Skip to content

Challenge

March’s Secrets:
The Present Month Project

We just hit the first day of Spring – and we just had another snowfall. They say March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb, but that transition is not always a straight smooth line. March keeps you on your toes, looking for those signs of Spring just around the corner. And then when you see those first green shoots sprouting up through the ground? Pure joy.

March Secrets - Present Month Project

Spring, the beautiful secret you get to re-discover every year in March.

It was actually March that first inspired this entire Present-Month series. Last March, after a brutal winter, there was one particular and unexpected thing that our family loved at that time of year so much that it got my mind whirring on ideas for every time of year. You’ll find out what that particular thing was below in the “Listen” section. :)

So here is March’s Present-Month Project post, all about the unique joys of the current month. As with January and February, the categories of things to enjoy in March will fall into the following categories: TASTE, LISTEN, DO, and LEARN.

taste

Two of my favorite savory foods are in season right now: asparagus and avocados. Delicious!

Asparagus - in season produce for March

— Asparagus is just a pleasure to eat. There are all sorts of beautiful ways to prepare asparagus (wrapped in prosciutto!), but my favorite way is also very simple. Simply cook on a griddle, seasoned with a little olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. I love the texture you can get cooking them this way – tender but crisp, with just slight hints of char. And the seasoning is subtle so you can truly enjoy the flavor of the asparagus. Couldn’t be easier!

Avocado - in season March

— Avocados are simply amazing – and one of my husband’s favorite foods. Often described as a “superfood”, there are all sorts of great things about avocados. But for my purposes, the two simple things I’m excited about: 1.) they taste amazing and 2.) they are in season. Open up some ripe avocados and toss in your salad, top on your eggs, mash in guacamole, slice on your sandwich, cube in your burritos, spread on your burgers – the list goes on and on. And while in the US avocados are generally used in savory foods, other parts of the world often use them in sweet foods. And let me tell you — a freshly made cold avocado bubble tea, such as I’ve had in a little mom-and-pop Vietnamese market, is a luxurious delicious treat on a warm day.

listen

— This is the one that inspired this whole series. Last March, we were still recovering (and shoveling) from blizzard after blizzard, and were eagerly anticipating a Spring that seemed to be tauntingly slow in its approach. Unrelatedly, I was also exploring the free audio book library online, Librivox. I found one of my childhood favorite books, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and we started listening to it as a family whenever we were driving somewhere.

Secret Garden - Best listen for March

It was so perfect.

Even if you’ve read it before (you probably have), it’s worth another listen at beginning of spring. Consider: The main character, Mary Lennox, has just moved to England’s cold and windswept moors at the end of winter. Having lived in the sticky tropics, she has never experienced the onset of Spring. And having been spoiled, she’s has never really had to wait for anything she wanted. She plays outside in the cold wind, and keeps hearing about Spring, wondering what it will be – and then as it begins, she immerses herself in learning how to care and nurture for the secret garden she discovered hidden on the manor grounds. It is the perfect listen for March. All the eager anticipation for Spring, and then the joys of the beautiful growing things, and the renewal and refreshing of the children in the book … it could not be more timely than to start listening to it in March!

The audio recording on Librivox is excellent and free: The Secret Garden Ver. 2. (There is more than one audio recording of the Secret Garden on Librivox, but version 2 is the best.) It’s fun to listen to as a family, all of us including my husband enjoyed it. It also gave us the opportunity to discuss with the kids that the ‘magic’ the children talk about making and fixing things is just pretend, that it’s actually God who creates the world and who is the architect of Spring. The story is a beautiful classic, and March is the perfect time of year to listen to it – and the narrators do an excellent job. There are free apps to listen to Librivox books on your smart phone, or you can listen online. Either way, start giving it a listen in March, and enjoy!

Listen to The Secret Garden - March's Secrets - Seasonal Activities

do

— Spring cleaning!! Spring organizing!! Spring decorating!! You know that amazing feeling when you can finally have the windows open, bringing in fresh breezes, sunshine, and the sounds of chirping birds? I love it. And then when you turn around from that window, and see the dust and mess from a snuggled-in winter home … well, it’s not hard to see why spring-cleaning is a thing. Digging in and doing a lot of the deeper cleaning that might not get done as often, or more deeply organizing parts of the home that tend to accumulate clutter, or swapping out heavier winter linens and décor for lighter breezier spring options – all are work, but make the home so much more pleasant.
March - Spring Cleaning inspiration from GardenmisSpring scents can also help freshen up the home. Here is a lovely quote on a lavender sachet from a handmade shop I love, Gardenmis.

I’ve seen various types of guidelines and check-lists for spring cleaning and organizing a home, but living in apartments often gives me different types of spaces than a traditional house, and I find that the division of tasks often doesn’t fit my space. Plus, home to home will vary in particular needs anyway. So, instead of following someone else’s step-by-step plan, I plan to go around our home and take notes: What areas need a deep clean? Where are places that are clutter magnets? Of the clutter – what categories of things need to be assigned homes, and what types of things need to be gotten rid of? What are spaces that could be better utilized if they were reorganized? And so forth. Once I have a list of tasks, I can divide them up into manageable chunks that I can fit into my schedule. And then it’s hello spring-time indoors as well as outdoors!

Spring decor from Peony & ThistleA beautiful paper garland from the handmade shop Peony & Thistle. Wouldn’t this make the inside feel so spring-timey? Yes, I think so too.

learn

— It’s time to think about gardening! Exactly when to start what plants will vary by location – the end of frost here is much later than down south — so learn what types of plants you can start where you are. Or, if you’re like me and don’t have any outdoor space, learn about what types of plants can do well indoors! Herbs are a great choice. For the first time, I have plants in our home that have been growing for a year. I’m so excited! And I’m planning to start more now that the warmer weather is coming – a little herb garden, as well as just pretty succulents and greenery to freshen up the apartment. I always considered myself to have a black thumb, but I’ve been learning more and more about how to keep my plants alive, and I love having them in the apartment, especially since we don’t have a yard. There is something amazing about seeing the way God’s creation works, and the plant that can grow from such a small seed. This is the time of year to get into it, so check out some books, find a good gardening site, visit local greenhouses, and learn about how and when to get your garden growing – whether a backyard vegetable garden, or flower beds, or window boxes, or indoor container plants!

Vintage Gardening Books from BookBundle - March Seasonal FindsBeautiful vintage gardening books from the vintage shop, BookBundle.

March Seasonal Produce and more - Present Month Project

So, from asparagus and avocados, to listening to the excellent free audio book of the Secret Garden, to working on spring cleaning, to planning your garden, there are so many things to enjoy this during time while March is easing us into spring.

Do you have anything you would add to the list of things to enjoy in March? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you!

Enjoying February:
The Present-Month Project

It’s February. The luster of the snow has faded, winter continues in its third month, Valentine’s Day over-hype can be grating … maybe it feels like there’s a reason it’s the shortest month. So what is there to enjoy about February? I’m glad you asked! Here is this month’s Present-Month Project post about enjoying February.

Enjoying February - Present Month Project

Similar to January’s post, there will be sections of “Taste”, “Listen”, “Do”, and “Learn”.

taste

– Chocolate is huge in February. And not just for Valentine’s Day – there are a whole assortment of national chocolate-related days in February. But really – does it actually have to be National Chocolate-Covered-Nut Day to enjoy chocolate? I think not. But it is really nice that your favorite coffee shop will probably be featuring specialty chocolate drinks this month, and all sorts of varieties of chocolates will be on sale after Valentine’s Day. Hot cocoa is so nice this time of year when you’ve had to spend time out in the cold. Or if you’re looking to create a chocolate treat at home, here’s something I came up with this month. I love the combination of chocolate and peppermint – so I baked a chocolate cake, and added in a few drops of peppermint extract. I got whipping cream to beat into whipped cream, and added peppermint extract to that as well. And then, using an idea my husband came up with, topped it off with crushed peppermint candy canes in a spice grinder. It was a glorious chocolate peppermint experience. But, if that’s not enough – you can also melt chocolate chips, white chocolate, and peppermint chips on top of the cake as well.
So, enjoy! (But don’t over-do it. Bear in mind that February is also host to National Toothache Day.)

