Thursday, January 6, 2011

Your Three Most Burning Questions

Welcome back! I hope everyone had an amazing holiday season. We did - both professionally and personally. Online sales were up this year and traffic continues to improve as more and more buyers are looking for a great bargain. Personally, with some forward planning we were able to take some much-needed time off over both Christmas and New Years holiday weekends to spend time with family. I was so glad to have my Mum out to Scottsdale for a really nice visit! Surprisingly for "The Valley" it was rather coldish and rainy (and she thought she'd get to warm up!), so we put a log in the fireplace, roasted a huge turkey, and made it a very cozy holiday indeed. :)

Now - a few months ago, I asked you to send us your burning questions about what it takes to succeed as an online retailer - and I want to post those questions and answers now. For their thoughtful participation, our 3 submitters get a full set of custom social networking graphics, to be used on their website, correspondences, email ads, or wherever it might come in handy! I hope you enjoy. :)

1. If you had to recommend ONE thing I could do to improve traffic to my website, what would it be? ~sent in by Julie

Great question! There are so many things to consider, but since most of us are short on time, getting the best results for the least effort often becomes an essential.

The first thing I would do for your website is to ensure that each page has custom meta title, meta description, and meta keywords. Without these elements, you'll likely get passed over by the search engines, no matter how good your site design or product line is. Most shopping cart software programs, such as Volusion, ChannelAdvisor, and Infopia, have easy access from within your website's admin panel to update the meta info for each custom page, including your homepage, text support pages (such as about us, policies, etc), and each product category page. You should even be able to add meta tags to each individual item detail page. If you're not sure where this info is accessed, contact your website software provider. If they don't provide access to this info, switch providers! Yes, it's that important.

2. Where can I get the best value for my advertising dollars, when I promote my website? ~ sent in by Richard

Again, often you are pressed for time and money, and need to get results from your ad campaigns as quickly as possible. Purchasing online ad banners or pay-per-click Google ads can become very costly very quickly, while not necessarily garnering immediate profits - all of these techniques require trial-and-error periods where you can tweak locations, ad wording, etc. for maximum benefits.

The one advertising investment you should make right away, though, and which always generates the best value for your dollar spent, is email advertising aimed at your existing customer list. Although not absolutely required, it is a very good idea to invest in a monthly mass mailing system: check out Constant Contact if you want a "do-it-yourself" newsletter, or MobileStorm if you're ready to go professional.

You can have a professional ad template designed with your store logo, header, footer, navigation links into your web store, and important contact info; this ad template can then be customized for ongoing content updates to promote your existing product line, new listings, special sales, etc. Staying in touch with your existing customers will ensure that they remember your name and location, and will strengthen brand loyalty. Remember, too, that people don't just want to be sold to - try to add value to the content you send out by including helpful tips, funny quips, or ways for customers to participate and communicate with you via promotions and giveaways - in other words, make it worth their time to read your emails!

3. Are you and Gregory a couple? ~ sent in by Frannie

Okay, this is not exactly a business question, is it? And yet, we get asked this all the time, and I think it absolutely demonstrates a very important business issue: people want to connect with you. The Internet can be an impersonal place, but people still want to know who they are buying from. In fact, they may be shopping online for the precise purpose of avoiding cold, impersonal "Big Box" companies (Wal-Mart, Target, etc) and intentionally seeking out small, independent businesses on eBay, Etsy, or through word-of-mouth.

It used to be that small businesses would want to look as big as possible, so they could compete head-to-head with the largest online companies. While this is absolutey possible, and in some cases a great idea, there are also many small businesses that can benefit from playing up their uniqueness. How? Let your website design reflect your personal style. Include information about yourself as a person on your "About" page - why do you sell what you do? What are your personal interests? Are you a parent who works from home to spend more time with your children? Do you have many years of experience, or a driving passion, in your chosen field? Let people get to know you a little bit, and they'll feel a better connection to you than what an impersonal web page can create.

For a great example of this, check out - her website has a "boutique" feel to it, utilizing her favorite colors and pictures of her very own cat! Since her product line is artsy and completely custom-made, her webstore reflects this perfectly and is a great match to the interests of her customers, too.

