Guillaume: Hello everyone. Guillaume Le Tual here, host of the E-commerce Wizards Podcast where I feature leaders in business and e-commerce. Today’s guest is Brooke Ihlefeld. She’s a Digital Marketing Manager at pc/nametag. Today we’re going to talk about something that really touched a lot of people; being hit hard by COVID as a merchant, how to adapt and this is a true story and then we’ll see from there what we talk about.
So before we get started, we have a sponsorship message This episode is brought to you by MageMontreal. If a business wants a powerful e-commerce online store that will increase their sales or to move piled up dormant inventory to free up cash reserves, or to automate business processes to gain efficiency and reduce human processing errors, our company MageMontreal can do that. We’ve been helping e-commerce stores for over a decade. Here’s the catch; we are specialized and only work on the Adobe Magento platform. If you know someone who needs anything Magento-related; maintenance, training, support, debugging, we’ve got their back. Email our team, [email protected], or go to magemontreal.com.
Alright, so Brooke, thank you for being here today.
Brooke: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Guillaume: Can you tell us a little bit about your duty as a Digital Marketing Manager at the pc/nametag?
Brooke: Yeah, absolutely. Pc/nametag is essentially a printing company that specializes in event supplies. Our main products that we sell are like; customized event badges, lanyards, badge ribbons, anything that goes around your neck as an identifying thing that you would get at a conference or a trade show. Those are our main products. We also sell things like signage, banners, tables [Inaudible-00:01:39], and a little bit of promotional products as well. So we have a very small marketing team, there’s only five of us. So my role as a digital marketing manager kind of encompasses everything that you would think would fall under digital marketing.
So everything from email marketing, SEO, PPC, paid social, I also kind of flex in the web team a little bit, we had a very small web team. We actually only had one backend developer for pretty much all of 2021. We’re growing a little bit now, which is great. I did a little bit of landing page creation and web page design as well over the past couple of years. It’s pretty an all encompassing role. Our marketing team has a photographer, a content copywriter, a catalog creator, myself, the digital marketing manager, and then our director. So that’s our group, a pretty small team.
Guillaume: All right. Well, it’s good, this is the pride business, but then COVID happened. So you told me you joined the company not that long ago, and then COVID hit?
Brooke: I actually joined in April of 2020 or mid April. It was when everyone was still thinking, maybe it’ll only last a couple of months. So we got hit with the realization that this was going to be a long haul thing, which was a very interesting situation to be in for a company that specializes in live events. Obviously, a lot of people shifted over to virtual events and they don’t really have a need for badges and lanyards, and that sort of thing. So we were kind of put into a position where we had to adapt in order to stay afloat. The main way that we initially did that was through coming up with the concept of virtual event kits. This was right after I started building out a landing page. Our promotional products are not usually huge sellers for us in a non-pandemic or a normal year. They probably only encompass less than 5% of our revenue. Event planners are really looking for ways to make their virtual events feel more like a virtual experience because people were getting really burnt out on webinars over and over again.
Guillaume: Yeah, it can get quite boring. I’ve experienced a live version and the online version, I didn’t even finish most of those online events. It’s worrying unless you make something special out of it.
Brooke: Exactly. I think especially because initially people were doing free events. And I think that’s almost a negative sometimes because when people sign up for a free event they often just don’t show up because they didn’t really invest anything into it. They’re like, I don’t want to attend another webinar, I signed up, maybe I’ll watch the recordings later. So people were looking for ways to get people excited about it to the point that they would actually show up and engage during the live presentations, and ask questions. That was definitely a huge struggle for event planners and there was a lot of digital burnout.
So these virtual event kits helped event planners to encourage people to get more excited about an event. So we could allow the event planners to incorporate their sponsors on things like a water bottle. They can put one of their sponsor’s logos and everything else into a kit that then gets mailed off to the attendees ahead of the event so that they can open it. This kind of creates a little bit of a community experience and gets people interacting with each other a little bit. Some people even had more unique ideas, they would send name tags to all their attendees but there would be wrong name tags. They would have to figure out through the course of the event who had their name tag to encourage people to network with each other.