Chocolate Peppermint for February

listen

– February might tend be the month where cabin fever sets in the strongest. So, for those days where you might be indoors more than usual, this is a perfect time of year for listening to a book being read aloud as a family. As Emily Dickinson said, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.” I’ve been reading Snow Treasure aloud to our kids this month, and they have been loving it! And it’s a fun experience for me, too, both enjoying the story, as well as the excitement I see on their faces as we read the book together. Tonight after reading a chapter of the book aloud, my eight year old said something along the lines of, “Isn’t it amazing how a book can take you places?” A similar thought as Emily Dickinson! So pick a book, and have someone in your family read it aloud – or do it yourself! Do voices for the characters, get into the story. Snow Treasure is a book I remember reading as a child myself, all about children in Norway helping to sneak gold out of the country on the sleds, past the Nazis. It’s definitely a kids book, but still very neat, and it’s the perfect time of year for it!

Snow Treasure - February Read Aloud Book

do

– I remember when I did NaNoWriMo (November’s National Novel Writing Month, where you write a novel in a month), I thought to myself – “Why November?? That’s such a busy month, with holidays and travel! February would be perfect – there’s nothing much going on then.” And while there are legitimate reasons for NaNoWriMo to be in November, the argument still stands that February is a good get-something-big-done month. One year in February, I participated in a group project called “Thing A Day”, where the challenge was that every day in February, you were supposed to make something. It didn’t have to be anything huge, or take tons of time each day – but just the goal of making something everyday, and then posting a picture of what you made on the site. It was a fun project – sometimes it was something as simple as a doodle, or it might be that you baked something, or sometimes it was a bigger art of craft project like making a piece of jewelry. But it was really neat to look over your own pictures and see the different things you made in the month. The site is no longer up, but even so, I found myself kind of mentally noting this month what things I made. I wasn’t doing the full challenge, but even just noting the little accomplishments of things I made this month, whether a meal for my family or something artistic for my shop was a fun experience – even if I wasn’t intentionally setting aside time to make things. Late in the month this year, I started using the hashtag #makingfebruary on Instagram as a simple way to note some things I made this month. Even though it’s not as official or large scale of a challenge as Thing a Day was, it’s still fun to see progress and little accomplishements – especially in a month where it can seem like we’re just trying to get through. But whether you want to do a large scale project, or just enjoy the small everyday things, February is a great month for making things.

Making things - Febrary

– Speaking of making things, I want to share an idea of what my family did for Valentine’s Day growing up. I am intentionally not including much in this post about Valentine’s Day. It seems to be one of those holidays that gets so over-hyped that is becomes either a big pressure and high expectations, or depressing, or any number of things, which are pretty much the opposite of this post. Also, February is much longer than Valentine’s Day. However, what my family did growing up, I thought was really neat, and we’ve just recently started doing it in our family. For Valentine’s Day, we all would make homemade cards for each other person in the family (you know, construction paper and drawings and what-not) and made a big envelope for ourselves. Then at the end of the day, we gathered at the table to put our cards for everyone in their envelope, and we would maybe have made some sweet treats to eat, and we would all sit together and open our Valentines from each other. It was really fun and sweet, and an expression of love for each other. The cards were often funny, or clever, or artistic – I still have ones from my family tucked away, including some hilarious ones from my brother who has since passed away. Of course, you don’t need a holiday to tell people you love them, obviously. But if there’s a holiday about love that is unfortunately stressful or overrun by high pressure for lavish gifts and expensive dates for couples, feel free to reclaim it as a simple and happy time to let your family know you love them.

Non-stressful approach to Valentines Day - The Flourishing Abode

learn

– While February might feel like the season of cabin fever, you might be surprised to learn what all might be in your area to go and do out and about, even in the depths of winter. We, for the first time this year, were able to attend a big winter festival here in our city, which happens every year in February! Some friends of ours also found a February winter festival near their town. I’ve heard that Quebec has a huge winter carnival through much of February. I think various communities that experience cold winters realize that February could use some winter cheer, and you never know what you might find in your neck of the woods. And while you might not find something as winter-specific as that, at any time there might be jazz concerts, or craft nights at the library, or quirky vintage markets, or an art gallery opening, or any number of other things. And it is good to find ways to get out and enjoy something out and about, even when it’s cold! Search your city’s name and calendar of events, and find out what pops up. Here’s a few shots of the WinterFest we went to here in Lowell – I’m so glad we found out it was going on in our area!

WinterFest Lowell - February on The Flourishing Abode

WinterFest Lowell

WinterFest - Enjoying February

– There are also great individual or smaller-group things to do outside in February. Sledding or skiing or snowtubing can of course be great for this time of year – but also stargazing! It’s often in the early months of the year that there are the most interesting things to view in the night sky. And you don’t have to stay out all night (and freeze) to enjoy a little stargazing – but bundle up with blankets and hot cocoa (and I even made a printable stargazing chart for kids in a past post), and on a relatively “warmer” night clear night, head out to a low light area and see what you can see for even just a little while! You can check astronomy sites online to find out when and where events like meteor showers, the northern lights, or visible planets might be happening, to find a good opportunity as well! Stargazing is just one of those things that fills me with wonder, and this is a good time of year for it.

gostargazingphoto heavensdeclare printablechalkboard

I hope that gives you some happy February things to think about or do. This being a leap-year, we have an extra February day, so I hope you enjoy it! Any unique ideas for what to do on a leap-year day? What are your favorite February things to do? Let me know by clicking here to leave a comment below the post, I love to hear from you! :)

Enjoying January:
The Present-Month Project

As much of the east coast is blanketed in white blizzard drifts, even though it is late in the month, it seems an appropriate time to post about January! And whether the thought of snow-days already fills you with images of steaming mugs of hot tea while watching the snowflakes flitter past the windows, or whether your mind first goes to thoughts of cold toes, this post is for you: a post about the things to enjoy in January. This is part of the Present-Month Project, focusing on the joys of each month as it comes.

What to enjoy in January

Overall, January is new and fresh. A time to make new goals, to step back and evaluate. A time that is less hectic, after the holidays. A time for renewal and freshness. Even the ground is often covered in clean, white snow.

January is also, in my mind, the purest Winter month. December is wrapped up in the holidays, February is heavily themed in Valentine’s Day, and March is looking toward Spring. January is a wonderful time to truly appreciate the slower, cozier side of winter, full of thick blankets, fresh snows, steaming mugs, and good books.

This post will largely be a list of ideas, centered around these themes. The categories: TASTE, LISTEN, DO, LEARN. As you scan it, and find which parts you like, I hope it gives you a variety of pleasant connotations to the month of January!

taste

TO TASTE:
January suits itself well to fresher, brighter tastes … especially after the richness of the last couple months’ turkey dinners, egg nog, and sugar cookies. I love foods in January that are still cozy, but not so heavy.

– Ginger and Cranberry. This is a flavor combination I started noticing a lot last January, and immediately fell in love with it. We had cranberry-ginger bagels, cranberry ginger-ale, cranberry-ginger anything I could find. It is such a fresh and clean and delicious combination, and just feels perfect after the richness of holiday foods. Keep your eyes open for it in January, or concoct your own versions at home.

– Citrus. There’s something so nice about that cheerful splash of brightness that in-season citrus brings us on the grey days of winter. I like to keep a bowl of clementines readily available for January noshing.

– Soup. There is nothing quite like having a pot of homemade soup bubbling away on the stove on a winter’s day. There is an absolutely endless variety, as well, just pick a favorite! I tend to like simpler flavors in January, like chicken and vegetable with dumplings.

January is National Hot Tea Month

– January is National Hot Tea Month! I love hot tea this time of year. A delicious steaming mug to wrap my hands around on a cold January day is simply perfect. And unlike coffee or hot cocoa, where I limit to maybe one or two cups, I can drink hot tea pretty much all day. And there are so many delicious options- green teas, black teas, herbal teas, you name it. Tea bags are convenient, and what I often use, but there is something beautiful about the ritual of brewing a pot of hot tea. (And it’s very easy. My favorite way? In a French Press!)

Here are a few of my favorites teas:
(and I do recommend a splash cream and sugar!)

Hot tea and other things to enjoy in January - The Flourishing Abode

– Harney & Sons: Boston. This is a black tea that was gifted to me and became an instant favorite, with its caramel and floral notes.

– Twinnings Irish Breakfast. A rich, malty tea, Irish breakfast features my favorite type of black tea, Assam. Assam is notably dark, sometimes called “the coffee of teas”.

– Republic of Tea Ginger Peach. Ginger is a favorite flavor of mine in January, and pairs deliciously with peach in this tea. One of the few fruit teas that you can have with cream.

