Note: Although the following Case Study is about a small business (which we normally don't cover much), we're pretty sure almost every size company marketing to consumers online today will get at least one useful takeaway from it -- whether it's how to convert more visitors to buyers … profitable use of autoresponder messages … or simply the fact that sometimes you can break the emarketing rules and win! CHALLENGE
When Dan Eskelson, Proprietor of Clearwater Landscape Design, launched his company Web site back in 1998, it was really just a hobby.
At the time, it was a pretty good homemade Web site for a regional business (link to a Jan 1999 view below). He says, "I was just promoting my business locally. I had no idea of being a national designer -- that wasn't even in the realm of possibility to me."
Then as he surfed the Net in his spare time, he began to notice other landscaping sites that were offering nation-wide services. For Eskelson this was a revelation. After 30 years in the landscaping business, his body was ready to call it quits on the daily physical labor-front, and intellectually Eskelson found himself far more drawn to the planning vs. the implementation part of landscaping.
So, he decided to use the Internet to transform his local company into a national landscaping design business charging $700-$1500 per plan to consumers. CAMPAIGN
"I'm a real glutton for information," Eskelson says. He started his online marketing campaign by sucking every bit of Internet marketing advice he could from books, informational sites, and email discussion groups. You name it, he's read it.
But he wasn't slavishly devoted to following all of the accepted wisdom most experts agreed on. After careful consideration, Eskelson decided to break five online marketing rules:
Broken Rule #1: Make Your Site Flashy & Interactive
Eskelson took his original site through several redesign iterations. At first he added the stuff everybody recommended - blinking gifs, new content daily (he did a quote of the day), a very colorful logo, and live chat using HumanClick. Then, he tookit all off.
"One designer said 'It's way too simple'", he says, "but every time I made a change that simplified the site, it improved my business."
Broken Rule #2: Make Your Free Newsletter Offer Really Obvious
Long before it became the trendiest online marketing tactic of the year, Eskelson started publishing a free, opt-in email newsletter. And just as other sites were beginning to feature their newsletter's opt-in forms more and more prominently, Eskelson reduced his to nearly invisible links on most key site pages.
If you go to his home page now, you have to scroll down and squint to spot the tiny (albeit exceptionally well copywritten) offer: "Learn professional landscaping tips, from 'hands on' gardening technique to design theory, in our free monthly ezine. Learn more here."
Eskelson reasoned that, "If you want people to buy your site's services, don't sidetrack them somewhere else. I don't want them to check out the newsletter. I would like them to go through the process of possibly becoming a client." So, the overt newsletter offers are gone, or nearly so, from all of his key sales pages.
However, if a site visitor digs beyond the key sales pages to the informational pages (such as past articles from the newsletter), then the newsletter offer is more prominently displayed.
(BTW: You'll find a link to a sample of Eskelson's newsletter below -- it's definitely worth checking out for ideas if you are doing a company newsletter.)
Broken Rule #3: Add Hype and Emotion to Your Site Sales Copy
While Eskelson is a better copywriter than many big company sites we've seen -- especially in his focus on visitor-benefit-oriented points, and the word "You" versus "Us" or "We" -- the site is not remotely hard selling. It feels warm, yet calm and factual.
He explains, "My product is high cost. People tell me to use more emotion and hype, but I'm coming around to the less hype the better. The decision to buy a high cost item is a complex process. It's not like somebody's buying a widget." As it turns out, to some extent the less of an impulse buy your product is, the less hype works.
Broken Rule #4: Make Your Online Response Form Really Short
Contrary to all the published rules that say, "Keep it short and ask as few questions as possible", Eskelson's online response form -- a "Free Client Questionnaire" that all sales prospects are steered towards -- prints out to six pages, and can take 15-45 minutes to fill out depending on how much you've already thought about your landscaping desires (and how fast you can type.)
Prospects are asked everything from their favorite colors and plant allergies; to what overall vision they have for their yard.
Eskelson explains his unusual strategy, "It's a gamble, but I don't know that I've suffered from it. There's a million people looking for free advice, and there are people who have no way to afford my services. They're tire kickers. They'll look over the longer questionnaire and go 'Oh I don't think so.'"
Eskelson sorts though the questionnaire responses he does get and puts them into two piles -- the truly hot ready-to-buy-now prospects get a personalized email letter from him within an hour or two.
While he bases this letter on basic formulas developed over the years, he alters it as much as possible to fit each individual's answers. "If they have excellent ideas, I'll compliment them. I add a lot of stuff to the form letter to pertains to their particular situation."
He tosses the less-hot prospects into his autoresponder hopper. Which brings us to…
Broken Rule #5: Email Every Query Back Instantly
While Eskelson obsesses about rapid response to customer emails, checking his mailbox frequently (even on weekends) he swerves from that policy when sending his first autoresponder letter to prospects. Rather than whipping out an instant acknowledgement to their questionnaire answers, he waits 24 hours.
"It's tacky if it goes out instantly," he explains, "It's obviously an autoresponse. Not everyone cares, but from the comments people send in, there are some people who don't know it's a form letter. They assume I've written this letter to them. I don't want to be shady, but if they think that, that's fine I guess."
The first autoresponse letter (link to samples below) thanks the prospect for filling out the questionnaire, and sounds a bit like it's assuming that the project is already on a green light basis. So, instead of trying to sell the prospect, Eskelson moves beyond that into a 'we're already in a relationship working on your project together' mode. Sample phrasing includes, "During our design process you will…."
This initial letter also includes links to a pricing page, an email newsletter offer, and an opt-out link. Eskelson's signature includes his address, phone and fax number, so people know he's a "real" person they can reach out and touch.
A second letter goes out automatically three days later to follow-up. This one features a five-paragraph essay on what the number one error most homeowners make when planning new landscapes. (Hint: Do it right because landscaping is an expensive and time-consuming project.)
A third and final letter goes out automatically three days after that. It clearly states in the very first paragraph, "This is the final follow-up message to you." Then it summarizes a university research study on the values of homes with great landscapes, and includes a special offer -- "when ordering a complete design package, you'll receive hard copies of your photo images at no cost…"
Clearwater Landscaping's Web site currently gets about 1,000 unique visitors a day, driven there by no-cost search engine optimization and an aggressive links campaign. Of those 1,000 visitors, about 60 on average fill out the questionnaire completely to qualify as solid sales prospects. Eskelson's follow-up program converts 5-6 of these prospects into sales every month. (He notes that he could do better on occasion, but has to turn away or wait-list business because he can't handle too many clients at the same time.)
Eskelson's new customers come from all over North America, and he's even had clients from as far away as Saudi Arabia. While initially clients tended to be in their 30s and 40s, his clients these days reflect the changing Internet population. "Even little old ladies are getting a little more savvy."
The questionnaire has proven very popular. "A lot of people amazingly write their life story in those boxes. It always amazes me the stories I hear."
Eskelson notes that the staying-home trend caused by the events of September 11th, has also helped business. Fall-winter is usually a slow time for landscaping, but he says, "I'm swamped with business right now. It's by far the busiest November I've ever had." Useful links related to this story:
Creative samples of Clearwater Landscape campaign