How One Company Used Automation To Sell Smarter (And More!)
By Ann Handley
This is the story of a once-failing Boston appliance company, and how it used marketing automation and other digital marketing tools to radically alter its course.
Not too long ago, Boston’s Yale Appliance was losing money. The economy was in the midst of a recession, and, “I’d read somewhere that people will buy some things anyway during a recession—and one of those things was refrigerators,” said CEO Steve Sheinkopf.
He pumped more money into radio and newspaper advertising, thinking it would help boost sales. But it didn’t.
So Steve, who had taken over the family lighting and appliance store founded by his grandfather, refocused and tried something seemingly radical.
He doubled down on a digital marketing strategy that included social media, blogging, reputation management, and email marketing components. And he invested in people, technology, and processes that would ensure their success (more on that in a minute).
Eventually, Steve’s focus on a content-based marketing program allowed him to almost zero out his advertising budget.
Today, Yale Appliance is healthy, profitable, and growing, with more than 140 employees.
Top-line revenue was around $80 million last year. And the company recently opened a state-of-the-art showroom outside Boston—only its second store after almost a century in business.
So how did Steve do it?
And what broader lessons can we steal from his approach, from a content and marketing automation point-of-view?
1. Be a resource, not just a vendor
When Steve first started blogging, in 2007, he was getting some traction, mostly through organic search results. But things really ignited when he dug a little deeper into digital marketing basics.
Steve credits digital marketing leader Marcus Sheridan (www.thesaleslion.com) with teaching him things like how to write a meta-tag, how to write a headline, and how to write a call to action that turns prospects into customers.
Steve also figured out what kind of posts would be most useful to his would-be customers by studying how his customers reacted. It turns out that trend pieces and very specific posts comparing, say, a Thermador to a Viking cooktop, got the most traffic.
Recommendation posts like “The 5 Best Counter Depth Refrigerators” also do well, cementing Yale’s role as a buyer resource, not just a retailer.
Learning to create customer-centric content is a process that takes time, Steve said. But creating content is a valuable exercise for two reasons: (1) because it helps Steve understand what motivates his customers; and (2) writing about what his store sells helps him know his stock inside and out.
Yale Appliance content has also become the biggest driver of new business. Those who visit the blog and download buyer’s guides convert into buyers at a much higher rate. That’s why Steve personally reviews all the content his blog publishes.
I told him I was surprised that the CEO of a company personally managed the blog, and he laughed: “There’s no better business development effort. So why wouldn’t I?”
2. Focus on smarts before sales
It might be a cliché to say that educating your prospects is the best way to turn them into buyers. But it’s true. Yale focuses on educating their customers, first. It focuses on sales, second.
Yale Appliance has more than 20 buying guides covering everything from how to buy under-cabinet lighting to what to look for in a dishwasher. Many of those started out as internal, vendor-agnostic training resources for new employees who needed education on how to sell the appliances Yale carries.
“We already had a 10-page guide on an induction oven,” Steve said. It wasn’t a far leap to turn it into a customer-centric buying guide that could be used in nurturing campaigns managed by its marketing automation program.
So, for example, a customer who downloads a guide to buying a sub-zero fridge opts in to a series of nurturing emails designed to deliver more information about sub-zeros. Those emails have a much higher engagement rate—35% versus the 5-10% for other emails Yale sends (mainly, newsletters and promotion “deal of the day” messages).
“We focus on making our customer smarter about sub-zeros, not because we try to sell them one,” said Steve.
Focus on making your customers smarter, not just on getting a sale.
“People want to be informed, they don’t want to be sold to anymore—if they ever did,” Steve said.
3. Start somewhere
Steve has been blogging since 2007. He embraced content before a lot of other businesses caught on. Does he think others could duplicate his efforts now, or is his success truly linked to a first-mover advantage?
“Good, original information is still good, original information,” he said. “Good content is still good content.”
He added: “I’m not an outlier. There are still millions of industries and countless opportunities in underserved markets. You just have to refuse to do business like everyone else.”
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