Friday, July 03, 2009

Business Musings: The freebee dilemma

I've been kind of out of SL for a while, or perhaps being rather casual about it thanks to a lot of RL stuff, but I'm trying to get back into it and I stumbled onto a fantastic business blog, by Todd Borst. One of the articles I've read while trying to catch up (because seriously, its awesome stuff.) is one regarding the practice of giving away freebees and the troubles associated with it.

I agree with a lot of what he said in the article, but I had a few thoughts of my own.

To summarise it for those who want to go read it in depth later (and I highly recommend it), the article identifies the main reasons why freebees exist, which can be distilled into three primary motivators:
1) Generosity - Creator does not feel content should be paid for and just wants people to enjoy their creation
2) Animosity - Creator does not feel that content should be sold period and tries to usurp a market by providing a free alternative.
3) Marketing - A content creator provides a freebee to promote a new product and get some word of mouth advertising, as well as keep people signed up to groups and so forth.

The problem is mostly with number 3, and it backlashes the creator more so than the other two. Why? For a couple of reasons:

1) It builds a culture of entitlement (particularly if you give away a product you actually intend to sell)
2) People come to have a certain expectation, and if the expectations aren't met, they get cranky.

But freebees can be such a potent selling tool, how do you give away free stuff without creating an expectation that can come back and munch your ass (not to mention cap your IMs with complaints)?

Well I had a few thoughts after reading the article. Getting back into writing, I thought I'd share them here.

Some people give away a product they intend to sell as a freebee release perk to group members. This isn't such a great idea because people will try nine ways to sunday to try to scam into the group or build the expectation that by joining the group, they will get pretty much everything new you make for free. But having an incentive to be part of a group is a really good plan, since with limited group space, sometimes people have to make some serious decisions. Not to mention having other people tout your new product around is good marketing! The thought that immediately came to mind is don't give away 'freebees', give away prizes!

The word 'freebee' really has a lot of negative conotations. It devalues the worth of something, however a prize is usually something that is earned or won that has value. Saying "I won this!" immediately creates certain expectations within people, a certain envy, and a certain interest in keeping up with the joneses. Plus the eventish aspect to it can attract new people to a store over a period of time. Release parties are a good way to get people into your stores and can attract people to join your group. Particularly if you are holding a raffle or something of that nature. Getting people in your store to see your items and other promotional tools such as midnight madness vendors, or lucky chairs or other such things might also encourage them to come back later.

If you do decide to give away a freebee, to either create an attraction to your store, or give something you may want to use as a permanent promotional item, make sure that it meets a few conditions.

The first is that it remains free. No matter what. Its not going to be sold ever or hasn't been sold before. Turning old stuff into freebees pisses off customers who paid good money. Don't retire merchandise as freebees, it just leaves a very bad taste in people's mouths.

The second is that it is very different than any current product. Either a totally different type of product, or so significantly different that its impossible for anyone to mistake it as something you've sold. For example, I've got several freebees that are tattoos. I don't sell tattoos, period. My products are avatars, clothing, and eyes. But it gives people a chance to see the quality of my products, which is mostly what freebees are about. A sample. A taste to whet the appetite. Not a free lunch.

The third is that, if you are going to put out freebees, if you do it regularly, people will come to expect it. This isn't such a bad thing if you can do it. But if you can't, try not to be too regular about it. Keep it irratic enough that people don't expect X freebee to be avaliable at the beginning of the month. If you did, but can't anymore, make sure you make it EXTREMELY clear to the group or store people that you've discontinued your freebee program, but you will still likely get a lot of complaints.

If you have a way of tracking who buys a freebee from either a box or vendor, you can use that information to invite them to a group, which allows you to grow your marketing group base. Some people won't accept the invite of course, but a lot will. Especially if you provide tangible benefits such as prizes or event invitations. If you want to have a regularish release for 'gifts' for your patrons, holidays are also good times of the year to target, particularly holidays.

Giveaways/release giveaways I've seen work without too much trouble:
- Trivia game to the group
- Raffle using all the names of the people who were in the group as of X day.
- Party, if you show up, there is a prize ball and some promotional give away items like prize chairs and the like.

Add your ideas!

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Business Musings: The Benefits of Specialization

As I've gathered more and more experience in business in Secondlife, I've discovered something of an interesting truth about SL business.

There's nothing more difficult to promote/market in secondlife than a 'general store'.

I'm personally a person who likes to make a variety of things. From full avatars, to costumes, to eyes, to prefab buildings, I do it all. However, just because you can do lots of things, doesn't mean you should try to sell them all... at least not all in one package. This goes not only for businesses selling content, but for malls, property rental, and other businesses as well. The more 'general' they are, the more difficult they are to make successful. The most successful businesses in secondlife that I've seen have ALL been, without

Because of the sheer chaos of the mainland and the overwhelming OMG STUFF-ness of the grid, people get very particular about how they shop. They decided they need to buy something, lets call that something X for now. Rather than randomly searching the classifieds for X, generally the first thing people do is ask someone for the name or landmark to a store that specializes in X. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked "I need some new hair, who's your favorite hair designer?" or "I'm looking for a skin, what are some good skin designers." People are looking for specific things and thus are looking for specific shops. I've never once heard someone ask me if SL has something like Walmart, or a general store. Its not how people shop in SL. As a result, specialization is almost a key to success.

