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Challenges, problems, and triumphs -- from a manufacturer's perspective.

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Understanding Indie Crafters (by an Indie Crafter)

What they want, what they buy, and how to reach them.

by Diane Gilleland (February 16, 2009)

(Note: Diane produces CraftyPod (www.craftypod.com), a blog and bi-weekly podcast about crafting and the indie craft culture. She also writes about craft for print and online publications including CRAFT magazine, CraftStylish, Sew Simple, and Hello Craft.)

As a member of the indie craft community, I was excited to see indie crafters featured at CHA in January. Indie crafters have been emerging as a culture for the past several years, and it's great to see the craft supply industry begin to notice us.

The coverage at CHA, however, contained some inaccuracies most specifically, in the Trend Report distributed at the show. I'd like the craft supply industry to have a more accurate picture of my community, so I'm very grateful to CLN for giving me this opportunity to share my own impressions.

Who are we?

The very term "indie crafter" is shorthand to describe an incredibly diverse community. I know indie crafters who are in high school, and indie crafters in their 60s. We're mostly women, but there is a small and growing percentage of crafty men among us. We participate in every craft category you can think of: we knit and crochet, we make cards and collage, we sew, bead, embroider, dye, paint, and anything else we can get our hands on.

This wide demography may seem to make us nearly impossible to reach with marketing messages. Actually, we aren't so hard to reach, but reaching us requires different methods than the craft supply industry has been using. Let's get to that a little later, though.

What do we make?

Not only do we participate in many craft categories, we're very exploratory as well. If you follow even a few of our craft blogs, you'll see that most of us routinely practice more than one craft, and many of us combine multiple craft techniques into a single project.

In fact, this creative approach is one of the ways we earn the nickname "indie" (short for "independent"). We aren't interested in replicating someone else's design perfectly in fact, we aren't interested in replicating anything at all. We'd rather create our own unique projects, influenced by the people, places and things we personally love. We likely place higher value on originality than any other segment of the current craft market. (If you want to see a great representative sampling of this creative mindset in action, visit CRAFT magazine's blog regularly: www.craftzine.com/blog.)

If I had to identify a few categories that are more popular with my community than others, I'd say that sewing, knitting/crochet, and paper crafts (card-making and paper model-making, but not scrapbooking) are prominent. If you want a good view of our overall aesthetic, take a look at Japanese craft books there's a vast directory of them at www.craftlog.org/craftingjapanese. Many of us appreciate the simplicity, sophistication, and anime-influenced cuteness of these designs.

What do we buy?

Because we're so interested in making original things, our buying habits tend much more toward tools and consumable supplies than they do kits and pre-made components. We'll purchase embroidery floss to stitch embellishments onto a favorite jacket, but we'll pass on the sequined iron-on patch.

Our penchant for originality also leads us to haunt thrift stores and eBay for vintage materials fabrics, buttons, and trims that can't be found anywhere else. And while these secondhand supplies don't support the craft industry directly, it's important to remember that every reclaimed clothing project requires needles, thread, and washable fabric markers. Every recycled paper project requires glue and sealer. We may not buy everything from craft-industry sources, but we certainly are buying.

And on that note there's nothing indie crafters dislike more than seeing their imagery co-opted by industry. Trust me, if you see lots of skulls and sparrows in our projects, it's a mistake to pour development money into a line of skull and sparrow-emblazoned products targeted at indie crafters. Just give us quality tools that make our crafting easier and better, and we'll take care of the imagery.

We are interested in what the industry is calling "green" products, but our definition of "green" is very specific. For example, we're interested in recycled papers made with post-consumer fiber. We want biodegradable, non-toxic glues and sealers. We want recycled or sustainably-produced yarns. We aren't interested, however, in products that merely represent "green," like recycling-symbol stickers or earth-shaped embroidery templates.

Where do we buy it?

I think there's a perception among manufacturers and large retailers that indie crafters are somehow against the craft supply industry, that we don't like corporations in general, and therefore aren't likely to buy their products. In truth, there probably is a faction of my community that operates this way, but I would say that they're far from the majority. And even the most anti-corporate of us needs a new pair of scissors or a packet of needles occasionally.

