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So You Want to Sell Products On the Internet

Great! It’s getting dramatically easier to do so every few months, and the playing field keeps getting leveled.

There’s also a rapidly evolving set of best practices worth paying attention to, whether you’re a small independent seller or giant global retail organization.

First off, accept that the products you post online are going to be reposted, saved, shared, commented on and recontextualized by people using a variety of services and devices, if you’re successful. They’ll be stripped of the context of your store, as people are increasingly taking control of their content, including products found online. The products of yours that get reposted will become beacons leading new customers to your store, and you don’t have to pay anyone to get them there. (How often do you click on ads?) You just have to sell products that people think are worth sharing. And people really like to share.

Here’s what I would be sure to do if I was opening a new store online right now (and I just might):

1. Make a nice About page

People want to get some idea of who they’re buying from; it’s only natural. Include pictures of your face or team members’ faces and note your physical location in the world. Offer contact information and a real email address, not just a set of form fields. Pictures of your workspace, storefront or office are great. So is a full address. So is a paragraph or two about why you’re selling these things. Here’s a recent favorite About page.

All about MODULE-R, Brooklyn, NY

2. Take compelling photos of your products, and do not underestimate their importance

Photos are everything, almost, in this increasingly visual internet world. Make your product photos interesting and the kind of thing people will want to share and collect. Buying will happen in the midst of all that sharing and collecting. Photograph your product with a hand holding it. Here’s a classic Etsy blog post on the subject.

It’s worth spending time on this.

Remember cameras?

3. Write your copy with people in mind, not search engines

You want your products to be shared by people, which will help with search engines, but people will not share things that are written for robots. Be conversational, direct, detailed and vivid. Write the kind of copy people will want to copy and paste when they share your product because it strikes them as humorous, surprising or fascinating.

(I didn't write this copy.)

4. Make your shipping and return policy simple and prominent

Try to anticipate the questions people will have. Write these policies directly, like you’re talking to a friend. Keep them as brief as possible. Link to them from your product pages.

5. Juice up your product pages with metadata

You want Google, Facebook, Wanelo, Twitter and other platforms to know that your products are products, so that they can present them as products. I would use Facebook Open Graph tags and/or Wanelo tags. Schema.org tags (supported by Google) and Twitter cards are also worth your while. Here’s a good article about this with easy-to-use templates.

How to Build Your Own Living Structures

For example, if I were selling a collectible copy of Ken Isaacs’ How to Build Your Own Living Structures (1974) (I just bought one after years of searching, so I won’t be, but for the sake of argument), I would include all this in the <head> of my product page’s HTML:

    <head>
    ...
      <meta property="og:title" content="How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs (1974)" />
      <meta property="og:description" content="A very collectible vintage instructional book from the 1970s." />
      <meta property="og:type" content="product" />
      <meta property="og:url" content="http://www.example.com/product/12345" />
      <meta property="og:site_name" content="Cool New Store" />
      <meta property="og:price:amount" content="75.00" />
      <meta property="og:price:currency" content="USD" />
      <meta property="og:availability" content="instock" />

      <meta property="wanelo:product:name" content="How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs (1974)" />
      <meta property="wanelo:product:price" content="75.00" />
      <meta property="wanelo:product:price:currency" content="USD" />
      <meta property="wanelo:product:availability" content="InStock" />
      <meta property="wanelo:product:url" content="http://www.example.com/product/12345"  />

      <meta name="twitter:card" value="product" />
      <meta name="twitter:domain" value="example.com" />
      <meta name="twitter:title" value="How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs (1974)" />
      <meta name="twitter:description" value="A very collectible vintage instructional book from the 1970s." />
      <meta name="twitter:image" content="http://example.com/product/image.jpg" />
      <meta name="twitter:url" value="http://www.example.com/product/12345">
      <meta name="twitter:data1" value="$75.00" />
      <meta name="twitter:label1" value="USD" />
      <meta name="twitter:data2" value="0" />
      <meta name="twitter:label2" value="Available" />
    ...
    </head>

And these Schema.org tags in the HTML body of my product page:

