Big-name e-commerce sites, like Amazon.com, are often consumers’ first choice for online shopping. Even the health and wellness vertical is served by large players like Amazon, Drugstore.com and the online counterparts of bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Wal-Mart. In order to stand out, smaller players marketing health products online have adopted an e-commerce strategy that plays to their strengths: the ability to focus on customer relationships and serve as an expert within a specific niche.
“Being a niche marketer, we know about our customer base in great detail, and we are able to go out and survey and have detailed information,” says Charleen Mirkiani, brand manager for As We Change, an online retailer of wellness, beauty and clothing items for older women. “We will message copy accordingly, trying to be more conversational and more interactive.”
While not going “toe-to-toe,” smaller online retailers do take notes from the big guys, using features such as reviews and ratings systems. However, many small sellers, like Allergy Buyers Club, take this approach a step further and give it a more personal touch. Allergy Buyers Club, for instance, offers reviews from its in-house experts on each product, in addition to customer reviews.
“We have developed a loyal following from our customers because of [the reviews], and are very well-respected in the allergy community,” says Gary McEldowney, marketing director for Allergy Buyers Club. “People are suffering, and they want things that really work. If we give reviews, chances are greater that the customer will get what he expects.”
The reviews are part of the Allergy Buyers Club strategy of giving as much information to consumers as possible. Many small e-commerce shops follow this educational, information-heavy approach. Creating extra content not only puts consumers at ease; it also establishes the retailer as an expert and draws in more search results.
“With us, it’s a need-based purchase, so we have to educate consumers to make sure they are buying the product that satisfies that need,” says Kim Gnatt, VP of Internet at FootSmart, an e-commerce marketer of foot-related products.
FootSmart provides manufacturer videos and product demonstrations on its site. The e-tailer takes this concept of education and expertise even further with monthly newsletters.
“We try to infuse expertise in our marketing messages and help educate the customer on how they can have better foot health and wellness,” Gnatt says. “The monthly newsletter is a fusion of content and product where we’re trying to give value back to the customer, while giving recommendations and suggestions about products that are integrated with the content.”
E-mail is a dominant strategy with both large and niche online retailers. Niche sellers have seen success in the ability to personalize each message to the extreme, thanks to customer analytics.
“We’re very data-intensive in our decision making, and everything we do online is with a forward lean on metrics,” Gnatt says. The brand’s e-mail marketing relies heavily on segmentation and modeling, she said.
FootSmart works with Coremetrics to ensure robust analytics on all its online marketing and is currently in the process of loading all of its data into a central database to provide a single view of the customer at all marketing touch points. It also uses Coremetrics data to make relevant recommendations to customers while they shop.
John Squire, chief strategy officer of Coremetrics notes retailers covering a very particular niche have the opportunity to target consumers with extremely relevant, personalized messages.
“If you think about large retailers that are out there with a wide spectrum of products, it’s hard for them to be really targeted in their messaging and understanding of individual customers and their buying cycles,” he says. “Being focused on a very specific set of products and customers makes online retailers like FootSmart good at deciding when to approach consumers with an offer.”
One way many online stores are trying to improve these one-to-one relationships is through social networking. Allergy Buyers Club is in the process of setting up its social networking strategy, which will include a YouTube presence and possibly a Twitter-based customer service channel, and FootSmart has a Facebook page with more than 400 fans.
Foot Solutions, a multichannel retailer of lower body health products, just launched its social media strategy in January, featuring a blog, Facebook page, YouTube channel and Twitter.
“Social media is probably the biggest initiative that we have developed,” says Mark Goldman, CMO of Foot Solutions. “We’re doing everything we can because our target [baby boomers] sources 80% of their healthcare information online.”
Gnatt agrees: “With baby boomers, viral marketing is so important when it comes to the health category, because they rely heavily on viral conversations for product and brand recommendations.”
Foot Solutions also depends heavily on referrals for new leads, making social media a useful tool.
FootSmart uses analytics to send highly-personalized e-mails to customers. Lately, the online foot healthcare direct marketer has started a “replenishment program,” sending shopping reminders to customers based on how often they replace their FootSmart items. For example, if a customer replaces his FitFlops every 8 months, a FitFlops reminder e-mail is sent at similar intervals. Kim Gnatt, VP of Internet at FootSmart, reports a 100% lift in e-mail targeted to previous buyers of a category versus broad e-mail blasts.
FootSolutions has invested heavily in social media this year — a fast-growing space for niche online retailers to connect with their consumers. Since January, the retailer has launched a blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube channel and white-label social network. “Consumers don’t want to be talked to, they want to find information on their own terms and would rather hear it from their peers,” says Mark Goldman, CMO of Foot Solutions.
Allergy Buyers Club’s multichannel, integrated approach uses e-mail, online advertising and a traditional catalog to promote its products. Targeted e-mails are sent to consumers just before the catalog comes out to remind them to look for it in the mail. The catalog encourages consumers to view a wider selection of products, which often leads to more sales — usually through online orders.