A friend sent me this case study yesterday – It’s from a site called Marketing Profs and it’s a great example of a “mom and pop” business using social media and word of mouth marketing to build a pet food business – a $2.5 million at that.
Launched in May 2007, K9 Cuisine helped fill a void created by the tainted-pet-food crisis of spring 2007 by offering pet owners safe dog-food and cat-food products along with reliable and accountable service.
“It wasn’t started to be the biggest dog food business in the world; it was started to solve a problem,” said Anthony Holloway, president of K9 Cuisine, referring to the lack of product availability and quality service his family had encountered during the catastrophe. “And it didn’t take long at all to figure out we were onto something.”
Though armed with only a shoestring budget and limited marketing experience, Holloway rapidly turned K9 Cuisine into a thriving business, mostly by letting its products and service speak for themselves.
In fact, he didn’t spend a dime on traditional advertising. Instead, he connected with others on forums and blogs who were equally frustrated with the industry, and he used a very soft approach to highlight the company’s values and product quality
Buzz quickly started to build.
Now, less than two years later, K9 Cuisine is bringing in $2.5 million in annual sales and expects to double that amount in the next 8-10 months.
Like many pet owners, Anthony and Kay Holloway found themselves in a bind when the tainted pet food crisis hit in spring 2007. The closest store carrying the new food they had chosen for their dog was 70 miles away and had inconsistent product availability. Online, availability was unpredictable, as well, and the lack of customer service left the couple wondering whether or when their order would arrive. The experience drove them to start their own pet food supply business in May 2007 with both a physical and an online store. The business, called K9 Cuisine, offered not only a wide range of safe pet products but also great customer service and live support, information on real-time inventory levels, free shipping on orders over $50, and same-day shipping for most online purchases.
But like any new business, it had to get the word out and gain credibility in order to build a customer base. Working with a small marketing budget, Anthony Holloway decided to leverage free and low-cost online media to communicate the company’s sound values, hoping that this approach—combined with exemplary service—would generate positive word-of-mouth.
Immediately, Holloway noticed how passionate and opinionated the online pet owner community can be and wanted to use this to the company’s advantage. Working with Shama Hyder, founder and chief marketing consultant of After the Launch, a Dallas-based marketing consultancy firm, he started by reaching out to these people through forums and blogs—an effort he continues to this day.
Using Google alerts, Holloway locates posts related to pet products sold by K9 Cuisine and contributes to the conversations, but only when he feels doing so would add value for the readership and support the company’s values.
“It’s not spam,” he explained. “We try to be transparent and engage in discussions about dog food and pets, not just plant our name in forums.”
To further build trust, K9 Cuisine has set up its own blog with a handful of contributors, including two vets and a dog trainer. At first, company blog posts revolved around pet nutrition, but content has since been expanded to include interesting pet-related news and company activities, such as the time the Holloways traveled to Houston to donate 6.5 tons of food to the local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) after Hurricane Ike.
K9 Cuisine has also launched a customer survey/product rating system on the company Web site, whereby objective and non-moderated customer feedback is posted to the appropriate product pages in real time. To encourage participation, K9 Cuisine sends an email to customers 21-28 days after the sale, thanking them for their recent purchases and asking them to take a few seconds to share their opinions about the items ordered.
In addition, the company has established a presence on social-networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. The K9 Cuisine Facebook page is designed to reinforce company values and connect with customers on a more personal level. It includes recent blog posts, photos, and video, along with a place for users to upload their own photos and contribute to the discussion board.
“Our goal is to personalise an impersonal experience,” said Holloway. “Whether through the blog, our Web site or Facebook, we want to make it feel more meaningful than just placing an order.”
K9 Cuisine has also conducted a limited amount of Facebook advertising and maintains a small keyword ad budget.
K9 Cuisine’s annual sales have hit $2,500,000—and they’re climbing. Growth during the company’s first year registered around 50% per month, and it continues at a rate of 15-20% per month.
“The sum of it all has made for some fantastic growth for our company,” said Holloway, referring to the combination of soft online promotion and the word-of-mouth that has been generated through positive customer experiences.
Conversion rates on the Web site range between 5.5% and 7.5%, with keyword buys accounting for the best conversion ratios.
- Become a trusted source: K9 Cuisine was able to showcase its values, demonstrate expertise, and build credibility—in a time when consumers were extremely skeptical of the industry—by remaining transparent and using a neighborly, contributory style rather than a pronounced marketing approach, to engage its market in forums and other channels where those users were already looking for answers. The company blog, with regular postings from pet professionals, has also helped to establish trust among the user base.
- Let consumer passion work for you: K9 Cuisine was careful to not support one product over another when it engaged with the market, understanding how deep some product loyalties run… and how important it is for the consumer not to feel as if they are doing anything wrong for their pet. Instead, the company let unmoderated customer opinions and ratings dictate which products would rise to the top; and by encouraging such independent reviews, it was able to further boost consumer confidence on its site.
- Follow through with excellent customer service: The online campaign has been effective in driving traffic to the Web site and convincing customers to purchase from K9 Cuisine, but that’s merely step one. Had the company not completed those sales with prompt and satisfactory service and lived up to its promises, the business could have easily fallen flat. Similarly, the positive word-of-mouth that has played such a key role in the company’s success would not have materialized. Instead, because service has remained a top priority for K9 Cuisine, it has been rewarded with consistently high customer-satisfaction ratings, in the range of 98-99%, along with repeat orders from 70-85% of its customer base. “It may start on a blog or with a Google search, but the bottom line is that it’s about customer service and exceeding those expectations,” said Holloway.
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