    <body>
    ...
      <div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Product">
        <meta itemprop="name" content="How to Build Your Own Living Structures by Ken Isaacs (1974)" />
        <meta itemprop="url" content="http://www.example.com/product/12345" />
        <span itemprop="description">A very collectible vintage instructional book from the 1970s.</span>
      </div>
      <div itemprop="offers" itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/Offer">
        <span itemprop="price">$75.00</span>
        <meta itemprop="priceCurrency" content="USD" />
        <meta itemprop="availability" itemtype="http://schema.org/ItemAvailability"
        content="http://schema.org/InStock" />
      </div>
    ...
    </body>

6. Just say yes to canonical URLs

Canonical URLs on your product pages will ensure that your products get indexed efficiently. They’re Good for Google, Good for Wanelo, Good for Business ™. They’re good for any new platforms that emerge in the future. These platforms all want a single, primary URL to link to your product, even if many different permutations of your URL can get people there, because they don’t want to create duplicate links to your products and waste everyone’s time.

How does it work? Just include a line like this with the simplest version of your product’s URL in the <head> of your product pages’ HTML:

<link rel="canonical" href="http://example.com/product/12345" />

Then, if your website is one that creates different URLs for pages based on how people navigate to them, or if you append various parameters to your URLs for tracking purposes, external platforms will still be able to point to your products effectively.

7. Treat visitors on mobile devices differently than visitors on desktop computers, and vice versa

This doesn’t mean use different URLs for these two cases (in fact, do not do that if you want to be successful). Just detect the customer’s browser user agent and optimize the experience for the kind of device they’re on.

You may end up with a lot of people posting and sharing your products from their phones. Those posts will be consumed by people on desktop computers. Don’t send those desktop users sitting there with their wallets handy to the mobile version of your website—it will feel broken to them and they won’t buy your product. Instead, try and use a single website that adapts intelligently to the different devices visitors use to view your content.

8. Keep your product pages up, forever

After all this, when your products sell out because they’re so incredibly shareable, note that they’re sold but don’t give up on the interested visitors who keep landing there thanks to the links you acquired. Give them options. If possible, give them a way to tell you that they are interested in the product—it feels productive for them and will be valuable for you. Then you can alert them when the product becomes available again. Best Made Company and ModCloth are both doing this well.

Or, show them lots of related products to check out, as on these new intensive sold-out Etsy listing pages:

A new sold-out view on Etsy

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to selling online, but these are some of the things I often see missing out there in the wide, diverse world of ecommerce websites.

The Discovery of Fascinating Objects

The Flickr iPhone app is the most addictive app on my phone at the moment after Wanelo. The kind of app I’ll start using and then blissfully ignore text messages and the outside world until I get my fill.

It’s not because of the great photos my friends continue to upload there (Instagram owns that part of my brain now and isn’t giving it back), but because of all the things collectors of vintage design, furniture, calculators, magazines, advertising, architecture, artwork, matchbooks, postcards, book covers, product packaging, candy and toys are sharing there. I don’t use it to look at photos per se but objects. It’s like the difference between inspirational images and products you can buy. An “upload-only Tumblr for collectors” was how I first thought to describe it (there’s no reblogging). Now I’m realizing how similar the mobile experience is to Wanelo.

Because it’s all that content plus the intense scrollability of the app, which is so important on mobile and currently lacking on the Flickr website. You can see a lot of stuff quickly on the profile and favorites views, where I spend most of my energy, using it like I first used Etsy and now use Wanelo: tracing back the people behind the things I like and seeing what else they like, then continuing on into infinity.

Flickr faves of the moment

The Company Your Company Keeps

If you have an app or web service out there with a rapidly increasing number of people using it, one of the most interesting things in the world for you is how people talk about it.

Wanelo has a lot of young users who like to post screenshots of their home screens, and these images of personal app arrangement are worth a thousand tweets.

In these shots, Wanelo is almost never grouped with existing shopping or commerce apps, though they’re doing a lot of shopping with it. I like to think that it’s because shopping as it’s existed online to date has been disconnected from people’s reality, which contains other people and involves a continual quest for entertainment and stimulation (not just a desire to search for a solution that meets a need).

#wanelo

My Wanelo Feed Erupted with Goodness Last Night

Feeding on Wanelo

This natural event occurred because we began surfacing the individual shops behind the hundreds of thousands of products from Etsy that have been posted to Wanelo by members. Members who had been following the etsy.com “store” on Wanelo and had saved Etsy products are now following the shops behind those products. If you happen to be following people like TouMou or anastridendeavor on Wanelo (or me, or Deena), your feed just erupted with goodness as well.