And, if you've read this far, you may have noticed that I haven't actually answered the question posed. ;) For the many of you with a burning desire to know: yes, Gregory and I are a couple. We have worked together for several years now (I do most of our design work, while Gregory specializes in installation, hardware and software issues, and SEO), and we just became engaged on New Year's Day, 2010. We are tentatively planning our wedding for this September, on the 10-year anniversary of our first date, in San Diego.

Once again, thanks so much to everyone who participated in our giveaway contest - and please keep sending in your questions! Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

December Holidays & Updates

Hi Internets and all of our friends herein! We're still here, just buried a bit, helping many of you with your holiday ad campaigns, including email ads and promotional banners.

Wanted to take a moment to say what a fun and exciting year it has been! We've met so many new people with amazing businesses, from car dealers to chemists to crafters. And we feel so, so blessed to be a small part of your creativity, business-savvy, and hopefully your growth toward amazing abundance and freedom that come with a successful online business.

Each of us, myself and Gregory, has grown considerably over the past year, thanks to working with you. Whenever one of our clients comes to us with a, "can you do __?" we love the challenge, and relish learning new things and finding newer and better ways to help YOU be more successful. New for this year, we've added lots of social networking services, including Twitter backgrounds, Facebook badges and FanBook pages, .mobi websites designed to be used with cell phones and other mobile devices, and more. We're making sites bigger and more graphically bold than ever, taking our "standard" site from 800pixels width to 960pixels width, to adjust for the large number of online shoppers who now have larger, high-res or wide screen monitors. We're keeping up with the latest in web standards and practices, adjusting to the newest versions of web browsers and W3C industry standards, and keeping abreast of the ever-changing search engine optimization game to make sure that YOU stand out in the crowd when it comes to web stores online. The options have never been better!!

Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? It is! We've been quite busy - all working toward making our services MORE comprehensive and more valuable.

But we didn't raise our prices. ;)

There are 2 things about JennarationX Designs that make me really proud, and that I think make us different from other web designers out there: (1) we really care. We do... we care about the quality of work that we put out there. While many of our competitors are outsourcing design work to cheap labor in India, or putting up outmoded code that couldn't pass a validation test, we still design every single site from scratch, paying attention to each and every pixel, and we still hand-code every page, making sure the back-end is as tidy and lovely as the front-end - even if no one's going to see it (except the web crawlers, which DO care). And (2), we are online sellers, too! We've had our own eCommerce website for about 8 years now, selling on multiple channels such as eBay and Amazon, in addition to our own web store. I think this gives us the supreme advantage of being out there on the front lines, right alongside YOU. We know first-hand what it takes to succeed, what kinds of problems you're facing, what kinds of questions you have, and most importantly, what kind of help and support you need. I just think about what kind of help and support I need! And while I can't (yet) clone myself or afford a personal assistant, I certainly do have a good idea of what I'd like someone to be able to do for me, to help my business move to the next level - and every day, I try to be that someone for our clients.

I'm sure we'll all be extremely busy from now through the New Year, not only with taking care of our customers but also with our own families and holiday plans. I hope your holidays will be warm and full of good health, great fun, and intensive celebration for a job well-done all year - you deserve it! And, once again, THANK YOU - from the bottom of our hearts - for letting me and Gregory be some very small part of it. We are truly honored to know each and every one of you.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cyber Monday

Welcome to Cyber Monday! Since we're all (I hope) swamped with order processing for the holidays, I'll keep this short.

If you've been selling via multiple venues, you'll see that the crowds come in waves; one virtual location is hot this year, and another has taken its place by next year. For our online store (yes, we sell online too - I believe it helps us understand our website clients' needs better!), we saw great traffic through eBay about 2-3 years ago, and while that's cooled off, sales on Amazon are now sizzling. Online sales in general are up over last year, for the 3rd year in a row, as buyers are becoming more and more savvy and looking for the best possible bargains.

This is the best time of year to remember the one thing that buyers want most of all from the stores they shop - platinum level customer service! Yes, even above a great product and a great price, they want to know that the company they're buying from is trustworthy and respectful. How do you convey this to them?

