Thinking outside the (eBay) search box

More than a million people sell on eBay regularly, and by some
estimates, more than half a million people do it as their full-time job.

The prevailing wisdom is this:

  • Sell a commodity
  • Sell it cheap
  • Do good enough customer service that you have high ratings
  • Wait for your fair share of search traffic

So, a prospect goes to eBay, types in "Elmo" and sees all the
listings. Common sense tells the prospect to find the cheapest one from
an acceptably rated bidder. The end result is average stuff sold to
average people for slightly below average prices. The long tail kicks
in and there’s a business! eBay does its share by putting a part of its
profits to work in promotion and in affiliate programs and in ads on
Google, etc.

You, loyal reader, can already guess what’s coming: average stuff for average people is no way to make a living. In fact, the big eBay success stories, the ones that people talk about, are the Alan Greenspan paintings, the grilled cheese sandwich that looks like the Virgin Mary, or the woman who sold the Pokemon
cards for a fortune, etc. In other words, buzzable stuff. Unique stuff.
Remarkable stuff. Stuff that got sold despite the search box, not
because of it.

That’s all fine if you’re running a circus sideshow, but what about
the hundreds of thousands of people that just want to sell typical
stuff and don’t have great copywriting talent? They need a different
strategy, one that gets them attention off eBay and builds an asset
they can profit from.

7 years ago I helped a friend at Yahoo by writing a short book about
the short-lived Yahoo auctions business. I argued that the asset
sellers should build is permission. That the way to make a living as a
seller on eBay is to have a list of people who want to get a weekly or
monthly email from you outlining your latest and greatest auctions. And
to do that, you need a specialty, you need to be real and you need to
be trusted.

If I collected Fiestaware, for example, I’d look forward to an
update from a trusted source on her (and everyone else’s) Fiestaware
auctions, sorted by desirability.

Instead of running a rolling garage sale, you need to become an
expert. Someone who is seen as knowing what they’re talking about, and
someone who can reach out to possible buyers instead of waiting for
them to find you.

I’m selling my treasured canoe
on eBay. Without this blog, it’s really unlikely that I’d get even a
bid or two on it. Of course, if every eBay seller had a blog like mine, they’d
be fine, because they could just post their auctions as I just did, and
they’d get plenty of traffic. But building thousands of blog posts over
nearly a decade is a lot of investment just to sell a canoe.

For the seller who doesn’t have that asset, we’ve just launched SquidBids.

Here’s the page I built about my canoe auction.

It doesn’t work so well if you’re doing what I’m doing, which is
selling just one item. But imagine that someone decides to specialize
in antique teaspoons or even bulldog puppies… the idea is to build a
blog, a twitter following, a FaceBook social graph, and even a
SquidBids page that:

  • establishes your reputation
  • earns you a following
  • gives you a tool to notify people about new listings

The goal, to make a really long post short, is to create an environment where people will pay extra because it’s you
who’s doing the selling. And that happens when you give your audience
things. Give them information and access and insight. Point to auctions
that aren’t even yours… if it’s good stuff.

This feels hard. It takes time. But it’s far far easier and more profitable then wishing and hoping that someone stumbles onto you. If selling on eBay is actually your business, you need to start setting out the breadcrumbs that make you worth more than the next guy.

It always comes down to human nature. We’d rather buy from a friend.