Saturday, April 13, 2013

~Essential Tips for SL Merchants~


I am taking a break from promoting my wares this post to ~hopefully~ pass along some useful tips for those SL merchants who could use a little advice to improve sales, enhance their brand's image and increase customer satisfaction.

SL merchant tips from Jeanette DoobieWhy am I offering these tips?  Wouldn't I be giving my "competitors" an advantage and risk losing customers myself?  First of all, I firmly believe that the better my fellow merchants present themselves, the better all the rest of us come across.  We all win!  Also, I am not picking on any particular merchants or suggesting anyone is being lazy or complacent.  I am simply offering some advice that may be new to some - particularly newer sellers to Second Life.  We can all use some helpful tips now and then - or reminders about what we can do to make our products, stores and catalogs even better.  Hey, even I could use a hefty dose of advice, so I am always grateful when someone else offers tips like these that help me along.  This is my "thank you" to those generous business owners who have shared with me in the past and my "pay it forward" to those who will be able to benefit from it here and maybe even pass it along to others.

Ooooh, where do I start?

Let's skip over all the stuff having to do with design and product development.  That's all you!  I am not here to suggest you create in any particular way, use any particular methods or generate any particular line of products.  Just refrain from stealing content and make sure you do your absolute best to test your product thoroughly in all situations possible so that when your customer receives it, it works properly.

Here are the topics I will be discussing in this article:

    Inventory panel from Firestorm viewer

When you hear the chime, turn the page.  ;)

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Thoroughly document your products
Always include explicit instructions in a notecard that explain how everything included in the package works and what you can do with it.  If it is a design that is meant to be compatible with another product, include a reference that explains how it works with that product and maybe even where a customer can get that other product (landmarks are great) just in case she has purchased yours without realizing that something else is required.  We'll go over how to avoid that a little more shortly.  You can also use your instruction notecard other links that point your customer back to your in-world store or contain a link to your SL Marketplace shop.  This will help those who liked their purchase find you more quickly and become loyal repeat customers.  You can also include a landmark item in the package so that one of the things that your customer sees with their purchase is how to get back to you to buy more!  If you do not have an in-world store (get one! lol) you can create a separate notecard that contains your Marketplace links and title it something like "Links to My Store."  You will probably want to be careful not to include so many excess items like LMs and NCs that your customer is overwhelmed with items that are not part of their new outfit or house or hair she just bought from you.  Keep your information concise and limit it to as few extra items as possible.  Your customer will not mind having that extra LM or NC around for reference - and if she does, she can always delete it from her inventory - no harm done.  However, if she wants to know more about the product or where she can find you - she will be disappointed if you don't provide that information in an easily accessible place.  I don't know anyone who enjoys using the SL search function or looking up obscure listings in a browser's search engine.


Make your package contents clear and well organizedWhat else is included in the package that can be optimized to enhance the impression on your customer?  How about the items themselves?  Think about when your customer receives that package full of your goodies.  Is it well-organized?  Are there too many items?  Can your customers easily determine what each item is and how it should be used - and with which other items it is used?  This is a common situation I find myself in - especially with outfits that have lots of options and alternatives.  If your outfit or other creation has a lot of different combinations of items packaged in the same box (options are very good, so don't shy away from including those great parts) consider explaining in your documentation which items would go well with others.  More importantly, label those items in inventory to descriptively list what they are used for.  Be consistent with your labeling so that similar options appear together.  Make it as clear as possible what each item is and whether or not it is part of the base product or one of several options included.  Look at the list in your own inventory and ask yourself if it is clear and easy to understand.  Will your customer be tempted to accidentally use too many layers or attachments at once?  Does any item look out of place in the list?  Can any items be renamed in a way that would improve its clarity in your package?


SL attachment point prankWhy is there is shoe in my headOne thing that isn't obvious in the inventory list is where an attachment will be linked.  Particularly for outfit designers, it is always a good idea to make sure you know where each attachable item will actually attach on an avatar and make sure it works appropriately.  If possible, try to attach the item to yourself or your test avatar and attach other items that go with one particular "look" to different parts so that if all of them are "worn" at the same time there is less risk of accidentally detaching another item.  On that note, if you have different options that would attach in place of others in your package, assign them to the same attachment points - so that if the option is "worn" then it will detach the item it is meant to replace.  With rigged mesh items, attachment points can be a whole different issue.  Since those items will "snap" into place no matter where they are attached, it is feasible to set the default attachment point to a lesser-used attachment point so that your avatar has more options left open for where other items can be attached.  At the same time, it is usually nice to assign objects to attach in the post that makes the most sense.  The bottom line here is that it is a debate you should have with yourself before you release the product.  Whichever points you choose, just make sure you have thought it through and considered your customers' probable needs and desires.  Try not to just assign points to their default or some random one with no rhyme or reason.


