Guest blogger Rachel Biel shares her thoughts about the power of community in helping to market and sell handmade work.
Four years ago I launched an organization called TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List. Social media was just starting to take off and I kept running into other peers, who like me, were scrambling to get their work seen on the many sites we now take for granted (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.)
I found that most of us were not centralized anywhere and it made sense to come together under one umbrella. The idea took hold and TAFA has grown into a vibrant community with over 500 members from 44 countries. We use social media heavily, focusing on our common interest of handmade textiles, developing business skills, and exploring which markets make sense for us.
Half of our members have shops on Etsy and repeated attempts to organize on a volunteer basis have not worked. My conclusion has been that most of us are running at capacity. We wear too many hats: product developer, maker, photographer, record keeper, shipper, marketer, customer service rep. While a group offers many benefits, creating content for a group can become, and is for me, a full-time job.
Many have expressed great frustration at how Etsy evolved from a small platform into more of an eBay-like mega-market. TAFA members repeatedly asked me to look into setting up a similar marketplace just for textiles.
I have looked into it and have come to believe that new marketplaces are not the solution, but that instead, we need to use our groups more effectively. Etsy may be big, but so is the internet. Etsy is still the easiest place to set up a decent looking shopping cart with minimal cost and effort. Why throw the baby out with the bath water? Instead, how can we use Etsy to promote ourselves?
My answer has been to take our shops outside of Etsy and into our groups. All of us are members of many groups in “real” life. We have family connections, belong to religious and social institutions, and have special interests outside of our business. The trouble for many artists is figuring out how to bridge what we do with these other groups. How do we make our passions relevant to the rest of the world?
One of the best examples that I like to use is TAFA member, Georgianne Holland of Nestle and Soar. Georgianne’s folk art pillows often feature birds and trees inspired by her Colorado landscape. She contributes a portion of her sales to the Arbor Day Foundation which plants trees in North America. This relationship has led to Georgianne’s pillows being featured in nature publications and making sales to people who would never visit Etsy.
These people are not necessarily shopping for a pillow, but shared interests create a bridge which can lead to support. Etsy does have “Teams” which also organize around products, interests, and locations, but most are focused on what they can do to be seen on the site. Instead, we need to be seen away from the central core (the studio, the website, the online shop, etc.).
Another successful example: Twelve By Twelve are twelve quilt artists who were brought together by one of the artists who knew everyone else online. They share a website and blog with the initial goal of creating one 12”x12” quilt a month in a specific theme. This led to publishing a book, creating a group format that has been replicated worldwide and to international exhibitions. And, these twelve women share a unique friendship that came out of a disciplined exercise.
Last Fall I heard of a service that offered new tools for us: Merchpin. Merchpin allows us to create a catalog of products from Etsy and other cart systems. More info on our blog. We tested it in the Fall by creating a TAFA Market then launched a new site in January, Artizan Made using some of the best strategies that have worked for TAFA. We also opened it up to other handmade products: wood, clay, metal and glass.
Artizan Made has a much narrower focus and mission than TAFA. It works as a collective: each shop pays a small fee in exchange for marketing services. Artizan Made does not intend to replace what each shop already does for its own promotion, but instead seeks to build on what is already there. Social media marketing only works if it has a large, supportive audience, easier to build as a group. By pooling together our resources, we reach many more people than if we go at it alone.
All of social media is based on relationship building. This has changed the buyer/seller roles in a profound way, holding us accountable to each other. Think about how opinions count on Amazon and how consistent negative reviews can doom a product!
A group can also endorse a shop and hold it up as “good.” Like Georgianne, we will take Artizan Made to others who support green living and the handmade lifestyle. We have done this historically through chambers of commerce, guilds and other membership organizations, but as marketing tools evolve and the internet becomes more accessible, new ways of channeling those interests offer even greater independence in how we define our groups.
Seth Godin, the great guru of internet marketing, explains the concept of Tribes in a TED talk that illustrates the same concept in a powerful and moving way. Watch it and then build your tribe!