Now, you can find a specialization that is more broad than just 'hair'. You could plant your stake on a genre, like say fantasy, horror, sci-fi, anime, etc, but you need to make it really clear. I have a business which is a horror shop, specifically for the 'undead' of SL (zombies, ghosts, ghouls.. etc). It does a pretty brisk business, despite being extremely specialized and niche. Sometimes, finding a niche is a very good thing, since there isn't too much competition and your audience will quickly come to know your products because your target group is small and compact. Chances are, they socialize, and if you make something noteworthy, it will soon be discovered. That was the case with my business. I created several of the items for myself originally when I was playing in a horror RP in SL (now defunct.. bummer). I found that for my character, there really wasn't much out there, so I had to make my own stuff. I kept getting asked for them so often that I decided to see if they would sell. Low and behold, a successful business. Apparently I wasn't the only one who needs these items. But by targeting my advertising specifically at that audience (those looking for zombie/ghost/horror items) I'm able to get my message to them easier, because I can really target my areas, groups, etc, as well as my audience being able to find me very easily by typing undead in the search engine.

When you specialize, its also easier for you to streamline your communications, advertisiments in the classifieds and parcel listings. There is a lot less of the "hmm.. what do I show because I have lots of things" business, and it lessens the need for a zillion keywords which may only kinda sorta relate to your products. You need to really put on your thinking cap and consumer hat and think about how *you* shop, and your friends shop. How do you find stores? Is it word of mouth? Is it in malls? Where does your audience hang out? Where do you hang out when you are looking for X? If you think about it, it will really help you decide where to spend your L$ and how to list your store. These days in SL, its almost a requirement to have a main store, and then use mall outlets to raise your profile. Most people are interested in shopping at the main store, but having outlets in specially chosen locations where your audience might hang out is a good way to get your brand out there and seen. Even if you don't get a lot of sales, make sure you have a landmark giver, because a lot of people will take a landmark and blip to the main store. Its worth it for that, because usually they do buy something. This is particularly true if you can only show part of your inventory.

So what if you've been around a while and made a whole bunch of different things, and now you are reading this article going 'hmm.. well I have all this stuff! How can I specialize now?" Well not to fear, its easy. First, go through your store inventory and catagorize stuff. Start with the really broad stuff (Eg: Buildings, Avatar stuff, scripts, furniture, etc.). Then look at how much you have of each. There is nothing stopping you from splitting your one store into several. For example:

Beth Avatar has a Store called Beth's Bits & Bobs. She sells a lot of different items, but the thing she makes the most of is low prim furniture, followed by hair and some clothing. It would make sense to split the furniture off into their own business, in order to attract more people looking for specific low prim furniture. Her name "bits and bobs" suggests hair and accessories, rather than furniture, so its misleading for people searching for the products. Keeping her Bits and Bobs store and retooling it towards a fashion store, selling hair and clothing, and making a second business called Beth's Low Prim Furniture, is going to attract more people looking for furniture and give her better explosure as a furniture maker, while not completely alienating her current bits and bobs customers, but attracting more people looking for hair and clothing since its now, clearly a fashion store.

With product specialization, you can put the maximum effort into one audience, looking for one type of thing and really get yourself known for a particular item. Its unwise to underestimate the power of this particular type of business, particularly in SL. Its alright to have other items in your store, but pick a specialty, and really capitalize on it. You'll find that it makes it much easier to have a staple product that people come to YOU for, and then discover your other creations, than try to be everything to everyone.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Business Tips: 10 handy creator resources

This is a bit of a new feature, since this blog seems to be developing a bit towards helping business peeps as well as dealing with scams and talking about business, and we are going to start with what I feel are 10 tools out there that no content creator (particularly one just starting out..) should be without, or at least should know about. Now, these will have different levels of relevance depending on what you want to make, but its worth noting all of them have their uses. These are not ranked in any particular order of usefulness, they are meerly numbered.

  1. Texture Optimizer
    This handy little gadget helps you optimize your textures on prims to reduce loading times and reduce lag. Useful if you are setting up shops with a lot of textures to show your wares. Because you want to keep the area as fast loading and lag free as possible, its important to make sure your textures are optimized.

  2. SL Clothing Previewer
    Windows Download
    Mac Download
    This insanely handy ultility is specifically for making clothing. Once you've created some clothing, and need to preview it to make sure things like straps and scenes line up, this tool becomes invaluble. Instead of having to spend 10L to upload to check and see if something lines up, finding it doesn't, and then repeating the process until you spend a small fortune, you can use this little guy. Just load your texture map and rotate the figure to have a look. Supports all the different clothing maps and figures, male and female. Works excellent for skins as well. It runs locally, so no worrying about being online or having to log into SL as you work. Generally speaking, if it works on this previewer, it will work on SL.

