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Oct 16, 2010
Case Study

Reach Influencers via Social Nets and Conferences: 5 Steps

SUMMARY: It can be difficult to get started in a well-networked, niche markets. Without an email list or customer base, how can a marketer build buzz without a huge budget?

See how one entrepreneur launched a grassroots marketing effort to break into a niche market, excite its influencers and, most importantly, sell products. This Sherpa case study includes strategies for combating negative commentary and reviews.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

CHALLENGE

Ruth Brons, Founder, Things 4 Strings, was a violin player and teacher with a great idea. She designed accessories for beginner violin and cello players that encouraged proper bow technique -- a long-standing source of frustration.

To reach this market, Brons had to reach its influencers: professional cellists and violinists who also taught students.

"Instead of six degrees of separation, when you meet another string player you can have three degrees of separation until you find a common teacher or relation somewhere. It's a very small and networked community," Brons says.

Playing instruments invented over 400 years ago, violinists and cellists are steeped in tradition. Brons knew she had to make a strong push to convince influencers that her frog-, fish- and elephant-shaped Bow Hold Buddies were not gimmicks, but valuable teaching tools.

Brons had a wealth of industry contacts gathered over several decades she could leverage. Also, professional players and teachers were well-networked online and offline. She had to reach and convince this tight-knit community to recommend her products to their students.

CAMPAIGN

Brons' strategy was to reach instructors and players directly through string players' conferences, online forums and social networks to convince them to try her product. Then her team would follow-up with an advertising campaign.

Here are the steps they followed:

Step #1. Get the product off the ground

Before she and her team could begin marketing in full force, Brons had a number of challenges. She had to manufacture, patent, and package the product and design its website. After various snags and false starts, she eventually had the product packaged and in hand.

The product's packaging included:
o Bow Hold Buddies
o A branded pencil with site URL
o Installation instructions

Next, Brons and her team designed the Things 4 Strings website (see creative samples), which included:
o Homepage that doubled as a product-selling landing page
o How-to information and videos about the products
o Information about Brons' expertise
o Story of the product
o Information for parents and teachers

Ruth was able to get advice on patenting, manufacturing and website design from her professional contacts, including the parents of her students.

Step #2. Aggressively network on- and offline

With the product and website established, Ruth set out to spread the word among the players and teachers. She felt a grassroots marketing approach was the best way to initially promote to this tight-knit market.

Beginning in August 2010, she pursued the following channels:

- Facebook

Brons searched for and 'friended' every string instrument professional she knew. She then sought out those she did not know.

"I learned that anyone with a profile picture of themselves with their instrument would become my friend," Brons says.

Brons quickly reached Facebook's 5,000 friends limit. Her team then created Facebook fan pages for each of her products, the Bow Hold Buddies and the CelloPhant, so her fan numbers could continue to grow on the network.

Brons regularly sent updates on all profiles about Things 4 Strings, the products, conferences she attended and news related to her career. She regularly linked to the Things 4 Strings website.

- Online forums

String players are connected through a variety of websites and forums. Brons was familiar with some, such as All Things Strings and ViolinMasterclass. She researched others on Yahoo! Groups and elsewhere. She joined more than 100 communities.

Some networks Brons freely joined. Others required approval from network administrators. If asked, she would say she wanted to join the community to link to her website and raise awareness. Most administrators did not mind. Others refused to admit her.

Once accepted, Brons waited patiently to inject her opinion and website URL into a conversation. She commented on threads about bow holding, and also on violin and cello topics in general. In general threads, she would add her comment and link to her site in her signature.

"If you charge in there and spam, they really don't appreciate it. You have to approach it more like it's a cocktail party and lurk for a little bit until you find something you can truly speak honestly to," Brons says.

- Google Alerts

Brons registered with Google Alerts, a free service that sends email updates of the Web content Google finds around certain keywords. Whenever Google indexed a page containing "bow hold," "CelloPhant," "Ruth Brons" and other related phrases, Brons received a link to the page in an email.

This helped Brons monitor mentions of her company, combat false information and identify new places to promote her products.

- Conferences

Industry conferences enabled Brons to directly interact with her market's influencers and explain her products' value. Also, the conferences were magnets for trade reporters. By making herself and her products so available, Brons was able to land a wealth of press mentions and write-ups.

Brons attended about nine string players' and teachers' conferences after launch. She attended six events prior to launch, where she showed prototypes. She set up booths to give demonstrations, sell products and hand out promotional pencils and flyers with her website's URL.

- Always networking

Brons always carried product samples and promotional flyers when she met with other string players and when she played in orchestras and at weddings. She also visited youth schools and orchestras to hand out samples and promotional pencils and stuffed them into teacher's mailboxes.

