Thursday, February 26, 2009

My StoresOnline Truth...Keeping It Real

Perhaps you have only been to the 90 minute session, perhaps you went to the all day workshop, or perhaps you you’ve only read/heard the horror stories. I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. I can only speak to my experience in the last 4 years and some months that I have dealt with StoresOnline. I have no idea what is being said in the seminars to date, but I can only tell you how my seminar went. I can’t imagine that it has gone much different.

I was mourning the recent passing of my father when a friend offered to get my mind off of things and get me out of the house by attending a free dinner that would get me a free organizer. It was at a hotel in downtown Philadelphia, PA, I think the Marriot (I’m not really sure, it was Nov/Dec 2004). This was the first time that I had even heard of StoresOnline, but I do recall them making mention of GalaxyMall which I had heard of in passing. The presenter was sharp, and talked fast, like he gave these presentations a lot. He was lively and animated so it kept me engaged. He started talking about internet retail and how big of an industry it was. I am quite aware of this as I pay all of my bills online and buy most things that way too he started talking about how there are millions of websites on the web, but no one knows about them or can’t find them. Having graduated with my BS in Computer Science in 2003, I was well aware of this fact as well. He stated giving examples of marketing techniques that standard retail businesses would use to bring traffic into their stores. I had seen these techniques in action every day as I am an avid retail shopper. Then he related these to web stores and a light bulb lit up inside me. “Hmm..” I told myself. Very briefly he explained how marketing is used to get your website noticed. More importantly he explained that marketing is necessary for a website to be found easily on the web. What good is a website if no one can find it?

Since I’m being honest here, I’ll tell you that I don’t remember exactly what was said from this point on but I can say that I remember thinking to myself “Why am I not doing this?” Having the technical expertise, I knew that getting a site up on the internet was going to be the easy part, but I knew nothing about the marketing. It certainly seemed easy enough. The all day workshop was only $20 for myself and a guest. Now having been dragged to a similar meeting for Russ Whitney’s Real Estate pitch back in September and being offered a 3 day workshop at a cost of $1100+ for two people, this $20 was a drop in the bucket. I had wasted more money worse way, so I didn’t see where it could hurt to attend.

Having been through this type of business marketing (90min presentation, all/multiple day workshop) before, I knew a sales pitch was coming. I just didn’t know for how much and for what exactly. At least I would learn something about Internet Marketing. This workshop only reinforced my eagerness to get started as the techniques for getting to the top of the search engines seemed like a piece of cake:

- Search Engine Optimization

o Use a reverse search engine, found on overture.com for FREE (no longer the case) to find good keyword phrases

o Good keyword phrases are commonly searched. Don’t go for the phrases up top (with the most amount of searches) because everyone is vying for those phrases and it’s way too competitive

o Use the keywords in ad copy, META tags

- Pay-Per-Click

o I could buy my way up to the stop starting at a penny a click (maybe 5 cents now) using different pay per click sites, not just the main ones which were Google, Overture, and Yahoo at the time.

- Link Trading

o Search engines like to find your site on other websites because it gives your site an “importance” factor.

o Just find a related site, see if the maintained a list of recommended links, and ask to be placed on their site. This was free and I could even pay them by putting their link on my site. A fair trade, costs no money, just my time.

These techniques all seemed easy enough. There were no really complicated tasks here. The presenter walked us through creating an account and starting a pay-per-click campaign. Ok so the techniques are simple enough, but do they really work? Well the presenter showed us his website wheatgrasskits.com which this very day is on page one of a Google search for “wheatgrass” and “wheat grass” only second to wikipedia’s wheatgrass page. So I’m thinking “Ok, if this guy’s site is at the top of the natural listings, he MUST know what he’s talking about!” he even talked about using my competition to set goals. Using a keyword phrase that I wanted to get to the top of the search engines with, I needed to do a Google search to find the current top 5-7 sites. Then I could do some advanced Google searches to find out how many link trades I needed to get to compete. This would give me an idea of how hard I needed to work to get there. There are some free tools available (if you search for them) that will give you some good information on your site as well as competitor sites to aid in this process.

Ok so once the teaching was done, here comes the pitch right. Here is the fabulous StoresOnline store builder with all of these great features! The reverse search engine was integrated, they partnered with Links4Trade to aid in the link trading process, credit card processing is offered and PayPal is already integrated. All of these wonderful customizable templates are available and you can create all kinds of fantastic ordering rules to calculate shipping and tax and whatever else. You can generate coupons. Better yet, the statistics! You can see the visitors to your site and how they got there, how many pages they visited. Sales statistics, the most popular products. All of the reporting you need to properly manage a business. It’s integrated with UPS so that it can calculate your shipping for you if you know the weights of all of your products and have a UPS account. You get a shopping cart that does inventory tracking and product/price variations. Products can be imported easily with character delimited files. I even got email aliases to give my customers that big company feel. This was great!

With my expertise I could have built my own site, shopping cart, and designed the database to hold all of the information. Considering my busy life at the time, it would have taken me years to develop what they were offering on my own. Sure, I could have paid someone to do it, but it would have cost a grip considering good developers can cost $75 or more an hour. I was getting 3 sites for the cost of one and 6 for less than the cost of 2. How could I pass it up?

