MP’s Sunday Interview: OpticsPlanet.com



Here at Marketing Pilgrim we cover the news of the Internet and social media marketing industry every by sifting through the news and giving our opinions about some of the more important things. We like that.

What we also like is talking to real world marketing professionals who not only like to stay up to date on the news of the industry but who are knee deep in actually applying what we discuss here on a daily basis.

Our new feature will be called our Sunday Interview and our hope is to give our readers an insight into different applications of the many techniques that are available to online marketing practitioners these days.

Our first interview is with Alessandro Minnocci who is the Senior Marketing Coordinator for OpticsPlanet.com and other properties that come under the banner. Never heard of OpticsPlanet.com before? Maybe that’s because you are not a hunter or outdoorsman. Also maybe you don’t follow the Internet Retailer 500 because OpticsPlanet.com is currently ranked #182 and is tracking to do around $100 million in sales this year online.

Got your attention now? I spoke with Alessandro to learn more about how they make this happen.

FR: Tell us about yourself, Alessandro.

AM: My title here at OpticsPlanet is a Senior Marketing Coordinator. You can think of it as a project manager specifically for marketing projects, everything from working with concepts for new stores, to creating promotional campaigns, to working interdepartmentally to launch new features for our existing stores.

I started as an Online Marketing Specialist, working on PPC Campaigns, SEO, Social Media and Email Marketing.

Before working here, I was the owner of a small, online espresso retailer, CTEspresso.com, that I passed on to family when I moved to the Midwest.

FR: What is Optics Planet exactly? What do you sell?

AM: Optics Planet is an online retailer that focuses, really bluntly, on gear. We’ve been in business since 1999, and have been expanding our product offerings based on consumer interests. Today, we’re one of the largest online retailers of outdoor, hunting, birding, and sports gear, and also offer specialized professional gear for law enforcement, EMS/fire, military, laboratory, science and medical professionals.

It currently takes about 250 people to serve all our customers. Last year we expanded our campus to add more office space and warehouse space, and by the end of the year we’ll have another office open just north of Chicago. Current predictions state that we’ll be over 300 employees by the end of the year.

We don’t just operate one online store though. While OpticsPlanet.com is the flagship, we also operate a variety of other niche/targeted stores:

  • Tactical-Store.com – For sports shooters and gun owners interested in tactical gear
  • EyewearPlanet.com – 100 different brands of sunglasses, eyeglass frames, prescription sunglasses and prescription glasses
  • Dvor.com – A members-only store, similar to Gilt in model, but extremely different in product selection and demographics. Dvor offers many products similar to OpticsPlanet, but at exclusive discounts.

And there are eleven other stores.

To elaborate a little more on Dvor. Dvor was created because we believed and continue to believe that the flash-sale model for the kind of products we sell is a real boon for our target audience, and nobody else could do it like us.

One of the things that has always set us apart has been our product knowledge, and not just anyone can duplicate that. We receive millions of customer inquiries a year asking questions like – With these night vision binoculars, will I be able to see a raccoon rummaging through my garbage cans 150 yards away during a quarter moon? Can this spotting scope provide enough detail to see the grouping of shots in a target 300 yards away? Not just any company answer that.

In addition we’ve been building relationships with vendors for ten years now, and because of that we can offer a selection of products at prices that others couldn’t. We’ve helped a few manufacturers already push massive amounts of product in just a few days, and we’re working with many more now to plan future events.

According to the current schedule, we should be launching another three stores by the end of this year.

2010’s revenue was about $82 million. We’ve been growing at a 30% clip for the past few years, and it is extremely likely we’ll be crossing the $100 million mark this year. I’m hoping for a chocolate fountain to celebrate. Our top categories include rifle scopes, red dot sights, holsters, sunglasses and many other gun and hunting accessories.

FR: Tell us about your target market.

