by Waitsel Smith
Selling on the Internet
Selling on the Internet is a prickly subject. The reason is, everyone is convinced that the Internet is a gold mine waiting to be tapped. It's just like the gold rushes of the past: everybody is heading west to make a killing without a clue what's out there. Well, I'll tell you what's out there: not enough gold to support all the hoopla.
I know that's not what you want to hear. But wouldn't you rather hear the truth than a lot of hype? The truth is, making a living on the Internet is not a whole lot different from making a living at anything else: it takes a lot of work, a lot of planning and a lot of luck (or grace). There is, however, one exception as far as selling: an introvert can sell on the Internet, whereas it pretty much takes an extrovert to sell in real life. (Notice that I call it "real life," as if the Internet isn't real. I guess a better way to put that would be "face-to-face.")
Because an introvert can sell on the Internet, the rules are slightly different. Instead of someone buying because they like the salesperson - which in face-to-face selling is usually the case - on the Internet, they have to like the item being sold - period. That means you have to have a great product or service, great photographs, great copy and a great price. If you have those four things, you can't lose. Well, duh.
So what is the problem? Why is it so hard to sell on the Internet, and why is it especially difficult to sell on social media sites? In Part 2, we talked about some of the best ways to advertise and market on the Internet. In this article, we'll talk about some of the best ways to sell.
Where Did These People Come From?
First of all, many of the sellers on the Internet came from direct marketing backgrounds. I've been to the conferences, where the speaker pulls off his gold Rolex and waves it around, then shows a slide of his Ferrari or Aston Martin, then talks about his four houses and where his family spent their last vacation. You can look around and see the audience salivating. Then he says something to the effect, "If you'd like to be like me, line up to register for my $5,000 course. There are only 500 slots available and, once they're gone, that's it." And they line up like zombies.
Many of those people eventually left direct marketing - one wonders why, if it was so lucrative - and opened SEO companies. Now they're coaching the people who are selling on the Internet. So what you've got is an Internet that has been flooded with get-rich-quick people selling their get-rich-quick schemes to people who are desperate to get-rich-quick. Which is where the rumor came from that there was gold in them thar hills.
Second, social media sites are not for selling, they're for socializing. People don't come to a social media sites to be sold to - they come there to socialize. If you're trying to sell something on social media sites, then you're like the guy who shows up at a party thinking it's a networking event. You're the person everyone is trying to get away from. I hope this helps explain why your social media marketing hasn't worked: you've been trying to sell to people who aren't buying.
Third, if you want to learn how to sell on the Internet, get involved with eBay. EBay is a great place to cut your teeth. While eBay is pretty basic selling, the same rules that work there apply pretty much across the web.
I've come up with a formula that works on eBay about 98 percent of the time. But before I share that, let me give you some basic rules of selling on the Internet:
1. Have the right product or service.
That sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people are trying to sell apples to people who want to buy oranges. On eBay, the right products include anything that carries the tag "Vintage," "Antique" or "Classic." "Vintage" is anything about 50 years old, especially from the mid-20th century, that is collectible. "Antique" is any collectible 100 years or older, particularly items that belonged to famous people or were part of famous events. "Classic" applies more to style than age, especially as it refers to cars, movies, clothes, etc. It is something that never goes out of style and is highly collectible.
One category of items that is highly collectible, and therefore very salable, is 12" figures, also called 1/6 scale figures, also called action figures. One version is GI Joe; but there are far, far more expensive versions, such as movie and video game characters, which can sell for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. I have bought and sold a ton of these. The head alone of one of these figures can sell for $50 and up. Some sellers do nothing but produce custom heads. Others will buy an off-the-shelf figure and customize it, and then resell it for a profit. [See my article, "Parable of the 12-Inch Figures."]
Top-of-the-line electronic equipment sells well: old Apple laptops and iPhones, for instance; also, certain brands of speakers, vintage turntables, etc.; cameras and camera equipment; antique radios; etc. Anything that is top-of-the-line and in good condition will sell. What doesn't sell is equipment that is mainstream or low-end: old PC computers, televisions, CD players and CDs, everyday watches, etc. The exception to that are oddities: for example, in the world of automobiles, even though an Edsel was once considered a lemon, today collectors will pay a small fortune for one.
Art is by far the most difficult item to sell on the Internet. Some believe you have to physically view a picture in order to want to buy it. I'm not sure I agree with that, since I have bought a lot of photos and three-dimensional art without physically seeing them. I'm not sure what the key is, but it may be that art is something a buyer has to think about, and most eBay and other Internet sales are impulse buys.
Books sell based on rarity and demand, as well as condition. A first edition of a classic is highly salable. Books on certain subjects may be in high demand by college professors and collectors of that subject. I had a catalog from a 1980s art show on paintings from the World's Fair of 1893 that was extremely rare and which an art professor just had to have. That was a profitable sale.
