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Branders.com calls on telemarketing to dial up online customers

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Branders.com faces the challenge of reinventing an industry. The $16 billion promotional items market is built on established national vendors and local distributors, and the bulk of the business has so far been conducted offline, said The Promotional Products Association International.

Foster City, Calif.-based Branders provides full Web-based customization of a comprehensive array of promotional items, from T-shirts to high-end award plaques to golf balls. All transactions are handled online, and customers—usually marketing departments—can instantly upload logos to see how they’ll look on items, and also work with the company’s designers to create more intricate promotions.

So how does Branders, a relatively new player on the scene with a completely new way of working with customers, capture market share and generate leads for its 14-member sales force? You’d think the company would rely primarily on a heavy dose of Web and e-mail marketing. While Branders’ Web presence is surely a key component to its marketing success, it has instead relied in its early months on a decidedly mundane and offline method to generate prospects: working the phones.

"We started with telemarketing with a toe in the water in February, and by April knew we wanted to move into production mode," said Jerry McLaughlin, Branders president-CEO. "For us, telemarketing is powerful because it is sales-lead generation and qualification. My hope is this program will prove exciting enough for us to be investing seven figures annually on telemarketing."

Following tradition

Branders’ experience underscores a truth in Internet b-to-b business, said Lisa Williams, director of b-to-b commerce and applications for The Yankee Group Inc., Boston. Even when a business has a unique business model and Web presence, traditional marketing is often needed to propel a company to the top, she said.

"This is not so much whether Internet marketing is good or bad, but market context," Williams said. "Promotional product brokers are always working the phones to sell product packages to corporate buyers. Branders needed this presence because that’s where their competition is."

Instituting a telemarketing campaign was no small task for Branders.com, McLaughlin said. He realized that established companies such as Ha-Lo Industries Inc. and 4Imprint Inc., among the top vendors in the industry, would be quick to develop Web strategies. So Branders, he said, had to be quick to gain momentum before the competition caught up with his company’s model.

Telemarketing is still a strong source of sales leads, but other marketing techniques are also in play, McLaughlin said. Sales leads via referrals are important, and the company is also ramping up its Web marketing. Branders is also getting more involved in e-mail campaigns, he said.

Web priorities

A top priority for Branders is search engine placement, McLaughlin said. Tests of Web sites and directories show that searches for the top 100 listings under promotional products did not turn up Branders.

The company is writing to Web directories to make sure it gains placement, while Web pages are being customized to trigger Web spiders to point to the site, McLaughlin said.

Anne Culiner, senior marketing manager of Web-based human resource application developer BrassRing Systems Inc., was a customer of Branders prior to the marketing program. She uses the Branders Web site to make last-minute orders for Beanie Babies, pens and T-shirts. The site saves her a considerable amount of time when placing the order, as compared to working with traditional promotional product vendors, she said.

"I can search the catalog and decide on it within an hour, whereas when working with salespeople there’s a lot of sending things back and forth," Culiner said.

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