Small business? THIS is how to work the social web!

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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  • Jim LeBlanc

    Magical. That’s the only word I can come up with. Chandra took a leave of absence and her FANS took over! That is such a wow. Maybe one of the best social marketing case studies I’ve ever read. Mark — this post is a treasure for anybody trying to figure out the social media for their business and Chandra has one more fan!!!

  • Mark

    @Jim — I honestly think this is one of the most important posts I’ve had on {grow} because it really demonstrates these marketing principles in action. And the result in direct sales is very compelling. Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts!

  • Thank you for introducing us to Chandra today Mark ~ I feel so filled with Hope and love this gracious insight into her work and committed effort.

    I also prefer Facebook to Twitter ~ for the very same reasons stated by Chandra. While there are Tweeters seeking connection, conversation and relationship building – they can be difficult to find in the cacophony of See Me, Notice Me, Read Me, Buy From Me, etc. – like walking through the gaming section of a Carnival’s Midway.

    Facebook, on the other hand, seems more conducive to meaningful connection – that’s been my experience anyway.

    Chandra – you are Inspiration-in-Motion. Thank you for sharing so much of your Self with us today!

  • Terrific stuff Mark – thanks for sharing. And Chandra, thank you too. Not just for providing us social media geeks with something to talk about, but for being an inspiration in general. Right. Off to Facebook now. S-u-g-a-r-l . . .

  • Hi Jim – What a WAY to start my day! Thank you so much for your wonderful comment.

    As you guys have already discovered, Mark has an innate way of bridging like-minded business people. And the relationships and conversations that I’ve watched evolve from those connections are indeed, simply MAGICAL!

    I’m so very fortunate that Mark has seen something in me that he valued and felt was worth sharing. I’m tremendously honored to get to join you all here!

  • @Sally – I think you might be my long lost bloggy soul mate – I was just reading your latest entry and I love your positive outlook on life. So eloquent, too!

    And – I’m really happy to find another {grow} fan who prefers facebook. I’m obviously very visual with what I do, so that lends to my preference, but I thought your carnival analogy was spot on!

    Such a pleasure to meet you!

  • Hi there John! As an aspiring geek myself, it’s thrilling for me to be in the presence here of such great business leaders. Thank you!!

  • great great stuff love that she comes clean about the reality of what it takes…so many of my clients don’t get that build it and they will come just isn’t enough

  • Mark, Thanks for the introduction to an amazing artist and business woman. There’s so much stuff to copy…and by that I mean…. be inspired by. Let’s face it, there not that much originality out there, but every once in a while you find it and it’s worth copying…and by that I mean, I took one look at her site and her style and her creativity and I said, I need to try that for my business. Now I am no artist like Chandra…just a remodeling contractor…but I plan on “copying” some of her ideas and appling them to my business model.
    Chandra I hope you don’t mind me stealing some inspiration from you.

    And Mark, again, thank you for this blog. That “every once in a while” means…”when I read your blog.”

    I know I know I should read it more often.

  • Mark

    @Steve — I think the way she “comes clean” is not only part of her charm but part of the “authenticity” so valued by the people interacting on the social web. Chandra even used the word “vulnerable.” How many companies are ready for THAT? Thanks for commenting, Steve.

    @Shawn — Howdy stranger. There is plenty to learn and apply here for small businesses. I think Chandra naturally “gets it.” For the rest of us though, we can certainly be students of her success and only wish for her online charm! Thanks for coming by today!

  • Great post, Mark. Chandra is right – you do have a knack for bringing this community just what it needs and wants. Chandra’s story hits both marks with style and passion.

    @Sally G – LOVE the miday analogy. Perfect!

    @Chandra – You have a new follower/fan/subscriber here. 🙂 Your work is so fun and full of a vibrant energy & what little I’ve had time to read (so far!) are full of your bright spirit and sense of play. Love it!