One of the things that has made buying and selling on the Internet possible is PayPal. PayPal makes it easy to conduct business over the Internet. All you need is a bank account or credit card. I love PayPal. I remember the days on eBay when you had to accept checks, and you would have to wait until you received the check in the mail before you could ship the item. It was a long, drawn-out and sometimes risky process. Now it's relatively quick and safe.
I have friends that tell me they've sold expensive watches and other jewelry online. One thing that does not sell well are dishes, unless, perhaps, you have a popular pattern that has been discontinued. As someone once put it, "Just because something is old doesn't make it valuable." That is especially true of old bric-a-brac.
Some of the least salable items are those that were originally sold as "collectibles." Try selling your old Beanie Babies online - I don't care what someone told you they're worth. Anything that was sold as a "collectible" means the market is probably flooded with them. What makes something valuable is its scarcity and its condition.
Some sports memorabilia are valuable and some are not. If an item belonged to a famous player and was used in a championship game, it's probably valuable. Just because a player is supposed to have signed something doesn't make it so. There are a lot of forged signatures floating around out there. Stay away from signed photographs - most of them are forged - unless you have substantial documentation, other than a certificate of authenticity, which generally isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
Whatever you do, if you think you may want to resell something later, save the box it came in. An original box can be worth almost as much as the item that came in it.
2. Take great photos.
If it's art, only show two photos: one of the full piece and one close-up of the best detail. If you show too many details, you give the buyer too many reasons not to buy it - and they are looking for reasons not to buy. For most other items, show as many details as possible.
EBay allows a dozen shots per item. That ought to be enough - but make sure they're all great shots. A bad shot just puts a doubt in the buyer's mind. And make sure you shoot them on a plain background or simple setting. I like to shoot things on my red coffee table. Red enhances the shot and draws attention to it in a sea of other items clamoring for attention. Be clever, but don't do anything that will take away from the item itself. [See our portfolio on Photography.]
3. Write good copy.
Be specific and to the point. Just give the facts. Don't make it flowery, but also don't write like you're composing a text message. Use good grammar and spelling. One sign that an ad has been placed by a foreigner - and a possible scammer - is their bad English. If you feel your item needs a story to sell it - and you have a very good one - go ahead and include that, but keep it short. Leave out the sentimental details that show how much the item means to you - no one cares. They're not buying your family, just its cast-offs. :) [See our portfolio on Copywriting.]
4. Have the right price.
This is the tricky part. You don't want to be too high or too low. So how do you decide on the right price?
Here's where my formula comes in, which I call my "10:1 Rule." I will look at what others are selling their versions of my item for, and how mine compares in quality and rarity. Then I will pick a price that is not the most expensive and not the cheapest - usually somewhere around the 75th percentile, depending upon how many others there are out there. Then I'll place my item out there and watch what happens. If people immediately start looking at it - which eBay will show you - then I know I have a hot item. If they start "watching" it - which means they save it to come back to later - then I know I have a good price.
10:1 Rule: If the number of people that have looked at an item, compared to the number that are "watching" it, stays at a 10-to-1 ratio (e.g., 30-to-3, 70-to-7, 200-to-20, etc.), then I know my price is spot-on and the item is going to sell. If that number goes up on the "looking" side, but the ratio on the "watching" side stays flat, then I know my price is too high. If it goes up on the "watching" side, but the "looking" side doesn't stay in ratio, then I know my price is too low and I need to raise it immediately. Just because an item sells quickly, however, doesn't mean I priced it too low. If those numbers stay in ratio as I have described, it is the right price, regardless of how quickly it sells. That just means you have a very hot item; but pricing it higher won't necessarily make you more money because it may kill interest in the item altogether.
I placed my old iPhone on eBay. There were a ton of them on there - in the hundreds of thousands! - so I thought, "What are the chances?" But I gave it a fair price. Within the first hour, a hundred people had looked at it, but only ten were watching it. That told me my price was right. Within the second hour, 200 people had looked at it and 20 were watching it. Within the third hour, it sold. The same thing happened with a fifteen-year-old Apple laptop. Some items are like that. My 10:1 Rule really does work.
Selling on the Internet means having a valuable product or service, knowing how to present it, knowing where to present it, and pricing it right. Angie's List is a site that is service-oriented but, like eBay, is pretty much across the board. There are other sites that are dedicated to one product (e.g., art) or one service (e.g., roofing companies). You'll just have to do a search to find the site(s) that are right for what you're selling.
But remember: social media sites are not the place to sell. They are, however, the place to influence people. And we'll get into that next time in Part 4.
Waitsel Smith, October 22, 2013
Creative Director, Creative Sharks
Atlanta, GA, USA
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