Guillaume: I wonder if the first time it was on purpose or not?
Brooke: That’s a good question. Yeah, people got really creative. They would always try to encourage people to network with each other, so it was kind of a cool thing. We pretty much shifted all of our marketing budget, which was a very limited budget at the time, to our virtual event kit campaign. It was interesting too because in an ideal world we’d have liked to have a really large web team, we would have loved to have a landing page where people can kind of pick and choose what promo products they’re putting into the box and they can see how it will be laid out but that just wasn’t a reality for us.
So we worked with our photographer to kind of come up with about six different kinds of predetermined kits that people could select from, and then also contact our salesperson if they wanted to do something more unique. We had a work from home kit that people could select, they would get like a Bluetooth speaker and some notebooks and writing utensils. We had coffee break kits, happy hour with cocktail mixes and drinkware. We had different themes that people could look through and say, this is the box that I want to pick, or they could work with the salesperson to come up with something unique. It was definitely very scrappy, kind of like, ‘take what we have and make do with that’. Like, we have a great photographer, so we can take some pretty pictures. We have a very small web team, so we can’t really do anything too fancy. But it worked. I mean, we made quite a bit. I think probably about half of our web revenue came from kits in 2020 and 2021, which was huge for us because previously promotional products were not a big thing for us at all.
Guillaume: From 5% to 50% is really huge. And it also shows that there is a need, COVID is a must and we must do something. But at the same time if you have a new vision or an idea and you execute it strongly, you could say, this used to be 5% but now this could be 50%, a new division for a company if it’s the right idea, if there’s traction, good product market fit, and so on. So it’s an interesting story that within a year you go from 5% to 50%.
Brooke: Exactly. Things are definitely shifting back towards where they were pre-COVID now because people are planning live events like crazy. But it’s definitely something that will always have promo products which will always be a little bit more of a revenue than they were in the past because we will always have this virtual event kit campaign. And it even kind of expanded into encompassing employee appreciation gifts, we did a little bit of that. Then corporate gifting, we started trying to market to marketers who were sending out corporate gifts to customers around Christmas time, Employee Appreciation Day which I think is in March. So again we shifted to employee appreciation gifts around that time. So you can kind of shift your marketing focus depending on the timing of the year, which is really a big thing for us too.
Guillaume: Very good. In terms of tactics that you’ve implemented as a marketing manager, what were those that made you shift towards that 50% revenue with those promotional material?
Brooke: Yeah. We definitely did a lot of email campaigning at first because it was free and we already had a database built up of tons of event planners. We have a whole broad strategy that we focus more on like creating a more of a funnel. Previously, before I started we had a blog, but our blog was very much focused on products. It was all just, here’s the new product that we launched, it didn’t have any organic value to it. So we hired a content copywriter a few months after I started and she is amazing. She started writing SEO friendly blogs about how to create a virtual engagement experience and how to make sure that your virtual attendees are staying engaged during your virtual event. She wrote probably about five blogs about virtual events and then we combined everything into an ebook, which our catalog creator helped design. Usually he had focused on catalogs in the past but he helped design this really nice ebook and we started blasting that out on paid social media, trying to get people to download our ebook.
So we would have their email address and then we could mark them for our virtual engagement gifts, and then in the ebook we would mention the virtual kits as well. It gave us a new way to get people into our database and really start marketing to them more specifically. So it was about building like a funnel from the very top to the very bottom because a lot of event planners had never planned a virtual event before. They didn’t know what virtual event technology platform to use, like how do I get people to even sign up? Where do my registrations go? How do I get people to know what their login information is? A lot of people were searching for that information and so those blog posts started doing well which meant that our ebook started getting more downloads, which meant that we had more people that we could then market our event kits to. So that was a really big part of it as well.
Guillaume: Was there any of those tactics that you started that didn’t work and you sort of modified or pivoted the technique and then it worked?