– Cinnamon Plum. I rarely drink teas that can’t take cream (the fruit would curdle it), but this one is worth it. With the combination of warm spice and bright fruit, this is a refreshing but cozy flavor combination- which fits January perfectly!

listen

Classical Music and other things to enjoy in January

TO LISTEN:
– I think January is an excellent time for classical music. In general, I tend to listen to a lot of modern indie music, but classical music resonates with me this time of year. There is something beautiful that is a mix of somber and sweet that just fits the feel of January, at least in my mind. My husband took me to the symphony this month, and I can’t imagine a better time for it! I also stumbled across a Winter Classics album on Google Play Music, which I have been listening to and loving. (In fact, while writing this, it is playing, and I am sipping hot tea. Yes, it’s lovely.) Plus, I do like to have our children grow up experiencing beautiful pieces of culture like classical music.

Classical Music in January.jpg

Some favorites for January:

– Vivaldi’s Winter. This is a perfect choice, for obvious reasons. Music written specifically to capture the beautiful essence of winter? Yes, please. Do look for all 3 movements of “L’inverno” (Winter).

– Peter and the Wolf. Beautiful music and story. This, in my book, calls for both watching and listening. There is a very beautiful stop motion film made of Peter and the Wolf. It has no dialog, only the classical music, accompanied by the visuals of the story, and sound effects such as wind. It is set in a rather grim winter setting, and much like European desserts tend to be more bittersweet than their sugary American counterparts, this film it certainly more European in feel as a tale. Some people might not like it for their children, as it does have some bleak or dark aspects to it. Our family very much enjoys it, though, it is a January tradition in our house.

– Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. This is one of the pieces we heard at the symphony and has become a new favorite of mine. Three richly beautiful movements featuring a soloist of one of my favorite instruments, the cello.

– Gustav Holst’s Jupiter. One of my favorite pieces of all time. This is one very warm and powerful section in the middle which is the music I walked down the aisle to in my wedding. But the piece overall has a fascinating colder feel to me, perhaps tied into the outer space theme of the Planets suite. Regardless, I love all the dynamics of it from start to finish, and feel it is very fitting in January.

do

TO DO:
– Plan a long project. Especially if winter seems to go slowly to you, pick a big project that you want to get done before winter is over – one that you’re not sure if you can get done in that timeframe. I have a children’s book about winter that I’m wanting to write before Spring – and I don’t think I’ve ever known of a winter that has seemed to be rushing by more quickly. Because instead of the end of winter seeming distant, as each week passes, it seems like too short of a time to get my project done! Plus, slower snowy days can lend themselves well to indoor projects.

– Go sledding. It’s fun, it’s active, it’s only available part of the year. Bundle up the kids and go do it. Make sure you go down the hill yourself, too!

January - a good time for reading

– Read books. Go to the library and stock up. Read books aloud to your kids. Read books yourself. Put books and blankets around where you can grab them just as easily as your phone! Have a reading party where all the family piles up pillows and blankets in the living room, and have mugs of tea and stacks of books, and everybody enjoy reading together. It’s so cozy to be warm and snuggled with a book in your home while the January snow swirls around outside.

– Make goals. Not just resolutions that are going to be given up before the month is even over, but more substantial goals. As a new year has begun, it is a good time to ponder. While this post is about more light-hearted things, don’t neglect the more important things. Ecclesiastes is a good book to study this time of year, in thinking about perspective. (There’s a separate post on that coming later.)

– Light candles. It’s pretty, it’s cozy, it’s warm, it’s lovely, it’s perfect for January. Need I say more?

Board games and other ideas for snow days

– Play games as a family. This is the perfect time of year for board games with your family. Even simple ones – I’m not one to get excited about jigsaw puzzles, in general, but this time of year when we’re more homebound, spread out the puzzle pieces (and maybe some mugs of tea and a bowl of clementines) on the table, and before long you’ll find I gravitate to it, and we’ll be chatting and putting the puzzle together. Just pick and game and set it out on the table. A favorite of ours this January has been Suspend – it’s a building game, similar to Jenga, but with wires balanced on a post. Simple but fun. Whether it’s a new game like Suspend or Splendor, or old classics like Battleship, games are a great way to spend a snowy afternoon with family.

learn

– Learn about what other cultures do in the winter-time for fun. That is the basic concept behind our January WinterFest celebration. We pick a different theme each year and plan fun January activities, food, and puzzles about that theme. But you don’t have to build a holiday around it – just find a couple good ideas that other places do to make winter-time lovely, and try adopting them. Here are a couple fascinating articles to get you started: one about how the Norwegians enjoy all of winter with koselig, and one about the hygge approach to winter in Denmark (disregard the alcohol references). These are fascinating examples of how people in places that have even longer and colder winters than the US, don’t see winter as something to put up with, but rather something to enjoy.

Enjoying January on TheFlourishingAbode

I hope this has given you some pleasant thoughts about January! If sipping a cup of hot tea while curled up in a blanket reading a good book to your family sounds like a pleasant way to spend a snowy afternoon, then I call it a success. What are some of your favorite things to do in January? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

The Present-Month Project

The Present Month Project - TheFlourishingAbode

I love living in New England. One of the things I particularly enjoy is that we get to truly and fully experience all four seasons. Fall, in particular, is absolutely glorious here, not just a quick blip in time, like in some other places I’ve lived. However one of those seasons is, obviously, winter. That’s not naturally my favorite time of year, and we certainly do experience it fully! But even winter has its advantages. Peppermint mocha and mittens, for instance.

The Present-Month Project - The Seasons

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is choosing to enjoy whatever season I’m in – whether it is a season of life, whether it is a season of the year, or whatever the circumstances are where I find myself — instead of wishing for something different.

I remember when I was about 10 years old, we were living in Europe. It was an amazing experience, and one of my favorite places I’ve ever lived. But I had to leave all my friends in the US to go there, which made me sad. And then when I was about to move back to the US, I was really sad to leave Prague. I was pretty down about it, and in both directions. I remember my dad sat down with me and explained something that affected me deeply. He said:

‘You can be the type of person who is always sad about what things you don’t have right now – you can spend your time in Europe being sad you’re not in the US, and spend your time in the US being sad you’re not in Europe, and you’ll just stay sad wherever you are. Or, you can be the type of person who focuses on what good things you do have right now, and spend your time in Europe being glad you’re in Europe, and then when you get to the US, then be glad you’re there. And then you’ll spend your time being happy. Which type of person would you rather be?’

I knew which kind of person I wanted to be, and I decided that then.

Seasons - The Present-Month Project

This past year, I started noticing a trend with my daughter, who is 8. If you asked her what her favorite season was in January, she would say “Winter!” After a couple months then she would answer, “Probably Winter – but also kind of Spring.” Soon the answer was “Spring!” Come July, it was “Summer!” In September, she would answer “Summer and Fall!”, and by November, it was fully “Fall.” I don’t know that she even realized that her answer was changing. She just fully appreciates whatever she is getting to experience at the time. She’s that type of person, and I admire it in her, and I tell her so.

When we hit the middle of winter, though, I struggle to keep that in mind. It doesn’t help that culturally, people here bond by commiserating together about how bad the weather is. And, to tell the truth, it really can be bad – here in Lowell last winter, we broke records for amount of snow, and were at the time the snowiest city in the country. It was blizzard after blizzard. But for some people I know, and in some areas of the world that do a better job embracing the cold, that is exciting, and this winter I want to focus on the positives. Because the fact is, it is going to be the current season whether I like it or not, so I might as well enjoy it!

And after all, in any season there are amazing things that you typically can only find peaking at certain times of the year, and that gives them a delicious feeling of expectancy and exclusivity. Fresh strawberries sliced on a puffed German oven pancake in June. Going apple picking in October. Hanging twinkle lights in December. Fireworks at the baseball park in July. Baking pumpkin pies in November. Juicy red ripe tomatoes in August. The scent of bountiful lilac bushes in May. A day of sledding ending with mugs of hot cocoa in February. And recognizing these things is what I’m calling “The Present-Month Project”.

The Present-Month Project - enjoying the season of each month

I often hear people talk about how they want to do a better job of eating seasonally- focusing their cooking on the particular produce that is at peak for that time of year. This is the same concept, just broader than food alone. The idea is that each month I want to come up with things that are unique or particularly enjoyable for that time of year, and take the time to recognize and appreciate them. Not all of them will necessarily be absolutely exclusive to that month, but I do want to really focus on what makes that particular month special, whether foods, activities, holidays, opportunities, or what-not-and-what-have-you.

fourseasons

I want to make this more specifically focused than just by season – I’ve already made illustrated art lists of general seasonal activities, above – and I love them, but those are fairly broad. Because after all, even though both are associated with winter, December is very distinct from February. And September has a very different feel than November, even though both have autumn. The Present-Month Project is about finding the particular tone of the present time of each month.

