DFW WordPress MeetUp: BuddyPress: Social Networking in Box

This past weekend I gave a presentation on Buddypress to the Dallas/Ft. Worth WordPress MeetUp. Being spoiled by the size of meetups in the New York area for so long, I was pleasantly surprised to see DFW WordPress as one of the largest in the country. Dallas Rocks!

What is BuddyPress?

BuddyPress is a WordPress plugin that turns your site into a niche social network. That’s a lot of power and before any of you run right out and convert your blog of awesomeness into a social network of pointlessness, take time to think about your objectives first. There are a ton of excellent needs and reasons to use BuddyPress to take your site and turn it into the community it is begging to become. That’s the killer point: there needs to be a community underlying all of this. Maybe your’e focused on gardeners in Texas or stamp collectors in Des Moines or people around the world dealing with Cystic Fibrosis – if you have a community in mind then BuddyPress is an amazing tool because you can shape the community according to you/its needs. Take that Facebook (or Ning)!

The Presentation

Fashion, MeetUps, Twitter & eCommerce: lessons learned

Last night was the 10th installment of the Fashion 2.0 MeetUps I co-organize with Yuli Ziv. The MeetUps are just one of the projects run by the Style Coalition, which was co-founded by my wife Jean V Pratt, Yuli, her MyItThings co-founder Saar Paamoni and me. Yuli brought in an amazing panel to headline our topic for the evening: eCommerce in the fashion world. I think the MeetUp was our best ever as evidenced by the number of Tweets (before, during and after), audience engagement (many had notepads at the ready!) and even a bit of cheering at the end! It was also the 1st in our new home, the W Hotels. Here are some lessons learned from the evening:

The Panel

The Lessons

Online & Offline selling must act as a cohesive unit

It’s no longer one vs the other. To be successful, stores must coordinate with their web counterparts to ensure a consistent message and be where the customer is (which often means both places). The key is to highlight and take advantage of the strengths of both: touch and experience offline and sight and selection online, for example. All 4 panelists echoed this in varying degrees.

Cooperate with Channels to the extent that you can

Your customers all have their preferences as to where they want to find and experience you. Embrace that. Know that you can’t completely control every experience where your brand lives. Be aware of it. Make big changes when necessary. Accept some things you may not completely embrace….if that’s what is making your customer a happy one.

Engage your customer and fans

Bluefly really connects to their customer base via a blog done right. Tory Burch is discovering that her fans love being a small part of her world via Tory on Twitter. In the midst of the MeetUp, people were even Twiterring commentary and questions. They want to engage with brands they care about. These 4 brands get that. Their execution may be different and their deep understanding of the ways to achieve it is still evolving, but the direction is clear.

Search still rules…and what that means

Organic or paid, no matter. Customers look for you via search. Better not ignore that/them or you’ll lose them. To a person, everyone emphasized how key that remains. It’s just a way of doing business.

Don’t fight it

Tory Burch is obviously a part of the Gilt, Rue-la-la, etc. sales channel but figured they could do it too. Enter Tory Burch Private Sale, a success. Bare Necessities embraces traffic and exposure from any avenue (even it seems counter-productive) if that’s how the customer wants to find them. Lacoste makes their emails less promotional and more interactive and doesn’t fret about change, even as that channel evolves away form it’s original use case. Theme: flexibility…or die.

Conclusions

10 years ago, everyone predicted the demise of brick and mortar retailing. Not the case, obviously. In fact, the overriding theme from last night seemed to be: You must look at your business from a holistic point of view through the lens of your customer’s eye. What do they want? Where are they? How do I engage them? It’s less a question of old versus new than it is a much more complete experience from the moment a design for a shoe is conceived to the time it is put on a foot heading out for a night on the town….and all the pointing, clicking, oohh’ing and ahh’ing in between.

The state of earning money in online fashion publishing

The Golden Goose everyone talks about: How do I make money online? This dilemma plagues many minds in the active online fashion publishing space. Many responses (correctly) begin with “Do Good Stuff” or variants. Sure content is king. Sure traffic is important. But the model breaks down for many quality publishers. Unless your traffic stats are through the roof, you are likely facing the proverbial uphill climb to produce more than a $32 check per month from one of the established ad networks. Many publishers in the online fashion space (whose names aren’t Vogue or InStyle) have become real influencers in their own right. Presuming you “do good stuff” i.e. you create quality content, is there hope for you?

The Landscape

There is no shortage of content in the online world of fashion. Quality content? Now that’s a different story. You can roughly break down this segment into the following categories. Note: I’m not trying to shower link love here and being mentioned carries no meaning, other than serving as example.

You can break it down much further into little niche categories. At last count in my reader, there are over 800 blogs in style, fashion, and beauty that publish content at least once/week. Some are good. Some are great. Some are full time jobs, others are hobbies. The spectrum of quality is complete.