Make the boxes stop
One of my biggest pet peeves with purchased items is receiving packages that have extra work for me to perform in order to use the product.  Granted, a lot of products need to be attached or rezzed and then adjusted, which is fine and expected, but I'm talking about being delivered a package and finding that I have more boxes to unpack and more organizing to do myself.  I'm not lazy and neither are the rest of your customers (for the most part) but none of us want to do the work that you could have easily done yourself in order to start using your product.  Most of the time, we are so excited about our purchase that we want to dive in and start using it right away!  If you are not a scripter, you may not be able to write yourself a robust unpacking script that does all the fancy stuff that some merchants use.  Forgiven!  :)  However, there's plenty you can do to make life easier for the hyper and excited folks who just want to dig in.  The first thing your customers will get when they purchase your product is the package.  Whether this is delivered from your vendor in-world or from the delivery system on the SL Marketplace, your customer will receive "something" and what that "something" is is your first impression after the customer has made the commitment to give your product a try.  If the first thing your customer gets is a box that needs to be unpacked, that's work you didn't do that your customer now has to.  In-world vendors are capable of delivering products to your customer's inventory in its own folder ready for use and ready to be moved around by the customer within her inventory however she sees fit.  A boxed package, on the other hand, need to be rezzed and unpacked before all this happens - and if the box is an item, it would likely have shown up in the inventory folder for Objects - so the unpacked folder will show up in the root of the list - so already there is clutter.  One of the most frustrating means of delivery is receiving a folder (this looks promising) but inside it is just a box that needs to be unpacked.  Why was it even in the folder?   That's work on top of work.  I want to play!  Some of you are thinking, "But that vendor system I paid mega L$ for will only deliver single items so I have to box things up first."  While that investment may have cost you a lot of Lindens, it is not helping your business.  Find another way to deliver products to your customers in-world.  There are plenty of vendor systems, even those tied to online database features that are capable of delivering folders of inventory, run in low-lag operation, don't have a lot of prims and can present your products nicely to your customers.  Search the Marketplace, in-world and online and you will find plenty of vendor products and services to choose from.  As for Marketplace deliveries, it has been quite a long time now since the SLM has implemented Direct Delivery for all vendors and customers to use.  There is no longer the need for "Magic Box" boxed deliveries!  Take advantage of switching over to this method and create a delivery folder that your customer will appreciate receiving and being able to use right away.  Sometimes, you will need to box a few odds and ends that your customer will be required to unpack.  This is not the end of the world, so if you know you absolutely have to then don't sweat it.  I buy lots of products that include separate option packs or developer kits that I have to unpack separately.  In these cases, I am happy those bonus items are not all mixed in with the core product I got in the root folder.  See?  Compromise!  ;)  When there are items that need to be unpacked - because it is 100% unavoidable (right?) then it is a good idea to make sure your box/rezzing/unpacking method is not just reliable but also customer-friendly.  Keep in mind the same things you would when delivering from an in-world vendor.  If the un-boxing process is overly-complicated or just not explained clearly, that leads to frustration.  If your customer needs to wear/attach the object, consider stating that in the object's description.  If it needs to be rezzed put that somewhere in the title along with a clear description of the product that is contained inside the box.  If possible, automate the process and deliver to the customer a nice folder with more aptly-named items.  Everybody's happy and the extra work you put in will reflect very well on you as a considerate merchant.


Panodras Box this is notOkay, so we are good with the products, how they are listed, how they are delivered and how they are documented to the customer who has spent her hard-earned Linden$ on them.  But this doesn't help win that first-time customer, does it?  That's what your ad graphic/texture and any listing descriptions you write are meant to accomplish.  In-world, you are not likely going to have the extra text space to write your product's life story, so we'll address the Marketplace in a moment, but if your product would benefit from extra displayed information and you have the prim space, etc. consider posting that information nearby the vendor and at least make it available for your customers to see.  However... and this is important... if there is essential information your customer needs to know right out of the gate, you really really REALLY should include it right on the main texture where your product is sold.  Your customer is not likely going to buy an item from a vendor that hasn't rezzed properly (what's in this thing, anyway?) but she might purchase from a vendor that is rezzed - thinking she is buying one thing - when she can't see the unrezzed sign nearby that explains it is intended for use with another product that she does not own!  Clarify the essential information you need to convey as concisely as possible on the main ad to avoid that awkward situation when you have to explain why your customer is up the creek without a paddle - or you have to shell out for a monetary return (depending on your store policy and merchant philosophy).  The Marketplace and some other online services allow you to elaborate on these details in several areas so take advantage of this to fully describe your product and all that it comes with, does and doesn't provide.  Plus, if you are creative about your descriptions, you can really enhance your brand and draw your customers into your "world" where you can help encourage them to continue the experience you have created for them.  I won't say anything about your ad designs - that's all you - but do keep in mind your customer and design for that person as much as for you and your brand.


