As VerticalResponse celebrates its 10th birthday, my team thought it would be great to host a webinar and share some of our experience from a decade in business. Our Director of Retention & Conversion Marketing, Kim Stiglitz, asked me lots of insightful questions and also recorded the webinar so you can listen at your leisure. I hope you enjoy it.

How Small Biz Can Think Big – An Interview with VerticalResponse CEO, Janine Popick

Tell me about how VR was started? What were your biggest challenges?

Janine: I started the company back in 2001 because I’m a glutton for punishment! At the time we were a bit early to market. Small businesses were using email marketing to send messages to their customers but most were using Outlook because there were only tools for the big companies. One of the biggest challenges was convincing small businesses they needed a tool like ours for deliverability and for reporting (the stuff you don’t get from Outlook). The other challenge we had was we didn’t raise a bunch of money to get customers, to hire people or to buy servers. We had to be careful about every dime we spent. I didn’t take a salary for years and only started to as the company was doing better. Luckily I had friends, family, and frankly, my own money to keep us afloat until we got to be profitable.

What is your favorite success story of a time when VR had to think like a Big Biz?

Janine: We tested a local marketing campaign here in San Francisco. I was trying to see if we would see a blip in sales doing localized marketing so we:

  • Bought billboards in areas where there were a lot of shops and small businesses.
  • Bought some ads in our local printed magazine.
  • Bought some ads in online newsletters where they talked about local events in the area.
  • Sent postcards to the specific zip codes where the billboards were.
  • Bought ads on the backs and inside of the buses where the billboards were and where we were sending direct mail.

Finally, we asked customers who owned businesses in these areas if they would be on all of these outlets with a testimonial on how much they like VR. And it did start a buzz because the owners of the businesses we featured sent out email campaigns talking about it. Then they told all of their friends about it so people were taking pictures of the buses and the billboards. It was fun to act like a big company, but boy was it a lot of work to find the bus routes and make sure the buses went where the billboards were. Then to target the lists of small business in the local areas was a ton of work. But it went off well and we’re looking to test something like that again since it was so many years ago.

What advice do you have for a small business where the owner also has to do social media?

Janine: Look, every single small business owner or employee in a small biz has to wear multiple hats. You do everything from invoicing, taxes, to taking out the trash and going to the bank. So how do you fit in ANOTHER marketing item on this huge checklist? The point is you just have to. Your customers are on Facebook and Twitter and you need to be too. It all comes down to finding the right tools, and time management. I try to do my blogs on the weekends. When I think of something I want to write about, I put it on a list in Google Docs. That’s an online free tool that I can access from anywhere. Then I bang a few out on the weekend where I allocate an hour (for creative thinking) and catching up. I use TypePad for the blog. Create a Twitter account and a Facebook page. Keep your company Facebook page separate from your personal profile. For this you’ll need a separate email address. Use Gmail for that. Create a TweetDeck account. From here you can publish to both Twitter and Facebook when you want to announce special offers for your followers. This cuts down on the time of logging into two separate accounts.

What do you think businesses should be thinking about when it comes to their email marketing campaigns?

Janine: Most of the time you’re not going to change the web pages on your site unless it’s a new product or service you’ll send people to, right? But you should always be changing the content in your email campaigns. So I’m a firm believer in that everything starts from email. If you think of email as your center point, you put time and effort into your email campaign. And it’s not only an email, it’s a web page as well. I hope everyone is using a hosted version of your email campaign so that you can publish your email to your Twitter and Facebook and you can include your new blog posts in your weekly emails and send people to it.I just went through a pretty lengthy process of my annual “unsubscribe”. The reason I did this was that as I looked at newsletters I was subscribing to, I saw that I hadn’t opened them in a while. The reason? Lack of good content. I know we all can get stale sometimes when it comes to new ideas. It happens to everyone. But if you’ve got nothing to say don’t send an email.

These are a few things I think about when I need to write an email or blog post:

  • New Product or Service announcement
  • Introduce a new member of your team
  • Really great offer or discount
  • Invitation to an event or webinar
  • How-to (From how to wear a scarf that we’re selling to how to write better marketing copy, and everything in between)
  • Fun fact about you, your dog, your company or someone in it
  • An industry trend that might be important
  • Testimonial from a customer or a case study
  • Tips & Tricks – Can be a tip on great things to eat with a wine, a recipe from a restaurant, or a tip on how to host a great event.