What are Your Options?

How you make money depends somewhat on factors like traffic, reputation, design/presentation, reader engagement, type of content/focus. Still, traditionally your options have been:

  • serve ads on your site from an established network e.g Glam, Federated, or Burst
  • throw up some Google Adsense ads
  • go sell ad space on your site yourself
  • generate commission revenue from affiliate links to products you mention via Linkshare, Commission Junction, etc.
  • be a “spokes-blogger” or do pay-per-post -type content

That covers most options. The rest are basically variations on that theme.

The Dilemma

Let’s throw out the majority of sites form this discussion and limit it to the ones who’s editors give serious focus to content creation. These are the full-timers or close to full-timers. They research their posts, post often multiple times per day, pay attention to design, engage their readers via comment back-n-forth, and are active spreading their own fashion gospel on Twitter, Facebook, and anywhere their loyal readers want to hang. You might think that this narrowly defined segment might have the revenue game down pat. Not even close. While a select few make enough money to live on and an even smaller crowd make enough to run full-fledged companies, there are still a lot of quality publishers who have real influence scraping by.

This group still has the “haves” and “havenots”. Some generate massive stats and make a go via the traditional ad routes (a rare, if awesome feat). Others have such cache (well established offline names or connections) which allow them to garner high-value ad spends form well heeled brands. The dilemma is that they all have very loyal and consistent readership that is often hyper-targeted over which they exert decent influence. Many of these sites, with traffic that is respectable but not award winning, cannot make money. The ad networks often take most of the money for themselves and the publisher ends up with minuscule CPM’s wondering why they bother. Affiliate CTR’s are usually pretty high (readers respond well to quality content) but, unless you are pushing tons of product with a site designed to optimize this, your overall revenue generation won’t be impressive. Often these quality sites have a staff of one…the editor. Selling ad space and doing outreach are very tough.

The Solution

All hope is not lost. In Part 2, I will throw out a few ideas on how quality online fashion publisher might have a go at making more than lip-gloss money. Dollars continue to flow to the online space and there’s no reason why a publisher that has the attention of a niche set of readers can’t be properly compensated for all that hard work.

An appeal to Affiliate Manager programs

Disclaimer: This is not a post on how to make money as an affiliate. I am not an affiliate marketing expert.

In fact, that’s the point of this post. We make use of affiliate programs as a revenue enhancement to our sites Gift Girl and Style Observer. The programs we use are wholly unsuited for the way we use them. Here’s how and why we use them and what we’d like to see.

Content First Affiliate Links

On Style Observer, Jean creates content that often features articles of clothing and how to wear them. She always starts form a concept and finds the right pieces to create the look. The pieces are found around the web on various online clothing catalogs and can come from the smallest boutique to the largest department store. Only after all the content has been created does she even see if the pieces are eligible for affiliate revenue generation. From a business perspective, this creates extremely high conversion rates, as you might imagine, because the advice she gives is genuine and not created to move merchandise. Her readers know this and she generates a lot of trust as a result.

How the Big Boy Affiliate programs work

Linkshare, Commission Junction and Google Affiliate are the Big 3 of the affiliate manager world but there are tons of networks and managers out there. These programs are all set up to facilitate featuring the products merchants want you to sell, not the other way around. They all do things like emailing all the latest banners to feature or product links to throw into a post. They go so far as to provide all the code you need to quickly add to any of your content. That’s great and may work well for those who don’t mind a quick scan of the latest offerings to determine suitability in the pursuit of some commissions, but it doesn’t work for the person who starts with a post concept first , not products.

Their catalogs are usually available via ftp and sometimes you can even browse the catalog in it’s native form (Linkshare has this feature but by their own admission, it doesn’t work very well) But once you find the item you want, you need to generate a link tied to your account and insert it into your content appropriately. This usually means reformatting and a bunch of copying and pasting because they usually present the link in a code format that they prefer….not you. I think you get the picture that when affiliate sales aren’t the genesis of the post, you have a big hassle on your hands. This is not conducive to genuine content creation. Ironic, given it’s probably the most effective way to generate a sale.

You made a Sale!

So, the content was genuine and convincing and a loyal reader took action. Congrats! How’s that affiliate sales management part of your business going? You didn’t get an email notifying you when a sale was made because none of them offer that functionality. So you log on as frequently as time allows to check performance.

Linkshare performance (Click to enlarge)
Linkshare performance (Click to enlarge)

This snapshot of a report from Linkshare shows just how bad things are:

  • No item description (I don’t have sku’s memorized yet!)
  • No explanation for each line (look how many charges on 2/16 were seemingly reversed)
  • The data is wrong: there is a positive number for clicks, sales and commissions but the EPC & Orders/Click values are zero

In short, this is a business manager’s nightmare. Imagine the additional work just to be able to answer questions like “What are our best selling items this month”. Unlike the hard-core affiliate pro’s, we often link to a product once and that product’s lifespan might be measured in weeks.

