(reprinted from Furniture Today, April 26, 2016 by Erin Berg & Cindy W. Hodnett)
The good, the bad and the ugly of online marketing
HIGH POINT — For some upholstery manufacturers, the growing necessity to include a digital marketing strategy in their overall marketing plan can stretch human and financial resources, but they recognize it is more of a mandate than an option in today’s highly competitive marketplace.
“The stakes are very high,” said Doug Collier, La-Z-Boy senior vice president, CMO and president, international. “Companies like Wayfair are redefining what customers’ expectations should be of their digital experiences.”
Indiana-based Best Home Furnishings is one upholstery manufacturer that takes an active and aggressive approach to its online presence. “This is the new way to market,” said Eric Vollmer, senior marketing strategist, Best Home. “From an advertising and marketing role, the Internet is a big part of what we discuss and do regularly. Our website is a living, breathing and dynamic sales piece for us.
“As a manufacturer, you’d think you’re competing with other manufacturers, but that’s not the case when you’re talking about the digital world,” he said. “We find we’re competing against the big box guys and non-traditional furniture stores.”
One of first questions a manufacturer must tackle right out of the gate is: Who is our audience?
This could be a head scratcher for the manufacturer that has the dual goal of building brand recognition among consumers and providing dealer support. Balancing the primary and secondary audiences in the online strategy is probably much like watching a teeter totter in motion.
“Our website definitely serves two audiences,” said Vollmer. “It’s where consumers go to get the most relevant, up-to-date product information, and it’s for our authorized dealers as a reference tool and to get answers about product or programs that they can’t find in the catalog.”
Because Best Home introduces product every six months – sometimes every three months – an updated website with current product information is critical, and Vollmer emphasized the importance that the company places on serving the dealers by placing dealer locator links throughout the site.
The online marketing mix for custom upholstery producer Huntington House includes website, social media and email.
“This allows us to stay top-of-mind with both consumers and our retail partners simultaneously,” said Christy Grove, director of marketing, Huntington House. “With consumers self-education online prior to seeking out a brick-and-mortar store, we feel it is absolutely critical to be available online to show our product line-up, answer questions immediately and direct these consumers to where they can make a purchase.”
Grove added that Huntington House also develops online tools for its retail partners to simplify the selling process, provide a forum for feedback and allow them to view the company’s latest offerings.
“We have retail partners all over the country, so it would be impossible for us to reach all of those local markets without their help, and online marketing plays a key role in this, as well as traditional marketing,” Grove said. “We focus on building and maintaining relationships with marketing personnel at those retailers so that we can provide marketing assets to them when opportunities arise.”
“One of the most difficult challenges is effectively portraying our company to both consumers and retailers,” said Sarah Lydon, marketing director at domestic lift chair producer UltraComfort America. “Everything is strategically placed on the website — for the consumer to relate to their shopping experience and find a retailer and for the retailer to get more information as a selling tool.”
UltraComfort recently redesigned its website to incorporate more video and features to do just that. The home page video that plays automatically on a loop features a Baby Boomer woman walking along the line of products and is the producer’s effort to relate to the shopping experience. Visitors can click on a product to watch the woman test out the chair.
Understanding how the consumer thinks and shops has driven much of the approach that Heritage Home Group adopted as it has rebuilt its online brand strategy and redesigned websites for Thomasville, Lane and Broyhill.
“Presenting our brands in the terms and ways that people shop versus the way we think as a manufacturer is a big shift for venerable brands like ours,” said Mark Smiley, director of e-commerce and licensing, Heritage Home.
“Our biggest goal is to help consumers find out what they need to before they come into our stores.”
There’s definitely something to “the early bird gets the worm.”
Best Home made a shift in its online marketing strategy a couple of years ago with the objective of entering the buyer’s journey early — during the researching stage. Best has put more effort into search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO) to drive and increase site traffic.
“We heard that 70% to 80% percent of shoppers are going online to learn about products,” stated Vollmer. “We want to capture them early in the process and provide as much relevant information as we can.”
That early stage in the buyer’s journey is what Collier identified as La-Z-Boy’s core focus — the point he called Inspiration. It is one of three foundational ways the company interacts with the consumer, followed by Information, to educate consumers on products, fabrics, features and prices; and finally Transaction.
Collier explained, “We’ve done research that shows furniture shoppers take two to three months on average from looking to buying. There are numerous points in the process that they are interfacing with brands digitally.”
Building a brand in the lift chairs subcategory that is rapidly growing but not yet in the spotlight, UltraComfort is eager to plant in the minds of consumers its story as an U.S. company making quality products.
“Lift chairs are still murky waters because they are still a new concept for consumers and retailers,” said Lydon. “We want to not only answer questions for them, but also anticipate and give them answers to questions they they don’t know to ask. That’s what adds value for them.”
