists creating product that they themselves would send to a friend and/or a relative.  They have a creative vision of what the end product will look like because it’s what they feel inside.  If you can create a card line that personally speaks to you, and you can communicate those emotions through design and verse, then chances are your cards will speak to others as well.  Like they say to writers, “write about what you know.”

What kind of cards does she buy?

Note: I’m saying “she” because 80% of all greeting cards are purchased by women. Again, this can start with the artist.  Where do you buy your cards?  Where do your friends buy their cards?  When you receive a card, look on the back to see who made it – after a while you’ll begin to identify certain companies and recognize their designs (my friends accuse me of looking at the back of a card before I even take the time to look at the front!).  Then visit the company’s web site and find out where they sell their cards in your area.

A lot of companies will show their entire product line on the web, and while that gives you a good opportunity to view all their designs in one sitting, it does not give you the opportunity to see the cards in the store.  By visiting stores you can see the product “in action”, so to speak.  Remember, greeting cards are a very tactile product:  the paper stock, the special finishes, even the envelope are all a part of the card buying process. You can also get a look at other card lines that focus on the same demographic you’re targeting (these lines are your competition). Chances are the store has already done some of their own work determining who their customer is so the card lines they feature will no doubt reflect that research (as will the rest of their merchandise).  Take note of the shoppers in the store – are these the type of people you envision buying your cards?

Now, while you’re still in the store, take advantage of the people that work there and find out what card lines sell well.  In my experience, sales people and/or store owners love to be asked their opinion on why one card line does better than another.  Is it the price point?  The verses?  The designs?  What specific cards do they continually reorder?  As sales reps will tell you, there is absolutely no substitute for going out into “the field” and talking to people.  After all, greeting cards are all about communication and you’ll be hard pressed to create a product line that really appeals to people (which is, after all, your goal) if you’re working in a vacuum.

How will your cards be different?

Keep in mind that a retailer needs a reason to replace an established card line in their store.  They want to make sure every square inch of their establishment  makes money and they’re not going to stop selling a profitable line unless they’re absolutely sure the new line (meaning yours) will outsell it.  Of course, there’s always the chance they have a line they’re eager to replace but you can’t count on that.  Even if you’re planning on licensing the cards – in lieu of manufacturing and distributing them – the company that considers your designs will still be thinking, “Will retailers be willing to get rid of an existing line and take a chance on this one?”

Here’s where I circle back to my earlier comment about the best card lines being created by artists who have a vision, because I truly believe they’re more likely to develop a successful product line than someone who is merely second-guessing what the customer might buy.  It’s still very important to do the research, however, because a vision in and of itself is not enough– especially if you’re going to spend a lot of money printing and marketing your own line (again, I recommend the article  “What You Didn’t Know About Starting a Greeting Card Line,” as a great source of information regarding quantities, pricing, line size, etc.).  It’s often in this research phase where you can begin to determine how your cards will be different from those already out there in the market.

While you’re at the card store and talking to the owner and/or sales person, ask them what they would do to improve some of the lines they carry.  You’ll hear comments like “I hear customers laughing out loud when they read the cards but I think they would buy even more of them if the art was better;” or “The illustrations are beautiful but the lettering doesn’t seem to match – I would use a much softer type style;” or “The cat and dog photos are adorable but the editorial is too off-color…they would sell better if the verses were cuter.”  Granted, if these card lines are not similar to the one you’d like to develop then the comments may at first seem unimportant.  But keep in mind that too much information is always better than not enough!  You may not be designing a line of cards that feature cat and dog photos but you still need to know that the success or failure of a card line can definitely be affected by copy that doesn’t match the art. I should note here that excellent editorial is one of the most important parts of any successful greeting card line.  Good writing can’t be faked, so if it’s not your forte, it’s worth the money to find a professional who can provide the copy.  A common theory in the social expressions industry, and one to which I subscribe, is that people PICK UP a card because of the design but they BUY the card because of the verse.

A good example of taking an idea and making it different is Shannon Martin’s line of cards (and other products) at Madison Park Greetings.  Using old        photography for a humorous line of cards is nothing new – Tim Mikkelsen and Phyllis Wright, who founded Mikwright, have been doing it for years.  And a small company in Maine, Borealis Press, has been very successful with card lines that feature literary quotes paired with black and white photography.  But Shannon took old photos, combined them with quotes (and great sentiments), and made everything one color: sepia.  The components weren’t exactly original but the end result was a new and refreshing card line.  Another good example is a line I developed a few years ago called Just the Right Words.  Again, the elements were similar – black and white photography paired with quotes – but the “twist” was to feature  three distinct formats: interior die cut, debossed panel, and perforated bookmark.  I also utilized a palette of nine on-trend colors as a way to guarantee this line would stand out from the competition.  To date it is still the company’s best selling line.

