Who knew that tucked away in a strip mall on Bernadette Drive in Columbia is one of the major players in the soccer retailing business: SoccerPro, which is attracting customers from New Jersey to New Zealand.
But with the Internet, a store doesn’t need a supercenter to be considered big these days.
“We knew from the very beginning that a retail soccer store would be nice for Central Missouri,” SoccerPro co-owner Tony Marrero said. “But to be what we envisioned our company to be, we knew we needed a strong online presence.”
SoccerPro.com first appeared on the Internet four years ago when Marrero and co-owner Curtis Stelzer opened the physical store. Online sales of soccer equipment and apparel now account for at least 90 percent of their business.
Marrero said his store is now at the top of the niche industry, just behind a similar store in North Carolina that began online soccer retail before SoccerPro. A Google search for “soccer equipment” puts SoccerPro.com in the first or second spot of search results, a feat that Marrero said takes a lot of work.
“Our online sales have grown rapidly,” he said. “Even in 2008, which would be considered a slow year, we saw significant growth in our online business.”
Retail sales are only one example of how the Internet can extend a business’s reach. The marketing opportunities the Web provides are multiplying, and companies are scrambling to find ways to take advantage of them and direct online traffic to their sites.
Whether it’s through use of social networks, exemplified by Bank of Missouri and New Chapter Coaching, a superior operating system, like the one Agents National Title Insurance has set up, or just keeping the company Web site fresh, as Callaway Bank does, the bottom line of marketing in the online world is making it easy for potential customers to find and use a business’s Web site.
Ten years ago, a company’s Web site might well be little more than a business card. Now, it is the cornerstone of a successful marketing strategy. Today a business card without a Web address is little more than a piece of paper.
“If you’re not on the Internet, your business doesn’t exist,” said Peter Meng, director of interactive at Woodruff Sweitzer, a firm that helps companies with advertising, corporate branding and innovation. It’s a common Internet axiom, he said, but one that becomes truer every day.
The trick is directing customers to the Web site whether the interaction between customer and company takes place online or offline. Every message must point to the company’s Web site whether that message is in print, on TV or on a billboard above a highway.
Online advertising, Meng said, does the same thing. Traditional banner ads on a site are simply links to a company’s Web page. Search engine optimization or making sure a site has the keywords most likely to produce a high ranking in the results of a search, is also extremely important, he added.
“Especially in times like these with slower growth, online advertising is what clients are looking for,” said Amberly Engert, director of non-paid media for True Media, which specializes in helping clients place advertising online. “It allows businesses to target ads based on Web behavior, which is more cost-effective and more measurable.”
Although companies are still realizing the potential for targeted Internet advertising, even that might not be the best online opportunity.
Social media, like blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, are allowing companies to spread their message via their customers.
“What’s happening now is you’re trying to bring consumers to advocate for your product,” said Steve Warme, vice president of account services at Woodruff Sweitzer’s Calgary office.
That’s turning the traditional marketing funnel, where the end result is a sale, into a megaphone, Warme said.
“The best way to reach people is through word of mouth,” Meng said. “And electronic word of mouth moves pretty rapidly.”
SoccerPro’s owners have been able to spread the word about their business by just having fun. They started producing a podcast, called the Goalmouth Scramble, in the summer and post two or three a week to their site.
The podcasts, which can be streamed directly from the site or downloaded from iTunes, feature Stelzer talking and joking about the game with other soccer enthusiasts. They’ve even had KFRU host Simon Rose as a guest. It might seem like just a fun addition to their Web page, but as the site says, it’s “just wacky enough for you to take seriously.”
Marrero said the podcasts have provided another interactive opportunity for SoccerPro and its customers. They’ve already produced around 80 episodes and have received e-mail from kids about the show, including some from England.
“It’s a matter of understanding how our customers are communicating, how they want to talk to us and how they want to learn about us, and we’re just using those tools,” Marrero said.
TWITTER, FACEBOOK NOT JUST FOR FRIENDS
One of the newer social marketing tools is Twitter, which allows users to use short group messages to constantly let their friends and associates know what they’re doing. The challenge is providing further content like a Web address in a character-limited message, Meng said, but it’s “a great way to create buzz if you have something buzz-worthy.”
Marrero and Stelzer at SoccerPro have already begun using Twitter to reach their customers, informing them of deals and events. They also have a company Facebook page that serves the same function.
“Twitter and Facebook are some social marketing tools that are relevant to the kids that buy our stuff, and we want to let them know we’re right there with them,” Marrero said.
But kids aren’t the only ones using Facebook these days. Politicians discovered the site’s marketing potential this election, and companies from The Blue Note to Citigroup have official Facebook pages. Carolyn Sullivan, who started a business consulting firm four months ago, joined Facebook for fun. But after she launched her business, New Chapter Coaching, she quickly saw Facebook’s marketing potential.
“I use it to keep my business in the minds of my friends and family,” Sullivan said. “That allows referral opportunities in a business where a referral is most important.”
