Let me introduce you to the Manly Food Co-Op. This post is about my marketing efforts and includes results and learnings that are applicable to a range of small to medium size businesses and not-for-profits. This is one of many case studies to come from my time with the Co-Op.
The Manly Food Co-Op is an organic bulk grocery store on Sydney's Northern Beaches with a strong zero waste philosophy. The Co-Op was founded in 1997 and is community-owned and run as a non-distributing co-operative. All profits go back into the shop to benefit its members.
The Co-Op is open to anyone and members get a discount for every purchase and are encouraged to volunteer their time if they can.
The Co-Op is a great community hub where young parents, retirees, students, workers, businessmen, visitors and anyone else have a place to get their food and grocery items plastic-free, buy as much or as little as they need and enjoy great variety, together working towards a a healthy and planet-friendly lifestyle.
In mid 2017, the Co-Op was about to close its doors due to severe financial struggles. A group of passionate members stepped in to crowd fund $52,000, the amount needed to keep the Co-Op going, in only 10 days (I'll speak to the crowd funding efforts in another blog post). The board stepped down and a new board was elected in September 2017. I was one of those new board members and took on all marketing responsibilities (and a lot more).
Well, there were many, but the most important one was to make the Co-Op financially sustainable and set it up for success for many, many more years to come.
The focus areas were:
A thriving Co-Op: We have (FY 2019 compared to FY 2018):
Initially the focus was (and still is) on reducing cost and driving efficiencies (I'll explain this in more detail in a future blog post). My marketing efforts focused on increasing our membership base, retaining customers and making them buy more (either more often or spend more).
As there was no marketing budget initially, all efforts were focused on free (or very low cost) channels and we worked with what we already had. I first looked at the status quo to understand what had been done to date and to familiarize myself with everything. This took a while as there was barely any handover. (From a strategic perspective the board worked out a strategic plan for the next 12 months and beyond across all areas and I also made sure to update the brand handbook and align with our plans).
Once I understood the status quo, I planned out what we needed to do in order to attain our objectives, what channels to focus on and how to get our message out. There is a basic marketing plan, but as its a completely volunteer-run organization, it was super flexible and had to stretch at times.
We had a great following on Facebook, Instagram and through our newsletter already, so there was great leverage there.
I drafted up a basic content calendar to coordinate the content across all our channels (something that had been very ad hoc before). I aligned the calendar across our social channels, the blog and the newsletter. Whatever we were talking about in the newsletter was also going up on social media (with slight modifications) to align with the channel specifics. The good thing was that we were never lacking content with so many products, suppliers, staff, volunteers, news, recipes, ideas etc. to talk about. I planned ahead at least 2 weeks in advance, but kept things flexible for ad hoc posts and news.
As I hadn't had a handover I wrote detailed step by step instructions on how to use the different tools and platforms including do's and don'ts, so that we had a source of truth and it was easy to get someone new up to speed when a volunteer left (which happens).
My major learnings are:
Facebook and Instagram - Followers increased by 100% and 30% respectively
We posted regularly up to 6 times a week on both Facebook and Instagram with similar content and saw a steady increase in followers. We always post images on both platforms as these get more engagement than text only. Instagram Stories work well from an engagement perspective. One post went completely crazy and drove most of the big Facebook follower increase: The Plastic Wave. It was shared over and over again and brought us close to 1,000 new followers alone.
> Post regularly, use images and video, look for that special post, use hashtags and tag relevant profiles
Newsletter - Subscribers more than Doubled
As we grew our membership base, our subscriber base grew and with it the need to have a professionally looking newsletter with good, engaging and relevant content as our big focus is to retain those subscribers aka members and get them in to shop.
I introduced regular sections, so our members knew what to look out for: a discounted product of the week, we have weekly member rewards (whoever gets randomly chosen gets an extra discount off their shopping that week, members only get into the draw if they pay by card and spend over a certain amount - helps to increase our average sales value), a recipe every other week (really important when it comes to more 'exotic' ingredients, introduction to our suppliers, a new product section, environmental news, events, ... As we usually have too much content, it often need cutting down to not overwhelm our readers.
Any recipes are published on the website and the link added to the newsletter (to drive website traffic and encourage our subscribers to engage with the content).
We only have very few opt outs each week, maybe 1 or 2 with an average of 40-60 new members signing up, so we have been able to steadily grow, and the feedback from our shoppers has been very positive across all the different demographics.
> Send a regular newsletter, use sections, link content to your other channels (website), test the subject line for higher open rates
Website and Blog: Over 50 blog posts published and consistent website traffic
Ah, our website is still a pain point. It sits on a WordPress set-up that had been created years ago in a way too complicated way and with way to many plug-ins and add-ons and customizations. Still, I managed to update the website with the new branding, made some structural changes and tidied it up a bit. This is work in progress and not where it should be. The challenge has always been time and money and finding the right expertise.
Nonetheless, our traffic has been steadily increasing.
> Get a good and easy to update set-up in the first place and if you are struggling get professional help. It will save you so much time!
In-Store Material - More professional and on brand
With the brand re-fresh it was time for a new brochure (we aim for zero waste and direct everyone to our social media and website presence, but a brochure comes in handy at markets, events etc., so we decided to do it), new professional signage (locally created), new product labels, posters, general signage and more.
The new store has a very different flow to the old one and we followed (some) best practice to encourage impulse buying (plastic-free chocolate macadamias anyone?) and get more people in for quick purchases on the go (without the unnecessary packaging).
