Weaving Data into Personal Interactions

The layout of Lion Brand Yarn Studio, the retail outlet for the eponymous yarn crafting company, is indicative of the brand’s marketing approach as a whole. Skeins of colorful yarn for sale line one wall of the Manhattan studio; on another wall a bank of sleek computers provides a place for visitors to look up patterns or see which yarns are available. At the center of the store sits a large wooden table, where on most days a handful of visitors are likely to be found taking a workshop on knitting or crocheting, or working on their own projects.

When the store first opened in November 2008, the company had expected it would simply serve as a brick-and-mortar location for the 135-year old company, which does most of its sales through general craft stores. But then visitors started asking about where they could learn how to improve their knitting and interact with other crafters. Within a few months the store began offering a few basic classes, and it now hosts an average of 100 different classes each month.

“It turns out that there’s a huge demand [among customers] who want to learn—not just beginners, but experienced people who want to expand their skills,” says Ilana Rabinowitz, VP of marketing for Lion Brand Yarn. “It’s really about creating a community.”

This lesson has been applied not just to the Studio, but to the entire direction of the company’s marketing. As social media has provided myriad ways for brands to interact with consumers, Lion Brand has moved quickly to secure its position as a social hub for crafters. Through its email newsletters, podcast, virtual events, and social media channels, the company has tapped into the personal side of knitting and crocheting, building an engaged and loyal customer base.

But with so many platforms, Lion Brand has had to simultaneously boost its data-gathering efforts. It’s become a growing priority to try to capture and analyze each individual customer interaction and comment to help shape the company’s future marketing decisions—whether deciding which yarns to promote for the next season, or what image to post to Pinterest the next afternoon.

As the customer base for crafting has expanded in recent years, with DIY hipsters, as well as tweens and teens becoming interested in knitting and crocheting, balancing these quantitative and qualitative elements of Lion Brand, and hobby- and leisure-oriented brands in general, has become more important than ever.

Telling stories

Lion Brand Yarn’s social media marketing efforts began with a podcast. In October 2007 two of the most conversational and knowledgeable members of its marketing team sat down together in a studio and discussed the craft projects they were working on. Following the model of NPR’s hit “Car Talk,” the podcast, called “YarnCraft,” kept the discussion breezy and humorous, while also offering useful tips.

“On the website you just see the pattern, but with ‘YarnCraft,’ we can talk about the details of it, the backstory,” Rabinowitz says. “When you’re talking about it, you’re telling a story.”

Though begun as an experiment, the bimonthly show gained a steady following, and more than five years later it boasts more than 10,000 listeners for every episode. But the volume of listeners is not the most important thing to the Lion Brand marketing team.

“To us it’s a somewhat different kind of bar than, say, Facebook,” Rabinowitz says. “When you have people listening to 30 minutes of pure branded content every two weeks, that’s such a huge commitment that we don’t really expect huge growth, but care more about the impact it has on those who are listening.”

The idea of storytelling, particularly in using branded content, has been central to Lion Brand’s approach to its marketing. Perhaps its most successful tool has been the brand’s newsletter, the Weekly Stitch, which features information about new products, industry news, and, like the podcast, colorful commentary.

These can be humorous stories on having to hide excessive stockpiles of yarn from a spouse, or tips on managing a huge list of friends and family who expect a handmade gift for the holidays, or straightforward instructions on a new pattern.

The balance of content has proven potent, and the Weekly Stitch has amassed more than one million subscribers, with approximately 17,000 new sign ups every month. With an impressive 43% open rate, these subscribers are clearly reading the email, and with 30% of them having been subscribers for five years or more, they are loyal, too.

The company sends out three other branded newsletters. One is the monthly Pattern Journal, which consists of fictional short stories connected to a pattern—such as a young woman giving a shawl to a dancer she admires, or a woman knitting an afghan as a graduation gift for her boyfriend—and currently enjoys 350,000 subscribers. About 100,000 of the most dedicated Lion Brand fans also subscribe to the New Patterns newsletter, which goes out each week featuring several ideas for new patterns. Finally, the flagship store itself sends out a newsletter each month with details about store events, sales, and news.

