“Marketing” is often a squishy and intimidating topic for struggling small businesses. It’s hard to understand, hard to measure, and it can be expensive. It sometimes feels like you have to rely on highly-paid experts to feel confident. Yet its success or failure could make or break our cooperative business.
In this post, we’ll share our basic marketing plan, particularly in light of our members’ decision to bootstrap our funding without seeking seed capital from big investors. We’ll cover the marketing basics: what it is and who it’s for, our competitive strategy, and our marketing channels.
Before deciding on channels and strategies, one of the most important components of a good marketing plan is to take a step back to think high-level. We have to know what our objectives are, who our audience is, and how our business fits into the landscape before we can create detailed outreach tactics.
As a marketplace, Artisans Cooperative has two primary audiences and objectives. We need to reach out to artisans and shoppers who care about building an equitable artistic community, in order to generate awareness and drive sales on the marketplace. Our present marketing objective is to recruit 150 artisan-members and 10,000+ supporters (shoppers) who want to contribute to building an equitable community.
The artisans we are seeking to be part of Artisans Co-op are seeking four primary things: a new channel of revenue, transparency, a fair platform, and a community of like-minded artisans. The supporters we seek to be part of Artisans Co-op are people who make ethical purchases. They are invested in their local communities, shop at local food co-ops & markets, and generally try to stay away from big tech marketplaces. In most cases, they are probably already friends & family of artisans.
As a cooperative business, we have to add a third audience and objective: members and potential members, because they are everything to the business: our investors, our workers, and our competitive edge. The cooperative members we seek are artisans and shoppers who are interested in a compelling alternative, the solidarity economy and/or a democratic business model, or those who have experience seeing the good that cooperatives can do as members of other kinds of cooperatives.
A common question artisans have for Artisans Cooperative is, “How are you going to compete with Etsy?” This can seem like an intimidating question. Etsy has been established for nearly twenty years and has inarguably the dominant market share. It has access to a scale of money and expertise that we can only dream of, including forcing millions of sellers to pay for their advertising costs with listing fees and the Offsite Ads fee. They’re even among the few big-league online businesses currently running a high-profile television advertising campaign.
There is no doubt that Artisans Cooperative and many smaller Etsy alternatives over the years cannot compete with Etsy’s war chest of Wall Street money and paid advertising. But, paid advertising is not the only dish on the menu.
Most artisans who have become disillusioned with Etsy have also tried smaller Etsy alternatives, which have popped up many times over the years and failed, like ArtFire and Zibbet. All of these other small Etsy alternatives had one thing in common: they were owned by capitalists and funded by investors, not cooperatively. Artisans have expressed frustration with those sites, saying that they didn’t use the funds the artisans were paying in monthly subscription dues and sales commission to promote them to buyers. This rings true to small business owners, who know who much of their fees go to CEO salaries and parachutes instead of marketing expenses.
Our chief competitive differentiator is our cooperative ownership as a member-owned online marketplace. Cooperatives are businesses owned and managed by the people who use them, who have a real stake in seeing the business succeed because it is in their own self-interest. Not only can we choose, as a group, to make unorthodox business decisions, but we can keep our overhead low by pooling our talents and networks.
With that in mind, this is the SWOT (Strengths – Weaknesses – Opportunities – Threats) analysis for our start-up:
|Passion. We’re built from a passionate, mission-driven group of volunteers.|
Democratic ownership/control. With frequent polls and the ability to set (and change) rules, we’re ensuring all voices are part of the marketplace design. This means we will make high-quality decisions.
Economic participation. Patronage dividends mean that if the cooperative is winning, everyone is winning. Our incentives are aligned.
|Unpaid workers with mixed experience levels. Which we want to fix as soon as possible with marketplace revenue. |
Limited resources. We don’t have the capital that Etsy or Amazon do, so we need to be extremely strategic in our approach.
|Demand for an equitable marketplace. Etsy is more focused on lining its own pockets than supporting handmade artists, driving real artisans to seek alternative channels of their own volition. There is no obvious alternative. |
Demand for a better shopping experience. Customers too are frustrated with Etsy as their platform has become flooded with inauthentic goods at best, and outright scams at worst. (See: Citron Research report, Which investigation)
|Ability to capture customers. Etsy and Amazon have the majority of customer traffic to-date. We need at least 10,000 customers to begin to create our critical mass.|
This cooperative business model is the ultimate test of our beliefs and ideals, and a chance like this doesn’t come around often. Our members know this, which is why they voted to “bootstrap” the business on limited resources and elbow grease. They are realistic: they are willing to grow slowly and naturally to keep authentic to our ideals and maintain control. They know that we have to be careful, resourceful, and strategic.
That’s why our cooperative members are such an important third marketing audience, and it’s reflected in our detailed plans for marketing channels: the “how we reach them” part of the marketing plan.