This project is not only about months that are perhaps not as popular, either, because even in months I just naturally enjoy, sometimes opportunities fly by and I suddenly realize I’ve missed it for the whole year (I always miss pick-your-own strawberry season, for instance!).

Also, it can be easy to mentally skip past special and wonderful times of year, in the hurry to get to something else down the road. For instance, how Christmas season often starts the day after Halloween. There’s still a lot of fall (and Thanksgiving!) to be enjoyed before winter begins, and it often gets missed or overshadowed — and in the meantime we hype up all the winter-cheer, but then Christmas and New Year’s Eve are over in just the first two weeks of winter and the whole freezing remainder lies ahead, with the festive side of “winter” having passed while it was actually still autumn. That’s just a weird set up, to me personally. We do only a little for Christmas, and just use it as a spring-board into the winter season, and have our big winter holiday (WinterFest) at the end of January. I know that very non-typical, though! While not all my monthly focuses will be so different from the norm, I still do want to be aware, as I go through the year, and as I go through my life, that I’m not neglecting to see current blessings in my hurry to move on to something else I want.

I think this will be a fun way to really take advantage of each month for myself and for my family. Plus, with a list in mind of all the happy things about each month, that will be an easy way to combat the list of complaints that can sometimes pile up at certain times of year. *cough cough* winter *cough cough* I’ll be planning to share each month’s post here on my blog. January’s is in the works, I want to get it up soon before too much of the month is gone!

I’m really glad I live in a world where God made seasons. All four of them.

(But I still totally reserve the right to have fall as my favorite.)

What is your favorite season, or some of your favorite seasonal things to do? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

My Plan & Progress! Look Good Despite the Holidays

Last week I kicked off a new challenge series: Looking Good .. Despite the Holidays. I’m very excited about it! A little while back I emailed myself a list of smaller goals and habits that I wanted to aim for to help me along the way, and I wanted to share that list with you. As you will see, there are a variety of different types of things on my list. The exercise related goals are in red, the style related goals are in blue, and the food related goals are in gray, so there is definitely a mix.

This is certainly not a one-size-fits-all kind of list, this is just my personal list. And it’s really just a list of things I need to do better about, not everything I need to do. For instance, I thought about including “put on makeup in the morning” – but I already do that, typically, so I didn’t add it to my improvement plan. So each person’s list would look different. However, having some smaller quantifiable goals I think can help achieve a more nebulous goal, like “looking better”.

And I’m feeling especially good about it now that I’m starting to see progress. As I mentioned before, this is not a weight loss advice series … however, I personally have been needing to lose some weight, and over the last few weeks of working on my list, I’ve lost 10 pounds. WooT! I’m starting to be able to fit back into some clothes I couldn’t wear before. I still have more progress I want to make (and not just on losing weight), but I feel like I’m on a much better trajectory now – and one that I can stick to, even after the holidays. Although I definitely haven’t done perfectly on my list … I think now that I’ve shared it with you all, though, I’ll feel much more accountable to it! I’m still really bad about drinking enough water. *sigh* Some of the goals we might end up talking about in more details in other posts.

So, what do you think of the idea of having a list of mini-goals?
What might be some things on your list? Things that are the same or different than mine – I’d be curious to hear either way! Leave your thoughts and comments below. :)

Shabby Apple Giveaway! Vintage Inspired Dresses

I have long been a fan of Shabby Apple dresses. Their style is exactly what I love … classic vintage dress styles with a whimsical modern twist, all while keeping it modest. *swoon* So I am completely honored to be able to host a Shabby Apple giveaway .. and tickled for you to get the chance to win something from their beautiful brand.

Also, I thought this really ties in nicely with the “Looking good … despite the holidays” series I just started. What a way to kick things off, eh? (People who know me in real life know that when I get excited about something, I tend to talk very fast and enthusiastically … so I’ll probably end up writing kind of like that in this post.) Oh, and not only is this offer good for whoever wins the giveaway – but Shabby Apple is also offering a coupon that all readers of The Flourishing Abode can use this month. Yes? Oh, yes.

They have quite a range of styles – retro dresses, to lace dresses, to casual dresses – and I love how they organize them by style collections. For instance, I am in love with their Zoology collection, which is where the above dress is from … and the Mad Hatter collection? SO much my *ahem* cup of tea. (I mean, come on, I have a whole series of Wonderland prints in my shop. I love the whimsy!) And their Roamin Holiday collection very much reminds me of when we lived in Europe. *sigh* Here are a few of my favorite dresses…

Eek! I. Love. It. Plus, as I was perusing their website, I saw their handy dandy guides to fit, measurement, and body type … as well as their fast and free return policy – all of which, in my book at least, make buying clothes online SO much easier.

OK! So, on to the giveaway details…
For one winner, Shabby Apple is offering a $50 gift card to their shop.

‣‣‣ 1. To enter, visit www.ShabbyApple.com, pick out your favorite dress, then come back here and leave a comment telling what it is. (This is mandatory to be entered for the giveaway.)

You can also get additional entries in the contest with the following:

‣‣‣ 2. Tweet about this giveaway

‣‣‣ 3. Blog about this giveaway

Leave a separate comment for each entry.
Open to US addresses only, for ages 18 and older.
Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm 11/26/12

And for all my lovely readers, here is the coupon code for 10% off at Shabby Apple:
theflourishingabode10off (Good until 12/12/12)

So have fun browsing around Shabby Apple! What’s your favorite dress?

Looking Good … despite the holidays. New challenge!

Ah, the holidays. I love this time of year. Special memories with family, seasonal good cheer, laughter, delicious food … and the post-holiday surprise of extra pounds when we step on the scale. Um, yeah, not so fond of that last part. No wonder getting in shape is such a common New Years resolution! This year, I’m hoping to keep all the good parts of the holidays, but not feel the regret in the mirror. So for the next weekly Friday challenge, happy holidays can still be healthy holidays!

This challenge is actually very personal to me. It’s not that appearance is the most important thing at all!! But over the last couple years, I’ve put on some weight. And at the same time I’ve been going through a style dilemma. And I’ve not been as active or as healthy as I wish. And I don’t like the results. So this autumn, I’ve started working out again and trying to get into some healthier habits, and finally have been starting to make some headway. WooT! But I don’t want the holidays to stop (or reverse!) my progress.

This series is *not* going to be a weight loss advice series. It is going to be about my attempts to become more healthy, and to improve my appearance in the process. I definitely am not going to be giving any medical advice! I’ll be just sharing what is (or isn’t) working for me. Some of it will have to do with getting in better shape, while some of it will have to do more with style and poise. I feel like I’m muddling through some of that right now, and I intend to share my thoughts, foibles, and even perhaps some occasional successes. But I can pretty much guarantee there will be opportunities for you to laugh at me. :)

And, right as we are getting started, I’ll have an exciting announcement on Monday for a special opportunity that I think you’ll be excited about! So stay tuned for that. :)

But in the meantime, here is one thing I’m going to try to be working on this week: posture!

Posture can have a huge (and immediate!) impact on your appearance. Even if your outfit is well put together, and your hair looks great, if you are slouching, that can make you look so different. Whereas even if you’re not perfectly put together, good posture can give your appearance a boost (don’t you always stand with great posture when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror?) – plus it is healthier for your body.

I’m fairly tall (around 5’10” or 5’11”, plus I wear high heels), and I do like being tall. But I don’t always have very good posture. My grandmother was also very tall, and I remember her saying to me, “Don’t be ashamed of your height, stand up tall!” I remember being surprised to realize I wasn’t standing up straight – I didn’t feel like I was slouching. But as soon as I stood up straighter, I could feel it.

It wasn’t until I went to the chiropractor when I was older that I realized part of why I didn’t stand up very straight. When I was small, we were hit by a drunk driver, and it did some permanent damage to my neck, making it lean forward. My chiropractor urged me to work on standing up straighter and retraining those muscles, and not holding my head so far forward. He said that one of the biggest differences between how healthy and limber his older patients were was in what kind of posture they carried through their life.

