Demonstrations of how to promote business online don't come much better than Anything Left-Handed. From its 1968 origin as a shop in London's Soho selling products such as left-handed scissors and watches with backward faces, the business has become truly global.
Today over half its sales are outside the UK, mostly from the US and Canada but spanning 120 countries in all. And while mail order and wholesale account for just 12 per cent of sales, those online comprise 84 per cent. Advertising and affiliate deals make up the rest.
With 57,000 members of its online club, three sister web sites (lefthandersday.com, lefthandedchildren.org.uk, lefthandworld.com) and a 50 per cent increase in online sales in 2006, the business clearly has momentum. Much is due to Keith Milsom (pictured). As director of the business with his wife Lauren, he began harnessing the internet's overseas marketing potential by creating their first website in January 2000. Run by four people (down from eight) and shorn of any physical presence since 2006, the business has yearly sales approaching £0.5 million.
Keith Milsom attributes a large part of the success of Anything Left-Handed to search engine optimisation. "In fact, it is crucial," he says. "We're fortunate that the Actinic software we use for the e-commerce aspect of our site, with its standalone html pages and meta tags, mean our 800-odd product pages all get indexed on Google and most other search engines. "So we are tope or very close for most left-handed terms such as ‘left handed scissors’ and also for a lot of generic terms as well. Our affiliate programme has also proved successful at creating incoming links from other sites, with them getting a 15 per cent cut of any orders made by visitors they send."
The challenge now is increasing traffic further while keeping the low overheads. Milsom currently spends £1,000 a month on pay-per-click advertising on Google Adwords, MSN adCenter and Yahoo! Search Marketing (formerly Overture), and derives a net profit of £2,000-plus as a result. But he really wants to capitalise on their viral marketing, and leverage that 57,000-strong membership.
Anything Left-Handed has long sold physical books, posted worldwide for a £3.50 flat rate. Yet electronic versions, plus other digital media such as reports and videos, appeal more thanks to their scalability. "Once production costs are out of the way, there are no other overheads: no postage or printing costs," says Milsom. "The more we build our credibility as an authority on left-handedness, the more sites want our articles, and the more customers they send."
Milsom's aim is simple: to aggregate, produce in-house and sell electronic information on his family of web sites, and encourage their viral distribution.
Digital downloads are already available on lefthandedchildren.org. A high-resolution PDF guide on 'Scissors and cutting', for example, can be downloaded for £2.95. "We don't mind if people pass it on without paying again because the revenue the sales generate is incidental," says Milsom. He adds he is migrating from the current PayPal system to Actinic's secure payment system for electronic download products, drawn by its greater scope for control and integration.
"The real benefit, however, is in the viral marketing. Hopefully the recipients will click on the link back to our site and buy something themselves." Too young to measure success, this strategy has nevertheless triggered furious activity, with reports, newsletters and even a book by Milsom's wife being written on left-handed subjects.
They have also started experimenting with video, which Milsom sees as a major new marketing and sales tool. The first video on anythingleft-handed.co.uk is a free demonstration of the benefits of left handed scissors that was produced completely in-house. Cost was minimal, thanks to Lauren's theatre background and talent for voice-overs.
"We also distribute articles all over the place - in our monthly newsletter, on pages on our main site, and on lefthandworld.com," says Milsom. "The only stipulation is that sites running them have a link back to us. Having thousands of tentacles reaching out like this helps our Google ranking, because Google counts how many relevant sites link to us."
Already, Milsom's faith in viral marketing seems vindicated. Traffic is up from 2,000 unique visitors a day, and the daily average of 50 orders worth £28.00 a time can peak above 80. And thanks to the scissors footage shooting to Number 1 under 'Left-handed' on YouTube, plans are afoot to produce around 50 more videos in 2007.Most will be product guides for distribution to video and social networking sites , but some could act as value-adds to the eBooks - multimedia packages selling at £7.95, reckons Milsom.
For now, though, his priority is spreading the Anything Left-Handed brand online, and Milsom seems game for anything. Witness his translation of his resource site lefthandworld.com into 10 languages (including French, Japanese and Arabic).
"The vernacular may not be faultless, but if someone searches for 'ciseaux pour gauchers' on Google.fr, we want to be coming up near the top" he says. "And that's what it's all about."
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