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Citizen Media Business Issues: Merchandise

(This is the sixth in a series of postings about citizen media business issues. See the introduction here. All of these entries are considered to be in “beta” and will be revised and refined as they find a home on a more permanent area of the Center for Citizen Media web site. To that end, your comments, additional examples, and criticisms are welcome and will be invaluable contributions to this process.)

Once you have a decent readership or a clever idea, you may want to start merchandising. When successful, selling merchandise on your site not only brings in revenue, but also can be valuable marketing for the site.

One simple way is to take your logo or design idea to a local shop that makes t-shirts. You can make a batch of 20 or so, take a picture, and display the picture alongside a PayPal button on your web site. Once a reader sends payment through PayPal, you package and ship the shirt to them. Creative Commons, for example, raises some funds via a store on its site that displays available t-shirts, stickers, and buttons. Interested supporters are taken to a form to enter their shipping/contact information, then directed to PayPal for payment.

Beyond PayPal, you can create an eBay, Amazon, or Yahoo store, making your merchandise searchable and opening it up to a much larger audience. While PayPal charges a fee per transaction (link to fee schedule), a “Basic” eBay store starts at $15.95/month (plus traditional eBay transaction fees), Amazon WebStores are $59.99/month, and a “Starter” Yahoo store goes for $39.95/month. While they provide many features that may be great for those looking to jump into e-commerce (for example, the ability to set sales tax rates by area [owners are still responsible for paying their own taxes, if applicable…more on this in a later post]), these store-hosting services are probably more than any citizen journalist would need. Nevertheless, you can read some pretty decent reviews and comparisons of these services here, here, and here.

While making and shipping products oneself is theoretically simple, it can be time-consuming in practice and requires at least a small up-front investment. For many site operators, an online branding service may be more attractive. Sites such as CafePress, Zazzle, Spreadshirt, and PrintFection allow you to put the graphic or text of your choice on any one of hundreds of different products like t-shirts, posters, hats, mugs, and key chains. As everything produced by these companies is made-to-order, there are no overhead or set-up costs unless you choose one of their premium services, which usually isn’t necessary. They will also take care of credit card processing, shipping, and customer service. CyberJournalist, a blog about how technology is changing media, has a CafePress store that’s a good example of the variety enabled by this sort of production.

All of these mass customization sites are pretty easy to set up: upload your designs, type in your text, select the products you want to sell, tweak the look of your presentation, and integrate it with your site. The biggest technical challenge for you will be the formatting of your graphics to look how you want them to look on the product (dark-colored clothing, for example, present some challenges). It’s easier to do these things now than it was in the past; most, if not all, of these sites offer some good tutorials and templates.

CafePress is the ten-ton gorilla of custom merchandising. It offers one of the wider assortments of products, but in the free “basic shop” only one version of each product is allowed. An example of a basic shop is the one set up by phpthrowdown, celebrating a recent events by selling a commemorative “Yeah, I got what it takes” t-shirt. For $6.95/month you can sign up for a “premium shop,” allowing you unlimited product designs and better shop customization/organization. While other sites offer somewhat similar services without charging, CafePress does have an advantage in traffic. All of these sites have a marketplace in which people search for designs. If your product could stand alone—if it’s not just a logo that people who don’t frequent your site won’t recognize or care about—it could very well bring in revenue (and perhaps readers) via people’s search results in the CafePress marketplace. A good example of a citizen media site using CafePress is iBrattleboro. The local Brattleboro, Vermont, journalism site runs a shop offering a wide range of products with clever little descriptions like that from a logoed infant creeper: “Babies love Brattleboro, too. Crawl around in style!”

Zazzle has no monthly fee for any of its services, but it’s somewhat more difficult to integrate with your site and you have no way to remove its giant corporate header from your presence on its site. Instead of stores, it hosts “galleries” and provides you with a “Flash Panel” for placement on your page. The Flash Panel is a bright, sometimes gaudy, scrolling display of your products that links readers to your gallery. One of the best features of Zazzle is its product API, which allows your readers to do some of the customization. Perhaps best illustrated by the Zazzle-supplied example, License Plate Shirts, the API allows you to create a template with placeholders for dynamic text or images. Zazzle also boasts the friendliest return policy (the “Zazzle promise”). While this doesn’t appear to directly affect you, the seller, remember that experiences your readers have with your products (and the companies that you have service them) can hurt you.

