When thinking about the fate of the camera business to frame my conversation with Matt Sweetwood, President of Unique Photo, my mind jumped to the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” thinking it should be rewritten to say “Smartphone Killed The DSLR.” This led to a YouTube search which landed me on the very cool video below.
What I like about the video is that it takes a classic yet passé song and turns it into something fresh yet familiar. In many ways, this is exactly what Matt has done to help Unique Photo not just survive an industry apocalypse (what else do you call annual declines of 40%?) but actually thrive. The familiar part here is the emphasis Unique Photo puts on customers service and customer education. The fresh part is how Matt has become a major presence on social media and built a peer network that helps support and amplify his efforts. The combination of these efforts means Unique Photo is standing tall despite the category head winds and Matt earned a President’s Circle Award from The CMO Club.
Drew: How did you decide to create Unique Photo’s in-store education program, Unique University, and how has it helped the brand achieve its marketing goals?
The camera store business was facing the most challenging period in its history. By 2007, approximately 80% of them had gone out of business as a result of the Internet and the movement away from the film-based model (buy film, return for processing, return to pick up prints, repeat). As the last camera stores in NJ went under and the business moved online, to big box or NYC, I started to look at the business model carefully. It came to me that building an experience based marketing concept in a store could work. It was a natural thought process from there that lead me to build an education program. Digital cameras were computers and more complicated than mechanical film cameras, more people were buying them and education would establish us as an authority and provide a repeatable “experience” for our customers.
Drew: You have been working at Unique Photo since college. How has your progressive movement within the company shaped your marketing outlook?
I was born to be a marketer. Despite my education as a theoretical mathematician I have always been naturally good at and drawn to marketing. When we opened our business to consumers by opening our store in 2008 (previously we were 90% B to B), I was able to employ some “pent-up” ideas and techniques that were not possible in a more simple distribution-type business. As a tech-head, I have been able to use those skills combined with natural progression one goes through in promoting a retail store and as a result my roll has transformed from being the COO of my company to becoming the CMO. Operations are more fundamental to the success of a B-to-B business where marketing is the lifeblood of a technological retail business.
Drew: How are you staying on top of all the new digital marketing techniques and opportunities?
Practice what you preach. I network frequently, I am very open to being solicited from digital marketing vendors (you learn when they present even if you don’t buy), I belong to The CMO Club and I have paralleled the company brand with my personal brand as I engage in digital techniques to build my own brand (which I consider somewhat successful). Basically I am always out there looking and learning. To stay on top you have to view knowledge like food. You need at least 3 servings everyday.
Drew: What tool has been the single greatest improvement to digital marketing for your brand over the last year?
For my personal brand, it has been Facebook. I know that is not such a desirable answer but I have leveraged my Facebook page to establish me as the most recognized figure in the photography business. That brings enormous benefits to me from vendors, consultants, customers and media who regularly follow me.
For Unique Photo, the most significant tool we use is our email contact manager and it’s integration with our legacy systems. We have built a significant amount of our business and maintain customer contact through a consistent and highly effective local and national email campaign. We use iContact, Movable Inc., and several of our own systems to manage this.
Drew: What role does social media play in your marketing efforts?
It is a fundamental component of my personal and company brand. For 2014 Unique Photo has reduced traditional advertising by 75% and increased our social media spend by three times. That trend will continue in 2015.
Drew: What changes have you and your company made over the last year in order to improve your customers’ experience?
At Unique Photo I manage customer service in the role of CMO and President. One of the success stories of our company has been our photo industry best customer service. I believe that how you treat and view customers starts from the top. I personally answer customers who contact us on social media and monitor our customer service queues frequently. It sets the standard for your staff when they see the person at the top of the marketing department interact with customers. In marketing you need to know what the customers are thinking and saying. In the past year we have added live online chat and dedicated personnel to monitor social media for customer interaction. We also engage in dedicated marketing campaigns on social media to engage the customer. Not only can this drive brand awareness and sales but many times is fosters customer interaction in a way they feel comfortable telling you what’s on their mind. When you are close to your customers they give you great marketing ideas.
Drew: Loyalty programs can be tough to get off the ground. If you have one in place, can you describe the program and talking about the costs/benefits of the program?
I opened our store in 2008. It was on the to-do list from day one. Customers were asking about it and in fact we had so many “loyal” customers we knew we had to do it. The competition beat us to it and that of course accelerated our development. We actually modified our gift card system to speed up the process. Customers earn points on purchases and after a certain time period those points convert to money on their loyalty/gift cards. Phase one was store only and shortly thereafter we implemented online too. In store shoppers get a physical card and online customers automatically get into our loyalty program by simply clicking a box on account setup. We can combine online to a physical store card if they come in the store.
Drew: How important is having a strong peer network to your ability to do your job well? (explain benefits)
I enjoy this question very much. I use the ultimate peer network, The CMO Club, as an example. There has been numerous times when someone has simply said something at a CMO Club meeting that has spurred a new program or idea. As a business owner it is so very easy to “stay at home” and not get to see what others are doing or thinking.
For me personally, as the only marketer in my business, having a strong peer network reminds me there are others out there who think like me and that gives me the extra confidence to implement new ideas. When you are not around marketing peers your confidence tends to drop, as others seem clueless and negative about the new ideas you have.
Drew: What’s on your marketing wish list for 2015?
A better way to deliver, measure and improve the effectiveness of our emails. Continued and rapid growths of our social media reach. A continued decrease in my spend on traditional advertising combined with an increased effectiveness of our social media leading to more sales. Most importantly, more peace, love and money; not necessarily in that order.