Complete SL ad texture fail
Although I have been fairly hands-off with your design choices, I do have to say this - and it is essential - know the basics of computer graphics at the very least and put them into practice each and every time!  If you do not have a grasp on a few very fundamental concepts it is vital that you make an effort to learn them and put them into practice or customers will run away fast and far.  One of the most important (and for some reason, one of the most commonly overlooked) graphic considerations to keep in mind is aspect ratio, and in some cases, image size.  What this means to the uninitiated is that your graphic ad image should match the proportion of width and height to whatever medium it is being applied to/displayed on.  I won't go into a lengthy lecture on all the techniques of matching aspect ratio here, but I will explain that if you take a screenshot on a relative wide display and apply that image directly to the square face of a prim, you can expect to see the image distorted so that all the subjects in the picture appear as tall/skinny/stretched/squished - however you want to describe it.  In presenting your product, your ad should depict it in the correct aspect ratio - no exceptions.  For those that may believe the change in aspect ratio is an "artistic" choice, I can assure you that you are almost certainly making the wrong choice.  If the ratio is off, fix it.  Otherwise, you will appear as an amateur and your customer base is likely to shrink dramatically.  Why would I expect the product to be crafted with any more care and quality than the ad?  If your ad and other support images are done right, your customer will have a clear understanding of exactly what they are buying and will feel more confident in you as a creator and in their purchase decision of your product(s).


Just get a feel for pricing and soon it will flow
Like your designs and your ads, your prices are something you will have to come to terms with on your own.  There are advantages and disadvantages to many pricing philosophies, but try to figure out which lines work at what levels and maintain consistency within your catalog that reflects your brand image flatteringly.  It is easy to under- or over-price your merchandise based on your own whims, but study the market and most of all, be honest with yourself while not being too critical of your own products.  Be fair while you consider demand.  Remember that the short-term may be one thing and a lasting product line with the best return for your extended earnings is another.  Adjust pricing of existing items when the time is right.  Sales, promotions and offers?  Yes!  Permanent discounts, clearance pricing and blowouts should happen only when the time is right.


Nobody is perfect
Mistakes happen.  No matter who you are - top couture fashionista or first-time gesture-maker - you will screw up and will have to make good with anyone who may have been affected.  Also, your customers will mess up.  Inevitably, some will purchase products they can't use no matter how carefully you label the ad.  Be sure your policies are clearly stated wherever you set up shop and if possible, include them in your packages as a reminder for those who have purchased from you.  No matter what your policies are or how you choose to implement them, remember that mistakes happen and even the most well-intended customer may turn to you for help.  Those customers also carry with them your best marketing tool - word of mouth.  Chances are, a dissatisfied customer will carry as much bad publicity about your brand as a happy one would carry good publicity.  Not every problem will have an easy solution or a beneficial outcome, but the point is to put in the effort and issue help when you can.  Support your wider customer base and it will support you right back!  For the most part, if you put in the concerted effort and try to make good with your customers, they will be very patient and forgiving with you as a flawed "human being" avatar digital person thingy.  It is also important to accept that within yourself.  I make mistakes all the time.  Sometimes SL brings up difficulties on its own and sometimes I am entirely at fault for something that has gone wrong.  It's okay!  Make good and move on.  Hey, I bet you can catch several spelling and grammar errors right here in this blog entry that I never caught!  OMG!  I'm not perfect!  The drama!  ;)


