Enemy to Frenemy to Friend
By Mark Brock
Bob Smith created Chimney Techniques in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1985, offering a unique approach to relining chimneys. Over many years, the company expanded with a variety of hearth and spa products, ranging from fireplace inserts and wood stoves to hot tubs and barbecues. His daughter, Ryann Blake, joined the company in 2015 and became the owner and operator when Bob retired in 2017.
Under Ryann’s leadership the company has continued to grow and improve, including enhancements to its digital marketing program. Just recently, she reimagined the company’s approach to social media, supercharging its presence on the Internet.
“We added videos to our Facebook pages, and while we used to have between 200 and 400 hits on our website each month, now with the videos we’ve seen that increase to more than 5,000 during November, which is part of the peak season. Even during March, which is toward the end of the season, we were at 2,000.”
The videos provide insights for customers concerning the technical aspects of hearth products while showcasing the personalities and expertise of people who work for Chimney Techniques. In addition to Facebook content, which focuses on the company’s products and people, Ryann uses imagery on Instagram to communicate the lifestyles that come with their products, featuring friends and family having fun grilling outdoors.
“The reactions to our videos have been amazing,” she said. “Our goal all along has been to be seen as a trusted resource and as someone that customers can relate to. When people come into the store, they know who I am and they know the names of our people, even our dog Cinder. Some people come in just to meet Cinder. We have gained quite a few followers in the area, and coupled with Instagram lifestyle posts, this approach to social media has done well for our business.”
Ryann reserves a couple of hours on her calendar each Monday to review Google analytics to see which aspects of the program are working and to plan social media posts for the coming week. The company works with a video production specialist in producing videos at a cost that fits her marketing budget.
“We know our customers shop online, and they can buy from a number of different places,” she said. “But with videos, our customers feel like they already know us when they walk in the door. We’ve already made a personal connection with them through our online content, and customers like us and they trust us.”
Digital Marketing Growing in Sophistication for Specialty Retailers
For many years, the Internet and all things digital were seen by specialty retailers as “the enemy.” While online merchants continue to be primary competition for specialty retailers, a fundamental shift has occurred and is accelerating. Retailers are becoming more adept at using digital marketing – from websites and social media to search and email blasts – to connect with their customers and encourage them to come into the showroom.
Websites are morphing from brochure-ware to interactive sites that serve as the hub of digital marketing programs, providing a showroom experience online and a landing page for search while creating personality, credibility, and brand. Retailers are increasingly active on social media, particularly Facebook, because of its reach and targeting capabilities, and Instagram because of its emphasis on visual and lifestyle content and its growing popularity.
As in the case of Chimney Techniques, retailers are recognizing the essential role of video content, not only to engage customers but to improve positioning on social media and enhance search results. Google search programs have become a mainstay in digital marketing programs as retailers gain greater insights into how to target their content, apply their budgets, and increase their ranking through content that is both organic and paid.
Many retailers are also creating a following through regular email messaging that includes not only promotional content, but also lifestyle imagery and suggestions on how to prepare the ideal meal outdoors or add decorating zip to a patio. Retargeting or remarketing, in which a retailer’s display ads follow consumers as they search the web, is also growing in application.
One of the most important shifts is recognition by retailers that their online content cannot be just about selling. Through photography and video, the most successful retailers are not only sharing technical data about their products but, more importantly, inspiring their customers to seek out a lifestyle that’s possible with Outdoor Rooms – barbecues, spas, patio furnishings, and hearth products. Content is seen as a vital tool in building a retailer’s brand.
Because digital marketing can be highly technical and fast-changing, retailers are retaining the services of outside digital marketing experts. It’s become obvious to many retail owners and managers that search optimization, retargeting, and online digital ads are beyond their expertise. At the same time, these retailers remain personally engaged in their digital programs, reserving time each week to review analytics and plan future content based on those analytics.
Most importantly, retailers are recognizing that digital marketing is not the enemy but their single best opportunity for creating a level playing field with online merchants.
Consistency Is Key in Digital Marketing
Brandon Uttley, CEO of Go For Launch, a digital marketing agency in Charlotte, North Carolina, has one easy test to determine if a company is serious about leveraging digital marketing.
