How Virtual Events Are Powering Commonsku's Marketing

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Virtual events have received mixed reviews as a replacement for in-person conferences.

 

For some companies, virtual events have provided opportunities to connect. But many people have complained about the lack of interactivity and engagement.

 

For commonsku, which sells software to promotional product companies, in-person events have been a key part of its marketing and sales efforts.

 

As important, events have propelled Commonsku's community.

 

With in-person conferences off the table, commonsku has successfully leveraged virtual events to stay connected to customers and nurture prospects.

 

In this episode of Marketing Spark, Mark Graham, commonsku's co-founder and chief brand officer, talks about why and how virtual events have worked so well. 

 

My name is Mark Evans and I'd like to welcome you to marketing spark, the podcast that delivers small doses of insight, tools and tips from marketers and entrepreneurs in the trenches. By small doses, it's conversations that are fifteen minutes or less. On today's show I'm talking with Mark Graham, Cofounder of Commons Kew, Asas based crm and order management platform that powers promotional products businesses. Now reached out to mark because I wanted to get some insight into how a small SASS business is approaching marketing from a prospect and customer perspective. Thanks markets. A real pleasure to be here. So maybe to set the stage, can you talk about the common skeew journey, which evolved out of your own promotional products business? The story of common skeew is the classic Scratch Your Own Itch Story. I had started a promotional products business in the year two thousand called right sleeve, and a few years into building this promotional products business we experienced classic growth challenges. Orders were starting to pile up, there were problems that were slipping through our fingers and we realize that we needed a piece of software to help us streamline the customer experience in the workflow and managing all of our suppliers and employee we research some options in the market and found that there was nothing that was available to a small promotional products business, and so we decided that we had two choices. One was that we would just hit at the ceiling in terms of where we were growing and not continue to grow, or the other option was that we could go and build our own solution to help us address some of these growth and operational challenges. So that was in two thousand and five, and then we realized, but we'd had this great system on our hands, that we realize that there was an opportunity to commercialize this and share this platform with other people in the Promotion Products Industry. Now a lot of service businesses and consultants think about starting a software business. It's...

...the classic route. You are selling services by the project or the hour and you say to yourself, it would be great to have something that I could build and then resell that leverages my skills and expertise. But it's a hard journey. So what are the some of the some of the key challenges? Are Some of the obstacles that you had to overcome to turn your business rights leave into common skew. Oh the significant challenges. I mean, as you say, rights Leeve was the services business. We woke up every day and we sold promotional products programs to customers. Reorienting that business to think like a software business was incredibly challenging and I think that the way that we ended up solving this issue is through a couple of things. Number one is that we built this as an internal tool. So in two thousand and five we had no intention of commercializing this. We had a developer that was on staff that was exclusively devoted to building this as an internal tool. So we didn't need to think like a software company, we didn't need to think from a support perspective, we didn't need to think of Classic Engineering Challenges. We had a few years of having built this as an internal tool where we gathered more confidence and we started to understand how to think about building software because we had done it successfully with ourselves as the client. And so, with a few years of experience under our belt, we then have the confidence to be able to go and take some baby steps into converting this into a commercial enterprise. When you think about the effort that went into the business. Would you do it all over again? Was it the right decision? I mean it's it's great in hindsight to say yes, I would, but when you look at the money or the effort involved, both personally and professionally, was it the right move for for your company? Of course it was. And this is funny. I often joke with my partner in life and in business, Catherine Graham, course good friend of yours as well, that Catherine and I talked about this a lot, like would we do this again, noting the mistakes and the money and all of the risks that we took, and the answer would...

...be absolutely yes. And I think the other thing is that with the benefit of hindsight, we often we often look and say, do you think we could have done this any better or any easier? And the answer to that is often know as well, because you think about all the things you learn when you build a product, all the feedback you get from customers that tell you they hate your product or the ones that love your product, hopefully as well. You need to go through that and it's you talk to any successful stats entrepreneur, even the giants of Sass in Canada, people like toby at a shopify or might get fresh books. Just to people who come to come to mind. They started their businesses twenty years ago as well and they went through a significant amount of pain before they realize that they had a truly winning product on their hand. So I don't think you can shortcut your way to success. Now that a lot of companies common skews. Marketing involved a lot of meetings and conferences. I'm you guys did some really creative things connecting with prospects and customers. So how is the company's market change over the past four months? So we've done a lot of in person events to engage our customers and prospects and we didn't want to give up on that, so we moved fairly quickly into virtual experiences. We've done a number of virtual events in the last couple of months and they've been incredibly successful, almost so so so much that we've kind of questioned our in person event strategy, noting how expensive and how difficult in person events are to do. Where you think about virtual events, they're much cheaper and you can also attract so many more people because they're done on virtual platforms. But that's a side story. But we always recognize that Commons Hue success was in the power of community and connectivity and human connectedness and we didn't want to give that up when we when we were not allowed to do our physical, in person events, so we moved a virtual so that was one thing. Another thing that we really double down on was our content and our focus on keeping customers successful. I think we've always seen our...

