Be That Expert

One of the highlights of a great 2010 Pubcon South conference was the keynote address on Thursday by Rob Snell, co-owner of Gun Dog Supply. Rob and his brother Steve have done an excellent job of promoting and growing their business using social media. I was quite impressed by their results, which I think could be reproduced by just about anyone in the current web landscape.

A Little Background
Gun Dog Supply was started by the parents of Rob and Steve in 1972. For the first part of the company's history, goods were sold from catalogs or from physical stores. In 1997, partly due to competitive pressure from a "big box" competitor, Rob's mom decided they needed a web site. Rob started a Yahoo! Store and the rest, as they say, is history.

For the first few years, Gun Dog Supply was one of the few stores of its kind on the web. This lead to an exponential growth of sales on line. The web sales more than offset the sales decline in their physical store. In fact, web sales did so well they decided to sell the physical store and concentrate on their web business.

Sales continued to grow very well until the beginning of 2004 when Rob and Steve found that many of their competitors were starting their own online stores. As sales rapidly slowed, Steve and Rob came up with a plan to get sales going back in the right direction. As Rob put it during his address, they made "One big honking change." They decided to put Steve on the web site.

Show Yourself Off
Steve is an expert dog handler and hunter. He not only owns a company which sells dog training and care equipment, he uses it. He tries everything so he know what he's talking about. Rob noticed that when customers would call with questions, Steve would spend 20 to 40 minutes talking, teaching and answering questions. After talking, those customers would spend hundreds of dollars buying what Steve recommended and they would be customers forever. This isn't manipulation - Steve really knows what he's talking about and genuinely wants to help people get what they need and get the most use out of what they buy.

While this is a great way to help customers and provide excellent service, talking on the phone is not scalable. Steve can only talk to one person at a time. He's also running a large business, so he can't possibly spend every hour of every business day on the phone. A better solution is to share Steve's knowledge with everyone by posting it on the web. How did he and Rob do it? By sharing everything on their web site, on Facebook, on YouTube and on Flickr. Steve does product reviews, buying guides, training videos, product comparisons, and posts pictures and videos of himself and his family out hunting using the products they sell and demonstrating how to use them. If there is anything you want or need to know about training a hunting dog and the equipment needed to do it right, chances are you will find it on Gun Dog Supply's web site.

What's The Bottom Line?
Of course, it's fine to talk about this kind of stuff, and I've certainly advocated this type of web presence for some time. Many of you are thinking, "Oh yeah, but what did all this work amount to?" Rob showed a chart comparing the projected sales of his company compared to actual sales from the time they started putting Steve on the web site until now. He claimed a more than $10 million dollar increase over what sales were expected to be. That is one huge difference. Even if he were half wrong, even if he were a quarter wrong,  that's still a huge increase in sales.

Will It Work For Me?
Some of you may be thinking to yourself, "Oh, well that works OK for a guy who sells dog training supplies, but I sell banana guacamole. This won't work for me."

Au contraire, I say. If you establish yourself as an expert in your field and (here's the key) add value to your customers they will look to you when it comes time to buy what you are selling. Rob breaks it down to three steps, three things you need to communicate, and these do not apply just to ecommerce web sites:
  1. That you are an expert in what you do.
  2. That you have a product (or your product) is what your customers need.
  3. That they should (please) buy from you.
Back in January I was discussing this very topic with my cousin who does ice sculptures. She emailed asking me about starting a blog. I sent her the following advice:
Consider expanding your audience. Instead of looking to get potential customers from you blog, look to be the Ice Decoration Queen of Everyone. Be a subject matter expert in your field, put out some great content without the aim of just getting new customers and the customers will come. Good people with good ideas get noticed more than those who are just pushing their product or service.
This is exactly what Rob and Steve are doing, and it's working very well for them. Yes, there is a huge investment of time needed to pull this off, but I think Rob made the case that it's well worth it.
Check out the slide deck from Rob's presentation. I know it's kind of like watching T.V. with the sound turned down, but I think you'll get a good idea of what it was all about.

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