Social media and e-commerce sites are transforming Western North Carolina’s arts-and-crafts industry. Jumping on a growing trend, WNC artisans are harnessing the power of the Internet to expand their brands and peddle their wares worldwide.
After decades of relying on trade shows and traditional retail sales, crafters are turning to Etsy to save time and travel costs while reaching many more potential costumers. Since the popular website (www.etsy.com) was created in 2005, local use has grown exponentially: In 2008, Asheville artists operated 82 virtual stores on the site; today there are 551.
“Etsy has completely blown up,” reports Janelle Wienke, communications coordinator for HandMade in America. The Asheville-based nonprofit helps support and cultivate the craft industry throughout the region.
“Online sales are a really viable option now,” she continues. “Selling in local markets is nice, but you’re not going to make what you want to make.”
Many artists, though, don’t know how to navigate the new online territory, Wienke reports. To address that, HandMade offers various training options, including Appalachian Women Entrepreneurs (see “Crafty” elsewhere in this issue). The organization is also working on setting up its own e-commerce site for WNC crafters.
The personal touch
Asheville author, artist and designer Alena Hennessy credits online outreach with opening up lots of opportunities, including a major book deal.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Hennessy wrote on her Tumbler blog that she had an idea for a book and asked publishers to get in touch with her. Within a week she’d heard from someone at Quarry Books who’d seen her blog and was intrigued; a few months later, they had a deal. In July, Hennessy’s literary debut, Cultivating Your Creative Life: Exercises, Activities & Inspiration for Finding Balance, Beauty & Success as an Artist, arrived in bookstores nationwide.
“I literally said, ‘OK, universe, I’ve got a great book idea, so a publisher should get in touch with me,’” Hennessy reveals. “It was just kind of tongue-in-cheek: I put a wink-wink … and it actually worked. The craziest thing was I didn’t think hardly anyone was reading my blog.”
The experience, says Hennessy, helped her realize just how important online outreach can be to her business. Using social media effectively, she says, is an “art unto itself.”
“I find people really get to know you more personally through blogging, and then they connect more to who you are, and then they’re more willing to spend money — and comfortable wanting to support you,” she explains.
Hennessy says her Facebook presence has also contributed to business success. “You can put an image of a cool T-shirt or painting up and thousands of people will see it,” she notes, adding that people often come into her River Arts District shop looking to buy items promoted on her page.
Boosting your brand
Robin Plemmons, who makes humorous greeting cards and illustrations, also sings the praises of Etsy and social media.
Her blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, she says, all provide “a fun place for self-expression. It’s been very beneficial to my business, because I am my own brand, basically. And the more that I put myself out there on the Internet, the more others are opening up to me.”
That outreach, says Plemmons, was largely responsible for her first-place finish in the “Indie Crafter” category in Xpress’ 2011 Best of WNC readers’ poll. It’s also helped drive sales at her Etsy store (her only steady source of income). Those sales aren’t strictly local, either: She’s had orders from as far away as Australia.
“The influence trickles out,” Plemmons observes. “Good business is good relationships. … Social media has provided a great opportunity to connect with people that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”
The artful dollars
In July, Americans for the Arts (a national nonprofit) released “Arts and Economic Prosperity IV,” which quantified the nonprofit arts-and-culture industry’s economic impact in 2010 (not including expenditures by individual artists or for-profit entities). Nationwide, the industry generated $135.2 billion in economic activity: $61 billion by the organizations and $74.1 billion by event audiences.
The comprehensive study also features customized findings for specified regions in all 50 states. Buncombe County’s nonprofit arts-and-culture activity generated:
• $43.7 million in total spending : $16.9 million by cultural organizations and nonprofits, and $26.8 million in event-related spending by their audiences (including parking, dinners at restaurants, money spent in nearby stores and related hotel stays)
• 1,427 full-time-equivalent jobs
• $32.5 million in household income for residents (including salaries, wages and entrepreneurial income)
• $4.8 million in local and state government revenue (taxes and fees)
• 147,204 hours of volunteer time with an estimated value of $3.1 million (based on an hourly “wage” of $21.36).
Megan Dombroski contributed to this article. Photo by Max Cooper.