“If I go to a company’s website, or their Facebook page, and their last post was a year ago, it’s clear they are not serious or successful with digital marketing,” said Uttley, who works with a variety of large and small companies in different market segments. “Consistency is essential when it comes to digital marketing. If your last post was months ago, people might even assume your company is no longer in business.”
Social media remains a central focus for the clients that Uttley works with, and for good reason. The latest research shows that more than 70% of consumers in the U.S. use social media at some level. The keys to success are not only consistency, but also selecting your channels carefully and providing content that’s compelling, relevant, and entertaining.
“For patio and hearth retailers, the content should be aspirational, showing people how they can create beautiful spaces inside and outside their homes for family and friends to gather and create memories,” he said. “A common mistake is thinking that only slick videos and expensive photography is effective when in fact do-it-yourself photos and videos with an organic feel can be effective as long as it’s on message, creates an emotional connection, and has good audio with the video. Retailers should think of themselves as if they’re a TV station offering content that’s newsworthy with lots of human interest for their audiences.”
The latest thinking and the best practices related to digital marketing are continually changing, according to Uttley. Video content, typically in three- to four-minute productions, is now leading the way for audience engagement and search success. Posting content on Facebook without a paid advertising program is not likely to prove effective. Websites should be mobile friendly because people are typically using their smartphones while out shopping, and Google favors websites that are mobile friendly.
“Social media advertising can be extremely targeted and relatively inexpensive,” Uttley said. “Some recent research shows that organic search alone on Facebook is only between 1% and 6% effective in reaching your audience, so advertising is essential in addition to your content posts. Facebook is in business to make money, so it only makes sense the company favors its advertisers.”
Other trends that Uttley is seeing include a movement to longer blog posts of 1,200 to 1,500 words where the standard used to be 250 to 500 words. Email marketing is also growing in popularity with Uttley urging a mix of 30% promotional content and 70% lifestyle.
“One of the most effective and sometimes overlooked aspects of digital marketing is re-targeting or re-marketing,” he said. “By adding a few lines of code to your website, you can gain the ability to follow visitors to your site as they visit other sites. These ads remind them they visited your site and encourage them to return when they’re ready to schedule a showroom visit.”
Digital Marketing – It’s All About Imagery
Jeanne Grier, an interior design professional, views digital marketing from the perspective of imagery. On one level, a fireplace is an appliance that provides heat, but on a much higher level, a fireplace is a design element – often the central design element – that adds a sense of place and a touch of elegance to a room.
It’s this focus on imagery that drives the digital marketing program for Stylish Fireplaces & Interiors, an interior design firm and electric fireplace specialty retailer that Jeanne owns with husband Colin in Ontario, Canada. From the company’s website through its social media presence, the emphasis is on visual imagery of the transformative power of fireplaces.
“Designers adopted digital from the get-go because of the potential for sharing imagery, and so it’s been with digital marketing for our company,” she said. “We like to think of ourselves as interior designers who opened a fireplace store.”
Stylish Fireplaces & Interiors supports a robust digital marketing program that includes monthly emails with content customized by audience – customers, prospects, designers, and contractors. The company continually adds to its email database as new prospects come into the store and as Jeanne and Colin form new relationships with designers and contractors. Stylish Fireplaces also remains top of mind with designers and contractors through digital content and advertising in professional association eNews letters.
Other elements of their digital marketing program include social media and blog posts that Jeanne writes twice each month. Each of the elements of the digital program is designed to drive traffic to their website and, ultimately, lead to showroom visits. A common challenge with all elements of their digital marketing program is the need to secure a continual flow of compelling images.
“We supplement the images that we receive from manufacturers with photos from customers, installers, and designers,” she said. “We sponsor contests to solicit images through email and offer prizes – larger prizes for designers – for sending us imagery that we can use for social media or on the web.”
Managing an expansive digital marketing program is time consuming, but time well spent, according to Jeanne.
“Digital marketing is just another aspect of my job. If I didn’t do these things, we wouldn’t reach our sales goals,” she said. “It was tougher in the early days when it was just me and my husband operating a store and a design business six days a week. Our staff has grown over the years, and I use all of the systems we have so that I can write a number of posts at one sitting and have them post at future dates. The website was designed so that I can maintain the content myself. We have outside assistance for search.”
