Five essential ingredients to make your listing famous

You’ve probably heard of the “scary washing machine”, last month’s insanely popular Trade Me phenomenon. Sadly, your mint-condition washing machine (or any other worthy but ordinary item) won’t attract a fraction of the frightening one’s admirers (806,220 pageviews) – nor the $5160 final windfall. Not without some very special magic.

So what does it take to create a Trade Me sensation?
There are a great many answers to this question, but at a minimum you need the following five essential ingredients if you’re to have any chance of attracting exponential attention on Trade Me:

1. An auction listing with “the right stuff”
Your product might be ordinary but the listing can’t be. Not if you want people to talk about it. When we spread the word about a Trade Me listing (or any other topic), it’s because it enhances our standing with our friends, not just because we like the listing or topic.

Successful listings that attract lots of attention typically tap into some pretty basic human motivators:

  • We like to be entertained
  • Greed is (sometimes) good
  • Given the choice, we’d prefer to do good (and sometimes, to be seen doing good)
  • We’re afraid of doing the wrong thing
  • Our ego could always use a boost

Most of the auctions that became famous on Trade Me were at least entertaining; some held out the chance of acquiring an item that would significantly increase in value at some point in the future (engaging the greed gene); “proceeds to charity” validated our bidding actions; the fact that we were bidding on a very popular item suggested that we were indeed doing the right thing; and being the successful bidder on a high profile auction can do wonders for the ego (at least until buyers’ remorse kicks in).

If we look back at some of the items that have caught the popular imagination on Trade Me, we find that in most cases the headline and/or description started the process of making the auction memorable.

The legendary paper clip auction (34,801 pageviews, final selling price $173) is a very good example:

    One red paper clip.
    Excellent condition.
    Held important documents in a time of need, no longer need now so selling on.
    Hope this paper clip goes to a good home or office. Has served me well.

It was inevitable that such a good-humoured listing (penned by Aucklander Rhys White during a quiet day in the office) would attract frivolous questions. And that brings us to essential ingredient Number 2:

2. Interactivity (with a sense of humour)
One of the neat things about Trade Me is the “Ask the seller a question” facility. For 99 .9% of listings, the questions that are asked are mundane and practical (and relatively few). For those special listings that catch the imagination of the public, however, sellers can be inundated with quirky questions. Answer appropriately (tongue firmly in cheek) and you’ve got the makings of Trade Me magic.

When an iceberg floated close to New Zealand in November 2006, it was listed by an opportunistic seller (“In good condition. Some small stains – should come out. Girlfriend doesn’t like it and says it needs to go. Buyer must collect.”) and attracted (ahem) a flood of questions:

Q. How much does it weigh? I may need to rent a trailer…
A. I don’t want timewasters here mate. You don’t use a trailer to remove an iceberg. Come on, you are being silly.

Q. Hi. I’m looking for something along these lines for a christmas decoration. Do you have any in the shape of a reindeer?
A. By the end of the auction it may look like that. Get real drunk and check back in.

Q. I don’t wish to pour cold water on this, but I must point out that MAF regulations require that this ‘berg will need to be held in quarantine for 8 weeks. This may impact on delivery.
A. That’s only if it has a bird in it. But thanks for checking.

Q. Hi. do you have these in any other colours? Thanks.
A. No sorry. Besides, you don’t want the yellow icebergs.

For the record, bidding on the iceberg reached $99,999,999 before the auction was removed (as an obvious joke listing).

Of course, with more than 1.3 million items listed on Trade Me at any given time, it’s tough to stand out. Your item also needs to conform to essential attribute Number 3:

3. Original and Scarce
If you want your item to become famous, then the item needs to be “one of a kind” – even if (as was the case with the ‘scary washing machine’) that uniqueness is simply in how you describe it. You can expect copycats to emerge – we lost track of the number of ‘cute’ stationery listings that attempted to cash in on the fame of the Paper Clip – so you need to be first and freshest in your particular category.

On the other hand, if you do have a genuinely unique item, such as the cast (sold in February for $18,500) which adorned John Key’s broken arm – or the handbag wielded by Tana Umaga to discipline an unruly colleague ($22,800 in June 2006) – then your focus should be on capturing the flavour of said collectable and communicating appropriately to those who would be most interested in acquiring the item. Which brings us to essential ingredient Number 4: 

4. People who know people
As soon as the listing is posted, spread the word – to journalists, twitterers, bloggers, anyone with a suitable/relevant audience. Of course, they’ll only be interested if said item already stacks up as unique and scarce – but they’ll also be looking for timeliness. They won’t want to be talking/writing about something that’s already old news – they’ll want to be bringing exclusive news to their followers.

