What My Failed Yard Sale Taught Me About Marketing

I’m a big fan of yard sales. Mostly because I’m a big fan of stuff; especially cheap stuff that barely works. But, as you can imagine, one of the consequences of being a fan of stuff is actually acquiring a lot of stuff so one day, after rummaging in my basement for an hour to locate a snowboarding jacket, we figured it might be time to free up some space. It was finally time for me to throw a yard sale of my very own!

Being a marketer, this excited me. After all, I do this for a living. Clearly this would be the most epically successful junk-liquidation ever.

Once I finished rubbing my hands together in anticipation, I cracked open my laptop, picked a font, and typed “Marketing Plan” in bold letters at the top of a fresh new spreadsheet.

In the weeks leading up to our yard sale I would generate some buzz on the local Facebook group. I would post select items on Craigslist. We would use bright neon signs for maximum visibility. I would strategically choose telephone poles with the highest traffic while optimizing the user journey to my house. After the signs went up, I even mapped the user experience, driving the various routes myself, verifying that the signs were visible and the path was intuitive. I eagerly looked forward to crushing it.

Yard sale sign that crushes it

As advertised, the sale started at 10:00 am and our first customer arrived at 10:04 am. She came up our front steps, thumbed through some of the stuff and purchased a bag of knitting accessories for $1. The yard sale was on!

That was one of precisely three sales we made that day. After six hours I packed things up, having made $20 in revenue and -$3 in profit. As I sat there, wasting my Saturday, I had a lot of time to reflect on what went wrong and, more importantly, how that reflected on me as a marketer (I mentioned I sat there for 6 hours, right?). Though there was definitely more I could have done to spread awareness, watching lost opportunity after lost opportunity; a pattern emerged. Being an SEO, I quickly formed that pattern into a list. So let’s review what happened.

Poor User Experience

Our house is not designed for yard sales. Mostly because, instead of a “yard”, there’s a giant cement wall with a flight of stairs leading to a front porch. It was from this front porch that I was able to see the cars pull up to the curb, stop to look at the “Yard” sale on a deck 10 feet above them, and then drive off without ever leaving their car.

High Up House

So what does this have to do with digital marketing? Well, it means that if your product is hard to get to, most people will drive off to get it somewhere else. If someone gets to your site but is confused about what they should do or, even worse, intimidated by what they see, they’re going to leave. If your site isn’t intuitive, your visitors won’t ever see your products or content. Help your users find what they are supposed to find on your site. Make your navigation helpful. Use internal links contextually. Be sure people can get to your content without climbing a giant flight of stairs.

Not Delivering What Was Promised

What happens when you advertise a ton of great knick-knacks and electronics when your inventory actually consists of something like the following?

Cool Stuff

Who Doesn't Want a Letter Maker?

Apparently, people leave without buying anything.

When you talk about your product or service online and make any claim about how great or useful your company is, you’d better be able to back that up. The only thing worse than someone not being able to find you is someone finding you only to leave disappointed.

Whatever you’re doing with your site, do it well and strive to make it better. Pay attention to what people are saying about you online. Encourage people to review you online. Show off your good reviews and learn from the negative ones.

Not Doing Your Research

Of the $20 we made at the sale, $15 was from a specific Craigslist ad where I mentioned that I was selling some old comics. Conversely, one of the most common pieces of feedback I got was from non-buying visitors telling me about a nearby sale where they were charging about half of what we were.

Really Hot Clothes

That's a real Olympic jacket btw

Had I placed some targeted Craigslist and Facebook posts that specifically highlighted the comics, I might have been able to get more special interest buyers. Had I surveyed other yard sales, I might have considered selling our clothes for a bit less. (even though there’s no way I’m letting go of the Olympic jacket that I have for some reason for less than $10).

The point here is that we developed all of our outreach and pricing in a vacuum. When you decide prices and demographics, you need to be sure to have a good sense of what else is out there. If you’re selling comics, go after comic-people. If folks down the street are selling jeans for $5, then don’t charge $20.

So What Did I Learn?

The main point is that marketing can only get you so far. We had plenty of people stop by (especially when you include the ones who stayed in their car). People talked about our Facebook posts. The signs worked perfectly. All of that worked great.

They just didn’t like what they saw when they got there.

Good marketing is vital for getting people to your site and your store. But once that happens, you’ve pretty much reached the limit of what it can do for you. The rest is up to you.

Have empathy for your customers by providing a great experience. Eliminate all obstacles and help them get to where you want them to go. Give people the product and experience they expect, if not better. Take the time to research both your audiences and your competition.

And with old comic books, do some quick research on eBay, so you don’t accidentally sell a $60-$80 first appearance as part of a $10 bundle.

Have your own life lessons that helped you as a marketer? Share your story below!

Portent Alum George is a former member and lead of Portent's SEO team. George went on to Moz as an expert on local SEO and is now in residence at Indeed.com

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  1. This is great, George. I love the analogy.
    As marketer, it’s easy to get caught up in the race for attention. Great marketing is nothing if it doesn’t fulfill its promises.
    Good luck on your next yard sale!

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