AM: As any marketing professional should do, I try to follow as many online publications relevant to marketing as possible (especially Marketing Pilgrim!) Most stories and company profiles on these sites are about companies and services targeting:

· Moms
· Technophiles
· Hipsters, scenesters, and other variations of people in skinny jeans
· World travelers/backpackers
· People residing in Silicon Valley

I won’t say that we don’t welcome those consumers (I keep preaching that the empty shoulder holster is going to be the next “it” fashion accessory to no avail) but they aren’t really our target audience.

Our target audience lives in Middle America. Our target audience doesn’t “get” Whole Foods. Our target audience wears Wranglers or Levi’s, because that’s what they can get where they shop and they find them comfortable. They are more likely to plant with a spade and some seeds instead of with their mouse.

If your interests involve the outdoors, whether it be hunting, golfing or fishing, if you are interested in hiking, bird watching, or astronomy, you are our target market. The biggest niche we serve is the hunting/gun owner niche. These guys and gals socialize more actively – they are more likely to join someone in a tree stand for a day than look through their pictures on Facebook. Social media has been a great compliment to more passive socializing – talking on the phone, meeting for dinner/drinks, keeping up with distant relatives and friends – but it can’t really replace the socializing that happens during the pursuit of a shared interest.

And frankly, until you can experience the sun and fresh air via a social network, that’s not going to change. Maybe a future Google+ feature though ☺?

Our target market is extremely knowledgeable and/or places a high premium on knowledge. That’s why we are one of the few online retailers that not only requires everyone to attend training on the different types of products we offer, we employ a team of product specialists who as part of their job have to use the items we sell.

Because we actually know our stuff when you call, write, or chat with us, we’ve succeeded at a massive scale where many other merchants have failed. People get information from us directly or through Google. Social media isn’t enough information for our target market.

FR: What is a typical day like for you as the senior marketing coordinator?

AM: Due to my position, no day is ever the same, but I’ll try and capture the essence of it. I typically get in around 9:00 and go through the usual catching up on emails and checking my voicemail. At some point in the morning I’ll make some updates to our Facebook & Twitter accounts – I know I mentioned that our target market isn’t as active in social media, but they are still there and we cater to wonderful fans and followers. We’ve recently started having our product specialists post on community forums based around various interests (community forums, especially for hunting/sports shooting are still HUGE) so I’ll go check those posts out to see what the reaction is and what kind of return we’re getting.

One of our newer stores, Dvor, is getting a lot of my attention lately. Everyone has heard of the wild success that members-only shopping has had and is having, and Dvor is in that mold. The major difference is that most members-only shopping sites are for soft goods – fashion, home furnishing, travel, kitchenware. They tend to skew more female, though there is success with a male demographic too. Dvor is significantly more male-oriented, and deals in goods that don’t have the shelf-life fashion or travel does. As such, we’re appealing to a different demographic, and so we’ve been trying a lot of different methods to acquire new members.

In the afternoon, it’s meeting time. I’ll meet with our web designers and developers, who are working on new websites, improvements to existing websites, and new features to discuss how they help us better position ourselves within the market and what we can do better. I’ll meet with members of our merchandising team to see if there are any opportunities to offer a sale on some items relevant to something on our promotional calendar.

Finally I’ll spend some time working with the other people in the Marketing department, helping them with their projects, getting their help on my projects, and making sure we’re always incorporating our strongest customer acquisition channels: SEO, PPC, email marketing and social.

When the day is near over around 6:30, I’ll get myself setup for the next day, reviewing which projects need to see movement and progress and prioritizing.

FR: Are there areas that you would like to get involved in with the online space but just don’t have the time, resources etc?

AM: We’re working really hard right now on mobile, incorporating more social aspects to our site, and expanding further into the international market. We have a mobile version of OpticsPlanet in the works. We’re also looking to integrate more social aspects into our sites to make them more “sticky.” Finally, with a good portion of our sales coming from the international market, we have a team that is working on releasing versions of our stores in languages other than English.

