Seven years ago, in the midst of an economic recession, Boston’s Yale Appliance + Lighting was losing money. “I’d read somewhere that people will buy some things anyway during a recession -- and one of those things was refrigerators,” recalls CEO Steve Sheinkopf. “So we pumped more money into radio and newspaper advertising, thinking it would help. It didn’t -- it hurt.”
Sheinkopf, who had taken over the store founded by his grandfather, refocused with what was (at the time) a radical approach. He doubled down on a digital marketing strategy that included social media, blogging, reputation management and email components.
The focus on a content-based inbound marketing program allowed Sheinkopf to bring his advertising budget to near zero. (Last year, he says, he spent nothing aside from seasonal Google AdWords buys around Black Friday and a tax-free holiday weekend.)
Today Yale Appliance is profitable and growing, with 140 employees. Top-line revenue is expected to hit $80 million this year, and in June the company opened a state-of-the-art showroom in Framingham, Mass. -- only its second store after 92 years in business.
So how did Sheinkopf use digital marketing to turn around his grandfather’s company? There’s no magic or special gift involved. “Obviously I’m not a genius; otherwise, I wouldn’t be in the appliance business,” he laughs.
What he does have: commitment. A content-based marketing strategy requires it. Here’s how you can get similar results.
1. Actively manage your online reputation.
When you’re a small, regional business, you compete with companies that can easily outspend you in advertising. In Sheinkopf’s case, that includes big-time players: Sears, Best Buy, Home Depot and Lowe’s.
But digital content can give small, scrappy companies a bigger footprint -- if they’re willing to work it. “Google is democratic,” Sheinkopf notes. What’s more, online review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List can give a small business direct insight into its brand reputation. “Businesses may despise Yelp, but [it’s] a window on how you operate and are perceived,” he says.
So encourage social reviews, thank people who say nice things, and view negative reviews as an opportunity to fix what’s broken. “It’s painful to see a negative comment or review,” Sheinkopf admits. But take a long-term view: Use the criticism as a chance to both resolve an immediate issue for one customer and to improve a process or system for the good of future customers.
2. Know what your customers want.
In 2007, when Sheinkopf started blogging, he got some traction through organic search results. But things really ignited when he dug deeper into digital marketing basics. He credits Marcus Sheridan at thesaleslion.com with teaching him how to write a metatag, a headline and a call to action that can convert prospects into customers.
Sheinkopf also studied customer reactions to figure out what kind of posts would be most useful. It turned out that trend pieces and specific comparisons of, say, a Thermador to a Viking cooktop, got the most traffic. Recommendation posts like “The 5 best counter depth refrigerators” also did well.
Creating customer-centric content takes time. But it’s a valuable exercise, for two reasons: It helps you understand what motivates customers, and it requires you to learn everything about your stock, inside and out.
Online content has become Yale’s biggest driver of new business, Sheinkopf says. Page views were at 18,000 visitors per month in 2011; this past August, the site had 448,000 visitors. What’s more, those who visit the blog and download buyer’s guides convert into buyers at a much higher rate. That’s why Sheinkopf personally reviews all the content his blog publishes.
I told him I was surprised that the CEO manages the company blog, and he laughed: “There’s no better business-development effort. So why wouldn’t I?”
3. Make customers smarter.
Yale Appliance has more than 20 guides covering everything from how to buy under-cabinet lighting to what to look for in a dishwasher. Many of those started as internal, vendor- agnostic training resources for new employees. “We already had a 10-page guide on an induction oven,” Sheinkopf says. It wasn’t a far leap to turn it into a buying guide for customers.
Yale uses marketing-automation vendor HubSpot to nurture customers through the buying process. Anyone who downloads a guide to buying a sub-zero fridge opts-in to a series of emails designed to deliver more information about the appliances. Those emails have a high engagement rate: 35 percent, vs. 5 to 10 percent for other emails Yale sends (mainly newsletters and daily promotions).
“We focus on making our customer smarter,” Sheinkopf says. “People want to be informed; they don’t want to be sold to anymore—if they ever did.”
4. Invest in staff and other resources that touch customers.
Customer happiness is rooted in happy employees. So Yale hires carefully, finding employees with the right cultural fit and making sure they are happy and well taken care of -- through profit sharing and generous benefit packages, as well as top-notch training programs.
Yale has also spent time and effort identifying and investing in improvements to customer experience, including better phone and computer systems.
5. Quit procrastinating.
Sheinkopf embraced content marketing long before a lot of other businesses caught on. So is his success linked to a first-mover advantage? “Good, original information is still good, original information,” he points out. “Good content is still good content.”
In other words, any small business can -- and shouldtake advantage of these digital strategies. “I’m not an outlier,” Sheinkopf adds. “There are still millions of industries and countless opportunities in underserved markets. You just have to refuse to do business like everyone else.”
*Originaly published by Entrepreneur Magazine