I realized in talking to him, just how little I realized what good posture actually felt like! I found this interesting little info article thing that helps to define exactly what good posture is.

So! I need to work on better posture. Hm. I’m suddenly overwhelmed with how ironic it is that I’m writing this while slouched back on the bed.

Ahem. Excuse me. *adjusts position*

Much better. I think in addition to just trying to remind myself during the day to have good posture and build better habits, I want to work on stretching and doing more yoga/pilates to help practice good posture.

Plus, as a friend recently said to me, “The quickest way to look 10 pounds lighter is to stand with great posture.” So true.

How’s your posture? And what do you think of this overall idea for the new challenge? I’m excited about it – it will definitely give me some accountability during the holidays. Leave your thoughts and comments below! :)

Ta-Da! Marketing: Creative Biz Challenge Finale

Well, we’ve reached the end of the 6 weeks for the Creative Business challenge! And for the finale, we’ll be covering the single most asked-about topic from your handmade biz questions: marketing.

I left it for last because one of the reasons marketing can be so difficult is because there are other things about your business that have to be in place first to be able to market more easily, and so I wanted to cover those in the first in the series. I hope you found those posts helpful. If you missed them, they lay out groundwork for how to your marketing so much smoother:

‣‣‣  #1: Your product: the base of your handmade business.
The importance of having a unique, quality and highly marketable product.

‣‣‣ #2: Your target market: who and where are they?
The importance of knowing to whom you should be marketing your products.

‣‣‣ #3 Pricing: one of the hardest parts of running a creative business.
The importance of structuring for profit before marketing.

‣‣‣ #4 Product Photography and Descriptions: your product in its best light.
The importance of letting your product market itself as much as possible.

‣‣‣ #5 Product Photography and Descriptions: Double critique week.
Additional practical tips on your product’s photos and stories.

Once you have all these things in place, marketing becomes SO much easier. And one of the reasons for this is that once these are really firmly in place, your target market will start marketing your items for you.

Positive word of mouth is typically much more effective than marketing you do yourself. Social media sites are obviously a huge part of this. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr – the list goes on and on. In general, when we talk about marketing and social media, we’re talking about how you as the shop owner are using those sites yourself. But I think the first way to look at it is in how your target market uses those sites.

This is where tips from earlier topics in this series come into play. For instance, I suggested to one shop to remove the huge watermark from the photos of their pillows, or at least to make it much less noticeable. I know that the desire is that your photos aren’t used without crediting you – but the unfortunate result is that the photos then aren’t used much at all. I sell art prints. I don’t watermark them. Yes, someone could steal them. (But I keep them at a small enough Internet-res file size that even if they did, there isn’t a whole lot they could do with it). But my prints DO get featured and shared all over the internet. I get tons of traffic from visual sharing sites (Tumblr, Pinterest, etc.) – and not because I was the one sharing my products, but because I have a product that is honed in on one specific target market, and I make it “user friendly” for that target market to share the word about my work. So, a few tips on letting your target market do the marketing for you:

1 – KNOW who your target market is and have a product that strongly appeals to them.
2 – Photograph your photos in a way that is appealing to your target market.
3 – Upload images that are a size that can’t be printed very large – but that is large enough that blogs, Pinterest, Tumblr sites, etc. can share it in an attractive way. (I recommend between 700-1000 pixels wide)
4 – If you use a watermark, make it so that it is not too distracting.
5 – Make sure there are social media sharing buttons on your site.
6 – Give occasional “call to actions” on your site, inviting people to share your site to Facebook, etc.

If you do all of this well, you’ll find that your target market will be doing a lot of your marketing for you. With all the buzz of social media, people love to find and share things that love. Let your target market do the same for your shop.

But, of course, there is the more typical marketing – the kind you do yourself. I’m going to break down this kind of marketing into two basic categories: online and offline.

Since we’re talking about running an online shop, I think online marketing is most effective, so we’re going to focus more on that one. There are four basic strategies to this that I want to point out that seem to give the best results in my experience, and then four strategies that I recommend avoiding.

So, on the four approaches I recommend:

#1 – Selling and marketing on a site that is tailored to your target market. What I mean by this is sites like Etsy, Artfire, Folksy, iPublicate, etc. If there is an e-commerce website that is already working to try and bring in YOUR target market, you can tap into that by choosing to sell your wares there. I personally find Etsy to work best for me – they are the highest traffic. Sure, there are fees, and I could do it cheaper if I built my own site – but the number of hours I would have to put in to try to bring in even a fraction of the traffic into my site makes the relatively small fees of Etsy SO much more worth it. Once you are selling on a site like Etsy, there are a number of things you can do to market your products more effectively there:
Tag and title your items with words and phrases which your customers are likely to use. Sellers often use phrases like “OOAK” and “ACEO”, whereas a customer is probably more likely to be searching “personalized” or “miniature size”, etc. Instead of starting your title with something artistic that no one is going to be searching (like, “Somber Midnight”), begin it with the words people are more likely to be searching (like, “Chunky Black Scarf”), and include the artistic name of the item somewhere else.
Join a treasury team. Getting on a really effective treasury team does require great photos and a time commitment, but can be a great marketing approach, especially as you’re trying to first get found.
Follow the merchandising reports. Etsy publishes regular reports on what trends and merchandising approaches are currently very effective, which is also a reflection of what types of items Etsy itself is looking for to be able to promote. If, for instance, royal blue is huge this season, and you have an item that color, but you’ve been calling it “bright blue”, it might help to change your tags to “royal blue” instead.
List new items regularly. To show up high in the search results, there are a wide variety of factors that you need to have in place, such as how precisely the search term the custom is using matches the terms on your listing. But one of the factors is how recently the item has been listed. Rather than constantly renewing the same items, though, I find it more effective to add new items more often. Not only does this help you in the search, but also keeps your shop fresh.

#2 – Social Media Marketing.
I’ve posted some before on using Facebook and Twitter (which you can find here), but my basic thought is to use each social networking site toward a specific purpose that it’s own unique features tend to mesh with well. Since we’ve moved, I haven’t been doing as much social media marketing as usual, but here is my general use of each site:
– Twitter: I think of it as my open-door office. Good for conversations, good place for people to talk to you. Be conversational! Use it to talk to people one-on-one. I’ve heard Twitter described as the watercooler where you talk to your co-workers – use for networking with fellow entrepreneurs. Join group conversations and Twitter events like hashtag blogging discussions, etc.
– Facebook: I think of my business facebook page as kind of a backstage pass into my business. Good for posting photos, good place for people to share your content with others. Post photos of behind the scenes work, share photos from blog posts, put up polls to let people vote for new products, etc. Good calls-to-action to ask for on facebook: feedback on new products, sharing announcements with their friends, voting in polls, answering questions to generate discussion.
– Pinterest: I think of my pinterest as my gallery – a visual display of my taste and style. Good for pictures of helpful or interesting posts, good place for people to share and have things go viral. Pin pictures related to things your customers find helpful. Pin your own posts/items, but not too often. Watch your page’s source page, or search your shop name to see what people like to pin from your shop/site.

The social media sites you choose to use, and your use of each type of social media may vary from my approach. I think the helpful thing is just to have your own game plan for each site.

#3 – Blogging or newsletters.
These two are not mutually exclusive, you can do both! Personally, I prefer blogging and personally am not a big fan of doing a newsletter, but I know it works well for others. Basically, though, the purpose of doing a blog or newsletter is to have a repeated-touch way to keep in touch with your customers and/or target market.

If you run a blog, write posts about topics that solve the problems of your target market. For instance, if you sell hair bows for kids, then your target market is moms, so write blog posts about fun family activities or healthy recipe ideas, etc. If you sell art supplies, then your target are crafters and artists, so write blog posts about projects to make, how to organize your crafts, etc. Basically, offer valuable information to your target market for free, and that will draw them in. Have clear links to your shop, do occasional posts about a new line of items in your shop, put your wares in the sidebar, etc., to convert traffic to sales. For some more info on blogging, you can check out my series on blog design.

If you do a newsletter, don’t just add people to your newsletter list, or you could get into legal trouble for spamming. Instead, use a site like MailChimp or MadMimi to get set up, and the provide a way on your shop or blog for people to subscribe. Offer an incentive to subscribe – a free printable, a free shipping coupon for your shop, etc. Basically, offer something valuable for your target market for free to encourage them to sign up. Then use each newsletter to give one clear call to action.

