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Behind the Screen: Columbia Companies are Turning Profits from Behind Their Virtual Counters

Behind the Screen: Columbia Companies are Turning Profits from Behind Their Virtual Counters

Got glass

It’s only natural that Veterans United chief storyteller Sarah Hill discovered she’d been chosen to test out google glass via Twitter. The eyeglasses-type technology, which enables wearers to ask for directions, take pictures and videos and provide language translation, will be released to only a few thousand people. Hill, who has more than 2.6 million followers on Google Plus, will use the headset to provide virtual tours for veterans who cannot physically travel to their memorials. “It’s live and in real time, so they can ask questions, get closer to certain things and read inscriptions for themselves,” she says. Currently, volunteers bring in laptops or show tours on big-screen televisions, but Hill thinks Google Glass will be able to improve the experience with its first-person perspective. “Since it’s so hush-hush, we have to wait until we get them in our hands to see what they’re capable of,” she says, “but we want to see if it gives [the vets] a better, richer experience.” “We’re really excited that we’ve been given the opportunity to provide vets a window to the world,” she adds. Hill will be contacted with instructions to pick up the eyeglass-style computer within the month.

Dungarees Delivers

Michigan entrepreneur Hamilton Carhart wanted to stand out from other businessmen of his day, so he added an extra “t” to his last name. More than 120 years later, Carhartt Inc. is one of the most popular apparel brands for America’s blue-collar workers. So how did the brand make its name in mid- Missouri? Part of the answer can be traced to two brothers and their store, Dungarees.

Patrick and Mike McClung were in their 20s when they opened a little shop on Broadway in downtown Columbia in the late ’90s. They had been operating a construction business when they noticed a lot of guys were driving 30 to 45 minutes just to get a good pair of work clothes. It also happened to be the time when the internet was taking off, and those two observations sparked an idea in the brothers’ minds: selling online, storing locally and delivering to the masses. Mike McClung knew the venture carried some risk, and they instituted a backup plan. “We didn’t know if the internet thing was going to work, so we wanted to find a solid apparel brand that wasn’t well represented in Columbia,” he says. “That’s when we went with Carhartt.”

The online portion of their business was slow at first. “In those days, it took five minutes to bring up a picture on your computer,” McClung says. But the enterprising duo kept with it and in 2007 hired local Web designer Darren Baldwin to be their ecommerce director. Baldwin and his small team handle all aspects of the website, including programming, design and marketing. In what McClung calls a “lean, mean” shop, even the non-techies get in the act. “During off-peak times, some of our customer service and office staff help with content marketing,” Baldwin says. “They might help create new products in the system because they are very knowledgeable about the items we sell.” Baldwin says he would like to run more contests and referral programs on their Facebook site and considers Twitter a valuable monitoring tool. “Keeping an eye out for mentions of our brands (on Twitter) has helped us engage both current and potential customers,” he says. Although they are regularly in the social media arena, Dungarees is not trying to land an impressive number of fans and followers or aiming at a viral video. As a marketing strategy, social media comes under another priority: customer confidence. Early on the McClungs set out to carry “every size, every style, every color” of the Carhartt brand in their warehouse, which now takes up 20,000 square feet of commercial space in the heart of Columbia’s downtown. McClung says because of their shipping volume, it’s common to see a semi-trailer navigating its way through the business district’s streets every other day. Carhartt reps at first were incredulous. “They told us selling every kind of item online wasn’t how you do retail,” McClung says. “But what we wanted for customers was to provide every option so they could make the best educated decision they could. As the internet has grown, customers who visit our site have found it to be that one-stop shop. What we offer by being online is the power of information.” McClung respects other companies that try out newer uses of social media, but he says he’s more interested in providing the customer with product experiences. “While others may focus more on social status, we focus more on direct customer reviews,” he says. He cites Bizrate insights’ recognition as an example. The company listed dungarees in its coveted Circle of Excellence in 2012. In addition, Internet Retailer last year put Dungarees at No. 517 for annual sales in a top 1,000 list of eretailers.

“When it comes to online marketing, you just have to be careful how you position your brand,” McClung says. “We never want someone to say, ‘What is this great brand doing on this terrible website?’”

What Works on the Web

Recognized as one of the top online programs in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, Columbia College’s online presence has grown more than four times the size of its day student enrollment. But Columbia College hasn’t only taken learning online; it’s also taken recruitment methods online. “As people are able to function more and more online, we need to reach them wherever they are,” says Veronica Gielazauskas, director of marketing intelligence at Columbia College. Through their online advertising efforts, Gielazauskas has developed some rules for success. He suggests first researching the options. “There are so many ways to get your message out there, from display and text ads through Google Ad Word networks to digital radio, video and interactive rich media graphics,” she says. “It’s almost limitless.” Also, monitoring results is key. “You can know how many people saw your ad, how many clicked it and how many enrolled from it,” she says, adding that taking advantage of that flexibility is key “It’s so easy to stop doing things that don’t work,” she says. Columbia College uses this to test out various methods and learn from what’s working. “We’re getting better about determining the type of messages folks want to see, the videos they’ll watch to the end,” she says. For example, they’ve discovered that their videos are much more successful when they include relatable actors and people who look like the audience. “That way, we can put more dollars in the types of ads we’ve had success with,” she says.

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