I decided to buy 6 sites, get the merchant account, get the Links4Trade and all the bells and whistles for the cost of about $6000. Considering that I spent $20,000 for Russ Whitney Real Estate education just a couple of months prior, I told myself, “what’s another $5000/$6000?” The only thing was, I didn’t have it, so I financed it with them at an 18% APR. This meant a $283 payment every month for the next 3 years. After all, this was a business right. This is considered to be business loss, so I never saw it as wasted money. At my one-on-one session that afternoon, they asked me if I had products in mind. I had 3 different stores in my head, but then I needed to do my research to determine if they would be worthwhile businesses. I asked how to find my dropshipper because I had nowhere to store inventory. I was told to simple Google my product with dropshipper/wholesale/distributor behind it. Doing my reverse search I found my first idea wasn’t very profitable. My second idea, which is now www.healthyhearthelp.com was quite profitable. I couldn’t find my dropshipper the way they suggested though. I had no idea what to look for. I realized that I wanted to sell blood pressure monitors. I owned one, so I called the manufacturer and asked them how I could feature their product on my website. The lady gave me a list of distributors. I finally found one who had everything I was looking for and then some. Some distributors wouldn’t even entertain me since I didn’t have any references in the business, but told me to come back when I did. I was happy with what I found and never did go back, but I probably will eventually. My 3rd idea became www.allnaturalelements.com. I found a `dropshipper for that site after purchasing a list for $20. The list was meager and the dropshipper was “OK”, but not exactly helpful to the vision that I had for my business, but hey, at least I had something to sell.

So now that I have my first two stores in mind and some products, I started out to build my sites. I knew content would be the hardest thing to come by so I did a lot of research on my product topic. I found tons of information that I compiled together to make informational pages on my sites. I found StoresOnline’s customer support via chat to be lacking. They were never really able to help me with the kinds of problems that I couldn’t figure out on my own. My problems were overly technical and they just didn’t have the expertise to give me the help I needed. I needed to talk to one of the programmers, but of course, this was a no-no. Being a programmer myself, I didn’t find it surprising that they wouldn’t let me speak directly to one. I never tried the phone tech support , which I heard was MUCH better than chat support, since they were always closed during the hours that I had to work on my sites.

After building my first site and publishing it in April 2005, it was time to market it. I followed StoresOnline’s documentation and tried every technique. Not long after my first site was published, I started getting calls from internet marketing companies, like Internet Advancement, telling me that I needed their help to be successful. I think I got at least one call from PMI coaching asking me to spend another $4000. I didn’t have it to spend so I kindly turned them down. I’m not sure if I heard from them again. I did decide to buy into Internet advancement to the tune of $800 to see what they would do for me. All they did was stuff my META tags full of keywords and this did absolutely nothing for my search engine rankings after 6 months. While internet advancement worked on All Natural Elements, I was working on Healthy Heart Help. I was hermorraging dollars quickly doing pay-per-click. There was something that I wasn’t doing right. I was getting traffic, but no one was buying. I started to run out of money so I stopped doing pay-per-click. I reserved myself to only using FREE methods of marketing since it was all I could afford.

I had found onlinemerchantforum.com which was full of other StoresOnline merchants willing to help me become successful as long as I was willing to put in some work. I used what I learned to build Healthy Heart Help and published that site in August 2005. I got my first stranger-customer sale in September of 2005. A few other sales trickled in over the next weeks. Something I did was working! I wasn’t getting the 300 visitors a day that StoresOnline said I needed to make regular sales, but somehow I was getting them. With the aid of the forum, I started subscribing to newsletters about Internet marketing and I learned from other people’s mistakes and successes and well here I am today.

StoresOnline calls me a success, as evident by the testimonial on their website. Other people call me a success, because I do get regular sales, my business pays for itself, and I am making money. I call me a success, because I can repeat it without having to pay anyone anything more than hosting. I still don’t use pay-per-click because I see it as a waste of money.

I learned a lot about marketing from StoresOnline’s documentation and form the forum. I also learned a lot from my own research. The most important thing that I learned was that there are different methods of marketing and everyone has a different formula. Some formulas cost money and others don’t. I had to find a formula that worked for me and my time. Did everything StoresOnline told me to do work? No, not everything, but through my additional research, I now know why it didn’t. Did everything that I learned in the forum work? No, not everything, but through my additional research, I now know why it didn’t. You know what does work? My store builder that I paid so much money for from StoresOnline. It helped me build a quality online store in no time at all. What took me the longest to do, was develop my content and learn the marketing techniques and apply them to the site.

The marketing techniques, while easy, have to be repeated over and over and over in order to become competitive in the search engines. That takes time and every day I get more and more traffic. It wasn’t long before people were asking me to trade links instead of me asking them. It took some time, but now suppliers come to me asking if they can sell their product on my sites. I’m even getting requests from businesses to purchase ad space on my sites. This is completely unsolicited. My sites currently don’t show ads.

I know there is a lot of bad press out there about StoresOnline and not enough good press. This is my attempt to put some good press out there for people to find. Not only is it good press, but this press keeps it real. There are plenty of merchants out there who make this software work for them. Most of them are too busy to find sites to sing praises on. They are either busy living a good life or busy processing orders, or busy making updates to their sites to make them better. Busy and paid is always better than busy an broke.

If you want my advice, I would tell you to do some research. Are there cheaper options than StoresOnline? Yes, but there are also some more expensive ones. Remember that StoresOnline is selling a TOOL, not a business. They will not teach you how to run your business, but they will give you information that can help you become successful. You just have to read it. Also, StoresOnline’s material is only one source. Don’t limit yourself. Go out and seek knowledge everywhere you can. It’s the only TRUE way to become successful.

Until next time!

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