Data helped internet auction firm shift into high gear
Manhattan, Kansas might not have the panache of its East Coast namesake, but it is home to at least one marketer who would be right at home on Madison Avenue. He's David Brotton, CMO of Purple Wave, a leading online auction company for “big, dirty, greasy equipment.” Over the course of 7 years, Brotton has built a sophisticated data-driven marketing engine that attracts both buyers and sellers of things like bulldozers, tractors and combines—some of which sell for more than $200,000.
Brotton discusses Purple Wave’s journey from depending on quickly out-of-date printed flyers and mailers to creating its own algorithm for optimizing the visitor experience. And while the company still uses flyers and mailers, they are now data-driven, often featuring machines that a visitor saw on a recent web visit. Brotton is quick to share the credit for the company’s continuous growth, noting “we've been blessed to have good people and good markets,” displaying a sense of humility more native to his Manhattan.
Describe Purple Wave
Purple Wave is an online auction company that’s been around for 17 years. We like to say we sell big, dirty, greasy equipment focused in the construction and the agriculture markets. We do a lot of government work and a lot of fleet work as well. We're a growing company, and we've been blessed to have good people and good markets. Plus, we just keep growing.
What was the situation when you arrived 7 years ago?
If we go back seven years, we were putting together the traditional auction flyer, which was once a month, and we’d cut out different pieces of equipment and we sent it to press. But we had a problem in that everybody in the organization would ask us to hold off on that mailer one or two more days, because they’d be really close to booking this really big piece of equipment and wanted to make sure that it got into the marketing. Then we were rushed on the other side to get it to press and to get it delivered before the auction started. At that point, we started looking at other ways could we get this message out on a timelier basis.
How did you tackle the challenge?
It started with segmenting our databases. As we've grown over the years, our databases for known customers and potential customers have also grown. That really started us down the path of what could we do with all of this data. Using Tableau analytics, we started creating visualizations of our various markets like construction, farm and government. This segmentation process opened the door to doing more digital and led us to apply machine learning.
Describe the segmentation process
The first cut is pretty basic. You’re either on the buy side or the sell side. It takes both. We need to get equipment and we need to sell equipment. From there, we segment by behavior. For buyers, we start by identifying if they’ve ever purchased anything from Purple Wave. Have they registered? Did they just register yesterday? Have they ever placed a bid? Have they bid on another dozer like this before? If you're going to press the button for a $75,000 bid, that's not like buying a pair of tennis shoes off of Amazon. There's a fair amount of investment here of both time and money. We use our site analytics to know where customers are at in their journey and then respond will customized emails and mailers to help them through the bidding and buying process.
Let’s say I’m a newbie. How do you engage with me?
We’ll start by acknowledging they’re new and sharing content to get them comfortable with bidding. We’ll show them how to put in max bid which means that you can set it and forget it. We’ll also try to introduce them to their local customer support rep in their territory just in case they want to talk to a real person. We’ll also know if their bid starts creeping up and can engage accordingly just to be helpful. There’s a lot to learn especially if you’re bidding on a piece of equipment that could get a winning bid of well over $75,000.
What does your marketing mix look like now?
We have a nice mix of old-fashioned media like local newspapers and digital components like Google AdWords and Facebook combined with our email and our weekly mailers. Since we now print the mailers digitally, each one is highly personalized, reflecting the data we’ve been able to gather from various interactions. For example, if we know you’ve been browsing dozers in a certain price range, your mailer will most likely feature dozers that match your past behavior. Our sales reps also use the printed flyers when they go on sales calls and will even hang them up in their territory.
With so much data, how do you avoid being creepy when the salesperson pays a visit to someone who visited the website?
If you know that you potentially have a hot buyer, there's absolutely nothing wrong with stopping by and introducing yourself and say, "Hey, I noticed that you've been on Purple Wave and I just wanted to stop by and say hi. And if you ever have any questions about how to use the website, I'd be happy to spend five minutes with you and take you through your first bid, get you comfortable with this."
What are some of your biggest lessons learned?
We’ve got a marketing team of eight or so (out of 120 employees) and we really dig into the data ourselves. If we know the data, we can figure out how to build the triggers in our data and we can build an automation process around that, then we can take advantage of those things. It was learning process out of necessity as we looked to do things better, faster and cheaper. The thing that I never realized was if you have a 100-day project, it's going to take 99 days to get the data right, and it's going to take one day to do the visualization to capitalize on the data.