  3. CMFF Master Templates
    The original, definative templates for creating skins and clothing in SL, now these replace the original linden templates in the downloads section I understand. These comprehensive, layered template files are complete with a color coded map and grid to align those pesky seams and provide an invaluble guide file when working on making textures of any sort that go on the body.

  4. ScupltyPaint
    Need a basic, quick, easy to learn method of making simple sculpties? Well this is your solution. This freebee program has several built in shapes as well as very simple tools to make common and simple sculpty shapes. With some practice, one can learn to make more complex shapes in the editor. Handy and relatively easy to learn to use although isn't as robust as say a program like Blender, Maya, or other commercial software, it can do some impressive things, and its free!

  5. QAvimator
    Need to make your own animations? Are you sick of Poser's constant screwing up? Need a free alternative? QAvimator could be your answer. I have heard some content creators say that the animations they've exported from this tool are more reliable than poser, although I haven't noticed much of a difference myself. Although, unlike poser, this is free.

  6. The Gimp
    Not everyone has the money to buy an expensive program like photoshop to create clothing and skins. This free option, while a bit more complicated interface wise, has most of the features (and a few more in terms of functionality) of photoshop, without the hefty pricetag. With a little tenacity you can create for free.

  7. Puppeteer
    This is a super cool tool that 'rescues your creation from static existance', but is essentially a prim animator tool. It has video tutorials as well as a very cool demo video on youtube. A very handy thing to make your creations move, (wings flap, tip jars spin, tails swish, etc.) If you aren't a scripter. This blog links to the free version of this tool.

  8. Particle Wizard
    Need to generate particles for your creations? This is a handy little tool that allows you to create a particles without paying and arm and a leg for them, or buying a tool inworld.

  9. SL Scripter
    Need some basic scripting done, but not a scripter? This handy little tool generates scripts for you based on menu prompts of what you want the script to do. Still in its basic incarnation, but extremely handy for those of us who are not script savvy, but still want some basic functionality in our creations without paying through the nose.

  10. Avatar Databank
    A handy site that has broken down the basic avatar meshes into downloadable objects for import into other programs (like blender, maya, etc) to help you work out sculpties or preview textures onto. A useful resource, particularly if you want to focus on only one particular part or object. Also good for working on non standard body frames and parts.

As content creators we are constantly looking for new and interesting things to do with our creations. Some might require a bit of learning, but some are actually helpful to those of us who lack certain skills (like extensive scripting abilities), having resources is very handy and often less expensive than hiring someone else to do the job.

I do hope these links help some folks out there who are looking for resources, especially if they are just starting out and not sure what to use to create what.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Business Musings: Customer Entitlement & Ignorance

I have several friends on SL who have been in the business of creating content for several years now, and a few that are quite large. So large they actually make their real life living making content. We often 'talk shop' and one of the things that repeatedly comes up is the the level of customer ignorance and their sense of entitlement.

One of my friends who ones one of the largest businesses of my circle sees this repeatedly. She is an extremely busy creator with a very large client base, but the bulk of her big customer complaints stems from these problems. She's tried to find ways to educate her customers, but it seems that no matter how many signs or notecards, or even one on one talk she's given, people just don't seem to 'get it'.

As a vendor I can say I've run into this myself, more so in recent times than in the past. The stuff I sell isn't heavily scripted, but it does rely on SL functioning properly when it comes to rendering. For the past several months I've had many complaints about skins being 'blurry' which led me to explaining the rebaking process about a dozen times in the span of two weeks. It was of course, not the textures that were to blame, but their client wasn't baking properly after they put it on, so it appeared 'blurry'. Customers were very quick to ask for 'replacements', but what they didn't understand was that it wasn't the product that was to blame, but SL itself.

In the (latest) instant with my friend, a customer has confused 'features', for 'defects'. In this case, the vendor's product is designed to be customized to a certain degree by the consumer, and her textures are made in order to make this possible. This does create some limitations, and each of her products are packaged in sets according to pre-assembled color schemes. One selects the color set they wish, and then when they buy it, they then have the *option* to modify it as they see fit. She has many signs all over her store that advises customers that she does NOT give refunds because her avatars are all mod/copy, and that staff are present to answer questions and model the products should people want to inspect what they are buying before hand. If there is a legitimate bug/problem, it can be reported to her or staff and they will bust their asses to fix it. The problem is, most 'problems' are opinions, not actual fixable issues.

This is such a case. There are several factors inside the problem. One is a technical issue on the consumer's own computer, namely monitor settings. If someone is using an old monitor the colors will display differently than someone with a new monitor. This is true with CRT vs Flatscreens as well. Flatscreens display much brighter colors with a higher contrast, while CRTs tend to be darker and wash out fine details. This person could not see the detail in the pre-set version. First problem. Second problem is customer ignorance, first of the technical requirements of SL to do certain things, the second is the market demand for customization on this product. In order to make textures that are recolorable by the end user, one has to set their textures up a particular way. They have to be black and white with enough contrast that when a tint is applied, the texture looks correct. This is how it has to be done if you want a pure color to show through. This is what was done, the textures were made correctly. However, this person apparently had a consumer impression that doing black and white textures and then tinting them was 'cheap'. This is not the case, obviously as the product was built to be re-colorable by the end user. It was, in fact, built correctly.

