Blog: promotional products
If you’ve tried to market your promotional products website, you’ve probably learned a few ugly truths about selling online. First of all, it’s expensive! Unless you’re marketing solely to a limited geographical area, competing nationally for clicks is often prohibitive. Why? Because the top five or so promotional products websites collectively spend tens of millions of dollars (really!) per year on pay per click advertising alone. One major distributor spends over six million dollars every year, and that doesn’t even include the money spent on organic SEO (to boost their search ranking) techniques like content generation.
Second, spending money is no guarantee of sales (conversions). Many visitors to your site are often cross-shopping you against other distributors to get the best deal; countless others are researching ideas and leave without purchasing. In an environment where popular terms (think “custom pens”) can fetch anywhere from $8–13 per click, you can throw an awful lot of money around before you land a completed sale. If you’ve got the money and the cost works within your margins, then good for you. But most distributors don’t have that kind of scratch.
What to do? I’ve preached before about using your uniqueness as a web marketing strategy, and now I think it’s safe to say that for most distributors trying to carve out a healthy online sales channel, narrowing your focus is the only realistic strategy. The big online distributors are spending so much money that they have become de facto Amazons or Wal-Marts – almost unassailable for basic, inexpensive promotional products.
The lesson of Amazon/Wal-Mart is important, because in the face of their domination, millions of smaller businesses continue to thrive. Consumers love variety and tend to shy away from buying every little thing from monolithic vendors, even when it’s more convenient – we want to support local businesses or just get out of the house for a while. In addition, the movement toward local, “artisanal” products and luxury goods ensures that there will always be room for alternatives to the big guys, even when they’ve figured out how to get a drone to deliver your toilet paper in 15 minutes.
Does that mean you should change your name to “Pete’s Olde Tyme Artisanal Promotional Drinkware and Mustache Wax Shoppe”? Of course not. But it’s worth considering the realities here – while countless book store chains and music stores have shut down during Amazon’s rise to prominence, thousands of other businesses have thrived by offering things Amazon either can’t or won’t offer – highly personalized service, unique products, specialized luxury goods and a variety of other goods and services that consumers like to touch or customize.
A Different Approach
There’s an old term to describe this approach: a boutique. A boutique typically caters to a specific audience with a narrow selection of products. It’s the opposite of general stores; in fact it thrives in spite of them. Boutiques focus on product selection and service rather than low prices and volume. To be successful selling promotional products and apparel online, you need to start thinking like a boutique.
This doesn’t mean dropping everything except one category from your site, although slimming down your product offerings is always a good idea, as I’ve mentioned before; a catalog of 100,000 products is not only bad for SEO; it’s disservice to your visitors – after all, who wants to sort through 25 nearly identical mugs?
What it does mean is adopting a more careful approach to merchandising. Focus on a few categories for the purposes of your general web marketing. Showcase your strengths – you’re the expert, and you can express that through the choice of products that you sell. We have clients who market primarily to certain industries or segments – insurance agencies, oil field services, the military – but also sell effectively to other customers.
Therein lies one of the boutique’s secrets: When you walk into a well-merchandised boutique, you’ll often find that the product mix is actually wider-ranging than the expressed focus of the store. For instance, if they’re selling mostly expensive designer clothing, there are plenty of unrelated products for those customers who can’t afford the $400 dress – a table of scented candles here, a display of less-expensive jewelry over there. The shop owner knows that not everyone can afford the designer dresses, but customers love walking out with a bargain from the same shop. They make sure that there are opportunities at a variety of price points and related categories. Think about it: there are far more Ferrari t-shirts than there are Ferraris.
Of course, with a promotional products website, the model isn’t quite as simple. Even with a sane (read: less than 10K) product selection, you’re still selling a ton of products, and it’s unlikely that they all “fit in” with each other in any kind of theme. That’s fine, because we’re using the boutique model as a traffic generation strategy. Once they get to your site and start poking around, you can show them the candles and the jewelry.
Merchandising like a Pro
How does this work? In many different ways. If you are able to develop a focus through merchandising, then you should by all means do so. In two of the examples I mentioned above – insurance agencies and oil field services – there are specific categories of products (card holders and calendars in the first example, workwear and outdoor products in the second) that are popular with their clients and prospects. While each company focuses their merchandising and marketing on promoting these products, both also sell a wide variety of other products.
And you know what? Those other products sell too! They build a relationship with a prospective customer by showing them what they asked for, and then those customers come back and buy other things.
A product-centered marketing strategy is particularly effective online because it dovetails with what users are searching for. You have a concentration of products within a few particular categories or usages, and you’ll perform much better in organic search. True, you won’t get as many visitors coming in for “promotional products” searches. But the hard reality is that you wouldn’t have gotten them anyway, because you couldn’t afford them in the first place!
Beyond merchandising, there are other ways to specialize and drive more quality traffic to your site. A local focus is an obvious approach, and is the simplest method of maximizing your ad spend. Industry-specific approaches are also very effective – you might already have colleagues in industries that you can help you with tailoring an advertising and content approach to their segments. You can also focus on service, expertise or a “high-touch” experience.
The important thing to remember is that you have to be disciplined and willing to reexamine your own assumptions. Your past sales may indicate that inexpensive pens are your sweet spot, but online, “cheap pens” ads might cost you $16 per click. Is that worth it for an inexpensive pen order? Don’t assume that what’s worked offline will work online. Be ready to experiment – set up some specialized catalogs and blog posts and see where they get you. A tight focus may not bring you high volume, but it will bring you higher quality leads, with whom you can build a long-term relationship.