Of course, everyone can’t be first – the second person you tell may not have heard about your listing but you can’t pretend that they’re the first to know. So instead, like a true public relations practitioner, you need to look for an angle, a spin that can be unique to that correspondent.

An example? Bono’s bird kite which the U2 frontman had been flying during his 2006 NZ concert.

The first angle: Bono’s kite up for sale on Trade Me. Then: caught by Tauranga woman (local spin for the Bay of Plenty Times). Next: proceeds to Oxfam. Follow-up: pictures from the concert, showing Bono flying the kite. You get the idea.

And that leads us to the fifth of our ingredients:

5. Topical
If you can leverage current events, that’s another quick way to spread the word. The current furore around Michael Jackson’s untimely demise is a classic example, with quick-thinking sellers offering personalised plates (THRLER, JACK5N, WACKO or MOONWK), replica Thriller jackets, web addresses ( and a wide range of other Michael-related memorabilia on the site. In such a high profile event, however, there’s a very real danger of over-exposure, so media interest may quickly burn out. In other words, choose your topicality with care.

Apart from the five ingredients noted above, there are several other qualities that will stand you in good stead when it comes to conjuring up some Trade Me magic. To all the above, add perseverance, imagination, initiative and plain old luck (‘right place, right time’).

Your 15 megabytes of fame awaits.

PS: Of course, there’s quite a skill to creating effective listings. For a more in-depth look at “The Art Of The Listing”, may we humbly point you towards TRADE ME SUCCESS SECRETS the book (now in its second edition). In Chapter 14, you’ll learn about the eight different types of effective headlines, the pictures that sell a thousand words and the vital ingredients of a successful product description. The following chapter guides you (in rather more depth than we can manage in this blog entry) through many of the promotional options available to help you drive the sale — and suggests alternative actions if your item still doesn’t sell.

You’ll find the ‘Trade Me Success Secrets’ book in your local library, from leading booksellers or on sale at our Trade Me store.

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9 thoughts on “Five essential ingredients to make your listing famous

  1. Lillybeth Melmoth

    AWESOME! I’ve seen so many LAME listings on TM trying for a spot of the action! I’ll should show pity and give them the link to this article in their ‘questions’ – sheesh people.

  2. Jackie

    Yes all good advice but I recently won the best auction write up I have ever seen and yet it only had 11 views, no questions and mine was the only bid! Just wonder what the secret to getting all those views on some auctions is.

  3. Michael Carney

    Apart from the advice offered in this article (and especially the bit about spreading the word to the right people), there’s a whole chapter of advice on promotion in my book Trade Me Success Secrets. In particular, the headline is really important when it comes to getting pageviews.

  4. Dylan

    Ok, I have a new wind turbine that needs no permitting in quiet and will not hurt birds. It requires no long pole or foundations. It can be used in an urban environment and 50% less than any other wind turbine on the market. One unit can power an apartment. Save money, energy, and the environment.

    How could this be placed on TM so it gets the right hits?….Help….

  5. Boyd Wason

    Hi Michael, Great guidelines. Having been closely in involved in Scary and the events post auction. I would suggest that there’s also another ingredient. Listen closely to the audience and be ready to chance tact or run with something if the community give you feedback. If you are successful it happens very fast and if you make a mistake in a reply you you only have a short time to correct things before you could lose your audience.

    And for those who are still interested in knowing what Scary’s up to you can follow it on the 100% Scary Charity Tour.

  6. Michael Carney

    Dylan, I suggest you re-read the blog post — and also the relevant chapters in my ‘Trade Me Success Secrets’ book. Then it’s a question of considering HOW (or indeed IF) your wind turbine can be positioned in such a way as to make it famous.

    Not everything does measure up, I’m afraid.

  7. Emma B

    Hi Micheal, I’m having a go following your guidelines with my “Very Friendly Sewing Machine”. Category: Crafts/sewing/sewing machines. Am I on the right track? (I’m buzzybee1)
    (this is an advertorial ;-) )

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