Brooke: Yes, definitely. Something that at least I tried to do right from the beginning was just market them right off the bat from a social media perspective. I would just put out a Facebook ad that was just directing straight to the landing page that we had created and we really didn’t get that much traction on that. I think because people weren’t ready yet from seeing one ad to commit to the level of, it’s a big money commitment and a big time commitment to go with the whole virtual engagement gift thing. So that was definitely something that didn’t really work out for us at first. We needed to kind of have people trickle in via content before we could kind of start marketing that exact product to them. We also tried to do the same thing with paid search as well, which again didn’t yield a ton of immediate conversions off of that. So again, we started trying to do remarketing like when people had gone to the landing page and they didn’t fill out the form, just trying to get in front of them most of the time. It definitely helped coming from the previous job that I had, I worked for a B2B tech company, so our entire business strategy was to encourage people to sign up for software demos. Having that kind of mindset going into it was definitely very helpful, because that was kind of what we were essentially doing. We were trying to get people to sign up for a demo of our product or to talk with our salesperson about our virtual event kits. So having that experience definitely helped a lot.
Guillaume: So basically, the paid ads didn’t do much, but the retargeting paid ads seemed to be working well. It’s a common path I’ve walked in the past, reconfirming.
Brooke: Definitely. And we definitely started seeing too when we were doing paid ads like doing content-based ads like a social ad to get people to download the eBook worked a lot better. Then our cost per lead dropped to like $8 per lead rather than it being like $150 per lead to get someone to actually sign up and talk to a salesperson about getting virtual event kits. That’s something that we’re still doing today, we have, I think, like six or seven ebooks now and we’re always running them on social media. We have one about How To Create Sustainable Events. We actually have one about, All About Employee Engagement and How To Keep Virtual Employees Engaged, in addition to Virtual Attendees, because they kind of are pretty similar when you think about it. So we’re always running ebook ads now to get more people into our database.
Guillaume: Because when you’re in a situation like this, crisis management, there’s always a cash crunch. Of course, a company that has been in operation for a long time will have reserves, will have credit lines and whatever. So you can still reinvest what’s needed to generate sales and leads in marketing in full effort. But it’s always a challenge when you’re going through a cash crunch. What percentage of your orders roughly vanished with COVID?
Brooke: That’s a good point. I can’t even really convey how much our business was kind of decimated by COVID. Like we went from 100, if 100 was what our average month was before COVID, we went to like two. I think it was between March and April of 2020. We like, completely dropped vertically onto the ground. We had no marketing budget. It went from again, 100 to two if that was what our revenue went to. So we made sure that we had a decent cost per lead, this was very important. And I think, in situations where we have a very large marketing budget you can get away with setting an ad and forgetting about it if it’s not performing super well and say you’ll get to it in a couple of weeks from now.
Guillaume: So cost per lead, of course, there is the need to generate results in either small or medium businesses but don’t have huge marketing budgets, or just when your marketing budgets suddenly plummets because you dropped 98% of your revenue as an event company when COVID hit. You must generate results, you have a different mindset than the large corporation who are not necessarily doing a very efficient job. And this is something to be careful about because sometimes people will look at huge companies like maybe Costco, The Home Depot, whatever and say Costco did it this way. It doesn’t mean that it’s the best way, it doesn’t mean they have a data analysis, or that they’ve a set of scientists checking every section of the website, is that the best way to do multi-version testing and conversion? It might have just been on their platform, they’re always easier that way and the guy does it that way so that they do keep that in mind too.
Brooke: Definitely. And I think a big part of it too is like B2B. It’s a little bit more complicated because it’s not as easy as seeing the immediate ROI. Like if you put an ad out or you see this much revenue coming in, it doesn’t always necessarily work like that. Especially when we were doing more lead generation campaigns we had to assess the cost per lead that we’re trying to go for to actually make this worth it. We had to look at, if a lead comes in via an ebook at what point and what percentage of those people are actually filling out the form to inquire about our virtual event kits? Then from there, how many people who actually fill out that form are actually converting to a sale? What is the average revenue of that sale? So there was a lot of math that went into it on the back end in figuring out what that cost per lead needs to be in order for us to actually have a positive ROI. That was very important because if we weren’t generating a positive return on ad spend, then we can put that somewhere else as there’s only so much to go around.