(a) Invest in a good website design, so you LOOK the part (yes, shameless plug - but it's true!);
(b) Answer your phone and answer all email inquiries promptly and politely;
(c) Ship FAST! As fast as you can;
(d) Sell a good quality product, not the cheapest or a fad item, and you'll be glad you did; and
(e) Stand behind your product. Guarantee it. Have a generous returns policy and let people know about it upfront.

The goal is to build lifetime customers who'll tell their friends about you, who'll give your product as gifts, who'll come back and buy from you again and again. So treat each small sale like you're serving a long-time family friend, and you'll see your customer list grow year after year.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS and happy selling!!

This week's question: What do YOU do to offer platinum-level service?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Holiday Sales & Reinvesting

So many people right now are contacting us to have their websites designed (or redesigned) - and it's so exciting! It's also a PERFECT TIME to do so. Most online retailers are seeing their holiday sales take off right about now. In fact, it's an early season for many of us, as the online economy is taking off - despite, or perhaps because of - a weaker U.S. economy overall. Let's face it, when pennies are tight and people are on careful budgets, they are much more likely to shop online, where they can comparison shop for prices, browse at their leisure for unique and/or handmade gifts that can't be found at the local superstore, and save themselves both time and money they would otherwise spend driving, parking, hauling packages home, gift wrapping, and then shipping all those gifts out, one-by-one. How much easier to point, click, and know it's done!?

And, how much easier for you, the online retailer, to take a small portion of those funds now starting to rush in, and reinvest them back into your business, by upgrading to a professional eCommerce website with a beautiful, completely customized JennarationX design? At this time of year (and because we have such affordable prices and easy payment plans), you'll barely notice the cost investment in your budget, and after the holiday is over, you'll still be seeing website traffic and SALES! Yes, sales, after the New Year! Because that website design is an investment that pays off, and continues to pay off, over time.

We've done some statistical studies: JennarationX designed websites garner 40% improvements in sell-through rates (the number of people who visit your site and then BUY something) - and ANOTHER 40% to 60% in final sale price (the amount people are willing to pay for your product)! That's amazing, isn't it? That means your investment in the design process generally pays for itself within 30-60 days, and then it's all pure profit.

Why is this? Because online retail is a visual medium. You don't have a beautiful physical storefront in the mall to show off... or a big sign over a physical door... or a beautiful showroom, with expensive mahogany and glass counters and shelves to display your products... or a retail designer to arrange your products optimally... or specialized retail lighting designed specifically to make your product sparkle perfectly under the lights. What you've got is your visual appearance online.

A beautiful, well designed website tells buyers that (a) you have been around for awhile (even if this not true, it gives the appearance of stability), (b) you are financially successful (otherwise, you'd probably only be able to afford one of those cheap looking free template stores), (c) that you care about being seen as professional and successful (which probably means you alo care about your customers being happy, and about the quality of your product, and many other (real or apparent) inferences).

So, the bottom line is: if you want buyers to perceive you as successful, professional, high-quality, reliable, and caring very much about their happiness and buying satisfaction, you need to SHOW it with a beautiful website that showcases your products and makes them look fantastic.

And, based on the number of contacts and sales we're receiving this season, I'm so excited to see that so many of you are doing just that! Way to go, guys! You're investing in your own success, and we are so delighted to invest in your success, too.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Product Photography, Part 4: Selecting the Perfect Photo & Removing Backgrounds

Okay, so over the past few weeks, you've gathered together the materials for an affordable-yet-professional photography station in your lightbox and snapped oodles of pictures using great lighting, proper white-out backdrops, white balance and ideal resolution, right?

Now we're going to work with the output, which should already be a great quality photo with all the essentials (clarity, brightness, and a non-distracting background), to give it the maximum professional edge for display in your eCommerce store.

Since there are dozens of great photo editing programs out there and each one is slightly different, I'll give you the industry standard terms for these techniques, and you can look into your specific program to find out where it's located within the menu. If it doesn't have one or more of the capabilities listed below, look for something that does. My favorite cost-conscious image editing program is Photoshop Elements, list priced at $99.

