Everyone knows that marketing today is different from what it was 10 years ago. But to get an idea of how different, ask yourself, “What did your company’s marketing budget look like in 2001?” At Lion Brand Yarn Company, in 2001 we spent most of our consumer marketing dollars on advertising, printing, and postage and I handled most of the marketing myself.
We are in a niche market. Our business is yarn, a product that is primarily used by people who know how to knit or crochet. So, we focused our advertising in the few magazines that appeal to yarn crafters. We realized early on that if we wanted to reach the millions of people who knit (and there are actually more of them in the U.S. than people who golf) we would need for them to find us.
We asked ourselves, “What kind of content could we offer that would be interesting, inspiring and entertaining enough to attract the people we were looking for?”
The first type of content that we created for free on our website was patterns. Providing free patterns meant giving something of value that customers previously had to pay for, and it had the added benefit of inspiring people to use more of our product. Today, hundreds of thousands of people have registered for our website to view these patterns.
We started experimenting with other kinds of content; information and entertainment designed specifically for people who use our product, including how-to instructions, games, and e-cards. We added customer-generated content including tips, a knitting charity finder, and a gallery of images showing people wearing finished projects.
For our e-newsletter, we found Lola, a nationally syndicated comic strip with a funny, independent, and feisty personality that we thought our readers would love, and we asked the artist to make her a knitter. She is one of the most clicked on features of our newsletter. We also discovered Michelle Edwards, a talented writer and illustrator, and a lifelong knitter with a warm, inviting and down-to-earth writing style that matched our brand image. She writes stories that delve deep into the reasons that people use our yarn and links to a product that she is writing about.
Both have been so popular that they got book deals with major publishers. Those books, both to be published next month, will include a significant amount of branded content. The comic book will include information about how to subscribe to our newsletter and connect with us on social media, and the book of essays will include 12 pattens made exclusively with our yarns. In these two situations, digital led to print and will expand our reach into major bookstores and craft chains nationwide.
Our website is visited 22 million times each year. The most popular of our four newsletters, The Weekly Stitch, has a circulation of 1.2 million, more than the circulation of all of the magazines we advertise in combined. As a result, when we announce a new product in the newsletter, people go to thousands of stores nationwide that sell Lion Brand yarns and ask for it. When we opened a one-of-a-kind retail showplace in New York City to display our products in an environment that reflected our brand, we would have loved for it to be featured in the local media, but we used our own media to promote it and the day it opened there were 50 people standing in line waiting for the door to open.
The people we wanted to talk to became members; they opted in; they read. Social media, which we started to employ in 2008, offered new opportunities to expand our branded media in ways that facilitated a new type of customer relationship.
The Lion Brand Notebook, the corporate blog, has helped humanize the company by introducing individual voices of the people who work here. We have a group of five regular bloggers and each has a “beat.” We write on topics from knitting in the arts and in fashion, to how to build your skills. Several times a year we host a virtual event, where thousands of readers work on the same project for several weeks at a time, sharing their progress, helping others, and of course buying product to make those projects. Each month, 50,000 visitors to our blog are inspired and encouraged naturally, to enjoy the products we offer.
Our podcast features a duo of young employees who are passionate users of our product. They have a loyal following and have become celebrities in their own right. At consumer shows, people are excited to meet Liz and Zontee (the Click and Clack of the yarn world). Thousands of people—some of our most die-hard fans-listen to the podcast. What they hear is a half- hour show, twice a month, created by, and sponsored by our company. There is literally no one listening to that show for whom spending our marketing efforts on is inappropriate.
YouTube videos, created in-house with an inexpensive video camera include interviews with designers and guidance to help our customers improve their skills. Nearly 80 videos have been viewed over 2 million times by crafters interested in the subjects covered and the products featured.
Adding Facebook and Twitter to the mix round out what we call “Lion Media”. On all of these platforms, our goal of course, is not strictly followers; it’s engagement. Facebook and Twitter have added a new dimension to the relationships we have with people and what we learn from them informs much of the new content we develop.
We did not reject printing or advertising completely. We maintain a modest presence in print publications and we print and mail a catalog, limited mostly to those who request it. (We call it a magalog because it is a combination of story, news and product.) It presents our brand in a format that is more permanent than digital and more effectively displays our brand image.
Our intention from the beginning was to be of service, to provide inspiration and education, and to support and enhance the crafting lifestyle of the people who might be interested in our products. It was this motivation that informed all of our marketing initiatives.
I am fortunate enough to work for a company (actually it is a family) that truly cares about its customers and has been willing and able to think about the needs and desires of those customers without needing to know how each initiative will immediately contribute the bottom line. It’s that mindset that is so powerful in creating an audience.
Becoming the media, not just using it, has attracted the people who we need to reach by giving them a branded experience of the content that means the most to them. Our marketing department has transformed into a media department. We think and act like publishers, editors, writers, producers and broadcasters rather than like promoters and campaigners.
Each one of our media outlets is important in its own way, but the combination is stronger than any one by itself. Our marketing budget looks a lot different than it did ten years ago. All of this media production has taken a great deal of time, including people being dedicated to it—doing jobs that didn’t exist ten years–or even five years ago. It also requires a long term perspective because an audience grows over time as you continue to earn the attention of people.
For businesses that have made the transition to developing their own branded media, the marketing budget has shifted. The amount spent may be higher or lower but that is not the issue. Branded media is often more effective and more measurable than purchased media. But, what matters most is that a brand need not (and cannot) rely on others to reach its customers. In the same way that the internet has removed the gatekeepers for consumers who want to reach the public, it has also democratized the media for brands.