Step #3. Launch an advertising campaign

The products' sales and industry attention were gaining traction. By January, Brons and her team added a small-scale media plan to complement Brons' networking.

The team launched campaigns in the following channels:

- Print advertising

The team purchased advertising in trade publications such as Strings Magazine and American String Teacher Association Quarterly Journal. The ads featured the product, its description and encouraged readers to visit the Things 4 Strings URL. Print advertising proved to be the team's most expensive marketing channel.

- Online display ads and sponsorships

The team purchased advertising on strings-related websites, and also sponsored related email newsletters. The ads ranged from an image of the product and a short description, to a button of the company logo. The ads always linked to the team's website. The team also purchased print and online display advertising packages from companies with both channels.

- Facebook Ads

The team tested paid search engine advertising for two months but did not see good results. Then they shifted the PPC budget to test Facebook ads and realized much better results. Facebook ads were targeted to users who mentioned "violin," "cello" and other relevant keywords in their profiles. Again, the ads linked to Things 4 Strings' website.

Step #4. Combat negative criticism and reviews

Brons continued to network and promote online through social channels. As her product reached more consumers, not everyone was happy with her products. Some traditionalists, claiming to be "anti-gadget," said students should learn to play the old fashioned way, Brons says.

Brons found negative criticism most often came from people who had never tried or seen the products in person. Reception of Things 4 Strings' products was overwhelmingly positive among students and teachers who had tried them, she says.

With such a small, niche market, fighting negative criticism was vital to maintaining credibility. Brons did so in several ways:

- Supply videos and more information

Brons supplied more information to combat misunderstandings about her company, how products were used, and how they were helpful. Links to videos helped illustrate how the products helped students correctly hold their bows.

She responded to commentators who suggested she was a large business trying to cash in on the market by explaining that she was a teacher who shipped the products "from the back door of my house" (see links below).

- Encourage conversation, highlight lack of research

Even when under verbal attack from fierce traditionalists, Brons would thank them for contributing to a lively conversation and would offer her personal experience from using the products. When relevant, she would highlight that those making negatives comments had not tried the products.

- Appeal to site administrators

Some websites do not allow products to be criticized by commentators who admittedly have not tried them. On at least one occasion, Brons was able to get a negative review removed from Amazon by pointing this out.

Step #5. Follow the market across borders

With such a close community, string players often stay connected overseas. Things 4 Strings' products have generated discussion and interest from countries as diverse as England and Brazil.

Brons' team strove to accommodate customers in various countries, but ran into shipping troubles, especially in the UK, the team's largest foreign customer base. The team tried several different strategies for getting products to customers quickly and affordably, often with frustrating results.

The team settled on storing a product inventory in the UK and using a third-party fulfillment vendor to ship products when they're sold. This prevented products from being trapped in lengthy queues at Customs or from being lost in international transit. UK customers now typically receive shipments within a few business days, Brons says.


RESULTS


Since launch in August, the team has realized a steady increase in sales, and widespread industry appeal. Sales increased 23.34% from August to January, and increased 29.84% from January to May.

"Every month there is a little bit more than the month before," Brons says.

o The team continually set sales goals and surpassed them. In May 2010, monthly sales were 22% above their goal for 2011.

o The website had a conversion rate of 3.2%, which does not include telephone orders.

o At least 10% of Things 4 Strings' website traffic comes from the UK, Brons says.

o 35% of the websites visitors came from Facebook after the team increased its advertising budget in the network. Facebook was the most impactful online advertising channel, followed closely by online forums.

o Things 4 Strings LLC was first picked up in print in the bowed string instruments magazine The Strad out of the U.K. Then articles appeared in publications such as Music Teacher and Strings.

o The website realized traffic bumps when Brons engaged in discussions in online forums and responded to posts criticizing the products.

- In-person networking

Conferences are the team's most effective marketing channel, Brons says. Conferences extend industry contacts, demonstrate products for customers and the press, and sell products directly to the market's influencers.

"The response is over a 90% sales rate," Brons says. "If I can get people to stop and talk to me and they are music teachers, they instantly see the value."

Also, Brons notices more strings players she meets have already heard of Things 4 Strings.

"Most of the last three conferences I've been to, people said they've already seen it on Facebook and in trade show magazines," she says.

Useful links related to this article

CREATIVE SAMPLES

1. Homepage
2. Video
3. Facebook fan page 1
4. Facebook fan page 2
5. Response to negative commentary

Things 4 Strings Facebook page

Google Alerts

Fulfillment by Amazon: Handled Things 4 Strings' UK fulfillment and shipping

Camares Communications: Helped team develop marketing and media plan

Violin Masterclass: Things 4 Strings

Things 4 Strings

See Also:

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