All of these things have been delayed a bit primarily due to lack of development and design resources. Our marketing team has hundred of projects that we are working on, but our web and software teams can only handle so much at any given times. On the bright side, we are making a huge hiring push for those two departments so I expect we’ll see some traction soon!

FR: For Internet marketing efforts do you have an in-house team? If so how big etc? If not, do you outsource everything?

AM: We currently do just about everything in house. We are looking to double the size of our marketing team as soon as we find the right people for the positions we have. We have a Multimedia Producer who pumps out our video content, be it product focused, branding, informational or commercials for advertising our stores. We have a Senior SEO Specialist who is consistently working on both our on-site SEO and link building. There is another individual here who handles our Email Marketing and many other projects, and another who handles PPC marketing (AdWords, AdCenter, Facebook, CSEs, etc.) We also have a couple interns who are quickly picking up the fundamentals of online marketing and making contributions to our team, and of course our manager who leads our department and focuses our creativity in to projects with the highest possible return.

Going back to hiring, we’re really chasing an outstanding Copywriter right now, and also a PR Manager.

The only thing we really outsource, and it is on a small scale, is some web design and development work.

FR: What areas of social media are you able to use to reach your unique niche?

AM: In the past year, we’ve used YouTube pretty successfully. Late last year we did a video about our company that was part a behind-the-scenes look at our offices and warehouse, and part aimed at dispelling common misconceptions about us. It has been really successful in putting a human face to what is a really large company. We’re reaching out more and more through Facebook & Twitter, but as I mentioned earlier while our target market is using those services, they don’t as actively participate as for some other niches. Still, they are there and so are we, offering content, promotions, discounts, contests, and more.

Also mentioned earlier was the participation by our product specialists in interest-based community forums, and we’ve seen that really help with our reputation overall and also help get out the word that the folks at OpticsPlanet really know their stuff.

FR: How do you attribute ROI to your online marketing efforts? Are there ‘tried and true’ areas that you will always be involved in? Are there new areas you are experimenting with?

AM: For PPC, we directly attribute ROI through the tools offered to us by the different services (AdWords, AdCenters, CSEs) and compare them to what our analytics packages are telling us. For SEO, we use our analytics packages (Yahoo! and Google) and some third party software (SEOMmoz’s tools definitely help.) Email is analyzed using in-house tools, and social is analyzed through a variety of means.

PPC and SEO are our pillars, and will be important parts of our marketing mix for the foreseeable future. With Google’s algorithm changes and more frequent changes to their layout/SERPs, we’re working more and more toward broadening where we bring in revenue from. Dvor may use outside marketing to acquire members, but revenue is generated from its daily event emails. We’re trying out traditional channels too, like television advertising and radio ads.

Since we’ve either tried, plan to try, or are currently involved in most online marketing channels, we’re now expanding into traditional marketing channels. We are currently working on TV, radio, print, and direct mail campaigns.

One of the best parts of working in marketing here is that we’re willing to try almost anything, and if the ROI is good, we’ll stick with it.

FR: How do you see your job and the market in general evolving? Where might this go tomorrow that is not really on the radar today?

AM: Okay, no shocker, but one of the big things right now is mobile. Even within our target market, up to a fifth of our customers view our email newsletters using their phones, tablets, or PDAs. While we don’t sell a lot of “impulse buy” products, we do sell to a customer base that carefully considers their purchases. As such, I expect in the coming years even we’ll see more people going to stores to compare products, then using their phones to compare prices and options.

I also am starting to see the return of customer loyalty and personality in not just marketing, but business in general. Even up to twenty years ago, many people shopped at mom and pop stores where you were known by name and you felt loyalty to your stores. Then with the expansion of big boxes and the advent of ecommerce, which initially came in with a bunch of stores named e-this.com and e-that.com, companies started to seem more alike and it really came down to price on a lot of purchases. Now we’re starting to see personality come through again, and because of that, we’re seeing loyalty come back too. Think of companies with really prominent personalities – Zappos, Groupon, Southwest Airlines… their customers are extremely loyal. Now with social media allowing companies to be part of the community, more companies are allowing themselves to have a voice.