If you’ve ever spent any time in our webBlox Management System – or dashboard, or control panel, or whatever you like to call the place where you manage you products, reports, users and everything else – you’ll be excited to learn that we just launched a massive upgrade to the look and feel of it.
In fact, we’re not even calling it “webBlox” anymore – we’ve been in business for 15 years, and those kinds of terms tend to stick around, but we’re finally retiring it. We now just refer to it as the “dashboard” or “admin.” We reckoned that there wasn’t much point in having a separate brand for the place you control the site versus the site itself. Seemed, well, kinda silly.
So, the next time you log in to manage your storeBlox company store or website, you’ll be greeted with a brand new appearance:
Neat, modern, clean, easy – these are the characteristics we were shooting for when we redesigned the storeBlox CS admin interface. We hope we’ve accomplished it, but if you have any feedback about the new look, please feel free to drop us a line!
Last time, I talked about the different paths that users might take to finish an order that started online. Depending on how your business is optimized, you might opt for a highly-automated, Amazon-like experience; an email-intensive, quote-based sales cycle; or even a very phone-centric customer process. Any of these are – as is a combination – as long as your visitors are guided clearly to the one that is most important to you.
Most of you are going to focus on a single path but still allow for sales through one or more of the remaining ones – that is, unless you’re so big that you’ve become the Amazon of promotional products and apparel (in which case, please call me – I’d like to write an article about you). Obviously, sales that begin and end online are fairly easy to track, because they go through your shopping cart. But you can still run a very successful web site without a single order placed through your shopping cart. In fact, you might be running a web site that is a sales-generating machine and not even know it.
How do you figure out what’s working? Online marketing and sales experts will tell you those three magic words over and over again: “Measure, measure, measure.” They’re right, of course – measurement is the key to understanding how any aspect of your business is performing, and you should do as much of it as you can (Google’s free Analytics software is a good place to start).
But, very few of us have either the time to spend poring over analytics reports or the money to pay someone to do it for us. You can set up KPIs – key performance indicators – to reduce the amount of information you need to review, but even defining these (at least with respect to a web site) can sometimes make a harried business owner’s head spin.
Remember, we just want to find out what’s working – your sales may be going in one direction or another, but you can’t factor in your web site if you don’t know how to track sales back to it. In our business as a web site provider, when customers don’t see orders flowing directly through the web site they often assume that the web site isn’t doing its job. In many cases, it’s actually working quite well; they just don’t know where to look.
Which Way is the Wind Blowing?
Other than the basics of top and bottom lines, we’ve each got some “gut” methods for determining how well our businesses are performing. Very often, these are just measurements or statistics that we’ve internalized – a sense of how many customers are coming through the door, or how often the phone is ringing. When you launch (or re-launch) a web site, it’s critical to be able to break these down a little further, so you can attribute performance correctly.
Let’s talk about some of our “gut” performance indicators and how we can break those down so the web site gets the credit (or blame!) it deserves:
General interest in your goods and services: You know what this is – the feeling of “momentum” in your sales. Are you stuck in first gear or are you cruising down the highway? Either way, it’s likely that your web site (unless it’s just a perennial afterthought) has something to do with it.
Inquiry volume: How many phone calls do you get every day? Do you know how many actually originate from customers visiting your web site?
Quote requests: Are you getting a good amount of quote requests every week? Where are they coming from? Email? Fax?
Existing customer interest: Are your existing customers re-engaging with you? Do they call you with a question about a product they saw on your site? Do they use it as a way to do a bit of research before getting on the phone with you?
How on earth do we track this back to the web site? Luckily, there are a few best practices for ensuring the proper attribution. Some of them are simple, while others require organizational buy-in (and probably a little trial and error) to get right:
Easy: Get a web-only phone number. Additional phone numbers, including 800 numbers, are relatively cheap. No matter your phone system, you can track the calls coming in from a second number. This is a great way to make absolutely sure a phone call is originating from the web site. Sure, some callers may have only gone to the website to get a phone number, but this is less common these days since Google puts phone numbers in its local results and users don’t have to go all the way to the site to get your number.
Of course, you may argue that you shouldn’t give credit to the website just because someone went there to find your phone number. But why not? Your web site is your business’ face to many existing and potential customers. Whether they get a phone number or fill out a quote request for a dozen products, the site still got them to you.
Easy: Use web-specific offers, coupons and codes. Many site owners make the mistake of promoting great deals online but then losing track of those deals when they go offline. The simple solution is to use a different code for an online offer, so that if that customers calls or emails (as many of your existing customers might do once they’ve seen an offer online), you’ll know (without having to ask – you’ll see why that’s important in a moment) that they came from the website. Got a 10% off coupon for new customers? Make the code “WEB10” on the website, and make sure your salespeople track the codes religiously.
A Little Harder: Ask: This one may require a culture change for some businesses, but if you advertise in multiple media, you’re probably already familiar with it. You’ll need to hammer this home as a best practice with your salespeople, your customer service staff – heck, even your receptionist: Asking “How did you hear about us?” Yes, it’s tough to reinforce this habit, but it’s mandatory.
Finally, if you do any online advertising, affiliate marketing, or any other web-based promotions, you’ve got a massive (and sometimes bewildering) arsenal of techniques for tracking inquiries and sales back to your website. If you’re entering that world – which can be very rewarding, provided you have realistic expectations and a decent budget – you’ll need to have all the above in place as a foundation, because attribution can be tricky when there are many different paths that have to be tracked just to your web site itself.
Your web site is (or will soon be, whether you like it or not) a critical, strategic part of your business. If you take the time now to establish a few basic methods for attributing business to your site, you’ll be very thankful in the future.
– Brent Buford
A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.