#4 – Advertise on targeted sites. Consider finding sites that are highly targeted to your target market, and put your ad on there. Set a limit on your advertising spending, and don’t lock into a long term commitment of payments with a site before purchasing a relatively short time. For instance, try out one month of running an ad on that blog before you buy six months. See how it goes, and if it is worth your money.

As far as the 4 strategies that I recommend you AVOID:

#1 – Running lots of big sales. There’s nothing wrong with running the occasional reasonable promotion (like a giveaway, or a free shipping special), but if you’re often running big discount sales, it’s going to undermine with value of your product and make people think your prices are too high. Generally in a handmade biz, we’re not always making enough profit on our prices for the amount of time we’re putting in anyway – but if on top of that, we’re offering half off sales every couple months, people are going to get used to and expect that and won’t want to pay full price. Make sure you’re still making profit. I know right before we moved, I was trying to move some inventory and ran some sales to try to make some extra money before packing everything up. Looking back I think it did more harm than good.

#2 – Spamming. Just don’t do it. If you wouldn’t run into someone house or business, throw your flyers up in the air and yell, “CHECK OUT MY STUFF!”, and then run out again, then don’t do that online either. Don’t add people to mailing lists they haven’t signed up for. Don’t jump into someone else’s forum discussion and interrupt it with an ad for your shop. Be a real person, not a spammer.

#3 – In-your-face promotion. This is similar to spamming, in that it annoys people, that it isn’t effective, and that it puts a bad taste in people’s mouth toward your business … but the difference is that you’re doing it in places where you’re “allowed” to promote. For instance, on your Facebook page, in your product description, in your Twitter profile, etc. The key in those cases is to still talk like a regular person – not like a shouting advertisement. If your product description are meaningless hype, like “THIS SCARF IS AMAZING!! QUALITY MATERIALS!!! LOOK GREAT WHEN YOU WEAR THIS SCARF!!” or if your Facebook posts are just constant links without specific reasons or enticements, like “Come check out my great products!!! http://myshop.com” or if your Twitter profile is just an obvious list of search terms, like “art prints typography prints modern prints kitchen art”, or thing along those lines … um, yeah, that’s what I’m talking about avoiding. Talk like a regular person. Use meaningful words. Don’t tell me “this is fabulous!!”, instead show and describe the techniques, materials and inspiration of the piece, and gently allow me to realize it is fabulous, rather than just asserting it. If you want to share a link on Facebook, let me know why I would want to check it out (and just telling me “it’s great” doesn’t count). Let me know you’re launching this new line of aprons because you think this new style of pockets will really be helpful for cooks, and then give the link. That will get me to click. Just remember to be personable, not in my face.

#4 – Shot-gun approach advertising. You’re not trying to advertise to everyone. This is why if you’re selling handmade goods, you’re going to be able to get people to pay a high price on Etsy than on Ebay … because you’re focused on the right target market on Etsy. If you pay for ads all sorts of places that aren’t really honed in on your target market, you’re going to be spending a lot of money, and even if you do get some traffic from it, it’s not really going to increase your sales, because it’s not your target market.

Ok, so we’ve covered letting your target market do the marketing, and online marketing. Very briefly, now, offline marketing.

I think the degree of importance that offline marketing has is somewhat dependent on how much you’re actually selling offline. Personally almost all of my marketing is done online because I sell almost exclusively online. Here are a couple offline things, though:

– Have business cards. I always have my business cards with me when I go out. The fact that I run my own small biz comes up sometimes, and it is definitely handy to have business cards to hand out. When I asked for you to share your marketing tips on Friday, Alyssa mentioned that you can get 250 free business cards from VistaPrint. You still do have to pay shipping, though, which is about $11. I’ve gotten them from VistaPrint before, but personally my favorite place to get business cards is UPrinting.com.

– Encourage repeat business when you mail out your orders. Include business cards, perhaps a small free gift, or free shipping coupon code to encourage them to come back, and package the item they purchased in a very that is safe, secure, and attractive.

– Wear/use your product. If you make jewelry, wear it out. If you sew purses, carry one. If you make art, hang in on your wall. And have business cards on hand when someone compliments it.

– Consider craft shows, art fairs, farmers markets, selling in boutiques, etc. If you live in an area where these types of things are available, you might find them to be a valuable asset to your business.

OK! It’s the end of the last post of the Creative Biz series. Time to move on to our last critique…

This week is Abernathy Studios, run by Yvette Norris. Here is the question she posted:

One or two particular areas I would like to learn how to improve in my biz are: I feel like my store is too much of a hodge-podge and I probably should have a main theme. I also don’t know how to promote myself other than sponsoring blogs. I currently sponsor on ShrimpSaladCircus.com but just now started. We’ll see how that goes.

Great questions! Let’s take a look at her shop:

First of all, before we jump in, I notice that Yvette has made some changes to her shop since I first checked out her shop when she asked this question a few weeks ago. She had a wider variety of products, such as hair bows and fabric key ring wristlets. It looks like she is working on consolidating her products, as she mentioned she felt like the variety felt more hodgepodge.

Ok, first of all, let’s look at some things she is doing well…

– Photography skills: Her photos are beautiful. They are clear and crisp. The lighting looks great, and all the images are in focus, have proper white balance … and are even cropped nicely on the dolls. I love how we get a really clear view of the face in the thumbnail. She clearly knows how to use a camera! And the photography style is very cohesive.

– Descriptions of the dolls: You can read the love and the joy that goes into her dolls when you read their descriptions. There is personality, warmth, and quality conveyed, all without being in-your-face. Plus she did a nice job dividing it up into sections to make it easier to read. You can’t help but love the dolls, both from the photos and form the descriptions – that is exactly what photos and descriptions should do! It would be good to have that kind of description on all the items in her shop.

Now onto good, but could be improved:

– Profile: She has conveyed a lot of personality and info in an interesting yet concise way on her about page, giving a little of her history, and the joy she puts into her dolls. It’s very well done. I might recommend doing something similar on the profile page as well, since there is not much information there, but there are many links on Etsy that lead to the profile.

Things to work on:

– Shop cohesion and product focus: I can see from her question that having a cohesive theme is something of a struggle for Yvette. And I know how that feels – I ran a couple of different shops and had several types of products before I finally figured out what my theme was. It looks like she has narrowed down somewhat, but I still have a little trouble seeing the connection of items in her shop. I think a good thing to do would be to come up with a statement of what she wants her shop to be about. For instance, mine (which I also use as a tagline) is “FlourishCafe: a place for those who love food, books and art”. That is what my shop is about. It would be good to come up with some kind of summary like that for Abernathy Studios.

Since I’m not the maker, it is hard for me to know exactly what and where Yvette would like her shop to go, so the rest of this will be speculation.

Personally, though, it looks to me from the way she talks about them in her About page, and the way she writes about them in their descriptions (as opposed to how she writes in her other listings), that her dolls are the core product to her shop. The dolls also seem to be getting more views. The natural thought to me would be to make some more dolls. Dolls with different hair color, different skin color, some with freckles, etc., to have a variety of options. Maybe even do a listing for a custom dolls, where parents or grandparents could describe their little girl and have a doll made to match her? For instance, you could have a form for customers to fill out with hair color, hair type like curly or straight, features like glasses or freckled, etc. I could see people just loving that type of thing.

However, I do notice that she only has a couple dolls listed. Perhaps making the dolls is so time consuming that it is difficult to build up an inventory? In which case, the price may need to be raised, and then other products introduced that would be quicker to make and would be at a lower price point. Maybe her shop could be a celebration of young girls’ imagination? Extra special dolls, and maybe bring back the hair bows, and incorporate other such special girl items. I can totally see parents/grandparents/aunts/etc. coming to a shop full of your beautiful dolls and some other items that celebrate little girls’ imaginations and saying to themselves, “Oh, yes, THIS is the place I want to buy a gift for my little girl.” That’s the moment you’re wanting to create with your target market. I don’t know if that is the direction you would want to go or not, but it is one idea.

Another idea would be to go with a more home decor route. As far as the birdhouses, they are super cute, but from the info I can see from the preview before I click on it (the picture and the title), there really isn’t any way to know that it is not a real birdhouse to be used outside. I would imagine that if people see that and think it is a regular outdoor-type birdhouse, then click and find out in the description that it is not, that they would be disappointed, which makes it harder to sell. I’m not as familiar with that sort of decor type item, so I don’t know as much about whether it is actually a marketable product. But if it is, and it is something she wants to keep selling, I would recommend using the photos and title to make it clear that it is decor, not an outdoor birdhouse. Maybe let the first words of the title be “Home Decor Birdhouse” or something like that, and perhaps photograph it sitting attractively on a white book shelf, or as part of a table centerpiece, so that right away people are viewing it in a different context than a regular birdhouse. But in that case it would be so obviously different from the dolls – toys and home decor. You could choose to take your shop the more home decor route – I noticed on your facebook page you seemed to have a variety of more home decor related photos there.