We have a great customer called PetCamp and they have a wonderful blog where they post pictures of the day campers on it. 
Also ask your email recipients to follow you on Facebook & Twitter. This way, you’ll have a better chance of reaching them depending on what they’re using at any given moment, unless of course you’re getting a 100% open rate and a 100% click rate on your campaigns which people don’t unless they’re sending campaigns to 2 people. In the interest of saving time, I also tell our customers to find the right look and feel for their email campaigns, then use that same template each week. All you need to do is make a copy of it and change up your content. This cuts down the time of creating a new one from scratch and keeps your emails looking consistent.

Are there any other areas that Small Businesses can take advantage of when it comes to getting or keeping customers?

Janine: Well we haven’t even touched on having a website and optimizing it. With simple search engine optimization on your website you can easily see results. If you’re on the 10th page of a search result for the products or services you sell, chances are you’re not going to get those new customers. Here’s a great thing to do: Go the Google’s free Keyword Tool and type in what you think your keywords are that people search on when they look for products and services you sell. Then see how many average monthly searches are done for that keyword. If there are thousands, you need to make sure your page is optimized for that.

Now look at your own title tags, those are the words that appear at the very, very top of the page on your website. Our top keyword is email marketing and I get to see what the average searches are for that keyword. Are your keywords in that area? If not, you’re missing huge opportunities. 
I think Bruce Clay has a ton of resources that are free on his site that could help out business that have questions about SEO.Aside from SEO I think another area that can be really fun and get the word out about your biz is the use of videos. A great example of this is when VR ran a video contest where we gave out $10,000 in total and split it amongst three people. We used a flip cam where we had a video of me introducing the contest to get it underway. We emailed it out to our customers. Then we asked whoever wanted to be in the competition to make a video about what their business is and why it’s great. Most of them even mentioned us and talked about what they would do with the money. We had them post it on a site and on YouTube and people had to vote on them. What ended up happening was that they put it out on their Facebook pages, their Twitter pages, they sent email campaigns to their customers asking them to vote. We had a ton of traffic, some who never knew about VerticalResponse. We also got to give some cash away to some really deserving businesses who continue to talk about us to this day.


If you don’t want to go that big and make a contest out of it you don’t have to. We’ve posted videos to YouTube recorded on a flip cam that are just 1-2 minute how-tos and they’re getting thousands of views.

If you’ve got a business where it would be fun for your customers to post videos about how they use your products then even better since that’s the most inexpensive form of advertising. Having your customers do the marketing for you.One last thought on videos: There are also companies like Animoto, who I’m loving right now. All you do is upload photos, choose a song and they instantly create a great video of all your photos to the music. It’s a great alternative to videos.

How can a small business compete with the big guys with their big budgets etc?

Janine: In my opinion the big guys get in their own way. They’re over-processed from every aspect of their company including marketing. Small businesses have the opportunity to really develop relationships with their customers. You can put a face on your business, and more often than not people want to do business with people. You can pick up the phone and talk to your customers when they call. And let whomever is picking up the phone have their own personality. Don’t box them into “scripted” conversation. You hired them for a reason, let it show!Have a contact management system where you collect a piece of information from your customers when they come in or call. Ask them for their birthday for a birthday club you’re running and send out coupons or free gifts for their birthday. Create a blog where you write about your products or services, but also include some fun facts about what happened at the store, restaurant or office today. It lends some personality to your company. And make your customer experience as remarkable from the moment a potential customer finds you. This is the most inexpensive marketing tactic you can do that will get your customers talking about you. The big companies will never get this down.

What are you favorite blogs and Small Business resources?

Janine: I love Inc. magazine, it’s a wonderful resource for inspiration, how-tos, and just stories about other businesses both good and bad so we know other business owners go through what we go through.  I really like Bryan Clark who is the CEO of Copyblogger. He breaks it down for you on ideas on how to write copy, headlines, landing pages you name it. It’s a wonderful free resource. Email Insider – At the risk of sounding email geeky, it keeps me in the loop of what’s going on in my own industry. Mashable – I love seeing what’s new on the social media front

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now! Cheers to VR – it’s been an amazing first 10, and I can’t wait to see what the next 10 have in store!

© 2011 – 2013, Contributing Author. All rights reserved.

Related Blogs

Ready to apply what you've
learned about Email