Marketing is a constantly evolving thing. Just a few years ago, the Chicago chapter of the nonprofit Buddhist organization I belong to, Jewel Heart, could spread the word with an ad in the Chicago Tribune or the weekly Chicago reader.

Now, things are totally different. Advertising in publications is less and less effective. The Reader and the Tribune are a fraction of the size they once were. Craigslist has been of no use to us. How can we publicize our nonprofit organization? Here are some things I’ve learned the hard way from my own experience, and from a real professional, Stacey Recht of Hubbard Street Dance.

1. Word of Mouth.

This is the number one most successful way of attracting people who will visit us and stick around for our classes. People want to meet someone who has been to your facility/group and they want a personal recommendation. Simply telling members to tell their friends and acquaintances, on Facebook and in the “real world,” is the single best marketing strategy you can pursue.

2. Yelp.

Yelp performs some of the same functions I mentioned above–you get real people recommending a real cause, business, group, or other entity. Create a Yelp page for your group. Then “claim” it by clicking on the small link prompting you to claim it as your business. Fill out the form asking for some basic information, and prompting you to verify your phone number. Then, upload photos and information. Finally, you should tell your members to post reviews. Our page is still a work in progress, but you can check it out here.

3. Facebook

You probably do this already: You have a Facebook page. But flesh it out as much as possible with basic information. And encourage members to post information on a periodic basis.

4. Facebook ads

Facebook’s pay-per-click ads are affordable and highly customizable. By affordable, I mean you set a budget that specifies the maximum amount you are willing to spend in a given month. Even $10 or $20 per month can get a cash-strapped nonprofit a lot of clicks. You can also target your ad to your local geographic area, which is probably where most of your visitors come from.

Tip: Make sure all your ads have a call to action. Include a verb such as “explore” or “join.” It makes your ad more inviting and more likely to get a response.

5. Direct marketing with complementary businesses

You probably have businesses in your local area that are not direct competitors but that provide goods and services roughly complementary to your own. Put together a simple flyer and knock on their door; ask to post your flyer, and offer to publicize their facility at your own.

6. Do a Groupon or other daily deal

If you are looking for members or customers, consider offering your services or products at Groupon or one of the other daily deal sites. The big three are Groupon, LivingSocial, and Google Offers. But there are plenty of other options. This is not a moneymaking prospect. But it can get you return visits and build loyalty for the future. I say it’s not moneymaking because any one of the daily deal sites will want you to offer at 50 percent of the regular price. Then, they’ll take at least 50 percent of the proceeds. So you don’t end up with much money, but since you’re a nonprofit, this can still work out as a plus.

So far, our efforts are paying off. I’ll keep you posted on how our own marketing campaign is going. If you have any more tips on ways to spread the word either online or off, please pass them along.

Here’s my idea of the day. You can have it for free (for what it’s worth): BookBox. It’s based on the Redbox movie rental system. I went to a Redbox last night and impressed my daughters: “Where does the movie come out of?”

So, at a time when bookstores are struggling, why not a BookBox? Put it next to the Redbox. Put in some best sellers as well as some literary award winners. Swipe your credit card, and out it comes. I walked past the old Borders on North State. All the awnings are still up but the place is totally empty…so sad.

The name “Book Box” is already being used at a wonderful place in Chicago. It’s actually one of my favorite bookstores: Shake, Rattle, and Read, on North Broadway. Here’s a good image of the store at night. They specialize in pulp fiction.

Shake, Rattle, and Read Book Box

Banks have been getting a bad rap. They’ve also (happily) been having a lot of their ability to charge excessive fees taken from them.

At least one is looking for new opportunities by getting into e-commerce. Not by opening an eBay Store, but rather, by helping other people open online stores. Chase Bank has launched an Instant Storefront Solution, and I write about it on ECommerceBytes. If you’re looking for a merchant account that enables you to accept credit cards, this is a good way to get it. It’s based on the popular Miva merchant platform. BTW, check out the killer graphic by David Steiner that accompanies this article: “Just Add Inventory”!

Maxine Durkee, owner of the Heavy Weight Collections online store, says Chase Instant Storefront gives her site’s shopping experience a sense of security.