> Your shop experience is so important, ensure you material is on brand and looks great
Mail drops - Are they worth it? You decide
We did one mail drop in early 2018 (way before the move) as we had plenty of brochures and enough volunteers to drop the flyers across Manly. That meant no cost to us. We dropped 1,000 flyers in the central Manly area that had a coupon attached to them with a 10% discount for the first shop. Only about 10 people came in and took us up on this offer. Seems low, but still, that is a conversion rate of 1% which is pretty good.
Did those people come back to shop? Only 2 did as far as I am aware, so this is not great.
Had we had to pay for everything, it would not have been viable, so I recommend to be careful with mail drops, also from an environmental perspective. If your heart is set on it, at least ensure you print on 100% recycled paper and use environmentally friendly ink (black and white is better than colour for sure).
> Only do a mail drop is you are a hyper local business and can afford it. There are plenty of cheaper digital options to get your name out there these days
Events - Our 2019 events all sold out
Join local events if you can and be present with a stall, sponsorship, some sort of presence that will make people more aware of you. Northern Beaches Council has a yearly Ocean Care Day by the beach (perfect for us as we could hammer home the plastic-free message) and up until 2018 had a sustainability hub at their yearly Food & Wine festival which we participated in as well. Often getting a stall here is not too hard or too expensive and you just need a few ideas to stand out and make yourself seen.
Or run your own events. Life skills were our focus. We organized cheese making, DIY beauty, composting classes and much more. Make sure to get those into your local newspaper and on local event calendars so more people know it's happening.
> Well-run events are worth the effort as they bring a sense of community. Make sure you have the resources and right people to organize and run them
Market stalls were super important for us in the first year. We were at the local monthly market and had stalls a couple of times at the local Sunday farmers market.
They are a lot of work though and you need to have the resources to staff the stall appropriately, sell your goods and make a good impressions as well as encourage everyone to visit the shop and become members.
Once we had decided to move to the more central location, we stopped doing markets.
But if you are knew or in a hidden spot, definitely try these out (They can work for both physical good and services in my opinion).
> They are great to meet your customers, test a new product, be part of the community and to raise awareness about what you do (and where you are located)
Public Relations - 1 local newspaper article and a couple of mentions in other articles
PR is not my strength as I come from an online background. Local newspapers are hard to get into these days if you don't buy their ads or have a really strong connection to their editor. Mainstream media is even harder to get into without the right connections, but still it is worth a try with the right story. You have to pitch your story and stand out from the crowd. If you can take the time out to focus on it, do it. One article often leads to more, interviews etc. In the meantime, look at influencers online and see if you can get one of them to share your story.
> Very powerful if done right and with the right connections. Get professional help if you can afford it.
Partnerships & Memberships - Speaking opps and business partnerships
Building partnerships and networking is so important. Get to know your council representatives, become a member of your local chamber of business, join networking events, say hi to your neighbouring shops, buy from them, get involved with local community groups, and good things will happen. You'll be surprised how many like-minded people you will find and great connections will come out of it.
We overlooked this at the beginning as we were so busy fixing everything that was wrong, but later on we got invited to speak at local council waste-free events, at the chamber of commerce events and more.
> Take the time out and go and meet people.
I mentioned before that we refrained from paying for any advertising as we were very short on cash. One exception was an editorial and ads in a local magazine that we ran only a few months after the successful fundraising campaign. The guys were great and offered a good deal. Still, I'd probably not spend that money on print again in the future as it's hard to know what we actually got out of it and only very few shoppers ever mentioned they had seen the article despite us offering a 10% discount if they mentioned it.
During the crowd funding campaign and after we ran a couple of promoted Facebook posts which were super targeted and they got us good reach. With a better website and some sort of online shop I would have run paid search, but the Co-Op is not there yet.
> Make sure you have a clear objective of what you want to achieve and only pay for advertising when you think this is the only way forward (and negotiate!)
THE MOVE CHANGED EVERYTHING
The biggest and best decision we made was moving to a more central location. We had been working like crazy for over a year and were still just making ends meet. Much debating and a member survey later, we signed the lease to new premises in a great location right next to a Coles supermarket, the local school, the beach and ample parking underneath. Convenience still rules even when people try to eat healthy and tread lightly on this planet.
We gave our brand a little facelift (after I had run a brand survey and asked our members what the Co-Op meant for them) and ended up with a logo that combined the old and the new (the apple was part of the original logo from when the Co-Op launched in 1997). We invested in new signage (awning and window signs) that made the Co-Op look a lot fresher and inviting.
Within just a few weeks from opening we had new customers streaming into the shop. People who had lived in Manly for years, came in and were surprised when they heard that we had been in Manly for over 20 years. These people all signed up as new members and for most of 2019 we gained up to 60 new members each week (!) (not year, what it would have been in the previous location). And this meant our message about zero waste and healthy living and eating got into the hands of many, many more people.
We have since worked with a great team of students and a volunteer designer on a new brochure, several videos that explain what a Co-Op is, how to shop zero waste and much, much more. The Co-Op has exciting times ahead and as the message about the importance of planet-friendly living is being heard more and more its importance will only increase.
Again, such a long post and I didn't even go into the nitty gritty. Hopefully this case study gives you a good view of all the areas involved in marketing for small to medium size business with some good tips on what to do (and what not to do). For your own sanity, I highly recommend you Focus on a few things first and do them well, align and re-purpose content to make your life easier and don't wait for perfection, but rather give it a go.
Written by Yvonne Pflieger
I am passionate about zero waste living and making our planet a better one. As the marketing director and a board member of the Manly Food Co-Op, I learned a lot about small retail business and how to run a financially and environmentally sustainable operation. I am now set out to inspire and enable conscious organizations and individuals to drive positive change for a better planet. If you need help with marketing, digital advertising or business operations, then please get in touch. I am looking forward to connecting and learning more about you and your challenges and opportunities.