Craftmaster Furniture is introducing an upholstery collection by Rachael Ray, a celebrity cook and television personality with 3.5 million followers on Twitter and 1.8 million followers on Facebook. Roy Calcagne, president and CEO, said that the company uses several online marketing tools.
“The Craftmaster website receives about 40,000 visits per month,” Calcagne said. “The website is a great tool for the pre-shopping experience for the consumer. The MicroD draping system is a fantastic tool to help the consumer narrow down her decisions and to show our entire assortment in the online catalog.”
On the trade side, Calcagne said that Craftmaster utilizes Furniture/Today banner ads, adding that they provide a “direct connection to the dealers and buyers.” He said that the synergy created between dealer and buyer online marketing benefits both.
“Our customers use retailer websites primarily,” Calcagne said. “Depending on the sophistication level of the dealer’s site, this is a great tool. If the dealer ties back to our website, there is a direct benefit. Brand awareness is a nice add-on for Craftmaster.”
Neil MacKenzie, director of marketing for Universal Furniture, said that online channels are a key marketing medium for the company. He added that it is important to develop a consistent message among all marketing channels.
“I think given how the consumer shops, most, if not all of our partners are leveraging a mix of online marketing to reach consumers,” MacKenzie said. “We try to make it easy for our partners to execute these types of initiatives by leveraging imagery or video for the needs they have. The more consistency in the message, the more we see benefits of increased awareness.
“For Universal, online marketing is an opportunity to tell our story as a whole home provider; it allows our customers and their customers an option of exploring what we can provide,” he said. “Leveraging a variety of online channels allows us to increase awareness, both for our brand and for our retailer partners.”
When talking about the internet and branding, it’s virtually impossible to take anything short of a holistic approach.
“We look at the digital eco-system,” said Collier. “The desktop website allows you to tell your story in a powerful way, but mobile is absolutely and increasingly critical. Social media is very important because it ties back to two of our foundational goals of inspiration and information. Where it works well is when you can connect and integrate the different platforms.”
A strong example of the power of that connection was demonstrated in La-Z-Boy’s Design Dash, a competition among five designer bloggers to design a room using La-Z-Boy furniture and décor available to them in the showroom after High Point Market. Bloggers created awareness through their websites and social media, supplemented by La-Z-Boy’s organic content, paid media, YouTube videos and a microsite. Internet followers voted on the designers’ rooms and were entered into a drawing for a money prize.
The event generated millions of impressions and reinforced La-ZBoy’s core objective of convincing people that La-Z-Boy makes great products beyond recliners,” said Collier.
Digital engagement is not much different from the traditional definition of the word. It is the next level of a relationship, and getting there is both an achievement and a raising of expectations.
“We want engagement with our posts,” said Lydon, who focuses most of her social media efforts on Facebook and Twitter. “We get comments from consumers, and people are looking at what your response rate is so we work for an immediate response rate.”
At The MT Company, President George Jordan said that the company’s traditional marketing efforts and online marketing are about a 50/50 split. Referencing the immediacy of online channels, Jordan said that online marketing offers a “quick way to show new trends and fun treatments. We mainly use social media for marketing – Instagram and Facebook,” he said. “Those social media outlets increase brand awareness at a good value.”
Wesley Hall also uses social media and partners with consumer shelter publications on their online efforts. “Many of our customers utilize online marketing, and yes, it benefits us,” said Zack Taylor, president. “I think it aids us in brand awareness, and we provide imagery for such use. I think it (online marketing) aids us in identifying the style and lifestyle strengths of our brand.”
The less glamorous face of engagement is the negative public feedback that is a possibility for any business. The court of public opinion can be harsh, but it has been proven that the manner in which issues are handled can leave a lasting impression.
“We’re always interested to know what issues there are with our products,” said Vollmer. “We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a lot of complaints, but they are there, and we don’t necessarily want to remove them because we want to portray a balanced picture and demonstrate that we do address concerns.”
Lydon has taken the same approach.“We don’t delete negative comments if we get them. We address them right away. The public knows if you delete unfavorable comments.”
Seduced by technology
When UltraComfort launched its digital initiative at the last Winter Las Vegas Market, one of its top priorities was to produce videos to provide dealers a versatile sales tool. It was a marketing initiative that generated excitement internally as well as among prospective and current dealers, not to mention value overall.
“There’s no limit to what we can do to tell our story, convey our culture and show what differentiates us,” said Lydon. “There’s always more we can do with the technology and ways to improve our digital marketing.”
Collier said, “Every day there is something that is the newest, best thing you need to be doing. Technology can be very seductive. Be very careful that you don’t get so enamored with it that you forget to consider how your consumers use technology and what makes the most sense with your brand.”