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Finding Niche Communities: How to Win Leads Through a Targeted Email Marketing Campaign


Annie Asai is the Operations Manager at 2ndKitchen, a startup that brings custom food menus to kitchen-less businesses.

Annie presented a talk on how her team found a niche online community to target with an email campaign at our October 30, 2019 Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference.

In case you don’t have time to watch her full presentation, here are a few takeaways that we love:

  1. Test different channels constantly, and learn why some don’t work. This will guide your search for the ones that do.
  2. Know your industry and the challenges in reaching your target audience.
  3. Find where your customers are congregating online.

Curious to hear more? Read on for a transcript of her presentation.

My name is Annie and I am the Ops Manager at 2ndKitchen, which is a Chicago-based startup in the food tech space. Our main objective is to enable every business to be able to serve food to their customers.

Think: a bar, a brewery, a hotel without room service, somewhere that allows outside food to be brought in, or food to be delivered – we link these businesses up with restaurants in their community and provide all of the logistics and the support to make an easy and efficient delivery straight to customers. It's a totally free service for these businesses.

We realized in the past year that breweries are actually our main target because a lot of breweries don't make their own food. They're really focused on making their own beer, so they’re very open to this idea.

We’re graduates of TechStars Chicago 2018, and we’re now operating in over 100 businesses across the country. I joined 2ndKitchen at the beginning of TechStars program last year, with little marketing experience, and became the Operations Manager without a full marketing team. Up to this point, I've been able to really have my hands on different marketing efforts that we have done throughout the year.

Situation

We’ve been focused on sales rather than direct marketing campaigns up to this point. We really wanted to create a desirable product before funneling a lot of money into different channels without knowing which would be beneficial to us – there were too many unknown variables.

Our sales up to this point showed us our biggest obstacle: penetrating new markets remotely. Because we're based in Chicago, all of our sales happen through outbound calls, cold calls, and cold emails to different cities across the country. That is really difficult.

Selling in Chicago has been easy because the brewery community is very close-knit and cooperative. Many of the people we’re selling to in this community have actually already seen and interacted with our product in other places around the city. The same goes for nearby cities, like Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

But in places that are farther away, from Brooklyn to California, it's more challenging because they don't trust us. They have no idea what we are, what we're doing, and what sets us apart.

Another issue we're having is reaching the decision maker. In a brewery, there are a lot of different levels of management: there’s the manager, there's the taproom manager, the brewery manager, the owner; each one of these people is a barrier to get to the next person. We’ve found that this is difficult in the hospitality industry in general, too.

Finally, because the craft beer is such a booming space right now, there's no shortage of new technology out there to help these places run more efficiently. This means these breweries are being pitched with new products and services constantly, which makes them immediately skeptical when we come to them trying to offer this great food solution.

We’ve been successful up to this point using sales, but it's not the most effective way to get new businesses and it’s not scalable. That’s why we’ve been looking for different ways we can get more business.

Steps

1. We tried direct mail to reach faraway prospective clients.

We started dipping our toes into more traditional direct-to-customer campaigns without spending a lot of marketing dollars.

We’re in a place where we know who our ideal customer is: a brewery without its own kitchen. Luckily, we have access to all of their addresses and all of their information publicly, at our disposal.

This has made sending direct mail pretty easy. We sent out a few campaigns to a handful of new cities, with some literature and a call to action, inside a bright orange envelope. We've done about four cities with hundreds of envelopes.

Unfortunately, we only received a few clicks on the demo link and one inbound that let us know that they saw our letter. I'm guessing that brewery owners, like everyone else, probably see a bright orange envelope and think it's just junk mail.

2. Next, we turned to niche online brewery communities.

On social media, we've tried direct messaging, liking, and following breweries we want to target. We actually do get quite a few responses, but this takes a lot of time and effort for a pretty small return.

Instead, we started looking for influential industry players. It turns out targeted Facebook groups and meetup.com is where our customers are congregating. We discovered the importance of these niche communities. So we kept looking at publications and different online news sources that people are going to for their beer news, and we created a big list of these.

3. We identified a key industry-facing publication, set up a paid partnership, and sent out an email blast.

As we began looking into these online communities, a big industry publication reached out to 2ndKitchen because they had just used our product at a brewery and wanted to get more information.

So we set up a paid partnership with them. They had two different packages: we could send an email blast to their list of 50,000 self-subscribed consumers, or to a list of 1,500 breweries and people in the industry, such as brewmasters, taproom managers, or someone else who's affiliated with the actual business.

I think in retrospect it seems like an obvious choice: we went with the industry-facing list. Because at the end of the day, we’re looking for new business partners. At the time, it definitely felt a little bit risky to forgo that really large list of subscribers – it would give us more awareness, more eyes on our emails, people talking about 2ndKitchen.

That might be something we come back to. But I think given what we’re looking for – getting into new cities and new businesses – picking this smaller, more targeted list was definitely the way to go.

Results

We sent out the first email blast, and on the first day we sent it out, we had 11 qualified inbound leads. This rate is around one month of sales for an account exec. To contextualize how this compares to our direct mail campaign, we sent out 400 direct mail letters and got one unqualified lead.

We had a 41 percent open rate on this email campaign, which is really high. For Hop Culture, our digital publication partner, this was the most successful email campaign they’ve had in terms of open rate.

And we found this pretty crazy because it was a very basic email with a call to action and a couple photos. It proved the desirability of our product, which was really exciting.

This email campaign addressed a lot of the problems I mentioned earlier. We found a list of people were all brewery decision makers, or they were in direct contact with someone who could make that decision. And it was a self-subscribed email list, which meant built-in automatic trust.

These subscribers now gave us the same trust they had in the publication and started reaching out. Then came the inbound leads: these people were more engaged, they wanted to use our product, they saw the value of it, and they were actually booking calls for that day.

This definitely marked an important transition for us. We went from strictly relying on outbound sales to looking for channels that we can use for a huge return on interest.

There are several takeaways from this experience. First of all, it's always really important to be testing everything. If direct mail campaigns were a huge hit, the title of my presentation would be different. But we learned from that, and we have been able to test so many different channels to find the ones to focus on and put money where it matters.

The second takeaway is to understand your industry. I think this comes in two parts. First, understand the pain points in your sell. If we hadn't been able to identify that we were having a hard time getting to decision makers, maybe we would have chosen that 50,000-subscriber list instead.

But we knew it was so hard to get to these owners, and that’s why we chose the smaller targeted list. As soon as we saw this opportunity, we knew it was something that we needed to do. Understand the pain points so you can know what to look for in new channels.

Third, find where your customers in the industry are communicating and congregating online. I think it may seem lucky that we found this perfect list of brewery owners through a really ideal publication. But these really small, niche groups are not rare, especially with the rise of Reddit and review platforms and Facebook. These communities are super common and they're popping up everywhere online.

We’ve started to put together a list of these communities for different verticals that we serve, like restaurants and hotels, to get these exact same results.

This campaign definitely exceeded our expectations. It proved we have a valuable product, and that we needed to market our product through these targeted partnerships.