Guillaume: Yes, it’s the pressure for performance, definitely. Around this, were there some changes that you had to do to your website technically speaking on new modules, or new features or offering to accommodate the change in business?
Brooke: We use HubSpot as our CRM. So we definitely started using forms more often through HubSpot. Previously, we had never really had a need to do that. Part of the nice thing about COVID was, although most of it was bad, having our business go from as you said, 100% to 2%. The nice thing was that it really gave us time to kind of take a step back and look at our customer experience from an outside perspective because we had been so busy for years and years, this was before I got here. But from what everyone had said, things were just growing every single month and the entire company was just busy and making sales and everything. No one really had time to step back and be like, is our website optimized for our customers’ usage? It wasn’t and it still isn’t at 100% but we’ve made a lot of changes that have really helped our customers navigate our website better. We completely overhauled our navigation, we started using a tool called Klevu for search to make people be able to search our website better. The main thing was that we actually started combining a lot of our product pages. We have, I think around 3000 product pages which is just too much. It’s too much for our customers to really fathom or understand. So our back end web developer and our UX designer at the time came up with a much more configurable user-friendly product page that we can use. We would have a lanyard and we would have a page for the lanyard, like the blank lanyard with a bulldog clip and then we’d have the blank lanyard with a J hook clip and then we’d have the imprinted lanyard with the bulldog clip. So there were 19-20 pages for one lanyard, which was a little confusing.
Guillaume: Oh, that’s a mess, because then if you just want to change the logo on and the drawing on it, you have to go back and find where the heck it is rather than having it all on one page and you just choose your drawing on that lanyard.
Brooke: Exactly. And we didn’t have it set up so that if you wanted your lanyard to say something or have a logo on it you could upload it and we could see it on the back end but you couldn’t actually see it on your lanyard. So that was a huge issue too. Because people in this day and age want you to be able to design a product and see what it’s going to look like. You don’t want to have to trust someone that you don’t know to say, it looks good. We’ll send you 1,000 of our …. So that was definitely a big thing too and now we’re finally at the point where we have a configurable page. Not all of our lanyards are even on this page yet. We still have a long way to go because we have so many products. But we finally have a configurable product page which is huge. People can pick what color lanyard they want, they can choose whether they want it to be imprinted or not, choose your attachment style, it’s just so much user-friendly. The first lanyard that we converted over through that page style is now, by far, our best performing lanyard on the website, so it’s definitely working. It’s nice to see those changes paying off because it has been a process.
Guillaume: Yeah, it’s an improvement. It’s the product structure which in a way has nothing to do with the website. It’s just how the products are structured in your database especially if they’re connected with another system like an enterprise resource planning system. You have just a bunch of individual products but you have to group them with a configurable product like a mass draw or a powered product which can draw products.
Guillaume: Which could better draw experience.
Brooke: Yeah, definitely. And it helps a lot with SEO too. Because having 20 different pages that are all basically for the same product it’s very hard to try to differentiate those pages.
Guillaume: You could duplicate content.
Brooke: Yeah, you’re basically competing against yourself. Google will slap you on the wrist if you have duplicate content. So we’re trying to figure out how we can make them different enough that Google won’t hate us.
Guillaume: You could have just the technical term called canonical content, which is a fancy word to say which one’s the original and which is the copy, so you don’t get the duplicate content penalty. So you’ll say, this one we can call it this and this one’s the original, then you have no penalty. Still, it’s annoying, it’s a bad user experience. You have to go to the back button and try to find another one. You see that in cases like this or even worse than this, like say T-shirts, small, medium, large, red, green, blue. Alright, then you want to change the size and the color, good luck. That’s why I’m trying to find it because in this case, it’s not as bad. It’s like, do you like that color? You check out and look. But for the T-shirts it’s like no, I needed a large or medium or whatever, you know.
Brooke: Yeah, exactly.
Guillaume: Makes no sense. Yeah, it’s a big approach. So you’re saying it’s a lot of general user experience improvements across the site to make it better because then the site becomes much more important to guests with the online sales. So have you seen any kind of growth of the importance of the website versus the regular orders?