...business as as placing our customers needs incredibly high in the food chain, but in this case we really spent a lot of time making sure that our customers that were using the platform were successful, because there was this unprecedented crisis that it hit their business and if our customers weren't successful then they wouldn't be renewing their common skeew licenses. So there was a bit of motivation in there for us. But the whole company went completely into proactive mode in terms of how we could connect our customers and how we could empower them with education and content, and it was very successful. Okay, so let's go back to this whole virtual event idea. So a lot of companies, a lot of SASS and bedd companies, heavily depend on conferences they sponsor and conference. They speak, they meet prospects, they build relationships with their existing customers and that's their bread and butter. I would I would suggest that some of the businesses that I've I've worked on, eighty or ninety percent of marketing budgets go towards conferences. But suddenly that's disappeared and a lot of companies have been less scrambling because they don't know what to do, they don't know how to connect with their customers. So maybe you can walk through some of the virtual events that common skeew has put on and maybe bude some best practices in terms of how you've made them successful. How do you drive engagement? How do you make people feel like the part of a community? How do you make them feel like the events going to be interesting, interactive engaging? So I think for us, whether it's an in person event or a virtual event, what we've always done is placed our community top priority. So when some the value someone's going to get by coming to an event that we host, whether it's virtual or in person, is that they know they are going to connect with other progressive and likeminded entrepreneurial people in the Promotion Products Industry. I'd say that that is the key thing that we offer. Then followed, following on from that, you have great content that is shared by people who have been successful in the industry. So these are successful peers that have a lot in common with those...

...that are attending the event. We really focus on these inspirational stories, also very tactical stories in terms of how people can be successful in either building their ecommerce strategies or how they could build their my brand and marketing strategies. And our customers really love that. The ability to learn from likeminded people as well as the ability to connect with like minded people, and I think the common skeew has been very successful. And having done this, and I think a lot of the lot of the ways we've been able to do this is that common skeew with design. For people like us, we had started the platform out of our business at right sleep, so we understood everything that was involved in running a promotional products business. So a lot of these events feel very pure oriented as opposed to being organized by random conference professionals that come up with an idea and then go target and industry. In our case, I think we really tried to do this from the heart, very organically and and as a result people have really come out and and it's been a very authentic experience which is benefited everyone. So I've written a lot on linkedin about the inadequacies of webinars because you have people, and even even good people will drone on for thirty minutes or forty five minutes, and one of the weaknesses that I see is the lack of kind activity and engagement and interactivity. People listen but they don't feel connected. So maybe you can get into how you connect your community, because I agree with you that's the value of a community is that you can encourage relationships, spark new relationships and make people feel like they're part of something bigger. What are some of the tricks that you guys have used to make that happen? So I'll give you one example. In this most recent virtual environment, so we have been hosting our common ski virtual events on a platform called hoppin. Hoppin has got a great feature within it called oneonone networking where you at the time of the networking, you have whatever a lot of the amount of time that allows you to be randomly connected with some one else who is part of the event and it's kind of like speed dating in...

...this respect, and that you've got to say three or four minutes where I would join in and all of a sudden I be connected with you, mark, and the two of us would be chatting about our individual promotional products businesses, some of the challenges that were that that were overcoming, so on and so forth, and that has always been a really successful part of our events because it allows for people to connect with each other and share those stories, and that's always the feedback we get from the events. Is How common skeew is able to connect like minded people in a way where they don't feel like they're being spoken to. So that that's one very minor example. I think that the other part of common skeew that has been successful in connecting people is that within our own platform that people use to run their businesses, there is a very robust digital community that is a native part of the platform that connects people right from the very beginning. So as soon as they join they've got this ability to connect across the entire supply chain. That is a native feature. That's part of what they get with common skeew. So when they get to these events they already feel like they know each other. They already feel like they're part of something bigger and something that's really making a positive impact on the business. The other part of the business I wanted to talk to you about is prospects. I mean, it's one thing to engage your customers and educate them and help them become more successful amid challenging times, what are you finding in terms of inbound traffic and how are you marketing and nurturing your prospects, given the fact, like the many of them are being very cautious about the decisions they make and being very careful about their budgets. So the way that we have tracted prospects over the years is primarily through our content and our social strategies. So when I break those out into the two things, so our content strategy is we have long had a very popular blog that we have written for years and years. We have been podcasting for many years as well. So where we're producing content that is not about why you should buy Commons, gew but it's all about success for the Modern Promotional Products Entrepreneur. We...

