How I Doubled My Convention Income - ACen 2017
I’ve just gotten back from Anime Central 2017 and I want to share some results of my ongoing experiments. This year, I had a 120% increase in sales from my last time as a vendor. To put that in context, I was getting a 10x return on my investment in 2015. That’s enough of a jump for me to want to talk about what went right so that you can reproduce the results for yourself and for science!
While I want to talk about my choices, I want to preface this whole thing by talking about a few factors that were outside my control as well some biases towards anime conventions.
Anime cons have a bad reputation for a reason. In general, they suffer from an aversion to curation, which leads to low quality sellers blocking many dedicated creators from attending predictably. You can plan to be at a selection of shows throughout the year and then find that the whole show sold out suddenly and without advanced notice (that’s why I wasn’t at ACen 2016). In addition to a tendency towards obtuse bureaucracy, they also get criticized for having a younger audience that tends to be both rude and cheap. If you don’t identify as part of that culture, it’s easy to write the whole thing off. While these criticisms are based in fact, that doesn’t mean that they are devoid of opportunity. This year at ACen was my most profitable 3 day event ever and that’s reason enough to take a second look at anime cons in general.
Anime Central is a bit of a unique beast. It’s been running strong for 20 years now. Conventions with that much history tend to attract a very art savvy crowd. Long running attendees (like me) have have grown up to have jobs, a budget and more nuanced spending habits. The crowd I interacted with this weekend was among the most positive and generous I've ever encountered.
You might be wondering if there were any external factors that could have dramatically influenced my sales. Overall, I don’t think there was much. There was not a noticeable change in the con itself that would account for doubling my sales. While I think that the rainy weather we had was a boon for the vendors selling in the main hall, I didn’t hear about anyone else having exceptionally increased sales from past years. My spot was similar to last time and the hall was laid out similarly as well. You may assume that my work has gone up in demand over the last 2 years, but it’s worth noting that my sales were down by 30% at my last convention. Everything points to the changes I made to my sales strategy accounting for the 120% increase in income.
It’s common for me to have a helping hand at conventions. Sometimes my wife Ania will be able to help me and sometimes it’s a capable local artist that volunteers to shadow me for the weekend. This convention, I had a friend come out that had experience selling luxury lifestyle products. She was codenamed “El Hustler”.
Up until this point, I haven't invested much in hiring or training a sales staff, partially because it's just hard to quantify the value of sales as a skill. That feels a bit foolish considering that the purpose of setting up at conventions is to make sales. Having a genuinely enthusiastic and charming character make first contact with new fans caused me to make more money in the short term and establish a better relationship with those fans moving forwards. El is definitely going to be getting repeat work from me.
20 Odd Feet of Concrete
Last year, I had written an article praising a double sized booth for dramatically increasing my sales at C2E2. I failed to follow my own advice the following year and saw a 30% drop in revenue. I had thought that making a bold streamlined booth would add as much value in presentation as it lost in shear mass. It sounded nice but the numbers didn’t reinforce that narrative. I was right the first time, bigger booths sell more art.
Fortunately, I decided to invest in a double sized booth at ACen 2017. Having a double wide booth positioned on a corner allowed me to lay out 5 times as many tables as my last outing. Instead of covering a single 10’ span with an 8’ table, I had tables wrapped in an ‘S’ shape snaking through the whole space. Beyond the obvious benefit of having larger visual impact, it also allowed me to accommodate more customers at once. It’s not obvious on the face of it, but buying twice the space can mean the difference between being able to fit 15 simultaneous visitors in the booth as opposed to 3.
The increased size not only allowed me to show more prints but it also allowed me to show more diverse merchandise. With 30 linear feet of walls to hang artwork, we were able to show a large amount of framed work that added a sense of class. Having one of the fanciest looking booths in the area reinforced the concept that we were selling a premium product. Both the diversity of products and the premium atmosphere are big enough points, I’m going to give them their own sections here.
Premium Products at a Premium Price
As someone who creates a boutique product, I can demand higher prices than some of the other artists at the show. By selling my own original vision and having a unique style, I’m able to avoid getting into a price war with people selling similar items. Fan artists who fail to differentiate themselves struggle with this constantly and it’s lead to many of them selling prints for as low as $5 each. Personally, I always preferred dijon mustard, even if it was overpriced.
