A $40M empire strives for online version of physical store experiences.
Providing a useful link to an online visitor is a lot like carrying a customer's bag of groceries to her car. A Facebook promotion is like serving a party of 50 at your restaurant. That's the thinking of Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman's, a local deli that's grown into a $40 million empire of food companies, restaurants, food tours and even business books and consulting - all in Ann Arbor, MI.
Well-known in this university town, Zingerman's has gone national, thanks to e-commerce and social media marketing that reflects its down home customer service. To Weinzweig, digital outreach is not advertising or marketing, but rather an online version of the experiences offered in the physical stores. Success is simple: "good information that people want - that is easy-to-use, educational, fun, and ethical," he said.
About a quarter of Zingerman's revenue come from its online transactions, including sales of deli items, bakery goods, cocktail ingredients, books, and registrations to its business training. Its main site, Zingermans.com, is an e-commerce site for food items. If you want to learn about the company overall or any separate Zingerman's businesses, you have to go to ancillary sites. "Our best URL is used for our e-commerce sales, because for us the web has mainly been a tool for direct marketing, says Pete Sickman-Garner, marketing manager.
Google Adwords campaigns, in which the company constantly tests keywords and slogans, have been "particularly effective" in pushing traffic to the e-commerce site, he said. Online sales have grown steadily, even during the recession in 2008 when the site was revamped.
Rather than using glamorous food photos, the site features quirky illustrations, and copy is casual with an emphasis on unusual combinations: batter-fried pickles, chocolate-covered figs, and caramels with bacon. Visitors can also see an electronic version of the print catalog, which has the same look and feel as the website, but is more visually cluttered. Insiders create all the content. "We find that the best people to tell the product stories are the actual people making the food," says Sickman-Garner.
The site also includes the food clubs, where customers zero in on what types of foods most interest them and order monthly shipments in advance. Besides the expected, such as the bread club or the rare olive oil club, there are the more inventive, such as clubs for "forbidden foods" or "culinary adventures." For instance, one shipment from the Forbidden Food Club is called "Anaphylactic Armageddon": a collection of gourmet nut products. (People allergic to peanuts go into anaphylactic shock.) The newest - as yet unnamed - club will offer affordable adventurous foods for foodies on a budget.
Winner in sales and social sharing is the Bacon Club, which is backed a book about bacon by Weinzweig and is the host of a summertime music and food fair, Camp Bacon, which has its own Facebook page. Microsites for each club include various social media buttons.
The food clubs, in fact, are a useful bridge to Zingerman's growing Facebook presence. The main Facebook page has 34,500 likes. It leads to the Facebook page for the e-commerce mail-order business, which has only 774 likes.
Most of the Facebook chatter revolves around company-related events, including what kind of pie President Obama ordered when he was in town Jan 27. (It was pecan.) "Facebook is fertile territory for us," says Sickman-Garner. "We find the things that get shared the most are things that the staff gets most exited about, such as when they sample the nightly specials at our Roadhouse restaurant. Our best results come from improvisational, spontaneous posts," rather than planned content, he says.
Looking forward, Zingerman's wants to use its digital channels for education and dialogue with its followers, using richer media. "We'd like to get into podcasts, video, and blogs. We want to help people learn what we know," says Sickman-Garner. The company already sends people around the world looking for interesting food and it hopes to share video and images of those travels online, "even grainy iPhone photos," says Sickman-Garner.
And those plans bring the marketing manger full circle with co-founder Weinzweig. Both describe good online work by referring to the bricks-and-mortar world. "With more online socializing and sharing we want our digital space to become people's third place, just like our deli is," says Sickman-Garner. More than a store or café, "It would be somewhere they can hang out with like-minded pals, just like they do in the real world."
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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.
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