It’s hard to believe our little ecommerce site launched a year ago! It feels like both much longer and much shorter time period than that!

I had a bunch of people tell me this was a terrible idea but I just knew if people had an easy way to buy online, they would buy local way more often. I believed it with every fiber of my being.

We launched with the goal of putting $100,000 into the local economy the first year. While this has been a little closer to $4,000 so far, I’m still glad to have done this.

Here’s my reflection on the past year Gift MDI has been online.

Our whole initial business model didn’t work and it almost killed us.

If you’re familiar with sites like Groupon or Yelp, you know that they always try to get small businesses to do crazy deals in the name of getting people in the door. The reality is that not a lot of small businesses can do that. But since we had to cover credit card processing, stamps, Facebook marketing, etc. with this site, I thought asking for 20% from businesses (versus the 80-90% Groupon demands) would be super fair.

The backlash I was met with can only be described as the silence of 192 unreturned emails.

I know what you’re thinking; Nicole, did you really email 192 people?

Um, actually I emailed more than that. I’ll show you the world’s saddest spreadsheet if you ever want to see it. People who are my FRIENDS didn’t even say yes to me.

Under the initial ‘hey give me 20% of sales’ model, only 15 businesses (of the ones that responded to me) agreed to be on the site. So we launched with 15 businesses.

I changed the pricing model very soon after (about a month in) to a handling fee for customers, meaning it didn’t cost the businesses anything anymore. (A survey of people revealed they did not mind paying a handling fee a la Ticketmaster. Problem solved.)

I emailed the same business owners back to let them know. You’d think people would write me write back, “Oh you mean I have to do no work and you’ll sell something for me, sure!”

Nope.  I was still ignored, probably because they remembered me as the Prohibitively High Ecommerce Fee Lady.

So deciding it was better to beg forgiveness, I simply called each business and asked if they sold gift certificates. If they said yes, we added them to the site.

Look what happens at the beginning of December to website traffic after I add 100 businesses in 3 days:

Now we’re cooking with gas! And I try to add at least ten new businesses every month… Though you can give me a hand if you know of one not on here and just have the owner fill this form out:

The Bar Harbor Cash Mob saved us.

In February (post Christmas rush and wondering what I was even doing). the Bar Harbor Cash Mob started up. We reached out to organizer Melinda Workman and she thought a partnership was a great idea. This increased our visibility and allowed more far flung folks to participate in the local shopping events.  It also gave us some credibility with a good cause.

I was slightly terrified people would only buy from Bar Harbor restaurants.

Sometimes you have preconceived notions of what you think people are interested in. I was worried when we launched all the purchases would be really similar. It turns out people want to buy from different kinds of businesses in different towns. Running this report was a relief that this isn’t just going to be a website that sells one thing or be useful only to certain businesses.

The business doing the best with us has us linked on their website.

We added Project Social pretty recently and they have been selling quite a bit (2-3 certs a month on average) since we added them on the site. I recently realized why they were doing so well:

That’s right, they aren’t letting us do all the marketing; they are letting their customers know they have gift certificates available online. And because of that, they are making a couple hundred bucks extra per month and all they have to do is collect a check (and do some light accounting on their end) – we take care of the admin., running around, customer service and mailing. (Because let’s face it, no one shows up to buy a gift certificate unless you are in the middle of something else.)

So if you’re on Gift MDI, consider linking back from your website so your customers can buy your stuff – and you and your employees can do other things!

The blog is driving a lot of traffic.

It’s hard to tell what life would be like if you *didn’t* do something but I decided to commit to a weekly blog post every Friday for a year. I knew doing this would take a lot of bandwidth and honestly, I forgot how much work it is to figure out the ‘voice’ of a new blog. Are you for ‘locals’ or tourists? Are you an outdoorsy blog? Do you have a fun breezy tone?

What was really funny is that a few people were afraid I’d tell all the local secrets and ruin things for everyone. I was flattered by how much sway that implies I have. But I also took it to heart and before we hit publish, I try to think of what kind of impact it would have if it ‘went viral’.

A year in, we get what our blog is: answering useful questions and doing our part to spread visitors out over the island (ie not send everyone to Cadillac Mountain at sunrise). Our information is for people who know the basics and want a balanced view of MDI. We try to cover the arts, food, locations, and more.

After our homepage, the most popular page on our website is the Your Complete Guide To Year Round Housing blog post, which drives 8% of our website’s traffic.

Big data is going to give businesses on the site some options.

Now I know for a fact most local businesses don’t have any kind of ecommerce on their websites… so why would they have a remarketing pixel tracking website data?

By adding Facebook and Google remarketing pixels to Gift MDI, we can retarget customers (or almost customers) in the future:

We’ve also done things like add our product catalog to Facebook, all of this translating to more opportunities for everyone on the site to be more visible:

You’ve probably noticed you’ve been getting a lot of ‘we’re updating our privacy policy’ emails. As businesses scramble for GDPR compliance (nerdy thing about collecting cookies), we want to worry about that on behalf of the business owners we represent. So anything that comes up, we can be on it for our vendors. And we can also be looking at our data (marketing data and website data) to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t to make more money for those listed on the site.

We’ve done less social media than I was expecting.

Somehow maintaining Instagram and Youtube seemed daunting so I didn’t this first year. We concentrated on Facebook, weekly blogs, and a monthly email newsletter. I guess this is what next year can be for!

We want to ‘franchise’ our model so no one has to ever go through the headache of figuring this out like we did.

I don’t see why chambers of commerce, downtown organizations, etc. would pay $15K or more to build something like this (trust us, an affiliate program, shipping to different addresses, upselling in the cart… all the functionality in here is worth at least that amount) when they could pay us 1/10 of that and have a functioning site deployed quickly and ready to make money for them.  If you know someone who is interested, you can learn more here:

I keep saying ‘we’ because I wasn’t alone.

Kassie, Jane, and Alexis wrote blog posts. Eric did a lot of development. Woocommerce and our web hosting company helped with a lot of troubleshooting. Friends have promoted the site at their weekly rentals, in their businesses, and more.

Yes, I did A LOT of the work but without other people, this wouldn’t have gotten as big as fast.

Could I have done more in the past year? Of course. But I am happy to have thousands of extra people aware of the businesses here on MDI because of my little website. Let’s see what we can do in year two!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.