Ready for something different? Typically in this space each month, I write a “How To” or “Why To” article with ideas and tips for helping small businesses succeed online. I’d like to go in a different direction: profiles of small businesses that are succeeding online. I’m a big believer that learning from the successful examples of others is often the best way to grow a small business, and hopefully you’ll agree. Today, I’ll introduce you to a small business that’s baking up a storm via its web site, a blog, public relations, and social media.
Pink Cake Box is a specialty cake shop in northern New Jersey with 10 employees. They opened for business in 2005, built their own web site, and started a blog all in that same year. They’ve been featured in People, Modern Bride, and several other publications. They are, by any definition I can think of, a successful small business. And as Jesse Heap—whose wife, Anne, is the pastry chef and cake designer—says, they owe much of their success to solid online marketing. “I don’t think we realized how critical the web would become to our business,” Jesse told me recently via e-mail. (Note: I have never met the Heaps in person, and have no business relationship with them.) Here’s our interview.
Matt McGee: How important has your web site been to growing the business?
Jesse Heap: It’s been crucial to helping build the business and driving customer growth. The majority of our customers originate through the web. Our site has also opened up doors with media contacts and helped us score a spot on CNN along with several prominent magazines and newspapers.
A lot of small businesses have trouble finding the right people to develop their web site. How did you go about it?
From a technical perspective, we took the DIY approach but decided to rely heavily on open source software like WordPress to build and manage the site. Our goal was to create a content management system that would allow our non-technical employees to contribute to our content. Not everyone has the in-house expertise to build a strong web presence, so my advice would be to find a provider who has experience implementing open source CMS systems like Joomla, Drupal, or WordPress.
The marketing piece requires much more dedication. I think it’s harder to find outside expertise in Internet marketing that is dedicated and truly understands your industry.
You guys also have a blog. What convinced you to start blogging?
When launching the business in 2005, we looked at our competitors and realized that, for the most part, they had built attractive web destinations. However, almost all our competitors had static sites that lacked the ability to connect with customers like a blog can. We realized that, in order to differentiate ourselves, we had to use our blog to promote our cakes and offer customers and cake enthusiasts a constant stream of new cake, contests, & videos. Our goal was to stay connected to our customers and help foster stronger brand recognition.
Our approach helped attract links from hobbyists that lead to increased search engine visibility and ultimately more customers.
The other positive aspect of blogging on the WordPress platform is its native and extended SEO capabilities. Out of the box, WordPress has some strong SEO capabilities and with the right combinations of plugins and tweaks, it is an SEO powerhouse.
Blogging is a real commitment. If you want to create a valuable blog, you have to invest time to keep it updated. How do you guys handle the time commitment issue?
I couldn’t agree more. This is especially an issue with small businesses—there always seems to be a more business-critical task that needs to be completed. Fortunately, our content is more visual in nature and doesn’t require the level of commitment that a more copy-centric blog requires.
Realizing this, we’ve tailored our WordPress platform to focus more on photos. Instead of copy, our blog categories and tags display photos. Instead of displaying our most recent posts by blog title, we insert a thumbnail of the cake, cupcake, or cookie highlighted in the post.
To save time, we’ve integrated the WordPress platform throughout our site. The goal is to drive as many pages as possible directly off of our blog content. This minimizes maintenance and allows us to concentrate on our core competency: sharing our cake artwork with the world.
Has the blog been a successful marketing tool for you?
Without a doubt, our blog is the centerpiece of our web presence and has been an extremely successful marketing tool. The blog receives upwards of 120,000 unique visitors a month and drives a large percentage of our orders.
How do you measure its success?
Measuring success is an interesting question. When we first started out, I placed a strong emphasis on building traffic. I was of the mindset, “the more traffic, the better.” And initially this worked well and helped drive orders. But we reached a saturation point where our high traffic started contributing to a deluge of e-mails and calls from “information seekers”—in other words, people not interested in placing an order, but more interested in finding out information about how to make our cakes.