The customer initially complained that the pre-tinted color was 'too dark'. However, being that is a modifiable avatar, and they were informed of this via signs and notecards, they could modify it. However, when given the option to modify the avatar, the consumer then complained that the textures were 'cheap' because they were tintable. The actual product was not 'too dark' but it appears that her monitor was set to dark to see the proper contrast of the original package. However, this doesn't hold too much water as all the products are clearly displayed on the vendors from which they are being sold and the customer did not request a modeling from staff present. This complaint is also coming months after the purchase. The customer at first seemed to want a replacement for the 'deficient' textures, however, was informed that custom textures were not available, which then instigated a lecture from the customer regarding how they felt the creator should build things, with no regard to actual function within SL, clearly displaying ignorance about SL and how things are made, as well as the time and effort it takes to make things and make them user friendly. Ultimately the customer was told the product was functioning properly and after several threats, the customer then left. Of course, this exchange resulted in neither being happy. The vendor/creator suffered many insults and threats, and the customer remained ignorant and had their complaint unresolved.

There are two sides here, the customer and the vendor.

As vendors and creators we don't have the time to take every customer by the hand and educate them. We can do our best to inform them. Having very obvious signs and policies clearly posted at the store or in note cards given out by vendors is a good safety blanket, particularly if you do not give refunds and detailing what you will or will not fix. It may also be good to detail features, in order to justify the value of your products and validate your creation techniques if you find there is misconceptions around them. Having staff trained to answer questions for you can be invaluable to put a barrier between you and them, particularly if you find yourself being overwhelmed by customer complaints/problems/requests. Having a website for your products and a FAQ on that site and in your store might also be helpful. There is going to be instances where you cannot please all your customers all the time, but even if you cannot help them, you can educate them with their misconceptions. Sometimes throwing questions at them can derail their arguments, and so when they start throwing accusations at you, throw questions back at them. Make them get specific, ask how much they know regarding building, ask exactly how the product is malfunctioning, send screenshots, make them justify themselves. Often through the process of simply walking them through a set script of questions can defuse the situation by educating the client without being condescending. This servers two purposes, the client will go away happier when they realize that they did, infact, get a valuable, well made product, and they will also be less likely to be a sucky customer to other vendors. In theory, they may also disseminate the information to other friends, and thereby help to educate them as well. There are always a handful of sucky customers that remain steadfastly adamanet on getting whatever it is they want, but we can't be expected to please everyone, all the time. Make sure you have your policies, stick to them, but if a complaint is clearly based on ignorance, try to use a series of information/qualification questions to educate them and defuse the situation. Complaints are like troubleshooting, you have to walk through the steps. It also makes sure you and your employees treat everyone fairly. Also, if a customer does get the point of threats (writing in blogs for example..) don't balk, stick to your guns. Any publicity is good publicity, particularly if you can still come off smelling like a rose.

As consumers and customers we also have a responsibility to the vendors. That is we must be aware of what we are shopping for and read the materials provided by the vendors regarding permissions, return policies, and pay close attention to what we are actually buying. The vendors are not responsible for our mistakes, and if we buy the wrong item, its not like real life where you can give it back. You have to eat it. If you are very particular about certain qualities of a product, such as how textures are handled, you cannot expect every vendor/creator/artist to use the same techniques. You can and should request modeling, particularly if the product is expensive, such as a skin. If they have a demo, you should try it out. If you know someone who owns a product, get them to show it to you. The vendor IS NOT our babysitters. We have to take responsibility for our purchases. If we make a kneejerk purchase and it isn't *quite* what we expected, but exactly what was advertised, we have no one to blame but ourselves for not putting in that little extra legwork. We also have to consider, that a 1000L might sound like a lot, but its less than a couple of real life dollars we'd spend on pop. If we were as spendthrift in real life as many of us are on SL, we'd probably have a lot more money in the bank and have a lot less debt. But my Starbucks Frappuchino costs more than most of the really good skins/avs/gowns/ etc in SL. Put your purchases in perspective before you run off and make the creator's life miserable. Also, if you have a complaint or inquiry, be polite and refrain from putting your own spin on things, particularly if you are not a builder/creator and understand the logicistics of their marketplace and clientel. Big makers tend to tailor their products to the majority, not the individual, and you can't expect them to pay the same level of attention as a tiny shop might with a very small group of customers. Being difficult, threatening, or constantly bitching will get you precisely nowhere, since these people deal with many of 'you' a day, they will simply lump you into the sucky customer category and ignore your issues. If you want to be heard, you have to use sugar, not vinegar.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Business Musings - Declining Sales?

Perusing the SL forums, I've noticed several posts regarding declining sales. These range from advice on how to get your sales back up, to inquiring to other merchants if their sales have been slumping.