Brooke: Yeah, definitely. Before COVID and the beginning of COVID, 20% of our total revenue came from the website as opposed to 80% coming from the call center and our sales team. Now about 37% of our revenue comes from the website. The other 53% is coming from … is that math right? I don’t know.
Guillaume: I don’t think it is. I think you’re missing about 10.
Brooke: It’s 63% I can’t do math on the spot.
Guillaume: We could edit it.
Brooke: No, that’s all right.
Guillaume: All right. That’s good to know, good stuff. And is there any kind of general advice that you’d give to any other merchant who’s been hit hard by COVID, something you’d like to share with them?
Brooke: I think something that definitely helped us was really focusing on quality over quantity. I think before COVID and kind of at the beginning, we were so focused on we have to put a blog post out every single week, we have to add more products. At a certain point, we were putting PPE products up on our website, we had all these different face masks that you could purchase and face shields, we were producing hand sanitizer.
Guillaume: So you can have a mask that matches your nametag or something?
Brooke: Yeah and some people still do that and that’s great. We do have one option for that now, but we had like 10 different mask options, we had all these different products and we were just launching products and launching products and we were like something has to stick. At one point we launched this wristband that was supposed to buzz if you were within six feet of someone else who had the wristband, which really didn’t go over, and we ended up discontinuing that pretty quickly.
Guillaume: You need a huge network unless it’s a closed [inaudible 25:20] but still.
Brooke: Yeah, and it didn’t really work very well, even when everyone was wearing the wristband. And some people would just turn it off because they got annoyed with it, it just wasn’t the greatest experience. At first, we were like, this is for sure going to be the thing that gets us back on the map. But it wasn’t and none of the PPE products really went over super well, either. I think what helped us was finally deciding that the quality of what we were producing and the quality of what we were marketing was a lot more important than just launching whatever we could to see what stuck. That was probably the biggest thing.
Guillaume: It sounds like you guys were super busy hustling hard to try to just throw tons of products and ideas and marketing efforts just to see what sticks because you have to drive back up 98% of your business that just vanished like that in COVID.
Brooke: Like overnight. It was crazy. Literally March 15th, or whatever the first lockdown happened. It went from a really good sales day to like $500 in sales. We were like oh, this is a big deal.
Guillaume: Yeah, it is a big deal. Okay, and anything else that you would like to share, just like to wrap up the episode, other ideas, techniques, tactics, strategies, anything else that comes to mind?
Brooke: It’s a good question, I might have to pause. I feel like I have to end it on a really good piece. I would say that something that really helped us along with focusing on quality over quantity is really focusing on turning our business into a thought leader. That really helped us in the interim, because previously, we were just known as the nametag place if you need it, event badges go to pc/nametag, if you need badges, go to pc/nametag. But we were never really considered thought leaders, we didn’t really have content that really helped people. And that is something that has been so helpful for us. Because a lot of our clientele before COVID was people in Gen X and older range that had been our customer for ages because our company was founded in the 80s.
So a lot of event planners who are, let me not say older, but like in that age range have been loyal customers for a long time. But we had a pretty big struggle with bringing in Gen Z and Millennial customers. And finally turning towards more of the thought leadership and posting blogs that are actually helpful for people that aren’t so product-focused, they’re not so self-fulfilling, I guess, things that don’t just help us. We want to help other people, we want to make sure that every piece of content that we put out isn’t just an advertisement, it’s helping our event planners learn how to do a virtual event, how to plan a hybrid event because that’s a huge thing now, how to make their events more sustainable. Because sustainability is such a huge thing in the events industry, because there’s so much waste created by the events industry, and large conferences and everything.
So really trying to make ourselves known as the company that really focuses on sustainability and creating eco-friendly products. The company that puts out content on things that help event planners, that was huge for us, because now we have multiple different types of badges that are biodegradable, that are recyclable, we have an event holder that’s made of PVC that’s biodegradable, all of our badge ribbons are eco-friendly. We have like full web pages built out just about our sustainable products. It’s not really something that we focused on a ton before COVID because we were so busy, but now really focusing on being those thought leaders, being that kind of company that’s trying to take it to the next level, and focus on brand loyalty and important things like that, that’s really made a huge difference for our business.