    I’m especially impressed with two things – your hands-on approach to social media, and your true honesty. Too many people/brands want to farm social out, but I think that sucks all the good karma right out of the experience. You can have support, but to keep it real, you’ve got to BE THERE. The honesty or authenticity takes it to a whole different level and isn’t always easy. It’s scary to put yourself out there – both on a professional and personal level. Not everyone can pull it off, but you’ve obviously got the gift.

    Kudos to you. Thanks for sharing your insights here. Wonderful.

  • Hi Steve! I know. Does it ever drive you crazy when clients think their website will have some special/powerful magnetic force pulling the whole entire universe to their site without any extra work?

    Before I started Sugarluxe 5+ yrs ago, I developed sites and consulted on corp IDs. It never ceased to amaze me how many times someone just wanted me to wave my magic wand so they could simply slide down the rainbow into a big pot of internet gold 🙂

    But it was exactly that kind of thinking that gave me the edge when I finally started my business. I was given the chance to learn from their mistakes.

  • Kudos and thank you Mark for bringing Chandra into my world today!

  • Happy to meet you Shawn!

    I’m so flattered. I mean it. That is so nice. Where are you from? I’ve been remodeling an old condo I bought straight out of college – I’m turning it into my new studio, and holy cow, what a HARD JOB! Any chance you’re close to Austin? I have a lot of web dev tricks up my sleeve for someone who helps tear out an old tub 🙂

    Just kidding…kinda.

    But, really. Thank you! Mark is so generous to have allowed me to share a bit of what I’ve learned. I’m so happy you found something from my site that might help you with yours! That’s AWESOME!

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  • @Jaime – thanks so much for joining me on Facebook!

    Your wonderful compliments mean so much. I know we just met, but I have such respect for everyone here.

    I am especially grateful for your feedback about actually doing the social media work myself.

    I’ve had countless debates with those who encourage to farm it out. It’s never worked for me. People come to know our voices. That’s the spectacular part about it: To have a voice. So why try to pawn it off, right? At least for us small biz people.

    And in the spirit of sharing, here’s my last bit I feel compelled to add today:

    I talked only briefly about how great business was in the wake of my personal tragedy. But something I did NOT mention – was that the rankings on our site and blog dwindled into oblivion.

    So, despite my loss in rankings, decreased visitors, and a shockingly low amount of traffic…it was still a prosperous time. The traffic was low, but it was highly targeted, the conversion rate was better than ever, and the average sale increased substantially. Astounding! That’s the magic of what social media can do.

    Okey dokey – I hope you’re not terribly sick of all my talkiness 🙂 – I’ve had a blast with you ALL!

    Cheers to you,
    Chandra

  • Chandra, I wasn’t aware of you until today, but I’m glad that’s changed. You and Sugarluxe are the future of marketing, and small businesses should take heed. “Excellent customer service” doesn’t just mean saying hi when I walk in your store, or responding to my email inquiry within 24 hrs, or telling me to have a nice day at the end of the call. Excellent customer service means caring about me as your customer, period. And now that customers can interact with a brand on the social web, that’s another place where they (actually, we!) want to feel cared about. The sugar, as you call it, is key. Thanks for being an ambassador for it!

  • Perfect, absoulutely PERFECT!!! Chandra you are proof of one of the biggest mysteries in the Social Domain. Yes, the small guy (girl) can have a huge impact without being a “dominant player”. Just doing your thing, the way you do. Applying fundamentals and making it happen. There are thousands of “Chandras” all over the planet doing this. And by making it “known” and teaching all of those who want to learn, the social domain will take on an entirely new (well more obvious) position in our day to day lives.
    Mark and Chandra, thanks for sharing this wonderful example of how to make it happen and proving yet again that the social domain can provide value for everyone.
    Maybe we should start a community for the small players! Take the fear out of how to make this happen and build the future ecomony that will ultimately service the next generation of consumer.

  • Mark

    @Jenn + @Steve — Thanks for your comments! Glad Chandra has some new (well-deserved) fans!

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