Stylish Fireplaces is highly targeted with its Google ad word purchases, focusing on residents who are within driving distance of the store. Search remains the No. 1 element in the digital marketing program, responsible for more than 40% of sales. Through the use of analytics, Jeanne and her outside firm ensure that search results remain strong.
“We can ship products anywhere in the country, but our focus is on consumers within driving distance, which is a large population,” she said. “There are videos on our website, and people living in more remote areas can view our products and reach out to us, but we know our best investment is in search terms that reach people in a reasonable driving distance for showroom visits.”
Analytics are a driving force behind digital marketing for Stylish Fireplaces, both those provided by Google and results they track within the showroom.
“We track every single sale, ask each customer how they heard about us,” she said. “I can review Google analytics and determine how much we spend on search on the web, which search terms are working for us, and how we should adjust and change. We are also constantly asking people to review us on Google.”
Specialty Retailers Seeking Outside Assistance
One of the defining characteristics of specialty retailers is their ability to wear many different hats all on the same day – operations, customer service, human resources and, of course, marketing. In the good old days of traditional marketing, it was relatively straightforward. A great photo, a snappy headline, a couple of paragraphs of copy, and there you have your newspaper and Yellow Pages ads.
Digital marketing has changed all of that over the past two decades. Website design, search optimization, and social media are highly technical areas with languages all their own. It’s been this increasing complexity, combined with recognition of the challenges and the opportunities of digital marketing, that have led an increasing number of specialty retailers to seek outside assistance.
A good example of this trend is Rick Soccio. He and his wife began their entrepreneurial adventure in 1997 when they began to explore heating alternatives for their 18th century home in south central Pennsylvania. Trained in HVAC, Soccio’s attention shifted to alternative energy sources, ultimately leading to his acquiring an existing business. The Soccio’s company, AES Hearth & Patio, grew steadily over the years organically and through acquisitions, leading to a decision to bring on a marketing consultant last year.
“When I came on board, AES was moving in the right direction with digital marketing, sending emails to customers and making efforts to improve SEO,” said Heather Hockenberry, a marketing and communications consultant at Hockenberry Management Consulting.
“My role has been to see how AES can improve in all of its marketing activities. If we put an ad on Facebook or Instagram, is it visually appealing? Which of our search terms is producing the greatest return and how can we improve? Rick knows more about alternative heating solutions than I will ever know, but I know marketing and communications. When we put our brains together, we can get a fuller picture of where the business is today and where we want to go in the future.”
AES Hearth & Patio has two locations in Pennsylvania – Newville and Camp Hill – specializing in custom hearth design of all kinds, for both indoor and outdoor applications. AES has also expanded into outdoor living products, encompassing grills, grill accessories, fire pits, outdoor furniture, and retractable awnings.
Since coming on board, Hockenberry has focused on how email messaging from AES can be enhanced, including a section in each email for “ask the expert” that allows customers to pose questions about their hearth and outdoor living products. She has also focused on enhancing search results for the company, which has improved substantially. From a broader perspective, her role is to ensure that the company is strategic with its marketing programs, including digital, and that the brand voice for AES is consistent and speaks in terms that relate to the wants, needs, and interests of customers.
“Creating a brand voice is so important for a company,” Hockenberry said. “Companies have a tendency to speak in the terms they understand and not necessarily in terms that a consumer can relate to. Consistency is also key, and we do all in our power to have a consistent brand voice whether it’s the sign on the door, how employees greet customers, or the ads we place in the Chamber of Commerce directory.”
While digital marketing is an important strategic direction for AES, the company continues to support traditional marketing outlets, including billboard and radio. In the smaller communities it serves, word of mouth also remains a powerful influencer in generating sales.
“As a consultant, it’s my role to get inside a client’s head, understand their customer experience, and determine where they’ve come from and where they want to go next,” she said. “For a growing business, marketing can take up too much time for an owner and that’s when a strategic partner is needed, not just to get stuff done, which is important, but to ask continually how can we improve.”
Specialty Retailers Making Gradual Move to Digital
Casual Living Outfitters of Ripon, Wisconsin, traces its roots to 1998 when Sam Holmes and his daughter Heidi made an unexpected transition from selling insurance to selling casual furniture. When a family friend in the furniture industry needed to dispose of outdoor furniture samples, Sam offered to help, and a new business venture opened up.