It’s something we’re working on at OpticsPlanet. Eventually, all of our stores will have unique personalities and voices and more of a family.

FR: Are you interested in Google+? As a marketer what are your thoughts on this latest entry into the social media world?

AM: I’m definitely interested in Google+. The first thing that jumps to mind is the SEO benefits of some of the features they have for sharing, though I haven’t seen much yet that shows a huge impact. The second thing is that here’s another big, big player in entering the world of social media, and that can only be good for marketers. More advertising and promotional opportunities.

Think of the opportunities with Google+. There are millions. Let’s say as a company, you could setup circles too. Now I can group my fans interested in hunting, fans of birding, fans of designer sunglasses, and fans of golf. Instead of releasing coupons for four different products to everyone, I can send out just what is relevant to each circle. Maybe I determine some of my fans love coupons – I can separate them. Others like to get a free product with their purchase, I separate them. Maybe I make new circles for international customers, customers who are interested in big ticket items, customers who love a certain brand.

Think of the power of that – think how much more engaged your fans will be when every piece of content that you give them is relevant to their interests. That’s a problem facing pages with tens of thousands of Facebook fans – how can you keep everyone engaged without spamming them? Maybe Google+ solves that. There are real benefits in the approach for marketers too.

It’s definitely going to be interesting to watch. MySpace was huge, but the worst thing about MySpace was how much control it gave its users. MySpace pages rivaled even the worst Geocities pages of the 1990s with how ugly they were. Facebook took away a lot of that control, and as such appeals to a much wider base. Now Google is entering the arena and right now seems to be positioning itself kind of as a Facebook with more control – but in this case, that control is over your privacy. Is it going to succeed? I don’t know. I do know the arms race that we should see over the next 12-18 months is going to be mighty entertaining, and hopefully a boon to marketers.

FR: If you are willing, would you describe any huge mistakes or failures you have experienced while at Optics Planet?

AM: Of course not, we never fail!

All kidding aside, when we first started using Facebook Ads, we treated them like ads you’d run through AdWords. We even talked about trying to find a way to import our best performing campaigns from AdWords into Facebook.

Big mistake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many red numbers on a profitability report. Now that we treat them differently, we’re seeing much better returns from Facebook, though arguably it is not as easy to measure as AdWords is.

FR: What is the most important element of your customer experience? What is the one element that can make or break your conversions?

AM: The most important element of our customer experience is the breadth and depth of knowledge we provide. Like I mentioned earlier, when you talk to someone here, they understand the product. We produce informational guides, we have videos giving in-depth information, we’ve got a team that monitors our forums and answers questions. Nobody matches it right now, and to be honest, we really haven’t gotten that point across enough. It’s something we’re focusing a lot more on, because it gives us a competitive edge over everyone else.

FR: What are your offline marketing efforts like and how do they play with the online ones?

AM: Our offline efforts are somewhat minimal right now – we’ve done a couple television ads in the past year (and a couple more scheduled for later this year) and we’re just now starting a couple radio campaigns. We look at offline advertising more as a branding vehicle than a sales vehicle, and that shapes our expectations. I expect we’ll do more and experiment more next year.

FR: Thanks for he great insights, Alessandro, and best wishes for success in the future!

Needless to say Alessandro is a busy person and has his work cut out for him trying to reach a niche audience but one that is willing to spend! Be sure to check out his efforts even if you aren’t the Wrangler and Levi type who likes to hunt.

For a little more insight into what happens at OpticsPlanet.com watch this video.

Ever thought about doing something like that for your online business to give it a human face? Thanks to Alessandro for his time and keep checking back for our Sunday Interviews!