Store pages on Wanelo are created when members post products from a store. You can follow stores and get updates in your feed when new products from those stores are posted by members. (Did I mention that the new Wanelo feed is simple, lickable and alive?)

This is something I happen to have wanted for a long time: the ability to follow Etsy shops. I’ve favorited hundreds of excellent Etsy shops but when you favorite a shop today you don’t get updates from them, and you forget about them.

Another thing I’ve long wanted that now exists is attribution and ownership for products I’ve saved. When I save a product on Wanelo with a comment, I create a page with that context. If I tweet that save and someone resaves it from me or comments on my save, I get notified. It’s not unlike how reblogging works on Tumblr, and check-ins work on Foursquare.

A Wanelo save page

It’s a step toward helping every active member of Wanelo create content and get feedback on their activity.

Because shopping, since the Industrial Revolution anyway, has been about passive consumption. “Consumption” from “consumer”: a word with a telling etymology that didn’t take off until the late 19th century, after factories had begun manufacturing uniform products en masse and needed to advertise to generate demand:

early 15c., “one who squanders or wastes,” agent noun from consume. In economic sense, “one who uses up goods or articles” (opposite of producer) from 1745. Consumer goods is attested from 1890.

The internet was not designed for passive consumption (that’s what TV was for, and I like to think that the internet began with the creation of the Whole Earth Catalog). And I don’t think consuming in the traditional sense has much of a future. Buying things can be a lot more creative, meaningful and fun. Payment is a form of communication, as Jack Dorsey likes to say, and people prefer to communicate with other people. Left to their own devices, people also tend to seek out unique products and customize things for themselves.

Wanelo is reorganizing shopping around people. That can sound vague if you haven’t picked up Paul Adams’ book Grouped for example, but it’s simple and powerful, and I think soon to be obvious and inevitable: people first. People organize the content and help it get discovered. A typical content-driven ecommerce site will have lots of categories to drill down into, carefully organized by the retailer and created by the retailer. Social context around the products is usually minimal or plastered on, and the experience is often one-dimensional, with the retailer talking at you. On Wanelo you discover products through people, and through the entities that people create while using the site (stores, collections, saves and *more*, coming soon). People look to other people for clues and guidance, just like in real life. And we don’t tell them who to listen to or what to buy.

Tons and tons to do (I’m making commits and writing tickets in another window as I type), but OMG it’s fun. And my Wanelo feed keeps getting better.

The New Wanelo

It’s generally considered pretty risky to rewrite, redesign, rebuild, rebrand and relaunch a service that’s just started to take off among users, but it’s working out nicely at Wanelo. And we like it dangerous.

Wanelo logo

Wanelo‘s got a new look (big up: @ednacional), new backend (Ruby, PostgreSQL, Solr, Redis), new frontend (Haml, SCSS, CoffeeScript, Gibson-Regular), new bookmarklet (@jicksta, @paulhenry), new infrastructure, new process, new metrics, new team, new gifs, new features (like inline editing of products you post), new pages, new following feed, new feed feeds, new URLs, new office, new officemates, new mystical courtyard with hummingbird guides, new admin tools, new rules, new mission, new books, new members, new stores, new bikes, new energy and new shoes.

It’s so fresh, clean, modern and pure in intention, and so full of potential right now, it can make you fall in love.

Newer hotness now shipping daily, and I can’t wait to be able to talk about the next few things in the queue.

The Discovery Problem

There are a lot of really awesome and well-made things being sold by creative businesses these days. Things you do not know you want until you see them, because you did not know they existed and wouldn’t have thought to search for them. Things that enrich your life because they have meaning for you (you discovered it!) and are special or rare.

There are a lot of great platforms for selling these things: Etsy, Shopify, Big Cartel, Goodsie, Gumroad. But generating demand for these things, and helping them get discovered, is a distinct problem on which I don’t think we’ve made a great deal of headway yet. Sellers and retailers are still shouting, or advertising, at people to buy their stuff, inefficiently. The best ones are telling stories and engaging people in conversations, but it takes a lot of work to gain traction. It also takes a lot of money and effort to build brands the traditional way. So a lot of awesome things are being lovingly made and never seen or sold.