Sam and Heidi eventually sold the insurance agency and, as they say, the rest is history. Casual Living Outfitters is a destination shopping location in the Ripon region with three sprawling warehouses encompassing more than 15,000 sq. ft. Sam’s daughters, Heidi Semenske and Beth Revello, are continuing their father’s traditions of friendly service and a wide selection of quality outdoor furnishings, while incorporating digital marketing.
“Our movement into digital marketing has been a gradual transition,” Beth said. “We began with a website, then moved into social media with Facebook and Instagram, and retained expert assistance with Google search. Our advertising has also transitioned to digital ads.”
As their digital marketing efforts have progressed, so have positive results. “Customers tell us that they found us online, so we know our website and digital marketing are working for us,” Beth said. “We’ve had a website and been on Facebook for quite some time and added Instagram this year.”
In terms of content for their digital program, Casual Living Outfitters regularly features product photography while also highlighting various manufacturers. Google continues to provide them with a top ranking for the region as a result of their search program, website, digital advertising, and social activities.
“Digital marketing is definitely the future for specialty retailers because our customers just don’t rely on print media as they used to,” Beth said. “We’ll continue to expand digital marketing while not losing sight of what our father set in place long ago – knowledgeable salespeople, friendly staff members, fast delivery, and great customer service.”
Digital Marketing – Fishing Where the Fish Have Gone
Hugh Morris has been in the hearth industry for about seven years, including five years with a company called Wholesale Fireplaces of Idaho, where he built and moderated the company’s Facebook page, and two years at Leisure Time of Boise and Idaho Falls, Idaho, where he immersed himself in digital and social media marketing.
Morris is currently Operations manager at Morton’s Stoves, Pools & Spas, a 30-year-old company with locations in Battle Ground and Vancouver, Washington. For Morris, the transition of specialty retailers from traditional media to digital marketing is simply fishing where the fish have gone.
“Why social media, why digital marketing? It’s where people’s attention has shifted,” he said. “It’s no longer the newspaper delivered on the driveway each morning, but it’s a smartphone where people are spending their time and attention and gaining information they need for all aspects of their lives. And with digital, it’s active engagement. You can’t interact with a printed newspaper, but you can interact on social media, and that’s where you engage with your customers today.”
One of the challenges that specialty retailers face in committing to digital marketing is assuring that their employees support the transition. A long-term retail employee who is accustomed to seeing ads in the local newspaper may not be comfortable with an employer who’s spending the ad budget on social media, website, and search.
“There can be a learning curve for employees moving from traditional to digital because it’s a big change,” Morris said. “One of the solutions we’ve used has been to bring employees into the content – showing them unloading or installing a stove or cooking on a grill or being involved in the local community. Your employees can be a great way to connect to the local community and get them on board with digital.”
Social media can be invaluable in engaging actively with potential customers through quality content, according to Morris.
“It’s not just about selling, but also about building your brand,” Morris said. “Take Red Bull, for example. It’s an energy drink, but its online content is centered around extreme sports not energy drinks. That content creates their brand. The same is true for specialty retail. Your brand is not just the grills, fireplaces, patio furniture, or spas you sell, but it’s bringing people together to enjoy life.”
Morris’ strategy for Morton’s Stoves is to use their website and blog to provide technical details concerning the variety of products they offer. This information must be accurate and transparent in making a case for why to purchase. He views social media as complementary to website content, building the brand by focusing on the lifestyle associated with each product.
One of the most significant challenges and opportunities with digital marketing is the explosion of information that’s generated and the ability to analyze, interpret, target, and market effectively.
“Digital marketing opens up so many micro-demographics that it can be difficult to find the ones where you should target your dollars,” he said. “You can’t market to everyone, and you have to be sure that your message is on target for each demographic and not overly broad. You have all of this feedback, but it’s up to you to determine what the data means.
“It’s also important to recognize that the balance of power has shifted from the retailer to the consumer. A one-star rating on Google can do tremendous damage to a business, which means that everyone has to raise their standard on customer service.”
In Morris’ view, there is no going back to traditional media.