Two-way conversation

When making decisions about the content of its newsletters, podcast, and social media posts, Lion Brand’s marketing team often approaches its work like magazine editors than marketers. The team is composed of four “content creators”—one focused on the company’s Facebook page, another focused on Twitter, and two who produce and host the podcast (for none of them is this the entirety of their responsibilities).

“I think of my job as balancing the art and science of our customers’ interests—selecting patterns to feature based on what has performed well in the past, but also what we think the customer should know about,” says Zontee Hau, marketing communications manager for Lion Brand, who has been the cohost, writer, and producer of “YarnCraft” since the show launched.

The team also includes a dedicated analyst, who looks at the entirety of the platforms that Lion Brand runs, including Bit.ly clicks, Google Analytics, Pinterest analytics, and follower growth.

Key to making these content marketing choices has been listening to customers. The marketing team now reviews every comment on the company blog and Facebook page, and emails about “YarnCraft,” responding as often as possible.

“For many large companies, qualitative feedback is difficult to process,” Rabinowitz says. “They feel that they don’t have the time to read and process so many words, but I believe that reading all comments and posts is the best way to understand this type of conversational feedback.”

Lion Brand also stays connected with its customers, and connects them to each other, through virtual events like seasonal “knit-alongs” and “crotchet-alongs.” Participants all work together on the same pattern (this spring it was the Tranquil Green tank top) and share their experiences as the piece comes together.

Keeping an open ear to its audience has allowed the marketing team to respond to shifts and trends in the market as rapidly as possible. Rabinowitz points to the do-it-yourself ethic that has grown, particularly in cities and urban areas, where twenty- and thirtysomethings are embracing crafting, especially crocheting. Lion Brand noticed this rising interest years ago and moved quickly to be sure it was reaching this younger audience.

Now the marketing team has identified an even younger audience turning to yarn crafts. “We’re seeing tweens, boys as much as girls, getting interested in both knitting and crocheting,” Rabinowitz says.

Lion Brand has put a blogger outreach program in place that specifically targets younger knitters and crocheters, and makes regular appearances at events that attract this demographic, such as the craft fair Handmade Cavalcade in Brooklyn, NY. The company has also raised its cool quotient with younger crafters by supplying fiber artists with materials, such as when artist Jessie Hemmons “yarn bombed” the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year.

A major channel where Lion Brand has been tracking this interest from customers is through Pinterest, which the company embraced shortly after the scrapbooking website’s launch.

“Pinterest is an ideal platform for fashion and home decor, which are the categories that people create with our yarn and for crafting in general,” Rabinowitz says. “It just makes sense for us to engage here.”


Lion Brand currently has about 24,000 followers there. The strong response the company has received on Pinterest reflects the broader value the platform offers to crafting companies. “DIY & Crafts” is the second most popular category of images that Pinterest users share on their Pinterest boards and show each other. Crafting marketplace Etsy.com is the second biggest source for pins, according to Repinly, Pinterest’s official directory and tracker of the website’s statistics.

“Crafting is huge on Pinterest,” says Karen Leland, president of Sterling Marketing Group and author of Entrepreneur Magazine‘s Ultimate Guide to Pinterest for Business. “With 72% of Pinterest users being female, and the average age between 25 and 54, you get a lot of crafting going on there.”

She adds that Lion Brand has been able to keep its audience interested because it has learned to balance its educational and marketing messages. She says that companies using Pinterest should break down their posts to be 40% motivational or inspiring, 40% instructional or educational, and just 20% promotional in any way.

“Pinterest is about storytelling through pictures, and a company like Lion Brand is tapping in to a trend we are now seeing toward the ‘visual Web,’” Leland says. “The Web is increasingly based on pictures more than text.”

The popularity of Pinterest and other visual social media websites has spurred Lion Brand to boost the visuals of its other marketing channels, redesigning its newsletter in the past year to better showcase designs and “be more like Pinterest,” Rabinowitz says.