Another idea for what you could do, since it seems from your blog and shop that you enjoy doing a wide variety of crafts – you could look into selling your own PDF tutorials, patterns and such, maybe write a crafty e-book to sell.

Of course, the particular direction of the shop is solely up to the shop owner themselves, so it is hard for an outsider looking in to give very particular guidance, not knowing what direction Yvette would be interested in taking her shop. But the overall advice is this: come up with a phrase that describes what your shop is about, and let that guide your shop cohesiveness.

– Marketing: This is one of those cases where I think once you have a more cohesive shop that appeals more strongly to a more narrow market, they will help to market your shop for you. For instance, if you started specializing in custom-made personalized dolls, I can see people sharing and recommending that online. Or whatever particular direction your chose – like if you started focusing more solely on home decor items. I just think right now since the items are for different people, it is harder for people to say, “Oh, this shop is SO right up my alley, I want to share it!” And I think it is harder, probably, for you to know who to share it with and who to market it to, due to the different target markets for different items.

I see you have a Facebook page, and that is great. I’d recommend posting no more than once a day, no less than a couple times a week. You might consider Twitter and see how it goes for you. Also, you have a great blog that could probably help you out a lot with traffic- I think the main thing you are missing is posting a lot more often. Maybe aim to post at least once a week, and start building some steadier traffic? That could help with marketing. Since you’re doing a lot of crafty posts, have you looked into submitting any of them to CraftGawker? That could also bring in a lot of traffic. I’d also recommend putting an Etsy mini in your sidebar – you can find it under “Your Shop” -> “Promote” -> “Etsy Mini”.

I would also work on marketing within Etsy itself, starting with tags and titles. Right now a lot of your tags are taken up with “orange” “yellow” “red” “soft”, and other single word adjectives. When tagging an item, think less about describing it, and more about how someone would search for it. You can still use those words, but try using them in tags like “soft handmade doll” or “red head doll” or “toys for girls”, etc. For some good ideas on tags, start typing one of your main words (like “doll”) into the search bar and see what suggestions drop down. Those are common searches. Play around with that and see what you come up with. Use more words in your title, and move the really important words to the front. For instance, in a doll listing, doll should probably be the first or second word. You might also want to look into joining an Etsy team. If you work on some of those things, your traffic from within Etsy should increase.

Anyway, I hope this has been helpful for Yvette, and for others as well! Running your own creative biz definitely takes time and strategy, so I hope this series has been useful to help focus on some high leverage tasks to make the time you spend more effective.

What marketing tips do you find useful? Whether from this post, or something you’ve heard elsewhere! :)

What’s your best marketing tip? Get featured!

I’ve been working on the final post of the Creative Biz Challenge on marketing for today – but I’ve just realized there is no way I’m going to be able to get it all finished in time and be able to do any sort of justice to the subject! So I’m going to postpone that post until Monday, Lord willing, and work on having it done for then.

BUT in the meantime, I thought this would be fun to do … share your ideas, and I might include your tips and give a shout-out to your shop in my post on Monday!

Especially if it has to do with off-line marketing. My approach to marketing is almost purely online, and I have a lot more I’m planning to share on that than I do on non-internet marketing. So share any marketing tips you want, and I may include a variety, but I’m especially looking for tips about not online marketing.

Sooo, share away! What marketing tips/techniques/ideas have you found successful? Leave them in the comments below – and make sure you leave a link to your shop, too! I can’t wait to see what you have to say. :)

Double Critique Week!

Well, after an unintentional week off, I’m back up and running for the Creative Business Challenge. :) Last week we talked about product photos and descriptions. I wanted to talk about the two of them together, because in a sense they are doing something similar – providing information about your product in a way that appeals to your target market. However, it is just a lot to cover in one post, so we’re still on that topic for this week, looking more at practical ways to put it into action by doing two shop critiques.

If you missed last week’s post, you might want to go back and check it out, here. It covers a lot of the general concepts of product photography and descriptions that we’ll be talking about putting into practice in this post. And while the tips today are directed at two shops in particular, my hope is that it will be helpful and applicable for others as well. One is a handmade shop, and one is a vintage shop, so it should cover a variety of topics.

Well, let’s jump in!

The first shop we’re going to look at is Julia’s Fit, run by mother/daughter duo Julietta and Mariya. Here is the question they asked:

One or two particular areas I would like to learn how to improve in my biz are: Photos and stories. Photos are our number one weakness. Since we both have full-time jobs, we try to experiment on weekends, but that’s not barely enough time. Goal #1 is to improve our photography by far.
Stories are another things that we need to work on. Every item has a story that needs to be told. We are looking to find an approach that works for us and doesn’t make us feel like we’re “bragging” when we describe our items. We think that by improving these two sides of the business, advertising won’t be that much of a problem than it is now.

Great questions! Let’s take a look at their shop…

First, some things they are doing well…

– Photography lighting: I know you said you only have the weekends to work on photos, but it looks to me like you’ve got the lighting part of it figured out really well! Your photos are bright, clear and well-lit without getting any glare or reflection. This is an interesting photography critique, because as far as the technical side of getting a nice photo (things like lighting, crispness, focus, white balance, etc.), it looks like you already have a good handle on that. It will be more in the side of styling and such that improvements can be made. But as far as the technical side of taking the photos, you’re doing a great job.

– Profile: It is always good to have your profile page filled out so people can learn more about the artist(s) behind the shop, and they’ve done a nice job of giving info about themselves in a friendly way, yet keeping it succinct.

Things that are good, but could be better…

-Tags and titles: They’re doing a great job of using all 14 tags (all Etsy shop owners should do this! The tags are one of the ways that people find you in the searches, so make sure you’re using all 14 slots for tags). However, both the tags and the titles could be used even more effectively. Etsy now allows phrases in your tags, so use that to your benefit. Instead of just “blue” you can put “navy blue” or “blue pillow” or, even better, “navy blue pillow”. Just make sure the words actually do flow in an accurate phrase (like “navy blue pillow”) as opposed to just a list of words that don’t make a related phrase (like “pillow cushion soft”). Right now though, most of your tags look like they are just one word. If someone searches “blue pillow”, listings with “blue pillow” with respond better than if they are only tagged separately with “blue” and “pillow”. So think of phrases that people might search for your items, and be sure to include them in your tags and titles.

Things that can be improved….

-Shop cohesion: I think it would be good for you to do some brainstorming about your target market. What is your shop about, and what type of person shops there? I see you have home decor pillows, and that you mentioned in your profile that also do duvet covers and such, but then there are also head bands and bows. And among the pillows there are some pillows that would be at home in a trendy urban apartment, where as some would be more at home in a cute setting with kids, while others look more traditional (as shown in the photo below). Now, I am by no means saying that variety is a bad thing! I’d just recommend deciding what direction to go, and choosing variety within that direction. If you want to keep the hair bows and more fun kid type pillows, you could find a way to tie that together. Or, if you want to be a home decor shop, you could find a way to tie together different styles of pillows. But at the moment I think it is hard for a visitor to know whether your shop is the place for them – whether they are shopping in a upscale home decor shop, or a cute and fun family shop, etc. Neither is necessarily better than the other (although the price you need to get for your items may affect the decision), it’s more just an issue of cohesion so that when your target market comes into your shop, they say “Oh, yes, this is the place I would want to buy ____.”

– Photography styling: Once you have a sense for which direction you want to go, choose one or maybe two ways that look good with that style, and use that same setting to photograph all your products to keep cohesion. Personally, I think you have a GREAT thing going with this setting:

I think this setting is excellent because the white sheets and white window in the background are just enough to give the pillow a current and homey atmosphere – but without distracting from the pillow itself. I would reshoot all your pillows in this setting, but I would personally recommend the following changes:
– remove the watermark. It distracts, and with this type of item, the chances of someone stealing your photo and passing it off as their own is fairly slim. Or, if you’re just not comfortable without a watermark, I’d move it somewhere much less obvious. Besides distracting a customer in the photos, having a watermark can make it harder to get on the front page, on blogs, etc., etc.
– the way you are currently cropping the photo in thumbnail view to where it is just a corner of the pillow can make it hard to tell what the photo is of … I would recommend showing at least 3 if not all 4 sides of the pillow instead of just 2 so that it is clear what it is when people see the photo in their search results.
– maybe play around with photographing the pillows at an angle in addition to straight on?