Turns out seller-focused platforms may not be in the best position to attack this problem. It may not make a lot of business sense to try. When sellers are your primary customers, you must focus on their needs and keep them happy. Sometimes things that are best for buyer discovery do not make sellers happy. Sellers would not be happy to see other sellers’ items on their website, for example, or on listing pages that they paid for. Understandably so. Whether or not such a thing leads to more sales and more customers is inconsequential. If sellers aren’t happy, they won’t list items on your service.

A website from an individual seller, whether that seller is an independent designer or Macy’s, is never going to be wholly aligned with the interests of buyers. It’s naturally biased, and limited. And from the seller perspective, visitors will be hard to come by unless you’ve done the hard work of building up an engaged following, in addition to all the other hard work.

Amazon is focused on buyers, and will show you things from lots of different sellers, but Amazon is optimized for convenience, and for buying things you have already decided you want. Amazon is not focused on discovery.

I’ve been thinking that maybe what this world needs are seller-focused platforms optimized for selling, and buyer-focused platforms optimized for discovery.

A buyer-focused platform optimized for discovery puts buyer happiness first, and buyers in control. It’s a place where buyers help other buyers discover things, and puts the right buyers in touch with the right sellers. It’s a place where demand for unique items is generated and aggregated, and creative makers of things benefit.

Wanelo is buyer-focused, and has been inspiring euphoria among a growing legion of young females—the same generation I’ve been watching propel Tumblr to new heights.

I see a lot of work ahead, but I know there’s something there. So I’m going to go help Deena and Kristina Varshavskaya and team figure out what that is, then turn it all the way up, in San Francisco.

I’m going to miss Etsy, and New York, and the astonishingly awesome people I’ve been lucky enough to work with these last few years. Etsy is deep in my bones. I see the next step as a natural continuation of that work. And I won’t be stranger :)

Implicit Sharing

Just a few months ago, numerous folks were writing about how Facebook’s seamless sharing was in fact ruining sharing. The criticisms were focused on the Open Graph news apps from Yahoo News, The Washington Post and others, which automatically share articles you read. Simply viewing a web page causes the sharing to happen, and because of that, it makes sharing a passive, unconscious act, rather than an explicit one requiring a conscious button click.

Since that time, from all accounts I’ve heard, Facebook referral traffic to these news sites is way up, and has had some unexpected effects. And ever since this passive sharing went mainstream at f8, I’ve noticed implicit sharing patterns being incorporated into new services in new ways. I think the new ways work because they make it clear that implicit sharing is happening, and they’re more closely aligned with social reality.

Path 2 was the first notable post-f8 app to do this by showing the faces of all the people who had viewed a “moment.”

Path demo video

“Look! Danny smiled at my moment, and ten other people have already seen it.”

These are the faces of viewers, not just people who have liked or favorited the thing. By using the app and viewing friends’ moments, you’re sharing the fact that you’re using the app with your friends and friends of your friends.

Color 2 followed in Path’s path, showing the faces of broadcast visitors, and publishing those visits as events seamlessly on Facebook.

Color demo video

But Pinwheel, still in private beta, does this best right now. It shows the faces of people who have found (viewed) each note, and, crucially, allows you to “unfind” a note if this freaks you out.

Pinwheel

The sense of control that that “unfind” option provides may be key for this kind of thing to scale comfortably beyond small groups of people who know one another, as on Path and Color.

Highlight takes implicit sharing to another dimension. By simply installing the app on your phone and joining, then continuing to live your life, you’ll automatically send and receive notifications whenever someone with something in common is within range. It allows you to implicitly share your name, location and Facebook profile photos with strangers. No reading, viewing or using required. Just exist!

Highlight

Path, Color, Pinwheel and Highlight all make the fact that implicit sharing is happening pretty clear. You see people’s faces everywhere, and soon realize that you’re leaving your own avatar trail behind. It’s like a very low-fidelity version of walking around a building and entering rooms where other people are hanging out.

The Open Graph news apps are less clear that sharing is happening, and still seem to violate reasonable user expectations—I think partly because reading a news article written for a mass audience by someone you don’t know is not obviously a social act. Telling someone about it is. Viewing someone’s moment, joining someone’s live broadcast or checking out someone’s personal note about a place is.

by pleasebystill on Etsy

If you start from successful startups, you find they often behaved like nonprofits. And if you start from ideas for nonprofits, you find they’d often make good startups.

–from a Paul Graham classic that’s worth reading in its entirety, repeatedly, and keeping handy in your Instapaper account.