With the steady stream of content the company has produced, Lion Brand has amassed more than 5,000 free patterns on the website, as well as hundreds of articles, stories, and how-to’s through its blog. This has led to another recent goal: strengthening the  company’s SEO efforts, including stronger tagging and search capabilities. Lion Brand is investing more effort in making sure that when individuals search on the company website or Google for, say, wedding craft ideas, Lion Brand will be one of the top choices.

Analytical importance

As important as customer feedback and individual comments continue to be for Lion Brand, as the number of available platforms and marketing channels has grown, social analytics that are more quantitative have become an increasingly important addition to the company’s arsenal.

“We have questions that can be only answered by digging into the numbers,” Rabinowitz says. “You really need everything.”

The company began measuring this with the portfolio of free tools provided by the social media platforms themselves, including Google Analytics, Pinterest, and Twitter, as well as Facebook Insights.

“We used a lot of free tools, but as time went on, we sensed we needed to use something more sophisticated,” Rabinowitz says. “There is so much data that we really don’t go to the paid tool until we feel like we really need to get to the next level.”

The next level for the company has been to partner with analytics firm Social Annex, which provides Lion Brand details about the ROI of its Facebook and Twitter activity. This includes information on who are the company’s most-engaged Facebook fans, and which posts are generating revenue.

Lion Brand uses Social Annex for contests and sweepstakes, which “they have been extremely successful with,” according to Al Lalani, head of client success for Social Annex. Lion Brand is currently running a contest in which those who sign up for the Weekly Stitch are entered for a chance to win nine balls of the company’s Baby Yarn.

Because Lion Brand offers direct e-commerce sales through its website, where customers can order products immediately after viewing them, the company has a built-in advantage when trying to track the impact of social media marketing. For a company engaged in as many social media channels as Lion Brand, being able to apply metrics to each interaction has proven especially valuable, as Social Annex helps the company drill down to the dollar value of a Facebook like or a retweet.

“In our reporting we can say, ‘This is John Smith, he has produced $381 in revenue and two referrals on Facebook, nothing on Twitter, and maybe $78 on Pinterest,’” Lalani says.

These analytics, in combination with the marketing team’s personal observations, have helped the team determine what sort of content its customers enjoy the most. For example, last Halloween the Lion Brand Facebook page exploded when it posted an image of a knitted skeleton complete with knitted organs that was shared thousands of times by fans.

“When we [post] really quirky images, outside the realm of anything you’ve seen, we get a lot of shares,” Rabinowitz says.

These fun and unusual postings are balanced with more practical offerings, such as how-to videos like “how to crochet a button” or “how to style a shawl.” The more useful content generally does better on the company’s Pinterest page or blog. Twitter has proven a better place for engaging followers who are discussing knitting and crocheting, and sharing comments from others, rather than posting new content.

Just as each platform works well for particular types of content, each is also ideal for differing audiences. For instance, Lion Brand’s Twitter followers tend to be younger and respond to “edgier posts,” Rabinowitz says. “Facebook followers are a little more down-to-earth, family oriented, we know they tend to respond more to crochet,” she says.

The marketing team holds weekly meetings to discuss the performance of each of these platforms, potential content for the week or month ahead, and any articles or other inspirations they have encountered in the previous week.

“We don’t just do our jobs every day; we consider it our jobs to do something more innovative and different and to grow our following and audience and community,” Rabinowitz says. “With social media, you can’t stop learning.”


Alex Palmer, freelance journalist and author

Alex Palmer is a freelance journalist and author living in Brooklyn, and has been writing

for Direct Marketing News since 2010 (his first story was on a study about how marketers need to improve their customer segmentation). In addition to his work for DMN, he has written about business, travel, and New York for titles including Adweek, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Hollywood Reporter, the New York Post, Publishers Weekly, Time Out New York, and more. Power naps, spicy pickles, and long fl ights are a few of his favorite things. Palmer is also the author of the books Weird-o-pedia: The Ultimate Book of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things and Literary Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literature. You can find him on Twitter @theAlexPalmer and at www.alexpalmerwrites.com

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