Now, if most merchants are anything like myself, while I do keep sales records, I don't keep particularly *accurate* sales records. I don't do spreadsheets to keep track of what sold when, or how many sales I did per month, etc. So its actually hard for me to say, except for in very general terms how I'm doing in a particular time period. I can anecdotally say I do so any sales per day, but that's a very general figure. We all have good days and bad days, and as long as I make tier by the end of the month, I'm good. I don't make oodles of cash, but I do make enough to pay for my own in world expenses, which is enough for me.

However, I know there are many other merchants out there for whom this is a lot more serious issue than just making tier once a month and having some extra money to spoil your friends and yourself with a new outfit or hair. And missing sales can amount to missing bill payments IRL for those who depend on the income. So if you suddenly seem to be doing a lot less business, what can you do to get it back?

The first thing is to eliminate any technical reasons you can that might be deterring customers from your store. Have you recently remodeled? changed vendors? Did LL release a new client? Did you recently move your store? Did someone new move into your sim? Are all the textures in your area optimized? There can be many factors that can prevent a customer from completing a transaction with you, and depending on the cause, there is a different solution for each.
If you've recently redecorated or changed your vendor set up, customers might have some trouble either dealing with the new set up, or they just don't want to deal with the type of setup you have. A lot of customers get impatient having to scroll through hundreds of products, even if there are category buttons and such. Also, the less visuals you have around, the less people see your selection, and showing your products is very important to tempting people to buy them. The less they see, the less they are inclined to buy. If you think this might be the key, try putting out some of your old displays and see if your sales pick back up. If they do, you know that the customers didn't respond well to however you were redesigning your shop's look.

SL has a bit of a history that after a new client release, sales often take a short nosedive as people work out all the new and lovely bugs that come with each update. So if its just been after a new client release, don't panic and just wait a bit. People will come back.

One thing that really deters customers is lag. If someone has to wait twenty minutes to load the huge textures you have in your store, or there are too many scripts running in the area (such as in a mall situation), or some one has moved into the plot next to you and is running scripts and high textures it could cause a lot of lag in your sim. Try to keep your sources of lag to a minimum by keeping your textures to 256x256 at 72 dpi and find a balance to displaying your products and how many textures a person has to wait to load. If you find lag is an issue, check the scripts you are running, and other scripts in the area. You can try using single prim venting if you find that running scripts is just too much for your area to handle, and see if it helps. Otherwise, you might want to look for another location. When you move, you might find your sales drop off as well for a bit because people can't find you right away and might think your store has closed. This is why it is very important to have a group for your store, so you can keep your customers informed about such things.

If you have ruled out technical problems, you can then turn your attention to your actual store and your offerings. If you had a unique offering, perhaps someone has duplicated and is selling it for less. Maybe competition has moved in up the way. Maybe you just need some fresh items to bring people back to your door step. Even if you have competition, there is nothing saying you can't do a better job of making a given product or service available. This is especially true if you tend to have more expensive prices for items ( things over 500L) if people can get a similar item for less. You may have to make it more clear to the casual consumer why they should consider buying your product over others. Having an event or sale can help, but its a temporary solution. It won't help you build long term customer loyalty to your store unless you can keep in contact with the new people you meet, give incentives to join your store group, such as special offers and exclusive freebees. That way, you can keep in contact with them and continue to promote your products to an audience that is already proven buyers.

If you haven't put out something new in a while, interest can wane on your products. Also if you don't have very many products, your store isn't particularly large and your products are either very common or somewhat niche-ish, you may find that what you need to do is do some new things. The larger your selection, the more people will come to do a one shop shop for your particular product. This is also why specialty stores tend to be easier to get a steady flow of traffic to, since people make your store a destination for X. It could be hair, jewelry, shoes, glasses, party dresses, Cosplay, skin, whatever it is you sell. Selling a little of everything is nice, but it makes it hard to make you stand out and get people to come for a specific reason. If you like to do different things, a theme such as goth, Elizabethan, victorian, egyptian, horror, fantasy, etc, can help get you in with an audience looking for your products. You might consider branching off ill fitting products (in your main product line type/theme) into their own store. So if you primarily do hair for example, but also sell prefab skyboxes, consider having them with two different identities. People looking for skyboxes probably aren't going to think immediately of going to a hair store.

We all know that SL is notoriously glitchy. It can be hard with many of the teleporting issues, lag issues, rezing issues, connectivity issues, etc. To actually GET to a store. Recently I was noob-makeovering two friends of mine. Since a couple of updates ago, I have been unable to teleport with the main client. It disconnects me everytime I try. I have to log into the sim I want to be in from the get go. This made shopping, quite literally, hellish. Going to people's stores, particularly on private islands was infuriating. Disconnect, reconnect, disconnect, reconnect. And with all the stuff you have to do to craft a look, it became unbearable. So where did I turn to? SLexchange. A quick search, some surfing and an easy delivery to my friend. It was instant and didn't involve me teleporting. So its important, if you don't have your products on one of web based shopping pages (SLexchange, OnRez, etc), that you probably should. Not only does it make you more visible, which is a good thing, it prevents technical problems from getting in the way of people accessing your shop. Even if your sales are coming from something other than your shop, your products are getting out there. Make sure your product boxes have landmarks to your main shop at the very least in them. That way, even if they bought it from an out of world source, they know where they can go INworld for more.