WTF does this meanOne of the most "difficult" barriers to work around in SL is the language barrier.  Although the predominant language spoken and written is Second Life is English, there are lots of languages making an appearance all over the grid.  Of course I am not telling you you should market your products only in English - or even to include English at all!  I tip my hat to those who include several languages in their ads and instructions.  Kudos to you - you are going above and beyond to allow you products to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.  I am also without a doubt that the speakers of those languages also appreciate that you have made available to them a more familiar and inviting experience.  Whatever your language choices - just do what you do!  However - and this is the important part - do it well!  Check your grammar and spelling.  Proof read your instructions.  Make sure your ad is presented professionally.  Creative license aside, you can instantly make a bad impression on your potential customers with poorly-conceived text.  It is, generally, understood that language barriers can be difficult to overcome, but if you want to make the best impression possible, then whatever you commit to your ads and listings should be crafted with care.  Chances are, even the most forgiving of residents will see "Do trouser for cover legs" as a poor reflection on your business.  I suspect that even the tried-and-true Web-based translators are not the best methods of gaining an effective translation of your text.  I recommend that if you do have something to say in a language you are not perfectly fluent in that you seek the services of someone who is fluent in that language and who is very well trusted to perform the translation for you.  It can greatly enhance the perception of your product and your brand.  For some, it may even be a good idea to have someone else who has a thorough grasp of such things to double-check the text you have written in your own native tongue to make sure it appears professional and appealing.


Visit my store on the SL Marketplace and see more
Branding is still okay when making your listings!
On the technical side, are your online product listings friendly to search algorithms and the general searching population?  Let's say, for example, you have a listing for a wonderful skin set and it is called "::MyBrand:: Jane - Tan version 1."  Even though you may have categorized this item under the appropriate subgenre for the site, it may not get very many hits in a search based on its name.  You may get some views based on the tags you added to the search field, but having the actual name in the heading will improve search results dramatically.  Just by adding "skin" into the title somewhere would help folks find and recognize your product more easily.  Plus, if your item shows up in a list of ad cycles with a lot of other random products, the viewer will understand immediately that the product shown is a skin - not an outfit, hair or some other un-included item that may be in the ad picture.  Be accurate and descriptive as best you can.  There's still plenty of room to be creative and have a signature style while employing these tactics.  Be sure all of your listing elements are just as clear and full of keywords that will get the attention of the appropriate audience.  Any one of those things could be the tipping-point that generates the sale.  When you do fill out your keywords in the tags section, be sure all of the words accurately describe something about your product and make it easier for someone searching any substantially-related term to find your item in the listing.  You aren't doing yourself or anyone else any favors by adding unrelated terms in the keywords field and that may even be against the rules for some merchant services.  For example, if you are trying to sell a cute new outfit and you type "sex" into the tags section over and over, you are not likely win views by people who are all that likely to buy your product.  Keep your terms to related words - even misspelled versions of them in case someone types the misspelling into their search.  They will still be able to find you!


Be sure to label maps clearly to guide and assist
Interactive maps can be very handy to help customers find things.
In-world you have a little less direct control over the effectiveness of the viewer-based search, but you can employ these same concepts to help you out, nonetheless.  What is more important on the grid is that your store layout is set up in a shopper-friendly way.  Reduce lag as much as you possibly can.  Do you really need those particle effects cascading down all over the place?  Do you have to have dozens of high-lag scripted objects running all the time?  Do you need thousands and thousands of purely decorative mesh, sculpted and flexi objects all over the place?  If you exit your viewer, clear the cache and return to your store and it takes an annoyingly long time to rez all the way, then you will understand what each of your customers is going through each time they come by for a shopping visit.  The quicker and easier it is to rez everything available for purchase and those decorative elements around the shop the more likely those customers will stick around to do more shopping and come back some other time to shop more.  Plus, it greatly increases the chances that during each visit, that shopper will buy more, faster!  Some people even go to the length of only displaying ad textures that are no larger than 512x512 pixels.  Although I much prefer to present the sharpest, most detailed image possible at 1024x1024, those conservative marketers do have a point!  Those textures will download and rez faster - increasing the chances that visitors will see more product in less time.  Okay, so it's advice I myself tend to ignore, but there is also something to be said about having the highest-quality imagery available to best showcase your products.  It's a trade-off and you will have to decide which is best for you.  I would go as far as to say that using too conservative image sizes will begin to detract from the overall visual appeal of your product.  Customers want to see the item as close as they can to what it will look like for them, so if the resolution is too poor, they will not likely get a grasp on the quality of its features.  Whether the item itself has a high quality appeal or not does not make any difference.  If that is left unclear to the customer, it is more likely your buyer will pass it up rather than spend anything to take the chance that it might be good.