Checking out the competition may seem like a waste of time when you’re developing your own card line, especially when you can hardly wait to see your designs sitting in the rack and/or spinner at your favorite card store.  But without taking the time to see what else is out there, and finding out how you can distinguish your line from all the others, that’s all your cards may ever do; just sit in the rack and/or spinner of your favorite card store.  Thomas Edison once said that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  That can be applied to success as well.  If you want your card line to be successful, then you need to do the work required to make it so.

Don’t Miss Greeting Card Biz Insider Secrets – Part 2 and Greeting Card Biz Insider Secrets – Part 3

Comments

  1. Hi Don,

    I just wanted to say, how much I valued reading your post. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    • Hi Anita,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. If you have any questions that I didn’t cover in the article, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll help in any way I can!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing all of your insight. I must say I have practically read your blog from cover to cover! Very interesting and informative. Take care, ~Diane

  3. Thanks for this compliment! The wonderful professionals I am interviewing have to take a lot of the credit for sharing their great information and experience.

  4. Hi Don,
    My focus has been on the niche gay market and the info in your posts is invaluable to a designer like me who is tweaking an existing line to make it more competitive.

    [img]http://www.lavenderpop.com/cards/art/community_diversity.jpg[/img]

    • Dear Otis,
      Glad I could be of some help. By the way, I took a look at your web site and it is a wealth of great information…did you design it and put it together yourself? You covered a lot of bases and I believe a retailer would have a very good sense of who you are and what your product is all about after visiting your site. Nice variety of cards as well. Good job! Best of luck to you and your business!

      • Thanks so much Don. I wish I knew web design, but don’t. My site was designed by Simone Bouyer at Ad World Services…and she did a kick ass job.

  5. Don,
    Hello. This is a voice from your Current Inc. days! As always you are spot on with your wise advice. The part where you said “As sales reps will tell you, there is absolutely no substitute for going out into “the field” and talking to people.” is something that is crucial. In today’s social networking era this kind of information is not really getting passed on. It is verbal and at the same time visual information that you can only pick up in a physical setting.
    Cheers and Thanks!

    • Hi Jeannene-nice to hear from you! I agree that social networking is getting in the way of actually “connecting” (that’s as in face-to-face “real” connecting vs. sitting at your computer and “virtually” connecting) with people and forming relationships. I also like your choice of words when you talk about information that you can only “pick up” in a physical setting. That’s what people do when they shop for greeting cards…they have to “pick up” the card to read it and/or to experience the finishes (and, yes it’s true these days, to “hear” it as well!).
      I love getting emails but there is absolutely no substitute for finding a card nestled in between the bills when you get your mail. After all these years, I still love greeting cards and the positive impact they have on people’s lives.
      By the way, I love your designs…very bright and refreshing and F-U-N! I hope you’re doing well with your business. Take care!

  6. Hi Don:
    Thanks for all of the great tips. As an elementary teacher on maternity leave, I’m trying to combine my two loves (kids and education) into an Educational Greeting Card business. I would love to hear what you think of the idea and my site. It’s http://www.LetterLearning.com

    • Ellen,
      What a great concept! I will pass this on to Don and ask him to take a look at your site. Thanks for visiting and introducing us to your idea.

    • Dear Ellen,

      What a great idea! You’ve targeted your market, you’ve created a line that’s unique in the industry, and you’ve developed a product about which you feel very passionate. Well done!

      I’m very curious as to how long your cards have been out there and how they’re selling. Do you sell exclusively through your web site? Another option might be a big direct mail company like LTD Commodities (www.ltdcommodities.com). They are always looking for new product ideas, especially for kids. Fundraising is another venue you might consider. These are programs that schools use to raise money for individual groups or events. It is a HUGE industry! Check out http://www.fundraisingweb.org and you’ll see what I mean.

      Where did you get the editorial for the inside of the cards? From kids themselves? The reason I ask is that I wonder if kid’s would use the word “love” when writing to a friend. I don’t know anything about how kids talk but I bet it would be interesting to get first-hand suggestions from the age groups you think would use this product. And is there a reason why all the inside copy in each caption is the same (i.e., Birthday, Thank You, etc,)? What if a child wants to send/give a birthday card to a cousin, or brother, or sister? By using the word “friend” in the copy you’ve limited the “sendibility” of the card. I think a variety of inside copy would improve your line and certainly offer more variety.

      Regarding your web site, I noticed that the descriptions of your cards were not in line with each image. There’s also a line of lettering across the top of your site that gets cut off (“Educational Greetings Cards For”). Not a “deal breaker” but something you might want to address (less mistakes mean a more professional presentation of your product AND of your company). I think the concept is communicated very well and the copy supports the idea behind the product (that’s not always easy to do so “good job!).

      Bottom line is you’ve got a great idea and some very nice designs. All my suggestions are just frosting on the “greeting card cake.” Keep me posted on how you’re doing and let me know if you have any more questions…I’m happy to help in any way that I can!