The typical “menu” of marketing channels used for outreach is:
- Direct Contact (Word-of-Mouth / Grassroots)
- Search (Blog / Thought Leadership / SEO)
- Referrals (Earned Media / Public Relations)
- Paid Media (Advertising)
- Social Media
- Physical Mail
At Artisans Cooperative, given enough member talent and energy, we will flex all of these free channels, plus Paid Media (Advertising) and Direct Mail (Postage), which are not free.
Our primary focus is on:
- Search / SEO: Use our website, blog, and social media to share our messages and keyword / tag appropriately so the people looking for us can find us and find enough information to give them the confidence to join / shop.
- Direct Contact / Word-of-Mouth: Through email, Discord, and social media, we’ll work with our community to amplify our core messages and reach more artisans (and supporters). We’ll do this by providing branding kits, prepared messaging and social templates, printables (like flyers), and regular encouragement, fresh ideas, and reminders.
At critical moments and subject to talent / availability, we will prioritize Referrals:
- Public Relations / Press Releases: At critical, newsworthy moments, we issue press releases and do targeted outreach to a list of relevant reporters that we maintain in-house. For major announcements, we also do paid press release distribution. For the October marketplace launch, this resulted in distribution to over 500 journalists and publishing of our announcement in over 100 publications.
- Earned Media: Experienced writers to pitch interviews and guest posts about Artisans Cooperative to other publications / blogs / podcasts / YouTubers.
- Strategic Partnerships: Gifted networkers to do outreach with allies and mission-aligned organizations, such as craft guilds and cooperative networks.
By honing and testing our messages through free channels for some time, we can take the time to strategically develop paid marketing plans. With limited resources, we want to ensure that when we begin paying to distribute our messages, the messages land well.
- Paid Media: Directed at shoppers, paid advertising campaigns on social and search to reach targeted supporters. We are going to follow the lead of other successful two-sided marketplaces and only focus on paid campaigns once we are confident that our messages are landing and our community is growing.
- Physical Mailings are the most expensive kind of marketing due to printing and postage costs. We have no immediate plans for this channel.
Metrics for Success
In order to succeed – or course-correct – we need to know how we are doing.
Generate Awareness in the Artisan Community
Before our launch, we had three targets for expanding awareness in the artisan community. We wanted 20 artisan members ready for pilot in July 2023, 50 founding artisan members for by Sept 2023, and 150 artisan members by our October launch. We met all these targets!
To become handmade artisans’ #1 alternative to Etsy, we need to establish ourselves as a key source of support to help artisans grow their businesses. This will require exceptional thought leadership and materials. We’re looking to create critical top-of-the-funnel marketing content to continue attracting more artisans to our community.
We are working towards five evergreen thought-leadership pieces on Medium, 25 guilds/associations on our outreach list, and 10 press releases with at least two yielding pieces in top tier publications.
Drive Sales to Our Marketplace
Now, as we build towards an enormous following of supporters and customers, we have work to do. We are aiming for 1,000 supporter members, 2,000 customers purchasing on platform per month, and 10,000 subscribers to our newsletter.
While the typical outreach for shopping might be paid advertising, we are trying to reach more thoughtful consumers than the average. We’re trying to reach those who are most interested in ethical purchases. These shoppers want to know they’re supporting an artisan, and are willing to pay fair prices. This type of shopper is actually harder to reach through paid advertising – values-aligned social media like Mastodon don’t even offer paid advertising! Our grassroots network will be our core strength in growing our shopping audience.
For shoppers, once they arrive on our site, we need to provide a fluid shopping experience with lots of payment options and product discovery tools. But we also need to make what differentiates us clear through approachable and accessible content, like our prominent placement on the Value of Handmade and the 7 Cooperative Principles. We also need to offer a trustworthy experience, which will quickly draw a comparison from the increasingly untrustworthy experiences on Big Tech sites. Our marketplace will host high-quality products made by small artisans who have passed our handmade verification process.
In other words, it all comes back to “we.” We are the key to our own success. This is no different to how Etsy started, back in the day. They reached their first artisans at craft fairs, and relied on the artisans themselves to share their shops with friends, family, and customers. Former Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, the leader who took Etsy public in 2015, was quoted at the time saying, “Our remarkable user growth is due to sellers promoting their own shops.”
As successful artisans know, you don’t have to spend a boatload of money on marketing to bring attention and shoppers to an excellent, niche product that targets the right people through free tools and consistent communications. We can do this together. This is the cooperative’s competitive edge against Big Tech: People Power!
Members: if you enjoyed this post and you want to learn more, you can find a link to the full marketing plan in our (password-protected) Member Manual.
About Artisans Cooperative
We are growing an online handmade marketplace for an inclusive network of creatives: a co-op alternative to Etsy.
Shop the marketplace!