When she was getting ready to launch her business, she let her friends on Facebook know so they would create business buzz. She’s also a member of LinkedIn, another networking site that caters to business professionals, and is in the Columbia Chamber of Commerce online directory. But Facebook generates most of her Web site’s visitors.
Sullivan already has a blog on her Web site that provides professional development tips and will soon begin producing videos with a “coaching tip of the month.” She’s also working hard to get other sites to provide links to her site, newchaptercoach.com. She’s even using old-fashioned direct mail but noted that it’s a lot cheaper to use an e-marketing company – only $15 to contact 500 people.
“Because you can be relatively nimble online with a relatively low budget, it allows smaller companies to grow and get their message out there,” said Warme at Woodruff Sweitzer.
GIRL TALK ‘GREW WINGS’
The Internet can even grow companies out of what was intended to be a hobby. Kathy Onwezen launched Girl Talk, a social networking site for Central Missouri women, to stay connected with other women after she left her job as a nurse to start her own business.
Since the site started in May, she’s already attracted more than 500 members and five contractual sponsors. She’s probably going to have to hire someone this year to help run the site, she said.
“I just thought it would be a place where we could all e-mail each other,” Onwezen said. “And it just kind of grew wings and flew.”
When Brooke Watkins at Bank of Missouri heard about Onwezen’s idea, she immediately saw the marketing opportunity.
“We saw Girl Talk’s potential at the very beginning,” said Watkins, who is Branch Retail Services officer at the bank. “We realized it would become more than a hobby for her.”
One of Girl Talk’s features is that it provides a way for members to get expert advice from sponsors in areas such as finance, health and family. The opportunity coincided perfectly with one of Bank of Missouri’s focuses for 2009, female entrepreneurs, Watkins said. Now Watkins is a featured expert on the site, gotogirltalk.com, and answers questions from members along with other Bank of Missouri representatives.
On a professional level, the bank’s sponsorship of Girl Talk is already starting to draw customers, Watkins said. She personally uses the site for the restaurant reviews and new recipes, she said, and is looking forward to an upcoming girls’ poker event.
The online community, Girl Talk, has created meets for live social events, too. Companies and professionals have contacted Onwezen about sponsoring events to promote their businesses, especially lately, when “people are very interested in no-contract advertising,” she said. In the last few weeks she’s received quite a few calls from businesses that are looking to reach customers through Girl Talk.
CONTENT (MANAGEMENT) IS KING
Meanwhile, Callaway Bank recently redesigned its Web site for a fresher look that offers more online services, the bank’s director of marketing and public relations, Debbie LaRue, said. The goal is to better connect with its existing customers. But the site is also much faster, which is important to keeping the attention of potential customers who may not wait more than a few seconds for a site to load, she added.
The biggest improvement, though, is the content management system built into the new site. It allows the bank to manage the site in-house without having to wait on a webmaster. Now the marketing department can make needed changes, and features like a message from the bank’s CEO can be updated regularly. The content management system will also allow Callaway Bank to design surveys to find out more about their customers, LaRue said.
“It is very important for us to know what our target audience is and what they want,” she said. “The Web site is a great way to gather that information.”
The development of content management systems is a major trend for businesses right now, Meng at Woodruff Sweitzer said. Ten years ago, a company would spend half a million dollars to create a system that allowed it to manage Web content in-house. Now, they can do it for under $1,000. Meng estimated 50-60 percent of businesses still need someone to manage their content for them, “but that is changing rapidly.”
BUSINESS FUNCTIONS MOVE ONLINE
Agents National Title Insurance just launched its new in-house managed Web site this month. But CEO David Townsend said “it’s more than just a Web site; it’s our Web system.”
The site, developed by Delta Systems, has moved all of the company’s accounting and reporting procedures online, reducing the time spent on “mundane paper pushing,” Townsend said. For a real estate title insurance underwriting business, that’s important because it attracts customers – title insurance agents who aren’t necessarily tied to a specific underwriting company. Before agents did everything on paper, so it took more time for agents and underwriters to communicate, Townsend said.
“Every bell and whistle we add to this system is designed to make it easier for our agents to do business,” he said. “As soon as they see it, they love it.”
The system was one of Townsend’s main goals when he started the title underwriting business three years ago. By consulting with title agents on the system, he made sure it was designed to make the process as easy as possible for them, he said.
“By having a more efficient system, we hope that it will translate into a higher number of policies issued on us than competitors,” Townsend said.
Not only does Townsend think his site will draw more agents to his company, he also hopes to eventually market the system to non-competitor title underwriters. The patent on the system is pending.
Agents Title’s system is indicative of the future of business, a shift not only of marketing but also accounting and internal processes to the Internet, Meng said. Businesses may not realize it at first, but “when you look at the Web, you need to understand that in the next 10 years, the majority of your business will be run through the Internet,” he said.
Although Meng sees a wave in the near future of advertising through games and applications and more targeted social networks, for now companies need to make sure they have a Web site that not only presents their products but also reflects their company’s personality.
“Whether a business knows it or not,” he said, “their Web site is already their primary marketing tool.”