Give your customers exactly what they would expect if not more
Nothing will trigger disappointment faster than not delivering what is promised - or implied.  Be sure your item includes everything it claims to at the level of quality depicted.  Granted, a customer who has very low graphics settings, a high-lag connection and a graphics card or computer that displays Second Life poorly will probably not see the purchased item as shown in your ad image - that is, unless you used the same, or similar, settings to take the photo for your ad.  It is common for this discrepancy to occur but it is not "unexpected" by the general community, not forbidden by the terms and conditions of the platform and pretty much the standard practice among merchants grid-wide.  The ethical barrier that this seems to sit safely behind is built on the premise that the items shown in their polished glory in ad photos taken with top-notch equipment have been taken with the same software that is available to all Second Life users and can be achieved.  The customer could get the same look as in the ad photo if the conditions on her machine are up to par.  However, this barrier is broken if the image shows the product in a non-native environment.  For example, if a designer uses a very robust 3D drafting software platform to create an intricate mesh hat, then uses that same program to put the hat on a gorgeously-sculpted model with high-caliber lighting features, reflections and all sorts of whistles and bells that make it look very sharp and appealing, then renders the environment to use as the ad image - that is deceptive.  No SL user would be able to achieve the same look and quality, no matter which viewer she uses or what settings and graphics features she has.  She would not even be getting the raw mesh object that was used in the drafting program.  Not only does this oppose good ethical practices, but it is also possible grounds for legal trouble or punitive action.  Aside from that, no one will be happy to receive that product knowing the quality shown could never be achieved.  It is unlikely that the customer will want to be disappointed again by another one of your products.  In the grey area of this subject is the use of photo manipulation software or image enhancement tools to alter the image to make it more appealing in the ad picture.  This will be your judgment call, since there is no clear-cut answer.  I will offer, though, that the practice is very common to some degree.  Although it may be as common as it is and abused quite often, the best thing to keep in mind is - will the customer be happy with the product she is delivered or does the picture mislead her into thinking she is getting something much better than she actually is?  It's a fine line but one worth thinking about before marketing a product.


Put on that sandwich board and market your lineThe last, but certainly not the least important, item I will discuss is promotion and marketing your product to grow awareness of it, you and your brand.  Nobody is going to buy your items if they don't know it exists!  Whether you spend your money on marketing and promotion of your products or you find inexpensive or free ways to do it, it is vital to increase awareness to increase sales.  Linden Lab allows you to pay for in-world classified ads and featured listings within the Marketplace.  You could even go as far as purchasing banner ads on Websites or other online marketing services.  You also have the option of creating awareness by starting your own blog and generating interest in your brand (ha!) or creating your own Website that promotes your business.  Easier and cheaper still, you can promote in-world by asking friends to showcase your items as they traverse the grid.  You could also participate in hunts, contests, giveaways and issue prizes at social events around the SL globe.  You may not want to give your items away to everyone who walks by, but handing out some freebies to select residents could get your goods seen while they use your products while shopping at other establishments, partying at their favorite club, or any number of other opportunities where others might ask them, "Hey, where did you get that?"  Be social yourself!  Go places where you can be seen with your wares.  Don't be pushy, but if someone asks you about something you can help provide them, your opportunity could lead to a sale, a loyal customer, or any number of frequent shopper-friends that resident may employ to come shop your store with them.  A lot of expense you will find in marketing is not so much monetary, but takes up time.  There is no quick and cheap solution, so you have to put in the effort or shell out the cash.  Either way, you need to give in order to get.  Unless you strike gold by stumbling upon an eager customer base with high demand that storms your storefront and keeps on coming, you will have to work hard at what you do.  You still won't be able to guarantee that your work or money will pay off in the end, but the trick to success is not getting discouraged and keeping at it.  Over time, your products are likely to improve, your marketing will get better, your brand will grow and your sales will increase.


Hermits have a harder time building loyal relationshipsI leave you with one bonus tip: be available.  Of course you will probably not be able to address every problem, request, invitation or conversation immediately, but try to stay close as frequently as you can.  Put your (resident) name out there and invite people to contact you for whatever reason they feel they need or want to.  Be ready to help your customers and take criticism as well as compliments.  An absentee merchant is sure to annoy anyone who might have appreciated even a brief response.  Unless you have hired a staff to do this work for you, you need to be reachable by those who you expect to be your customer base.  Even if you rise in the ranks and begin to sell your products like crazy, you can greatly enhance customer relations if you - yourself - stay actively involved and engaged with your customers.  Being "untouchable" may keep you from having to deal with any unpleasantness that may come your way but it is a sure way to sprout negativity about you and alienate those who are spending their hard-earned money on the digital content you make available.  Get in there and mingle!  Answer questions as clearly, quickly and responsibly as you can.  Get involved.  There are so many friends out there you don't even know yet!  One of them is Jeanette Doobie and she would love to hear from you.  ;)  I welcome all your comments, gripes, suggestions, arguments and everything else. See you around SL!


Jeanette Doobie

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