If you have been struggling for some time with low sales, you might have a larger problem than just a bit of a slow down in people visiting your store. There can be many reasons for low sales, including:
- Poor images/look
- Prices too high for product
- Insufficient marketing
- Wrong target audience/area

If you aren't particularly good with photoshop or Gimp, or graphics in general, you might want to hire someone to create your look and feel who is. Your graphics in your store is what make you look professional and if your pictures do not showcase your product well, you are shooting yourself in the foot. Looking professional is as important as being professional. Remember that first impressions, such as when a person walks into your store, is very important. If you don't look like you put much work into your look and feel, people are going to probably assume you don't put much effort into your products either.

If you are new and starting out, its pretty hard to charge huge prices for what is most likely substandard work, compared to what else is out there. If you are relatively new to product making, your stuff generally won't be as good as the stuff made by people who've been at it for a while. Or even if it is, most people aren't going to risk shelling out big bucks to find out. You have to price your products reasonably within your market for both their quality and what the 'median' price of the market is. Most people don't want to pay more than 50L for a t-shirt, so charging 200L will probably mean not many people are going to buy when they can get a potentially BETTER shirt for 50L somewhere else. Also, most transactions these days are fairly low. People don't get stipends like they used to and so money for a good bulk of the active population is tight. If you want casual sales, you have to have a good selection of casual shopper priced items (75L or lower). Once people get familiar with your good work on the cheap, they might consider shelling out for the more expensive pieces.

You do have to make some effort to put your name out there by way of a bit of marketing. Classified, having your store in your picks, also having your items searchable are very important. If people can't find you, they can't shop for you. consider having a weekly classified at 50L on selected products. Host events at your store to draw people in. Giving seminars and such is a very good way to get people to take you seriously. ( and SL is always hurting for quality event content) You may also want to visit and identify groups that would have an interest in your product and hang out in them wearing your stuff (if its wearable) or see if you can locate an outlet store in an area where they hang out. (goth clubwear in a goth club mall for example..) Getting a few satalite stores is a good way to raise your visibility even if you don't make a lot of sales there. people get familiar with your brand and begin to build a relationship with it. They might like your stuff, but not have the money at the time. But later when they do, they will recognize your store and probably buy something.

Another common mistake is putting your store in the wrong place or trying to cater to the wrong audience with your product. No one is going to be able to attract *everyone* to their products, so to save yourself time, L$, and frustration, make sure that you are putting stores only in the malls, sims or areas that specifically will attract the kind of people who will buy your products. Having a stand alone 'main' store is good, but make sure the decor fits. Make sure your keywords are words that people in that particular clique would be looking for. Sponsor events that are aimed at the same audiences you are targeting, and generally become a part of their community. People are more willing to buy stuff from people they know, like and trust personally than a stranger. Many malls or venues promise 'traffic' to merchants, but a smart merchant knows to check it out first and see if the clientelle matches their product lines. If traffic doesn't translate into sales, it won't be worth the price of the rental, especially since the more traffic the landowner claims to have, the more they tend to charge for the rental.

SL is just like any other business in the sense that there are good days, and there are bad days. You can only do as much as you can, but if you are doing everything here, you should see more good than bad days. Try to look over longer periods for trends, I suggest monthly targets. Days are too short, even weeks are too short to really get a good pulse on whats going on. But don't panic, just because your stuff isn't selling today, doesn't mean it won't sell tomorrow.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Business Musings - Newbie business

Seeing as I rarely get new reports of scams, (and so forget to post here) I think I'll just be using this blog as primarily a vessel for my business musings and rants regarding doing business as a vendor in secondlife. It seems people get the most use out of it.

So, my topic today is newbie businesses, and I don't mean new businesses, I mean business for the newbie. I get a lot of questions about starting businesses by new residents, and I thought writing down what that advice might be helpful for everyone who might be afraid to ask. This article is primarily aimed at those new to secondlife and wish to start their own businesses to earn some Lindens.

Many new residents ask me 'how do I get money in secondlife?'. While there are several options (money trees, jobs, camping, go premium...) The only way one can generate a steady 'income' in the game is to start a business. This can be a rather daunting task for someone who's still in the process of learning the interface. I honestly suggest that a newbie take some time to explore and get used to the actual world and tools before trying to start a business. Your ability to manipulate the tools inside and outside of secondlife is going to greatly influence WHAT you are going to be able to do for your business.

There are many options for a business in SL in both service and retail. Service type businesses would be things such as running:
- Clubs
- Consulting business
- Event Planning
- Sim Design
- Custom scripting, building, design
- Land management

Where as Retail would be content creation and sales. Some example of 'products' sold by SL retailers are:
- Textures
- Hair Styles
- Pre-made buildings
- Clothing
- Shoes
- Skins
- Eyes
- Animations
- Scripts
- Furniture
- Poses & Gestures
- Sounds
- Pre-built avatars
... and the list goes on.