...have spent a lot of time and energy in making Commons you into the pre eminent thought leader for the Promotion Products Entrepreneur in in the industry in a way that is very authentic as opposed to being very kind of salesy and cheesy. So that's number one. We get a lot of people who come into our funnel because they read our content or they listen to our podcast and they feel like they can identify with the kinds of people that are presented in our content. So that's number one in and that's a huge thing because we realize it, buying software is not like buying a t shirt. Buying software is something that is a fundamental decision that has a huge impact on on your business. So it's a can be a challenging sale, but we found that by building this honest, transparent relationship with our customers, to our content helps them put their hand up and arrive at our doorstep almost ready to buy, as opposed to US having a cold call and twist their arm. So that's number one. And number two is how it is that we've presented our brand and our community and are and the way that we think on social media. And this is not rocket science, I think for us we've really tried to present our brand as human forward, human first, a fun, reverend, entrepreneurial, creative, all the things that are consistent with our customer base and the ideal customer for us. We present that voice on social the number of people who come in that find us because, a, they found us on Google or they found us on facebook or instagram or twitter, or they read about our read about us or listen to the blog. That is by far and away the preeminent way for us to engage in nurture prospects. One final question for small SASS companies that may not have large marketing budgets. Any advice on how to navigate the current landscape? There's a lot of competition, customers may not be as enthusiastic as they were a few months ago. What kind of marketing advice would you give them so they can be successful as well? So the thing that we realized over the last couple of months is, wow, it's...

...a pretty scary and terrible time to be launching really anything that requires a customer to part with their money. If you think about those businesses in the sad space. We are uniquely positioned to help customers that are going through a crisis in their business be successful. And you think about you know the big companies everyone knows about. You think about the success of shopify or the success of Zoom or the success of slack, kind of at that big BC level. They're successful right now because businesses are not able to operate in the normal way, so they're moving to this digital environment. The same is could not be more true of a business like Commons kew. That allows for these promotional products businesses to thrive well, being well being forced to close their offices and work from home. It allows them to unite their whole workforce while everyone is stuck at home. That's been a great advantage for us during this time. Now you have to be very respectful of that. Cannot come across like you're trying to profit or be cheesy about it, but that's just an interesting fact. It's a unique opportunity for SASS businesses. So with that in mind, I think it's important for a SASS business to recognize that there is this unique opportunity to engage and educate customers at a time when customers are more open to considering how they can be running their business in a different way, in a better way. So, with that in mind, going back to some of the things I was talking about with content. Customers are wanting to learn about how they can improve their business on their terms. So if the content is authentic and the content is educational and helpful, that can be an incredibly inexpensive way of reaching prospects. The tools are very, very inexpensive, of provided you've got the ability to write or produce compelling content, which presumably you know. Hope hopefully you can do that. I would recommend that way more than paying for Seo or paying for social media ads, because customers don't respond to that as much as they do in opportunities where they can be educating themselves. Mark...

...this has been terrific insight. I'm fascinated by how you've been able to leverage virtual events. I think a lot of companies out there who are really trying to figure out how they can drive those personal connections, how they can engage with prospects and customers to create community, attract prospects nurture their existing customers. The fact that you figured it out provides a lot of other companies maybe with some ways that they can emulate the things that you've done. Thanks for listening to another episode of marketing spark. If you enjoyed the conversation, leave a review, as well as subscribed by itunes or your favorite podcast APP. If you like what you heard, please rate it. For show notes of today's conversation and information about mark and common skew, visit Mark Evans dot see a slash blog. If you have questions, feedback or like to suggest a guest, send an email to mark and Mark Evans dot see a to learn more how I help be to be companies as a CMO for hire, consultant and coach. Visit Mark Evans Dot Sea. Talk to you next time.

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