I wish I had gotten a photo of the booth before it got picked clean.
Seriously though, pricing is a very difficult subject. As artists, pricing our own work touches firmly on our measurement of self worth. To attach a dollar value to our art forces us to weigh how much we think other people appreciate our existence. It’s an act of emotional contortion that leaves nearly everyone struggling. Speaking specifically to my own experience, it’s much easier to ignore this issue of pricing than accept any advice on the topic. As someone who boldly proclaims how scientific and open minded they are about business, I am constantly surprised how timid I’ve been to reassess my pricing.
Earlier this year a friend pressed me on the issue and I finally caved. Since then my prices have been around 25% higher and I now make about 25% more income per customer. That means I could probably still raise them higher but it’s still uncomfortable. The demand for my art has been high enough to justify this shift, but it’s still taking some getting used to. I’ll probably continue with my current pricing scheme through the year and experiment with raising it again next year.
Touching The Art
Prints have always been the backbone of my convention sales. They are the cleanest, most attractive version of the images I make. What’s more, they are the smallest, lightest and cheapest items to stock. That means introducing new types of products has been a huge hassle. On top of that, there is a fear that any additional products I offer may just cut into my print sales, causing no additional income for the additional cost.
After having experimented with it back and forth across multiple conventions, my final conclusion is that adding some non-print items at my booth has ultimately resulted in stronger sales. For me, playmats have been the best item to add to the mix. They can be tricky to display and transport but they have some specific perks. For fans who don’t want to frame or hang my artwork, playmats offer an attractive alternative. I’m convinced that most customers who bought playmats from me this weekend would not have bought anything if they didn’t have the option. That was reinforced by the fact that I priced them the same, giving people the option to mix and match prints and playmats at a discount. Surprisingly, few people took advantage of that offer. The majority only purchased either prints or mats, even if they had enough budget to afford both.
To add playmats to my booth, I needed the extra space I had this year. It took two out of my five tables to display enough of them to make a statement. The results were positive enough that I am seriously considering investing in better display options specifically for playmats moving forwards. Getting them more upright and visible at a distance feels like it has the potential to magnify the positive effect they are already having.
Some people don’t want to own a lot of stuff and I’m one of them. The idea of walking away with 20 new pieces of art after a show just stresses me out. I wanted to offer a collection of work for someone like me. The solution I came up with was collectible card decks. It’s 54 cards with art on the front and writing on the back. It’s all nice and packaged in a standard sized box like a deck of poker cards. In my opinion, this is the thing everyone should be selling but isn’t.
These decks sold as well as my art books ever have but were easier to produce, easier to transport and had a better markup. I had known they were selling well before, but I never really invested in presenting them prominently. I regret not getting it done sooner. Every con I missed having these at was a loss for me. In the near future, I’m also going to have Oracle decks for sale as well. I don’t know if they will multiply the benefit or if deck sales will spread out between both products. We’ll see.
This was my second convention trying to promote my table with paid advertisements published inside the program guide. There were definitely people who came to my booth as a result of those ads, but I’m wondering if the program guide is less important than it used to be. I rarely saw people carrying the books around, which made me think not enough people saw the ad. Whatever it was, I don’t feel like I got my money’s worth. I’m not going to do it again unless someone gives me a tip on how to make them more worthwhile.
I also tried to do a convention exclusive metallic print, though I failed to properly promote it properly or differentiate it enough. I had made a set of 20 numbered metallic photo prints especially for the con but they came in so late that I didn’t have time to tell anyone they were going to be there. Other vendors had told me stories about their past successes with an item like this but this time around I didn’t make back on them. At nearly ten times the cost of my regular prints, I doubt I’ll do the metallic prints again. Instead, I might create a convention exclusive color variant using my regular printing method. That, and I’ll promote it ahead of time like I’m supposed to.
I hired an experienced sales person.
I bought a bigger and better booth.
I raised my prices.
I introduced new products that fit the needs of my existing fans.
Wow. Looking at that list. These things seem so obvious I feel a little like a dope for not doing them earlier. The important thing I feel like I keep having to remind myself is that, as a sales business, I still need to operate under the same practical laws as other sales businesses.
This isn’t magic, it’s hard work applied in a smart and careful way. A fact that is basically true for every creative endeavor.
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