“Our banker was visiting our retail store during our beginning months and he mentioned that they had developed a relationship with Miva Merchant and I should take a look,” she told me. “When I checked them out, I saw that I would have lots of freedom with design and a basic starting point had already been developed if needed. They gave you a choice of a free template upon signing up and didn’t lock me into some long contract if I decided the solution wasn’t what I needed. We already had a design idea so I selected a template that was close to what we wanted to start with and we gave it a try.”

As you might expect, there are fees associated with opening a Chase storefront. The $100 setup fee is sometimes waived during promotions. And there’s a $39.95 fee for hosting. Then there are transaction fees. Sounds like Chase Bank, all right!

You may also have seen commercials for Chase offering a QuickPay product in which one person can transfer money to another person. To my surprise, there’s no fee being charged for this. It also sounds a little like the InspirePay service I wrote about recently, in which artists can get paid for their work by people who want to pay them online. InspirePayj, though, lets you set up a “Pay Me” or similar button on your website, so it’s not quite the same thing.

You know it in the movies, and in the media. It applies to selling online, too. Sell what you love. If you love yourself and want to promote your name/your brand, start blogging. If you love women’s handbags, start selling them. Why is this important? You’re going to be spending a lot of time with what you sell. You’d better love it, or you’re going to get sick of it pretty quickly. You’re going to be hunting inventory, researching brands, photographing, packing, and shipping. Even if you use stock photos and are lucky enough to drop-ship what you sell, you’ve still got to come up with content for your blog or website, and knowledgeable sales descriptions that attract buyers.

As I said in my previous post, don’t start with the question “How much money can I make?” or “How can I get rich quick?” Chances are it will be a long, hard slog building your name and your business. Start with a self-assessment and do what you love.

A reader of Starting an Online Business for Dummies asks this question, which is one everyone wonders when they’re thinking of starting an online storefront:

“In other words, how much can I expect to make and how quickly? Obviously, there are a huge number of variables to this, but from what I’ve read, there are virtually no examples given or case studies cited that offer any clue as to the bottom line. It would be helpful to know, for example, about an actual case that described someone who opened an online store, what they did, and how much they were making in how much time.”

There is no perfect answer to this, of course. No magic wand. But I would suggest that she is asking the wrong question. Here’s what she (and you, the budding businessperson) should be asking:

“What do I feel so passionate about that I will work my butt off night and day to make as many connections as I can with other people to spread the word about it?”

Note that I said CONNECTIONS rather than sales. Connections lead to sales. To be successful online these days, you need to connect with potential customers (or readers, or subscribers) through a process of triangulation. You need to combine three things:

1. Social marketing
2. One or more marketplaces
3. Your website

Everyone wants to know how much money they can make online. You need to have some rough idea if you are creating a business plan. But I’m saying that’s not the best place to start. If you make unrealistic projections and fall short, you’ll get discouraged. Look at your business from a different perspective: your talents, your interest, and your message. Find your passion and work to tell people about it every day, on Facebook, on Twitter, on your blog, and on your website.

Just so you don’t think I have nothing to say to the question directly, I’ll say this. When I opened a store on eBay, I set two goals for myself: I wanted to make $300-$400 extra spending/bill paying money per month as a short-term goal. Long-term, I wanted to become a PowerSeller. Pretty modest goals, but I made them both (though I wasn’t a PowerSeller very long). A reasonable goal, then, would to make some extra “gravy” money for fun, to pay a few bills, or to keep afloat rather than sinking into debt.

Dean Pettit, whom I have written about elsewhere in this blog as the owner of Space Coast Outdoors, is doing pretty well with his site. But he told me the following when I asked how he is doing financially:

“For the time it is helping with expenses, I hope it will grow to be a primary income with time and with what I have learned I think it will.”

There is a reasonable goal: start out wanting to make enough money to help with your day to day bills. Dean wants to make this his full-time business, to be sure. But he also started his company because he loves the outdoors in his part of Florida, he knows a lot about it, and he sees that there aren’t other sites around marketing tourism on the space coast.