Spreadshirt, founded in Germany but with a growing US service, looks like a solid option for those with a European presence. Its services and product offerings function very similarly to CafePress, offering good integration with your web site and a tiered account system. As an example, the online windsurfers’ community iWindsurf has a store just offering a couple t-shirts. Merchandising may be particularly successful for community sites like this since members are likely to associate the site with their identity and thus more likely to want to brand themselves as such. For $10/month, a premium membership allows for removal of all Spreadshirt ads, better branding, and special sales tools like “limited time offers.” One of the major drawbacks is in the Spreadshirt payment system, which mails checks only on a quarterly basis, much less frequently than the rest.

PrintFection is the youngest of these four custom merchandisers, but it offers a lot. For starters, it’s selling a basic white t-shirt with a custom design for $2. The company also has advanced integration and design customization features, the ability to remove PrintFection ads, no limit on product offerings, and no account status that requires payment for an upgrade. When thinking about how the products could reflect back on you, the issue of quality probably comes to mind. A frequent suggestion in merchandising forums and comparisons is to buy a comparable t-shirt or other product from each company and judge for yourself. If not for the fact that it offers a lot of features at no cost, PrintFection may be a good place to start simply because they’ll sell you your first shirt for $2.

The major drawback to using one of these custom merchandisers versus the traditional route of producing and selling products yourself is the payout. These services all use a base price per product that you can then mark up as much as you want. A basic white t-shirt will generally have a base price of about $13. If you sell such a t-shirt on your blog for $15, you will be paid $2.

On top of revenue from sales, almost all of these sites offer some kind of affiliate program through which you can earn an additional percentage, often even when referring people to your own store (for more information on affiliate programs, see this earlier post).

For a more varied comparison of these sites, the T-Shirt Forums is a pretty active message board dedicated to such topics.

The world of mass customization is broader than just clothing and doodads. Some authors are turning to sites like for publishing books and other media. Lulu makes it easy to create not just a book, but handouts, brochures, DVDs, and CDs. This opens the possibility to make paper copies of a series of news stories you’ve written, CDs for your podcasts, DVDs for your videocasts or event footage, or a booklet made up of words taken from your blog archive. These services work much the same way as the merchandisers above in that you determine your profit margin above a base price and have several options for customization. Mia Garlick of Creative Commons conducted an interview with Stephen Fraser of Lulu in 2006, which covers much of how the site works as well as licensing options.

Another merchandising service that may come in handy for journalists who use photography in their work is DigiBug, a company that allows you to sell prints through your site. Using DigiBug API, sites like the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge are able to sell photos in various print options and even create separate price lists for different events or categories.

While doing all of the production, marketing, packaging, and shipping may yield a better profit margin, sites like CafePress give you an easy way to make some extra revenue. Even when the branding service takes a large portion of the profits, $2-$6 is not such a bad return on something that is pure promotion for your site.

(Ryan McGrady is a new media graduate student at Emerson College where he is studying knowledge, identity, and ideas in the information age.)

5 Comments on “Citizen Media Business Issues: Merchandise”

  1. #1 Jana Eggers
    on Nov 13th, 2007 at 3:37 pm


    Great article. You presented a balanced view of the options available. I’m with you… ordering makes all the difference, not only to see shirt quality but customer service quality. Of course, I’m biased to Spreadshirt’s offering!


  2. #2 JohnofScribblesheet
    on Nov 14th, 2007 at 3:50 am

    You really need an established readership if you want this to work. If you are a small online blog, with few visitors the online merchandising will not take off, however, once you have developed it is a good monetization method.

  3. #3 ScribbleSheet Blog
    on Nov 14th, 2007 at 4:11 am

    […] Citizen Media Blog discusses how citizen media sites can make money online, this time they focus on merchandising. addthis_url = […]

  4. #4 Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » Citizen Media Business Issues: Ad Space
    on Jan 10th, 2008 at 10:32 am

    […] journalists, but they are not the only form of advertising available to you. Affiliate programs and merchandising are two other routes that may be even more profitable to use instead of (or alongside) ads from a […]

  5. #5 Making money from journalism: new media business models (A model for the 21st century newsroom pt5) | Online Journalism Blog
    on Dec 8th, 2008 at 5:53 am

    […] Another option is merchandising. This requires some creative thought – slapping your logo on a t-shirt or mug isn’t going to do it. But think of all the wit and creativity that journalists bring to their work. A classic quote from a columnist, or even an interview are just two that spring to mind. What about the photographers, cartoonists and illustrators? Again, there are plenty of online services that will do the production and sales processing for you. […]