      • Hi Carolyn and Don:
        I cannot thank you enough, Don, for the amazing feedback you gave me on my card idea and site. I truly appreciate the time it took you to check it out and write down your comments. I took your advice and revamped the layout of the site to make everything line up a little bit more perfectly (hopefully!), and am seriously considering changing the inside copy so as not to exclude siblings, cousins, etc. by using the word “friend”.

        At this point, sales are slow. I’ve started a “Fan page” on Facebook, and have been giving away free samples to anyone who will take them, in the hopes of getting word out. I’ve also been using other social media sites, like LinkedIn to promote my budding company. Right now, my cards are available on my website (www.LetterLearning.com) and on Zazzle (www.zazzle.com/LetterLearning), but I’m absolutely going to take your advice and check out the fundraising and direct mail companies. Again, thank you for the wonderfully helpful advice!

        I’m also considering just pounding the pavement and going to small boutique children’s stores and card stores to see if I can entice them to buy some. Any suggestions on how to best do that? Is carrying a portfolio the best idea, or dropping off samples with my business card a better route, in your opinion?

        Thanks again for all of your help. I look forward to keeping up with both of your blogs!

        • Dear Ellen,

          Glad I could be of some help! I don’t have a lot of “pounding the pavement” experience but I will tell you that ANYTIME you can leave a sample set of cards and a sell sheet behind you should do it (I think Carolyn would back me up on this). If you can afford to leave samples behind that’s great, but at the very least you should leave a sell sheet behind with your business card (a sell sheet being a one page flyer with your designs and prices shown).

          I would also try to schedule time to meet with store owners/card buyers vs. just dropping in. You really want them to have the time to focus on you and your product. Be sure to ask them what they like about your line and what they don’t, and keep in mind that they may love your product but simply don’t have the space for it (at least not now). Take notes to show them you’re interested in their opinion and then see if you can schedule a follow up meeting. Don’t take it personally if they say they’re too busy to meet again because they probably are! But that doesn’t mean you can’t still send them a thank you note for their time (that’s cut-in-stone, by the way!) and then make a note in your calendar to call them in a few weeks just to touch base.

          Finally, if you haven’t taken a look at Carolyn’s excellent article about starting your own greeting card business I would do that as well (there’s a link provided at the top of this page). She covers a lot of ground and goes above and beyond some of the suggestions I’ve made.

          Let me know how everything goes!

          Don

          PS Have you copyrighted your idea? Something to think about, especially if you’ll be sending your cards out to bigger companies for manufacturing and distribution. They may like your idea but want to use their own art so be prepared for that. Are you on LinkedIn? I would join as soon as you can so you can start asking other greeting card folks how they went about protecting their ideas.

  7. You’ve brought up some fundamental questions that help to start a business and serve as a reminder for others. Thank you for sharing this information and your perspective.

  8. Hi I am a up and coming writer soon to be published I have literally thousands of short poems I have an idea for anti – love greeting cards when love goes wrong. My question consists of 2 parts. 1) I was looking into having a bigger or already established company do the distribution for them and I co-brand the line with them an my company. Do you think that is a wise idea being a relatively new artist without a lot of household recongtion yet? or would it be advisible to wait or go it alone. By the way I love the article. You truly are very knowlegable. Thank you for sharing bits and pieces with us. We truly appreciate it all those listening.

    • Joe, you have an interesting idea, but how large would your “anti-love” line be? When there is only one sentiment, it’s very restrictive not only to the line itself, but to who would carry your cards in the retail marketplace. If you feel serious about pursuing this as well as your writing, I would suggest sitting down and fleshing out all your ideas, then getting as much feedback as possible from friends on their reactions, and whether they would ever send cards like these. To be saleable, they have to have an appeal and fill a need.

    • i know this post is over 5 years old, but would like to email Joe B. if possible, or pass my email address to him
      i working on something similar to what he is doing and maybe we can combine our efforts to make both our
      idea’s to benefit both of us.

      Wes

  9. Thank you so much for the advice I will take it to heart. I had been considering possible target audience: those going through divorce, Breakups, on the verge of breakups, and those dating relationships that are just not going to work out for what ever the reason. pretty much anyone with relationship problems. Which seems to be a lot of people. So far I have 5 categories: loosing you, lost you, Don’t want you any more, I love you but not in love with you anymore, I love you but not in love with you (beginning relationship that won’t happen) I realize this is a niche market but just like the fact so many dj ‘s are doing more divorce parties it might work if done right. I will be doing some more research on suitable retailer’s as well as more market research as well. Thank you again so much.

  10. I have and idea for a line of cards but I am not an artist or writer. Just an idea, what do I do?

    • DG,

      Until you develop your idea into an actual line of cards, it just remains an idea. If you don’t have the ability to create the art or writing needed to get a sample line together, you would need to get assistance or partner with an artist/writer to create the line of products.

  11. would it be possible to email Joe B,, that you talked with. I have something in common

    wes

  12. I write love poems. Have tried them out on close to 100 women. They really love them. I would like to make an anniversary card and St Valentines day card . I have not copywritten

  13. thanks….so helpfull

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