Each business has their own varying degrees of complexity and audience. Those who lack artistic skill or the inclination to learn the tools in SL to build sometimes turn to their RL job training, offering RL services such as fitness consulting, financial advice, photography, wedding planning, and so on through SL. Some people become facilitators for other groups, such as putting together Sim design teams of skilled individuals to do private sim development, handling the hard business of getting customers and accounting, letting the creative teams do what they do best. Obviously this has varying degrees of success. There are some 'businesses' that rarely make any money, clubs being one of them. I've heard of very few successful clubs since the gambling ban. Service jobs do require a lot more time from you, since you have to actually meet with clients, deliver the service, and its a new 'job' every time. Great if you have a lot of time and enjoy it. But you will have to definitely develop your connections and market yourself well.

The most consistently successful type of business I hear the most about is the retail side of things. Content creation is a fairly reliable way to generate a regular source of income on SL. The upside is that your 'store' is never closed and doesn't need sales people. You can keep selling things even if you aren't online. The trade off with this sort of business is that it actually does require you to learn some programs outside of SL as well as the quirkiness that is SL itself. Even experienced content creators find times where building is very very frustrating. However, if you are already familiar with some of these programs, you may find that its the easiest track to getting some regular L$ without having to purchase them yourself. Obviously original content sells the best, however, if you lack the time and skill there are such things as 'business in a box' of content you can sell, as well as 'affiliate' programs from some of the big retailers offering you a percentage of the sales from the vendors you put out. However, I'll elaborate on these a little later, lets assume you are interested in making your own unique creations.

The Retail Business

Most content can be broken down into a few categories ( or some combination there of):

Textures - This includes clothing, skins, eyes, as well as original textures for things like buildings. Textures are basically a picture that is specifically designed to wrap onto a prim or mesh (such as clothing or skin) to give it a particular look and feel. Most textures are either .tga files (targa), or jpgs. These are generated with a graphics program, such as theGIMP or Photoshop.

Animations - This includes poses and gestures. Basically these files make an avatar move in a particular way. Walking, standing, sitting, all controlled via poses and animations. SL uses .bvm files which can be generated out of commercial software such as Poser, or there are some free tools floating around like QAvimator ( there is a full listing in the forums here.)

Sounds - Sounds as in audio recordings. There aren't many people that specialize in this, but it involves recording sounds and processing them for use in SL.

Building - The actual creation of objects using primitive objects IN secondlife itself. Many things are built from 'prims', from clothing to hair to buildings. Currently there is no way to import complex creations from other 3D applications into SL, there are however, 'scuplty' prims, uniquely shaped prims, which are created from UV maps which can be generated from several commercial and open source 3D apps. The basics of building in SL are very simple, and almost anyone can learn this skill.

Scripting - The creation of scripts that allow interaction with objects using SL own scripting language, called LSL. Scripting can be done right inside SL using 'notecards', and requires nothing but the investment to learn the language. A good way to go if you are more logically and less creatively inclined.

You should consider your own strengths and interests when you decide what you'd like to get your feet wet doing first. Its often best to start in one place and branch out from there. For example many people start into clothing by making T-shirts. Making furniture is a popular way to start building. There are many free textures to help you with your beginning builds so you don't have to make your own.

There are a lot of tutorials out there, templates, and examples. Many of them are mentioned on the SL forums, in where there are several forums dedicated to content creators. Many of them have stickies to useful resources including links to templates, programs, and tutorials.

There is one _small_ issue you will run into as a pennyless newbie. To upload anything to SL that's external costs 10L, and if you are just getting started making textures or clothing, you are going to screw up several times before you get something saleable. There are some external applications that help you preview things before you upload, but sometimes there is just NO accounting for how SL is going to take something.

So how do you get around this new challenge? Well, if you are new enough, you can raid moneytrees for starting capital, work a 'job' to get started for a little while while you get enough cash to upload stuff, or you can invest a little in yourself and buy some L$. However, if you are old enough (as an avatar), you can avoid all that and use something called the 'test server'. This nifty thing is very useful because you get free L$, about 1000L$ worth when you login. You don't get to keep it or transfer it to the REAL grid, but you CAN use it to upload your textures, animations, or sounds and try them out without spending your hard earned L$ on your real account. Once you are satisfied with what you've got on the test server, you can upload it onto the real grid and save yourself hundreds of L$ of trial and error.

Another note that will probably help you, particularly in the beginning is that specialty stores (stores that specialize in one particular type or flavor of product) are much easier to establish and get known than ones that are very general. People go to a hair store, a shoe store, a clothing store. When you get more known, starting new lines of items might be what you want to do, but in the beginning, its easiest to specialize in a particular thing. Its easiest for you to learn and become good at, and finding good target markets and customers and such is much easier. Make sure you capitalize on your personal interests and communities you are a part of, having connections already in that community will help spread the word about your store faster.