Guillaume: I understand. And I totally agree with that general point of view for marketing and it’s different if you put it to the extreme, a generic shoe company is the manufacturer, and then you have Nike. The difference is the brand image, there’s clout. So that’s what you’re trying to do. You don’t want to be just competing on price and then maybe on some other aspect of services that maybe you have better delivery terms, maybe better this and that better way of doing B2B or whatever. But then you need to become a customer and sort of see down the funnel how you do things differently in a better way. Now, if you go more on the surface that, hey, we’re sustainable, here’s the proof. Here’s the traceability, this is biodegradable, recyclable stuff, and so on. And then you start to have more presence and more clout and that’s definitely a way to go. You want to be seen more, you can think of Patagonia in a way. You look at the clothes, and then you can see all the social standing for sustainability and so on which makes a world of a difference for the brand’s success.
Brooke: Exactly and especially with millennials and Gen Z people too. Some people will only work with a company if they are eco-friendly. It goes a long way to creating that kind of trust between the company and the end user which is more important now than it ever was because people don’t just look for the cheapest product anymore. They’ll pay more if they know that the company that they’re working with is aligned on social aspects and sustainability.
Guillaume: There’s a huge wave of sustainability, and then they want you to sort of prove that you’re legit, you’re not doing greenwashing there. If people believe you are legit, then they’ll pay more for it.
Brooke: Yeah, that is very true, too.
Guillaume: Because there are still a lot of companies in the transition process, we’ll give kudos to their transition process, keep going. But if you can have the sustainable version or the non-sustainable version of the same products, then you’re not living the values at all. You’re just trying to target that market that cares about sustainability or traditional versus organic, you offer both. Well, you’re not an organic person, you just want to have that market share.
Brooke: Yeah and that’s something we’ve definitely been trying to do too because people still like our traditional event badges that aren’t necessarily as eco-friendly. But we’re trying to kind of go category by category. Our promo products right now, we’re trying to get rid of really anything that isn’t sustainable in some way and just kind of go from there. It’s not like an overnight thing.
Guillaume: It’s a transition.
Brooke: We try to acknowledge where our shortcomings are, too. A brand that I always really like is Patagonia, because they’ll talk about what’s eco-friendly, but what they could still improve upon.
Guillaume: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I was thinking about. They are clear, and transparent about it, this is where they’re at, where they’re going. They’re not perfect, you could do a company that outperformed them on sustainability and so on. But you will have a very, very limited inventory, and you will not have like thousands of employees, and you won’t be selling for I don’t know how many hundreds of millions they are at now.
Brooke: Yes, exactly.
Guillaume: Okay, that’s interesting. I don’t know if you know, since you haven’t been with the company that many years, but you’re currently running on Magento Enterprise known as Magento Commerce, which has changed again. Now it’s called Adobe commerce, the same platform. Do you know the evolution of your web platform, strictly what you were on, did you go to Magento Open Source first, or did you go straight to Magento Commerce?
Brooke: Oh, that is a good question and I’m not entirely sure. I know we’ve updated on Magento since I’ve been here. I want to say it was a fairly new thing because our back-end web developer is amazing with Magento. He’s like, the smartest person in the world. And he’s relatively new to the company as well. I think he’s been with the company for three years. I feel like it was something that he kind of helped the company transition into. Because the other platforms just wouldn’t be robust enough for us realistically. We cannot be running on something like Shopify, it just wouldn’t really work out with how many products we have and how much, now that COVID is in a better place, how many orders we’re getting, and all that kind of stuff. Things are a lot better now.
Guillaume: Customization level.
Brooke: Customization level for sure.
Guillaume: Well, that’s very good. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your life experience with us. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way?
Brooke: Good question. I am on LinkedIn. I have a unique last name. You can just put in Ihlefeld, I’m probably the only one on there. So LinkedIn would be a perfect way.
Guillaume: All right. Well, thank you for being here today, Brooke.
Brooke: Thanks for having me. This was great.