I do think that many indie crafters value local, independently-owned craft retailers, but not every community has them, so we also shop at big-box craft retailers. We also buy supplies online when we can't find them locally. This diversity in our buying habits may seem frustrating from a marketing standpoint, but it's really a matter of focus. When we decide that we want a particular craft product, we're willing to explore more places to find it. All industry needs to do is show us the product and I'll talk about how to do this in a moment.

Why are we important?

The one thing all indie crafters can be said to have in common is that we are tightly networked online. We use the Internet to communicate with each other, sell handmade things to each other, and more importantly, to share with each other. It happens on our blogs, in our online stores, and on social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook. And it's very powerful.

Let me give you an example. I'm a big fan of Clover's Yo-Yo Makers. I have a blog, and I write about this product regularly. My blog gets read, on average, by 1,000 people each day. Many of those readers also have blogs, so if they try the Yo-Yo Maker on my recommendation, they can in turn pass their recommendation on to their readers. And so on. Through blogs, indie crafters are able to transmit our opinions of products with dizzying speed and efficiency.

How can you reach us?

Since we're so active online, you might think that the best way to reach us is through your website. But that's not really the ticket.

I asked a number of large craft companies at CHA how they were reaching out to the indie craft community, and most of them gave the same answer: "We have a website that we use to push product information out to the consumer."

Indie crafters are not purely consumers. Because of our blogs, online stores, and the way we share our work online, we are also producers. And the best way to turn a producer into a loyal customer is to invite them to participate meaningfully in your brand. In other words, don't sell to us. Engage with us.

In traditional marketing, a craft company will conduct research to identify a group (or market) of crafters, and then broadcast a single message designed to reach everyone in that group. But broadcasting methods don't effectively reach an online-savvy group like indie crafters. The best way to reach us is not to address the group, but rather to engage with individuals. Each crafter you speak to will in turn speaks to others, who speak to others, and so on.

If a craft company would invite me to comment on its newest product, for example, I'd gladly offer my two cents. If a craft company noticed that I had blogged about one of their products recently and personally thanked me, I would be elated and tell my friends. And contacts like that are as simple as sending an email. Because indie crafters are so enthusiastically online, we're very easy and inexpensive to reach.

Another important way to reach indie crafters is to give them some recognition when they use your products. When you find an indie crafter who's used one of your products in a project posted on his or her blog, why not offer to feature that crafter on your website? Not only is that crafter likely to sing your praises through her online channels, you'll also be sharing some very creative uses for your products with your own online audience.

(Those crafters aren't hard to find, by the way. A Google search for the name of one of your products will likely reveal a number of these blog posts, in which a crafter has mentioned your product by name. A crafter who blogs about your product by name is likely a very good evangelist.)

It would also behoove craft supply companies to participate meaningfully with large craft-oriented websites, where so many indie crafters spend a portion of each day. The ones with the most reach at the moment are (again) the CRAFT magazine blog (www.craftzine.com/blog), Craftster (www.craftster.org), CraftStylish (www.craftstylish.com), and Etsy (www.etsy.com). The indie craft community loves these hubs on the web, and we also love any craft company that helps to support them. It should be said that indie crafters are fairly immune to traditional display advertising, so your company may need to engage in some brainstorming with these websites to find creative ways for you to have a presence.

In conclusion.

The Internet has changed crafting forever, creating an environment of spontaneous sharing. While this culture is harder to pin down than the craft markets your company may be used to addressing, in some ways, reaching the indies requires far less effort than reaching mainstream markets. We're open to brand loyalty, as long as we can be participants in the process. And because we look outside the traditional, mainstream sources of inspiration, we, in turn. inject constantly fresh ideas into the craft landscape.

The key is, however, that we don't need you to research, repackage, and sell us back to ourselves. We just need you to listen to what we're already saying and doing in public forums, and then engage us in conversation. The indies and the industry have a lot of value to offer each other.

(Note: Diane may be reached at diane@deepideas.com. To read previous "Vinny" columns, click on the titles in the right-hand column. To comment on Diane's article, email your thoughts to CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)



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