Online retail is quickly becoming a commonplace – even preferred – way to buy. Most people you know have probably bought something online in the past year, whether it’s a concert ticket, a subscription to a digital publication or service, or far more clothing than you’d want to carry around in a physical store. Forrester Research, Inc. projects e-commerce spending in the U.S. to total around $262 billion for this year alone. That translates to about 8% of all retail sales in the country.
While you can probably count on one hand the number of people you know that have never conducted any transactions online, the number of businesses that are working exclusively online is increasing rapidly. The Internet is a marketplace that’s simultaneously excellent and terrifying for small business owners: online marketing is consistently a gamble, and effective strategies become stale very quickly.
We decided to dig into effective online marketing with a small, online-only business based out of a relatively low populated metro area. And so we settled on a small, online-only device case manufacturer in Oklahoma City: The Case Studio.
The Case Studio at a Glance
For a small business based in a Midwestern metro area, The Case Studio is exceptionally well positioned for success in the digital realm. As their name would suggest, they exclusively sell device cases – specifically, cases for phones, laptops, and tablets. At this point, the company deals mostly with Apple products but has recently expanded to include products for the Android phone.
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Some of the business’s larger competitors include Society6, Zazzle, and Shutterfly. Society6 doesn’t offer completely customized cases, but their selection is enormous and includes options including prints for clothing, pillows, cards, and more. Zazzle and Shutterfly both specialize in customized cases, and their prices are just slightly lower than those of The Case Studio. Then again, none of these retailers offer the level of customization that the Case Studio does.
Like any online retailer, The Case Studio has to make their products tactile. Consumers still want to see and touch products before buying – and they know, now more than ever, that nice-looking photos don’t necessarily accurately depict the actual quality of the products.
Online Marketing as a Small Business
In spite of some worthy competition and a few unique challenges, The Case Studio is in a fairly favorable position as a small online retailer. And so it raises the same questions as other businesses of its ilk:
How do you harness the right consumers – and enough of them – to make your online company profitable? Here are a few tips gleaned from this business’s day-to-day operations.
Know your niche. The Case Studio is very clear-cut about its niche: it’s a company that lets consumers design their own, personalized cases for their devices. For some businesses, that one core product or service is not as simple to focus on. But you’ve got to have one thing you do exceptionally well – and once you identify what it is, make it your mission to improve that product or service before doing anything else.
Keep in mind that, almost always, quality trumps quantity. For smaller businesses especially, one excellent product is far better than ten so-so products. People will pay for something they can’t find anywhere else.
Be direct with your customer. The Case Studio’s narrow product offering might seem like a potential problem at first glance. But that very specific niche means that both the company and the customer know what’s being sold – and the company is able to focus on fine-tuning that one product.
The Case Studio website is clearly organized and user-friendly, and the homepage leaves no room for doubt about what they’re selling.
The colorful images and theme manage to be simultaneously clean and creative, and the customization service is mentioned right in the middle of the page. Specialization is one thing the Case Studio does well.
Wait – who’s the customer again? This company delivers a high-quality product, and they know the people they’re selling it to. The casual, effeminate font implies a customer base that’s mostly female – and the fact that it looks hand-written is a nod to the company’s customizable designs. The current Back to School promotion speaks to a younger crowd. And the monogramming is something you’d likely find very popular in a college sorority.
From looking at the website, The Case Studio targets young women with a bit of disposable income – and more importantly, with a penchant for personalization and aesthetics.
If you’re not as certain of your targeted – or actual – demographic, do some research. Look at your current customers’ age, region, gender, education level, and income level, if possible. If your company is exclusively online, you probably have a more diverse customer base than you would with a physical storefront. You could create a quick survey for customers to fill out (hint: offering a small coupon for completing the survey helps a lot), or ask for that information during the buying process itself.
Then think about who your website targets currently – look at the font, the colors, design, copy, and the images you use. Are these components likely to appeal to your targeted customer?
The price must be right. Once you’ve honed in on your target demographic, you’ve got to reconcile your prices to its spending habits. For the Case Studio, that means pricing their customization services just a smidge above prices for specialized-but-nothing-special device cases. (Think: InCase, Speck.) And while their customers care about how their belongings look, they aren’t shelling out hundreds of dollars for a piece of designer plastic.
Remember: your price tells your customers what to think about your product. Too high, and you’re a rip-off; too low, and you’re cheap. As mentioned above, The Case Studio keeps its prices just slightly higher than your typically high-rated phone cases – and that little bit of extra money lets the customer know that customization is in-demand, valuable, and hard to find.
Make yourself a standout. You’ve zeroed in on your existing and target customers, adjusted your design and pricing accordingly – now what? Now it’s time for the part that’s both the most simple and the most difficult. You’ve got to determine your competitive advantage.
Why bother including this step? For one thing, if you don’t have any competition, you’re probably not in a profitable industry. Competition means you’ve chosen a potentially lucrative business plan. All you have to do is figure out what you do better than your competition.
Don’t worry – chances are, your business already has a definite competitive advantage. Perhaps your web-based catering company specializes in treats for special diets. Or maybe your boutique marketing firm has an exceptionally effective solution for small businesses.
Here’s what the Case Studio has in its toolbox: they can customize almost every aspect of a device case, where other designers only offer a semi-customizable template. For someone who wants a high-end, one-of-a-kind tablet case, that extra opportunity could be a major selling point.
And, as an online company, The Case Studio can do what physical storefronts can’t always accomplish: reach customers across the country. That being said, this company is also particularly skilled at interacting with its home base. Following the devastating May 2013 tornadoes in Oklahoma, the company partnered with a local designer to create Oklahoma-centric cases. The proceeds of each case go directly to the Oklahoma Red Cross – and needless to say, these designs have been incredibly popular in the following months.
However, there’s always room for improvement. If you’re actively losing customers to your competitors due to an easily resolved issue, try to act on it. The Case Studio has a no-returns policy, though they will replace any case that’s been damaged or is defective. While this policy does make sense for a customized product, it also seems a bit unfriendly – and could likely be a more flexible solution.
And for the record, “exceptional customer service” and “insanely low prices” no longer draw customers in. These phrases are so overused that they operate as filler – and customers don’t trust them.
Give business-as-usual the boot. That is – even after you’ve taken all these big steps to optimize your online marketing campaign, don’t become complacent. For a small business, constant innovation and improvement are essential to staying relevant and profitable.
Stay in contact with your customers, and continually ask yourself what you could be doing better. The Case Studio’s Red Cross benefit continues to drive traffic to their site and to keep them involved in the community, but it’s just one of many community efforts to come.
Online marketing isn’t so mysterious – it’s much like traditional marketing, really, with a much more diverse customer base. (And many more email “pings” than front door chimes sounding.) Do business well, engage with your customers, and make yourself memorable.