Below are the 5 image editing steps to get a fabulous end photo that buyers will be drooling over.

This step may seem obvious, but I want to talk for just a moment about how to select your final image from the several that you took. (You did take several, right?)

The optimal things to look for are:
a) Do I like the PLACEMENT of the product? (Is it positioned straight, facing the camera? Is this the best angle to view the product from?)

b) Is it the proper RESOLUTION - crisp and clear, with all the details showing well?

c) Is it well LIT, without any harsh shadows or fuzzy bits?

Here's what's surprisingly NOT as important, because I'm going to show you how to fix these below:

a) Is the color exactly right? (This is any easy fix.)

b) Is the picture slightly off-angle, or is the product not centered? (Again, easy fix).

c) Are there distractions in the background, or minor imperfections such as dust or scratches? (Again, as long as they're small these can be readily removed.)

No matter how good your backdrop is at removing visual clutter, there are always unwanted shadows, light/color reflections, bits of lint on your drop cloth, etc. The closer you can get to a white or "transparent" background, the better.

I like to do this step early on, so that what you're left with is just the product itself. This will allow you to see it more clearly - just like removing the background allows your buyer to see the product more clearly.

There are lots of ways of improving or even erasing the background of your image - experiment to see which of these gives you the best result:

a. Lighten - this technique is the easiest, but only works if your foreground product is bright or dark and does not contain white or light grey. Use the color selector tool to choose the predominant shade of your background. Then use the lighten tool and/or desaturate tool to take out any color and unwanted shadows.

b. Correct - if you only see a few odd spots of dust, remove them or airbrush over them.

c. Erase - this technique works if you have a product that's very easy to trace around, such as a book or painting with lots of straight edges. Use your eraser tool to literally remove the background from around your product.

d. Extract - this tool is available in Photoshop and essentially does step c, above, for you. Choose Extract > Smart Extract, use the mouse to highlight the outline of your product (it doesn't have to be perfect, you can preview and edit it before saving), then let the software extract the foreground object out of the background for you, leaving a clean white canvas behind your item.

All of the above techniques will be infinitely more easy if you've taken the proper steps to add high volume lighting, white-out backgrounds (lightbox or drop cloth), and set the white balance on your camera. Once you get the hang of it, each image's extraction should take you just 2 to 3 minutes.

Product Photography Step 2 Example, Image Background Removal

In the above images, I've used technique A for the center image, and technique C for the far right image. Two notes about this technique: (1) give yourself some time, because this is a skill you'll get better with as you practice, and (2) did you notice how much brighter and more appealing the right ring is than the left? And yet I've done nothing yet to tweak the ring itself! THAT is the magic of background removal, and why I've spent so much time describing it.

...Part 4 to be continued next week.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Product Photography, Part 3: 5 Steps to Staging & Taking Photos

Taking photos of products available for wholesale or retail sale is a specialized field, referred to as "industrial photography" (even if your product is not "industrial" in nature) - as opposed to landscapes still lifes, or portraits. That's because it takes a specific skill to photograph an inanimate object and make it look appealing, even exciting. And that's exactly what you want to do - bring out all the best qualities in what you have to sell. You don't want to portray anything false or misleading to your customers, but you do want to lure and seduce them to pull out their credit cards because they simply MUST have this fabulous looking item.

So, what's the best way to stage and photograph your items for sale? Well, there's obviously some variation based on (a) the product line you carry, and (b) your selling venues. But the basic rules apply across the board.

Stage for a white background, free of distractions, props, or textures. If you have small items, I recommend a lightbox - particularly for watches, jewelry, or other metal/glass items that reflect their surroundings easily. If you have medium- to large-sized products, a table or floor space with a white matte drop cloth behind it is ideal. If you have the capability of removing the photo's background in PhotoShop (known as "extraction"), that's great - but you'll still want to make the process as quick and easy as possible by staging properly.