A Plea for Help

We have a few requests. If you can’t swing these, then my gut tells me it’s a start-up begging for a business plan and some seed money!

  • Create a system where a publisher can browse a merchant site directly and insert a fully customized affiliate link into their own blogging system quickly and easily. NOTE: Amazon has come the closes to this with their affiliate tool bar.
  • Provide program management tools that aren’t suited for the affiliate pro who just sets up coupon farm and pimps whatever your merchants crank out that much.
  • Enable reporting that isn’t built for data freaks but business managers: product names not sku’s, sale notification emails and digests, etc.
  • Go crazy and throw in some demographic data on clicks and sales (will settle, however,  for items 1-3)

This has been our affiliate program experience so far. I am really hoping that someone shows me how much we are getting wrong. Please tell me there’s a solution out there to all these problems.

How I manage my Twitter world: process & results

I have been on Twitter for over a year now. You can follow me here. I am a huge fan of the service but I am very particular and steadfast with my own personal “terms of usage”. Why? Like many, as much as I’d like to hang around and chat, I don’t quite have the time for it. But, I like to network and the benefits it brings. Clearly, Twitter is a perfect tool for that, provided you show some discipline.

1st… I define success on Twitter in the following manner:

  1. I need to learn from using it
  2. I need to meet people (virtually & physically) that will add value to my world
  3. I need to be able to add value to people’s worlds
  4. I can’t waste a lot of time trying to succeed in 1-3

That’s it. Success is not # of followers or tweets or whatever.

So this is how I personally achieve that:

  1. I thoroughly review every person I follow by:
    1. Scanning several pages of their Tweets
    2. Checking out their website (minus points for no site – a bit unfair for those w/o)
    3. Reading their Bio (minus for none…c’mon, give us a Bio!)
    4. Quickly & lo0sely interpret their stats
      1. Follower/follow ratio – does it appear a bot is involved?
      2. # updates – are they adding value?
      3. @ frequency – are they engaging or preaching?
    5. Are they relevant to my world & business. If not are they so interesting I should follow them regardless?
  2. Having accomplished #1, I can make a follow decision. The key is that I want my “stream” to be as high quality as possible
  3. Tweet practices
    1. I feel I must combine sincere engagement with value adding to the stream. That means starting conversations as well as simply providing information
    2. I also feel it important to add small doses of a more personal side of me to give myself a human face and some character, otherwise I become a bot as well.
    3. Never personally attack, frequently disagree…with respect. It pays huge dividends.
    4. I generate at least half my follow list from @ replies to people whom I respect greatly. There’s a huge correlation to quality that way.
  4. Important: Every few days I cull the herd. It’s a combination of unfollowing those whose Tweets you have just come to find of no value (regardless of topic) and going through my following list and removing those I have no recollection of ever seeing an update from. Sounds a bit harsh but it sure does produce one quality stream.

So… How are my results? Well, I was able to find…or, rather stumble upon, evaluate and hire our PR firm ( @missusp’s shop). Home run. I have been able to find development work and creative as well ( @mikegermano’s shop). I have found several business deals and been approached by several others. I have been contacted for old and new media stories in various areas. This isn’t a backslapping session. It’s just the result of sage advice I read on the wise blogs of some wise people I follow religiously (@dherman76, @queenofspain, @aaronstrout, to name a few)

The bottom line is that being genuine, sincere, thorough and yourself pays huge dividends on Twitter.

What are your methods of success as you define them?

Using Buddypress to create a niche community: Bugle Notes

One of my side projects has been working with the creators of Buddypress ( a side project itself of the über-popular WordPress platform) to create a niche social community for Graduates and Cadets of West Point. As an ’87 Grad, a few of my classmates and I were discussing that, whereas we were all fans of Facebook (you can see my profile here), it was hard to have a sense of community there given its size and diversity. Most of the discussions relevant to us as West Pointers were lost on our greater friend-base.

Enter Buddypress. Yes, there’s Ning and a newcomer – the Grou.ps platform, and I evaluated them all. I found them all too constricting. I’m such a huge fan of WordPress’s ease of use and flexibility that when I heard the folks up in Vancouver were working on a framework for building your own community on top of WordPress, I dove in. Buddypress came out of alpha a few months ago and will leave beta in a matter of days. If you have know anything about WordPress and have a desire to organize a community – you owe it to yourself to kick the Buddypress tires.

I will be writing a series of posts discussing lessons learned from a usability and engagement stand point with our site Bugle Notes
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