On NPR recently, I heard another story about the young author Amanda Hocking. She started out selling e-books of her novels and marketing them herself because no agents or publishers would accept them. She turned out to be a marketing genius, selling through her blog, through online interviews, and by doing anything she could to make connections, to spread the word about her books. Building a platform and making connections with customers and readers leads to sales–remember? Eventually, a publisher came to Amanda, hat in hand, offering to publish her book. The story said she is now a multimillionaire. There’s a success story for you. Here’s another, about a woman named Cynthia Lizana who started a one-woman business on eBay, expanded to Amazon.com, and has hired two employees.

There are lots of inspiring success stories out there. Don’t depend on them to get you going. Look inside yourself, at what you love to do, and let the desire to connect and build up a fan base or customer base drive you. Set modest, realistic goals that you can meet, and you’ll be way more likely to meet with success than imitating someone else.

Prove Your Identity Online

January 9th, 2012

miiCard, the identity service I wrote about in a recent ECommerceBytes article, is now allowing users who signed up for the service to actually obtain their virtual identity card. In their system, identity is proven by linking to the individual’s bank account information. The idea is that a bank has already taken steps to prove you are you who say you are, so your miiCard piggybacks onto this.

Dean Pettit, the proprietor of Space Coast Outdoors, was able to explore his passion only after having been laid off from his aerospace industry job. One of his top tips for people who want to do business online is one everyone (including me) can benefit from: Embrace Rejection. Here’s what he says.

“You have no choice its going to happen, a lot. Rejection is like that brother in law you can’t stand but always hangs around. People don’t like being sold to unless they are in a store. In fact your ‘best friends’ are the ones that tell you ‘no thank you’ right up front. That way you don’t waste any additional time on them and can move on. Very Important! Be cordial and accept it with grace. Their tone may change with time, especially if they happen to later go to the site for some reason other than doing business with you and see their competition advertising on it. I got an account from a local golf resort ONLY after another one signed up.”

When you reach out, you’re bound to be rejected. Learn from the experience and move on: I know, it’s easier said than done. But rejections can be flipped around into positives.

Yesterday, I heard on the news that the city of Chicago is proposing the closing of all branch libraries on Mondays. At this moment, I am listening to Chris Hedges’ interview on C-Span. One of the first things he says is that America is following the example of all historical empires that are no longer able to sustain themselves; growing numbers of citizens are living in poverty–and libraries are closing.

If you are passionate about something and know a lot about it, you can turn that expertise into income on your e-commerce website. It might take a while, and it will definitely take dedication and effort. But it can be done.

Not long ago I made a link to a story about Dean Pettit. Dean worked in the aerospace industry in Florida for many years. A few years ago, he was laid off. He decided to create a website about his passion: the outdoors.

His Space Coast Outdoors site guides tourists to trips and destinations on Florida’s Pacific Coast. I spoke to Dean and asked for some tips I could pass along to entrepreneurs. I’ll be writing about them in future articles and in a workshop I’m preparing for later in the year. Here’s one tip: Do everything you can to portray yourself as the “expert” in your chosen field.

“Even if you are selling Dog Food online you have to come across as the “Dog Food Guru,” Pettit says. “Being an active outdoorsman and serving on Boards and Commission related to the environment and attracting eco-tourism has been instrumental for me, giving me my ‘Edge’ I need to be taken seriously.”

Get in the news media any way you can, he advises. In his case, he knew the owner of a restaurant that is one of the best-known businesses in the area, Dixie Crossroads. When the media descended on the restaurant and asked the owner if she knew any aerospace workers who had been affected by the layoffs in the industry, she sent them to Dean. Stories on MSNBC and the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams followed.

Even if you aren’t part of a high-profile story, you can make connections and make yourself available to the media. Get to know your local Chamber of Commerce, and send out your own press releases to local newspapers and radio stations. All of these spread your image as an expert in your field. Then, back up your image with real, useful information on your website.

Here’s a link to the original news story I read about Space Coast Outdoors–by one of the local TV stations in Dean’s area.

The Rise of Volusion

January 5th, 2012

Has anyone else noticed how Volusion is popping up in ads and on Google? By coincidence (I think) someone I reviewed for an e-book I am working on talked up Volusion as their e-commerce host. The site does have a good e-commerce blog that points to the strong growth in e-commerce and mobile commerce in 2011.