Over the past year, some of the most powerful marketing lessons I’ve learned haven’t come from a book, a guru or a webinar. They’ve come from Chandra Michaels.

Chandra is an Austin-based entrepreneur and artist who hasn’t just created an audience of customers, friends and followers for her Sugarluxe brand –  She’s created a MOVEMENT.

Chandra has skillfully used the social web to connect to fans around the globe with an amazing spirit of community, devotion, and authenticity.  In the difficult business world of art, she now receives about 40 percent of her total sales through Facebook and has turned up in the pages of leading magazines such as Life, Us, and InStyle. Her artwork has been featured in places as diverse as the MTV Awards to a permanent installation in San Francisco’s famous Hotel Des Arts.

I feature Chandra’s marketing style and success prominently as a case study in my college classes and now I want to introduce this visionary businesswoman and exceptional friend to the community on {grow}. If you’re an entrepreneur and want to learn how to leverage the social web as a marketing channel, pay close attention to one of my marketing heroes:

Chandra, what’s the recipe for your secret marketing sauce?  What would you tell others trying to emulate your success of igniting a movement?

Well, I’m convinced that you and I share the same secret ingredient.  A heaping spoonful of sugar!

Being kind to others, finding and sharing something you admire or appreciate in them, connecting with someone on a personal level — that’s at the core of who I am and how I do business.

It’s what drew me to you instantly because you have such a truly caring and captivating personality.  The way I’ve watched you connect with your readers, clients and students comes from a place of genuine concern, passion and a love for what you’re doing.   People are very smart.  They can spot a phony.  I think success, at least in part, comes from being real, risking being vulnerable, and reaching out to build lasting relationships with the people who believe in what you do.

As an entrepreneur, how do you specifically use the social web to fuel your business success?

First, and I can never say this enough, it’s about Quality over Quantity!

I don’t ever let myself get sidetracked by a desire to accumulate big numbers to impress people. The number of fans, followers and friends I have is essentially irrelevant to me.  What matters most is the quality of interaction and participation.  A lot of businesses simply don’t get that.

Word of mouth remains one of the MOST powerful ways to market. I’m very dependent on it.

Even though my collection is sold by major retailers, the lion’s share of money in these situations, goes to those entities. We have a multitude of revenue streams, but the only way for me to really make profit is to sell direct.

I view my visibility in the retail sector as getting paid to advertise. We make everything here locally (mostly in-house), the cost of goods is high and selling wholesale is not very beneficial to the bottom line.  My hope is that if someone discovers my work in a big box store, they are curious to know more about me.  Then, maybe they will search for the Sugarluxe name on Google, find our website, and if I’m really lucky they tell their friends about me too.  Knock on wood, it’s worked pretty well so far…

How has your marketing strategy evolved?

I learned a long time ago that I can’t just build it and they will come. It’s amazing how many people subscribe to this myth. But seriously, and as you already know Mark, it takes so much strategic planning and effort.

I write every single word on our website.  I work methodically to optimize my copy for good search engine placement. On our accessory lines, Sugarluxe is on page one, if not on the very top, for most our key search terms. And I’ve never paid for keyword advertising. Heck, I’ve never paid for any advertising. It’s time consuming, but I’m competing with so many choices out there. Small businesses MUST do this themselves or hire someone who can.

Also, I have to go where my buyers are.  When they were on MySpace, I was there. By the end of 2008, most had migrated to Facebook. I was reluctant to follow suit because it felt so much more personal than MySpace. Until that time, most clients and customers didn’t even know my real name. But I set up a business/fan page on Facebook last year and it quickly paid off.

Getting out from behind the comfort of my canvas has helped me to better understand the people who buy my work — so that I can continue to evolve as an artist. My participation in social media and (although inconsistently) writing on my blog has not only helped my business grow, it has helped me grow and learn as a person.

You told me that Twitter has been a challenge for you. What’s up with that?

Twitter’s cool – I use it occasionally, but I prefer Facebook. It feels like a real community to me. In my view, Twitter handed out what amounts to millions of virtual megaphones. Everyone is shouting into them at the same time, and because it’s so hard to hear, very few are able to really listen.

And getting people to listen is critical.

In order to tend to your life, business and art, you’ve taken big chunks of time away from your social web activities. What are some of your time management challenges, and when you step away, do you find it disrupts the momentum of your online community?

What a great question!

Everything about time management is a challenge for me. I don’t have a particularly healthy work/life balance yet. But I’m getting better.  And if I’m good at anything, it’s interviewing, hiring and training people. It’s part of what I did in my early corporate career.  So when I started hiring for Sugarluxe, I was experienced at finding the best and brightest candidates. Committed, passionate employees can make a huge difference.

In terms of stepping away from the web?

I worried about this very thing when I decided to take a little “social” break.  The amazing thing is … this month has been our very best month in the history of my company and it’s typically a slow time. But you’re right – for 6 months – the marketing part of my business has been on auto-pilot. I’ve been working like mad behind the scenes, but I had to retreat from the public eye.

I went through some personal turmoil and I just couldn’t give of myself for awhile. Going back to my earlier comments about being genuine … I can’t feign interest or happiness.   I felt empty for a little bit.   I wasn’t going to pretend to be something I was not.  And I was afraid my business would suffer for it.

But in fact, it did the exact opposite. It gained more momentum. Credit is entirely due to loyal friends and fans. They kept it alive for me so that I could recharge.  I’m so incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to cultivate this type of environment and surround myself with such amazing people.

To many of your fans, you’ve become more than an artist. What has it been like transitioning from a young, struggling artist to role model and a celebrity in your field?

I wish you could see me in person. You just made my cheeks so red.

When I was young, I always imagined I would be published as an author long before being published (or possbily even recognized) as an artist.  Not that I’m a great writer, but I have an overwhelming urge to tell people they’re not alone in their struggles.  It wasn’t until much later that I discovered I’m much better conveying my thoughts with images than I am through words alone.

Like anyone else who reads this, I’ve encountered some bad people. Their marks could have been indelible.  But I refuse to let those people have permanence in my life.

I want to focus on what’s good, what’s right, and what’s wonderful. I’m a sensitive, artsy type. I could get so down if I allowed myself to wallow in all that’s wrong with the world. Instead, my work is an ongoing study in optimism and its cumulative effects on life.

How I live is so basic. I try to see the glass half full. But I’m not so myopic that I can’t see pain and suffering. I try to be very open about my experiences — both good and bad. Many times I feel vulnerable and exposed. But it’s the risk I’m always willing to take if it means it could help someone else.

And as much as I hope to help others, the way I’ve benefited most in my business, is realizing how much they’ve helped me in return.

I was told by my grandmother that I have good features. If we allow for a little airbrushing, do you think I could be the next Sugarluxe model?

Your grandmother sounds like my kind of girl!  And since you clearly exemplify a desirable combination of beauty AND brains, I’d say you’re my perfect muse!

To learn more about Chandra and how she establishes her marketing movement, I highly recommend that you observer her in action on Twitter, Facebook and her blog at www.sugarluxe.com

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