“Traditional media may well be somewhat obsolete in the next 10 years,” he said. “When you pair digital marketing with in-home assistants, it’s hard to see how traditional media will remain relevant. I can also see a future where online merchants pair up with brick-and-mortar retailers. They sell online and then we install and service. It could be a win for all of us.”
Tying It All Together – Rich’s for the Home
With so many different elements under the digital marketing umbrella, the question can become, how do you tie it all together? Rich’s for the Home, with five northwestern U.S. locations in and around Seattle, is a good example of pulling everything together for sales success.
Whenever Rich’s launches a promotion, you’ll find content and display ads on social media, primarily on Facebook and Instagram, teasing the promotion and linking to the website where you’ll find promotional details. There are also email blasts, again teasing the promotion and directing consumers to the website to learn more, along with Google ad word purchases.
Additionally, commercials will be running on cable TV, targeting consumers who are the most likely and most able to purchase the stoves, fireplaces, grills, patio furniture, and spas offered by Rich’s. The ultimate and measurable goal is simple – get consumers into a showroom to experience the product and the lifestyle, and make a purchase.
“The bulk of our digital marketing budget goes into search, and we also use a good bit of video in our marketing, including TV,” said Jon Chapman, CEO and son of the company founder, Larry Chapman. “We advertise on social media, primarily Facebook and Instagram, and we are good at collecting email addresses and do four email blasts each month.
“One of the biggest changes in our business over the past several years is how consumers find inspirations for their homes. In years past, people clipped images from magazines for ideas for home additions, but now its digital media where they find their inspirations. For a retailer, it’s essential to get in front of people during all this screen time.”
Rich’s for the Home works closely with the Carter Agency of Lynnwood, Washington, because of the continually changing nature of digital marketing. Bart Carter, agency president, is charged with keeping Rich’s at the forefront of digital marketing.
“One of the tools we have emphasized for Rich’s is re-targeting or re-marketing,” Carter said. “We’ve added our own proprietary code to the Rich’s website so that anyone visiting Rich’s online will see the company’s ads when they visit other websites. Also, we’ve created links between Rich’s website and virtually all of their suppliers, so that after someone visits a vendor site they will see banner ads for Rich’s where they can make a purchase.”
Another digital tool that Carter recommends is targeting look-alike demographics on Facebook. By sharing customer demographics with Facebook, this social media giant can offer access to additional audiences that have similar characteristics and are likely targets for products offered by Rich’s.
“It’s essential that retailers include paid advertising as well as content on social media sites,” Carter said. “Everything interacts with everything else and we’ve seen results increase by 300% when we combine organic and paid display ads. Another opportunity that some retailers miss is tying their search terms back into the website. The terms you purchase should be prominent on your website landing page. Google monitors these results which can affect your success with search.”
Carter closely follows digital marketing, noting those who achieve success and those who don’t. There are distinct characteristics of companies that are not able to realize the full potential of digital marketing.
“The biggest mistake that retailers make with digital marketing is they simply don’t plan strategically and they don’t implement their programs correctly; they dabble in it, get frustrated, and quit,” he said. “Maybe they tried search for a while, but didn’t give it enough time to work, or they neglected to include their search terms on their website landing pages. Digital marketing works, but you have to do it correctly.”
As far as future innovations for digital marketing and the future for companies such as Rich’s, the future is expansive, Carter says.
“We’re adding conversion tools to the website so that people can schedule in-home visits online,” Carter said. “We know the Millennial generation, in particular, likes to conduct business online, so these types of online tools will be important additions.”
The Non-Digital Advantage for Specialty Retailers
While there is no question that digital marketing can become a competitive strategy for specialty retailers, there is no denying their ultimate advantage – hands-on customer service. Even digital marketing experts, such as Brandon Uttley, can attest to the value of the local retailer.
“Last year, we did some renovation to our home and built an area for a grill,” Uttley said. “I went online to purchase a grill, hoping to save some money. When the grill arrived, we never were able to get it to work properly; after several email exchanges, we returned the grill. Then I found a retailer close by. He came out, measured, and gave us an estimate at no cost. Then he installed the grill and showed us how to work it. That experience really taught me a lesson. When it comes to some types of products, not everything can be shipped in a box. You are definitely better off looking locally.”