Obviously, there are a few exceptions to the "white space" background. For example, some pieces of crystal or glass itesm show up more clearly when photographed over a black background. (In that case, make sure you have a lint-free surface that doesn't pick up lots of dust particles!) I've also seen some very nice photography that uses textured backgrounds (i.e., a slab of marble) or natural elements (i.e., flowers or leaves) to add color and interest to the images. In some rare cases, this can be very effective. However, generally speaking, studies overwhelmingly show that buyers prefer to see JUST the product in an image, with a white or transparent background. This is why nearly every professional eCommerce website displays their product photos this way, with almost no exceptions.

Take a quick study of the above photos. All 3 of these images were pulled from the first few pages of an eBay search of live auction listings for "women's black dress". All 3 feature nearly identical styling and are listing within the same price range.

Image 1 shows the dress spread out on the floor, which makes it look large and flat, not at all appealing. The background texture is distracting, and if you look at the enlarged photo, there is visible debris on the floor, including a (dirty?) white sock in the top right corner. Not very appealing!!

Image 2 is better, showing the dress upright on a hanger with a nearly neutral background, free of distractions. However, the scrawny wire hanger subtly conveys "cheap" and the flatness of the dress does nothing for its visual appeal.

Image 3 is perfect, and looks straight out of a high-end catalog or eCommerce site. Think you can't get your images to look this good? Think again! With a bit of practice using the techniques discussed today and that I'll discuss next week, you can absolutely get your product images looking much more like example #3 than #1.

Now here's the big question: Ask yourself what you would be willing to pay for dress #1? How about dress #2, and finally dress #3? I don't know about you, but I would pay about 3 times more money for dress #3 than the other two, even without knowing the brand name or the materials! And so would most buyers.

You've heard that the secret to real estate purchasing is "location, location, location"? When it comes to product photography, remember this secret: lighting, lighting, lighting! As I said last week, you really can't have too much lighting. Invest in several small, affordable clip-on lamps that can be easily placed all around your object, and full-spectrum ("natural"/"daylight") light bulbs. You may also want to experiment with diffusers or light tents to remove glares, especially if your product has highly reflective surfaces. View the object from several angles to make sure you don't have any stark shadows.

Now that your background is blocked and your lighting is adjusted, set the white balance on your camera! This is an amazingly important step that most people don't know about - after all, in everyday photo snapshots of your friends, family, and that music concert you went to last weekend, "white balance" is not something you need to know about. But when it comes to product photography, it can make a significant difference in the quality of your image's clarity and color.

Most digital cameras have a white balance feature, and it's very easy to set, requiring just a few steps and 15 seconds to get right before you start snapping pics. Read your camera's manual for specifics on how to do this simple but critical step.

Check your distance requirements. All cameras have an ideal range of focus - too close or too far and you'll end up with fuzzy edges. There's a lot you can do in photo editing software to improve an image, but there's almost nothing you can do to really improve focus - it needs to be right from the get-go. If you're photographing small objects up close, get that camera manual out again and spend 5 minutes figuring out how to "macro zoom" so you can really show the product detail to your buyers. If you have larger objects (i.e., clothing on a mannequin, furniture, vehicles), experiment with wide lens options. Taking the time to find the optimal distance for best photo clarity is a one-time investment that will pay BIG dividends.

You're ready to start snapping pics! Now here's where that large memory card and the rechargeable batteries I recommended last week come into play, because you want to take LOTS of pics. Even if you'll ultimately only display a single image of your product on your website, take about 10-20 images of the item. Step in a little, step back a little, make slight changes to your angle or to the lighting. Once you get your pictures uploaded, you may be surprised to see odd angles, reflections, or shadows that you weren't aware of originally, so having a selection of images to choose from will come in very handy and save you considerable time over having to go back and reshoot.

Yes, all of these steps are a time investment. Keep reminding yourself that the quality of your product photos will dramatically affect both your sell-through rate and the sales price you can command, for either the better or the worse - and by as much as 40% to 80%! That's no small impact. eCommerce is a visual medium, so work with that, and learn how to visually stimulate and lure your buyers into loving and wanting your products, and you'll see your success online soar.

Next week I'll discuss how to edit, crop, and prepare your product images for optimal online viewing. As always, I look forward to your comments and questions, or feel free to share your own product photography secrets and tricks!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Monday Inspiration

"All that you can achieve and all that you fail to achieve is the direct result of your own thoughts." --James Allen