– Descriptions: I know you mentioned that this is a troublesome spot for you. Let’s look at the description for these pillows:

Here’s a pair of pillow covers in a very popular chevron print. Designer is Premier Prints. This is lovely color scheme of brown and light blue aqua. Very versatile print, would go great with any type of home decor or space. Invisible Zipper is located on the bottom, and blends in with the aqua stripes perfectly. The fabric is a 100% thick cotton. Size about 17” by 17”. Inserts not included.

Thanks and Happy shopping!
********************************
P.S.: International buyers, please be advised that all customs fees are completely out of my control. Check with your local post office for details on customs fees in your area.

I think the first paragraph of the description would be alright if this was a catalog or mass produced item. You cover a lot of the basics – size, color, whether the insert is included, etc. However, this is a handmade item by you. Think about the question, “Why should someone buy a handmade pillow cover from me instead of a pillow cover from a big store?” The description needs to reflect the answer to that. And I think that you might have an easier time explaining that once you’ve figured out the direction for your shop. Those of us who sell on Etsy basically have specialty shops. If you have a good field of your specialty and who it is that would be interested in it, I think it becomes easier to tell your “story”. Just to illustrate, I’m going to imagine I’m you, that I made these pillows, and that I’m going to have the shop specialize in the modern styles of pillow…

After a busy day in the city, it is so nice to curl up on the couch with a hot cup of coffee and a cozy pillow. I made this set of modern brown and aqua chevron pillow covers to keep your apartment both cozy and stylish. Slip them onto pillow inserts and toss on the couch for an instant lift to the room. Lovingly handmade of thick 100% cotton with a hidden zipper, it will hold up well to the tumultuous life of a throw pillow (squeezes, cuddles, pillow fights, and being cried on during chick flicks).

Not that this is necessarily what you would have in your description, but I just wanted to demonstrate that having a particular feeling to your shop and a certain demographic in mind can make description writing a lot easier.

After an opening paragraph to give some personality, I would recommend bullet point lists of details so that people can easily find more info. I gave an outline last week for a user friendly way to write descriptions that you might find helpful. Also think about what details should be included. I see you have that section about international customs at the end, and I think it comes across as a little intimidating. It is certainly all true, but I’d recommend making it a little friendlier. Instead of saying it is out of your control, just state that it is their responsibility. Some other questions that customers will be wondering that should be answered in the description – how long after purchasing the item will it be shipped? it is machine washable? how will it be packaged? etc.

So here is an imaginary example of what the whole thing might look like, based on the outline from last week…

After a busy day in the city, it is so nice to curl up on the couch with a hot cup of coffee and a cozy pillow. I made this set of modern brown and aqua chevron pillow covers to keep your apartment both cozy and stylish. Slip them onto pillow inserts and toss on the couch for an instant lift to the room. Lovingly handmade of thick 100% cotton with a hidden zipper, it will hold up well to the tumultuous life of a throw pillow (squeezes, cuddles, pillow fights, and being cried on during chick flicks).

— Details —
These handmade pillow covers:
∙ measure 17 x 17 inches.
∙ are made with Premier Prints fabric.
∙ are 100% cotton.
∙ are machine washable.
∙ do not come with pillow inserts.
∙ open with an invisible zipper.

— Shipping —
This item ships within 3 business days of payment, and is carefully packaged in a poly sleeve.
International buyers are responsible for any customs fees that may apply in their own countries.

— Want more? —
Interested in something a little different?
Browse my shop for additional modern styles of home decor: http://www.etsy.com/shop/juliasfit
Or click the contact link below if you are interested in a custom order!

I love your pillows (especially that bird one – SO cute!) and I think once you hone in on your target market and if you approach descriptions more from the point of view of getting the reader to imagine using and recognizing the quality of the pillow, rather than feeling like you have to say “this is amazing!”, that might help about feeling like “bragging”.

Well, I hope that these tips have been helpful! Let’s go on to shop number two …

Shop number two for a critique is The Little Red Owl, which is a vintage shop run by Amy. Here were her questions…

one or two particular areas i would like to learn how to improve in my biz are: i have just opened my shop recently and i would love to learn how to better reach my target audience and how to properly price my items. i am also new to facebook (i have a page for my business only) and i would love to get a better handle on that as well. thx! love the blog!

Alright! Let’s take a look at her shop…

First let’s take a look at some things she is doing well…

– Number of listings: Having about 2 pages of items is a great number to start out a shop with – its enough listings to have an established looking shop, and have a fair amount of variety for shoppers to look through. As you find what types of items sell well and such, then, you can continue to build. But you’re at a great number of listings for such a new shop!

– Variety of price points: It is tremendously helpful to have items at a variety of price points in your shop. Big ticket items, like the chairs below, don’t move too fast but the whole time they are in your shop they tend to bring in more traffic. But then you also have smaller ticket items that can have a quicker turnover with that traffic. Personally, your prices look very appropriate to me, too, as someone who used to sell vintage.

– Banner and avatar: I absolutely love the feeling evoked by your banner and avatar. It gives a great vibe for the style you’re going for right away when people see your shop, and having a picture of yourself in your avatar is a big plus, because people love to see the owner behind the shop, so nice job on those!

Things that are good but could be improved:

-Profile: I see you have your profile filled out, which is good, but it seems to be outdated. You mention wanting to open an Etsy shop, and it is now open. You also mention that you want to blog, and give a link – I would recommend perhaps removing that, and then adding in the link and info for your blog once you start doing it. I do see you have your About page filled out nicely, though, which is great!

– Facebook: We’ll be looking more at marketing and such next week – but I did look up your page on Facebook. It’s great that you have a Facebook page, that can be very helpful in marketing! However a few things I noticed that could be improved:
– your cover photo is stretched. I’d recommend creating a new photo that would fit better in the space.
– post on your business page about once a day. More than that, and people will start to “hide” your posts. I’d recommend un-linking it from Twitter and such to keep from overwhelming your followers.
– Keep your posts relevant to your business. Try sitting down and really brainstorming who your target market is, and think about what things are helpful to them. For instance, if you find a blog post that talks about caring for vintage items, that would be a perfect kind of thing to share. Or post pictures of behind the scenes work at your place getting items ready for your shop, etc. But try to keep it relevant – people “like” your page to follow The Little Red Owl, so give them updates that are related to their interest in that.

Things to be worked on:

-Photography Logistics: It looks like you are using indoor lighting and/or flash in your photos. I would highly recommend using diffused natural lighting instead. You could shoot outside in the shade, or inside near a well-lit window. Indoor lights creates unflattering lighting, sometimes distorted colors, and a flash creates glare on the items. Also, make sure your photos are fully in focus and non-blurry, that you can see the whole item in the first photo (especially for unique vintage items where people might not be able to guess what it is from a close-up), that it is not washed out, and that the white balance is properly adjusted.

-Photography setting: When you have a shop with a lot of variety, as vintage shop tend to do, it can be difficult to keep a cohesive shop. A cohesive shop is very valuable in appealing to a certain target market. I get the impression that your target market has an appreciation for quirky meets classic. I think that having one fairly simple background that has just a little bit of quirk without being distracting, and shooting every item in that same place, and at the same angle would be helpful to make your shop recognizable, branded, and cohesive. I kind of like the photo with the white background, but kind of teal colored base for the item to sit on … especially if you were to shoot the photo head on rather than at a downward angle so that the color was more below than behind the item. You could maybe even get away with using some of the red pattern you are currently using in some of your photos, but use it as a base instead of a background, so that the color or pattern is just below rather than behind the item. Enough to make it quirky and unique, but not enough to distract. Here is the photo I am talking about:

Play around with different backgrounds, and find something that you can use pretty much across the board (at least on all the small items, and then maybe one different but similar setting for all the larger items/clothing), and shoot all the items in that same setting. White is good, but if you use a sheet, make sure it is not wrinkled, as that can be distracting and also looks unprofessional.

I definitely love your vintage finds! I think I am someone in your target market. :)

I hope these tips have been helpful both for the shop owners above, as well as other Etsy shop owners!
If you have any thoughts or comments, please leave them below!