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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