Downturn drives specialty metals distributor online

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Challenge: Before the economic downturn began in 2008, Continental Steel and Tube Co. focused its efforts on a few key customers. But that changed, and the company found itself down its biggest client and struggling keep income flowing. The distributor of specialty metals realized it needed to shift its focus to generate smaller, but more frequent, leads.

Solution: Continental Steel started using the print books of ThomasRegister 25 years ago as an advertising platform and, when the leading provider of directories and services for industrial companies moved solely online as ThomasNet in 2006, Continental Steel followed. As its customer needs shifted post-recession, Continental Steel realized that adapting was critical to getting customers through the purchase funnel to a close. In response in 2008, the company added to the ThomasNet's online services it already used, pay-for-positioning and search engine optimization features to improve where and how it was distributing relevant content.

“We received an inquiry from a company in Switzerland for 15 truckloads of material, quoted and shipped within a few days,” said Don Ascione, the president of Continental Steel & Tube Co. “We would have never have been able to do that before [we moved online].”

“Being aggressive with their online strategy has made a difference for them,” said Susan Orr, senior-director of strategic marketing for ThomasNet. “You see companies cutting back, and even so they're growing.”

In an anonymous Web survey conducted in 2010, ThomasNet found 36% of growing companies that responded are selling into new industries; another 33% of those growing are introducing new products and services post-crash to stay afloat in tough times.

But it wasn't solely the improved company website that drove new business, Ascione said. Continental Steel added an entirely new division to the company, called Continental Chemical USA, 18 months ago. The new division has become one of the chief drivers of income for the company in the recession. In addition to the web tools that ThomasNet created for the company on its website, Continental Chemical includes an order-now function that gives clients in the chemical market the ability to order mixed chemicals instantly.

“ThomasNet puts our name out there as No. 1 in a lot of areas for various chemicals, and we are selling to the top oil companies in the world,” Ascione said. “We have orders on the books because of the Web presence and what Thomas did for our chemical website.”

“The Internet strategy is critical to these folks,” Orr said. “They could be located in the fields of Kansas and it levels the playing field. … Having an online strategy is the key to growth.”

Like other companies that operate in multiple markets, understanding what doesn't work is just as important as recognizing—and doing—what does work for Continental Steel. For instance, adding an “order-now” button to its site would be a waste because steel prices change so often, Ascione said.

“There's a more sophisticated buyer [now], and they know if they want to buy stainless steel by specifics, like bar and tube shapes,” Ascione said.

Results: Since the addition of Continental Chemical, and improvements to its online site, the company is making about $9,000 a day in online sales. Web traffic has improved significantly, too. In April 2010, visitor traffic on the Steel website hit nearly 18,000, a new record. Despite the recession, traffic is up 25% to 30% this year compared with last, Ascione said.

“Some days we're not able to keep up with what's coming in with inquires,” Ascione said. “Today, I have 50 e-mails waiting for me, and half of them are inquires, mostly from [ThomasNet]. It's working!”

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