Now, as I said earlier, if you are not the artistically inclined sort, or perhaps you want to start with something to earn the cash to do your own stuff, you can purchase what are often called 'businesses in a box', which are basically a set of pre-made stuff of varying quality that you can sell without restriction. HOWEVER, the caveat here is that ANYONE can sell this stuff, so you don't have any edge in the market place. Sometimes such packages are nothing but poorly crafted freebees stuck in a box (or sometimes nothing at all!), which makes it a poor choice to invest in. Most Box businesses require you buy them upfront, so there might be a large initial investment, not to mention the cost of setting up a store. If you are interested in going the business in a box way, you should research what you are buying. Its easy to get ripped off with these. Some people who aren't interested in being in SL anymore sell their businesses, sometimes you can buy these guy's inventory. If you are lucky, you'll be the only one selling it. But make sure you check your permissions on stuff before you start selling it!

The other option is affiliate programs. Some of the larger retailers have programs where you can join and sell their products. In exchange for you basically running a 'branch' of their store, you get a percentage of the sales from your location(s). You will be required to locate a place to have your store, a mall or similar set up is a popular choice. You won't make a lot of money doing this, as the percentage is generally less than you would make if you were selling your own unique merchandise, but on the other hand you have the power of the brand of products you are selling which is established and already has a reputation among consumers. Most affiliate programs don't have any upfront fees. Its usually a "you make money, I make money" situation, which makes it good for a penniless noob, but you will still have the cost of the rental to front, unless you can find an area that will allow you to sell stuff for free. There are some of these areas, usually 'markets' of some kind. Otherwise a rental will range from as little as 25L a week to hundreds of L$ a week.

No matter what sort of retail business you are starting, you are going to need a place to sell stuff in. You have a choice to either bite the bullet and get some land of your own, or you are going to have to rent some from someone else. When you are starting out, its important to try and get a space as cheap as possible. When I was first starting out, I sold t-shirts and eyeballs. I was lucky to have a friend who had land and let me squat in a little cart in front of her established store for nothing. Mooching a bit of space off a friend is a good way to go if you can, if that friend happens to have a busy store, even better, but be respectful of them and try to get your own space as soon as you can. You will want to establish a place where you can actively drive people to your store. Malls are a good place to find a cheap place to set up shop, and most already have traffic going to them, so it saves you having to start from ground zero to find some customers. A good thing to do is create a group for your business and actively invite people who purchase your products to it. This will give you a mailing list of established customers that you can market new products too and share special promotions with. Building customer loyalty will help you in the long run, no matter what, just be careful not to spam your group. It also lets you inform them if you move, or open a new store. Eventually you will probably want to establish a 'main store', which is usually your largest location with a complete catalogue of your products, but that can wait until you outgrow your small location, either through product numbers ( you just have too many to fit in a small mall stall), or you want a showcase (frequently the case with furniture or interactive objects.). The use of a 'vendor' or scripted object that holds your products in it, showing a texture of the product, can help you maximize the amount of product you can get in the space you have, both in terms of physical space and 'prim usage'. There are many free systems out there to choose from.

Once you've got some products and space to sell them in, you'll probably need a logo and some basic photography of your products to put in vendors or on boxes. Having theGIMP or photoshop is very helpful for making the most of your product photos. After you are all set up, it becomes a matter of getting your name out there.

There are many ways to do this. Posting products to the SL forums is a good start, getting an account and selling items on SLexchange or Onrez or other services is also helpful. Making sure your objects are indexable on the new search is very important. Placing classifies and making sure that your locations are in your picks in your profile is very helpful for people looking for your stuff or the type of thing you sell. You may want to go to some nightclubs or events and sponsor them with your products, or simply go and show them off in sandboxes, clubs, or other social gatherings, having the landmark handy to pass out to people. If you are into the fashion scene, sending items to some of the fashion review folks who have blogs can give you a boost if you've got something good for them.

But it is important, through all this, to be realistic about your expectations. People are not going to beat down your virtual store door simply because you are open. You will have to do a lot of work promoting yourself and your products to build your customer base. You may only have a few sales a month to start. Don't lose heart, but keep at it. Keep building, keep adding to your products, keep promoting. The more you do, the better you will get, the more people will seek your products.

Next time, I'll talk about a service based business.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Scam Alert! - "Prize say yes"

Affects: Anyone

Modus Operandi: The scammer gives you an objectcalled "prize say yes". If you rez or accept the object it will take money from your account.

How it goes down: The scammer give you the object "prize say yes". The unwitting recipient accepts the object, says "yes" and the object proceeds to drain their account. This object continues to drain your account until you do a full delete of it from your trash.

Seeing through the Scam: If you get this object from anyone DO NOT ACCEPT OR SAY YES to anything. Delete it IMMEDIATELY, and empty the trash on top of it. While its nice to get things from people, remember that accepting objects with sketchy names, such as encouraging you to say yes without any explination or being dodgy about it, its probably something that is up to no good.

This is quite new to my knowlege, and thus far has been reported to have been used at the House of Blade Mall on Samurai Island, but could very well start cropping up in other popular places! Keep your eyes out and make sure you don't get nailed by this thing!