We didn’t have the capacity to handle this deluge and realized that our “more traffic the better” mantra needed to be refined. We began focusing our content on products that lead to better order conversions. And rather then measuring aggregate traffic numbers, we focused our measurement on traffic from our strategic focus areas.
PCB has had a lot of press attention—magazines, newspapers, etc. Did you actively seek that, or did they find you?
Initially we had to seek out press contacts. Our initial strategy involved reaching out to media outlets via e-mail. Each e-mail included a portfolio of our products along with links back to our web site. We also found success through customer contacts that have recommended us to their media contacts. We have also worked hard to maintain relationships we’ve built with the media. This includes small things like sending holiday cards to larger partnerships to help promote complementary content on our blog.
At the end of the day, though, having a unique and strong product is the key to getting press attention.
You guys make some amazing cakes and cookies, so there’s an obvious visual element to your business. Have you done any marketing on Flickr or even YouTube?
Thanks, my wife is amazingly talented. :)
We’ve heavily leveraged Flickr as an outlet for our cakes. In fact, our Most Popular Cakes gallery is driven off the Flickr API. It displays all of our “Most Interesting” photos based on Flickr’s data. Flickr has also helped us from a media perspective. Our initial contact with CNN occurred through Flickr and we’ve developed various relationships with other bloggers through Flickr.
We’ve also created a YouTube channel but have not fully leveraged it because of the time commitment required to create videos. We have future plans to expand this.
Between the web site and the blog, and taking photos and posting them on Flickr, and all the other stuff you have going on—it sounds like a ton of work! I can imagine another small business owner thinking, “We’d never have the time to do all this.” How do you guys manage these online efforts?
I currently handle all the online efforts, but in the long run as we look to expand our online efforts, we’ll have to look to hire additional help. I agree that a sole proprietor would find it difficult from a time commitment perspective to manage an online effort themselves at the level that we do.
But as with any new business in startup mode, if you devote extra effort up-front, whether that be by investing your own time or investing money to hire someone else, you’ll see the dividends pay off in the future. It takes time to build a strong web presence, but once you gain momentum and develop a streamlined process, the site’s popularity will help sustain your business. The key assumption here is you have a strong product or service to sell.
Do you guys have time to pay much attention to the search marketing industry? Do you read Search Engine Land and other sites like that?
I read industry sites like SEL religiously. I make time to do it because I strongly believe our success is highly correlated with our reach and visibility throughout the Internet. My favorites include the typical characters: Matt Cutts, Blogstorm, SEO Book, Small Business SEM, and Sphinn.
I also pay close attention to blogs in our industry. I’ve been particularly impressed with a relatively new blog called CakeSpy.com, created by Jessie Olsen. Jessie has done a fantastic job of creating compelling content while simultaneously (and subtly) pushing her cake artwork.
What about PPC? Do you do any paid search advertising?
We haven’t explored this option yet and don’t have any plans at this time.
What’s next for PCB? Any new marketing ideas you’re excited to try?
Some of the things we are working on:
- We are working on opening an online store to sell complementary cake products
- Creating international versions of our blog to further drive international traffic
- We are also exploring opening a retail shop
For the future, we realize we need to take our blog to the next level in order to continue our successes. We’ll look to introduce more social media aspects to our blog to encourage greater user engagement. Specifically, some of the things we are thinking about include the ability for users to create their own profiles, vote for their favorite cakes, and engage in more polls and contests.
Thanks, Jesse. Keep up the great work.
As you can see, Pink Cake Box is a small business that understands the power of search and online marketing. If you are (or know of) a small business owner with a great story to tell about how you’re using the Internet to grow your business, please contact me at my blog, Small Business SEM.
Matt McGee is the SEO Manager for Marchex, Inc., a search and media company offering search marketing services through its TrafficLeader subsidiary. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.