Clare O’Brien should already be a familiar face to members of the Affiliate Marketing Council, who will be aware of her work supporting the industry-specific councils of the IAB to get their voice heard. Clare is also a champion of the make-do and mend it attitude, which she promotes through the practical and inspirational site Make it and Mend it that she runs with her three co-founders. Ahead of her presentation at our Home, Garden and Outdoor sector event Al Fresco, we spoke to Clare about Home & Garden content sites, how to work better with bloggers and the challenges facing digital.
How has the economic downturn affected the Home & Garden sector?
Overall the sector hasn’t done that well in the recession, due mainly to the financial squeeze and slow housing market and the availability of funding for the really big renovation projects. Indications are that people are also holding back from even modest spending projects. According to Mintel after the 2.9% decline in 2009, 2010 recovered a little, but 2011 was expected to dip again into 2012 with only a 0.8% growth but some real growth returning in 2013 when sales are expected to rise by 2.13%.
This kind of pressure on household finances has contributed to the resurgence of the so-called make do and mend ethos. Sales of items like sewing machines have rocketed during the last few years, with retailers like John Lewis reporting significant increases in unit sales. Demand for lessons in sewing and upholstery are also reported to be at an all-time high. The theory is that if you learn the basic skills and have the basic tools on hand, you can make real savings by SIY (sewing it yourself!). This is especially evident with projects like curtain and cushion making. Certainly we have seen steady and keen interest in our step-by-step instructions to make cushions and other soft furnishings.
Your site Make it and Mend it features great tips and advice on everything from food to DIY; and from the garden to fashion. Do you think people are now looking for a lifestyle solution instead of more specific practical guides?
That’s an interesting question and I think the answer is a combination of both. People are definitely looking for ‘how-to’ answers to very specific questions, but they’re also latching on to the bigger lifestyle thing too. There are plenty of vertical sites and blogs on sewing, gardening, cooking etc, but very few that address the whole lot. If someone’s venturing into growing their own veg, they’re often keen to get going with other projects like up-cycling furniture for instance.
Just over three years ago when we launched MIAMI (that’s Make it and Mend it to our friends), we were responding to a general ‘sense’ that valuable practical skills were all but lost over the last couple of generations. The four of us simply knew how to do things like sew a hem, change a plug or make pastry because we were raised at a time when that was what everyone did. But greater prosperity came to mean homemade, handmade and mending signified a lack of individual success, so people stopped doing it.
But human beings are hard-wired as problem solvers and makers. We’ve experienced a bit of a blip for the last 30 or 40 years – we’ve become pure consumers and that’s led to a missing element in lots of people’s lives. Our theory is that it is self-efficacy – the act of making things is satisfying in itself and that can make you happy. Now that so many people are reconnecting with the notion of making and mending they want to buy the things they need to make things with. This is a great business opportunity and online especially, suppliers can contribute to the skilling up process and make the space contemporary and sexy at the same time.
Can you recommend a few Home & Garden blogs that you enjoy following yourself?
There are some brilliant blogs out of the US that I absolutely adore: 101 Cookbooks and Kitchn, for instance. The standard of imagery, commentary and the quality of the recipes is outstanding. I look at those blogs at least weekly. Then there’s Apartment Therapy – saving the world one room at a time and sister site to Kitchn – which if you love home and interior stuff is like a treasure trove. And this one’s clever, appealing to an urban audience; it genuinely promotes up-cycling and revival – the art of making something we used to throw away into something beautiful, valuable and unique. The whole up-cycling thing is just going to get bigger and bigger, and blogs like this (and, to an extent, the IKEA Hackers site) are totally inspiring as well as helpful. Closer to home Miss Thrifty is nicely quirky and sharp. So on balance, we find ourselves loving sites that are contemporary, that regard home, garden, crafty stuff as exciting, stylish and entertaining – not, as someone commented at needlecraft exhibition, ‘brown’ like so much of the making and craft business. At MIAMI, we have the ‘lipstick test’… if it can’t wear lipstick; it’s brown and gets spiked.
On the garden side, the kind of blog we love is iGrowVeg.com where the blogger Stacey is really keen to share and has a very elegant approach to providing people with incredibly useful help, advice and tools.
Do you have any tips for advertisers who want to develop better relationships with bloggers in their sector? What are Home & Garden content publishers most hungry for from advertisers?
Funnily enough we had just this conversation at our team meeting last week. In a word: calendars. Bloggers are small and usually part time. While we try our best to embed processes in what we do, it’s hard. While we do get communications from advertisers around events like Valentine’s Day or Bonfire Night, it’s often too late to refine our own planning. If we knew what promotions and deals were happening ahead of time, we could tailor our content to fit. But often we get just days notice and without a fulltime machine in place, this just doesn’t work for us. Forward calendars do work. We have some one-to-one merchant relationships where we share this kind of information and end up putting together even better content for our audience.
Tell us a bit more about your role as an Industry Programmes Consultant for the Internet Advertising Bureau. What are the biggest challenges currently faced by digital advertising?
It’s my role with the IAB to look after the councils that, by and large, represent the Performance Marketing Industry. These councils, such as the Affiliate Marketing and Online Lead Generation Councils are made up of IAB members who position their specific industry’s interest in the context of the wider work that the IAB does as the UK’s only pure-play digital marketing and advertising trade body. We now have over 700 member companies representing every flavour of the digital marketing business.
By ‘looking after’, I mean making sure that the councils are effective in promoting their industries and have voices that really count – for instance within our Regulatory Affairs efforts. These are amazing times for the digital industry which is establishing entirely new high growth and dynamic business models for both businesses and consumers at breathtaking speed. Our job is to convince the legislators to form regulations that support the development of this vital economic contributor and don’t make it hard for consumers to buy through digital channels. This means we’re working across lots of different council projects that feed these constant efforts. The work, like the business, is fast and exciting and I love it – it’s right at the heart of digital.
Today’s biggest challenge in digital? Well if I’m totally honest, I think that it’s about growing up a bit. It’ll always be an exciting industry to work in, but, we need to set our stall out and attract the brightest and best graduates to help steer its future. We need to work with established trade bodies and government. We need to get consumer trust in digital channels as instinctive as it is for the high street. This is lots of work for everyone involved.
We hear that organising events is also a passion of yours. Are you looking forward to seeing what is in store at Al Fresco?
Very much, thank you and I’m sure that the event will be well organised. What I’m really looking forward to seeing is a room full of advertisers and publishers talking to each other. Sometimes the APIs can get in the way and it’s easy to forget the importance of face-to-face encounters to come up with creative and innovative ways of making the online sales channel work better for everyone.